Captivate, Activate, and Invigorate the Student Brain in Science and Math, Grades 6–12


John Almarode & Ann M. Miller

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    To Tessa: May your science and math teachers captivate, activate, and invigorate your brain.


    I dedicate this book to my family, who have always been there for me and continually encourage me to pursue my dreams. Smiles!

    —Ann M. Miller


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    The past three decades have seen an explosion of information from the fields of cognitive science, neuroscience, and educational research. We've learned more in these few years than in all of history. Although everyone seems to be fascinated with these new findings, educators are perhaps more captivated than most. The reason is not difficult to understand: The brain is the organ of learning, but we have had little information about how it works! Our students’ brains have been black boxes, with their secrets locked inside. Why is it that some children learn to read easily and others suffer great difficulty with the task? How is it a teacher can explain something one day and the next day students act as if they've never heard it? What role does emotion play in learning? How can teachers motivate reluctant learners?

    Teaching involves making thousands of decisions each day; however, the knowledge base from which they've generated their decisions has been limited. Educational practice has been largely based on what the behavioral sciences could provide, which is sometimes helpful but not sufficient. There's more to teaching and learning than reinforcement theory. Of necessity we've operated intuitively. Intuition has worked well in many instances but has left us without the ability to articulate our craft to others. Because of this, we've become, as educator and expert on the brain Bob Sylwester puts it, a “folklore profession.” This lack of scientific knowledge has left us at a disadvantage in designing pedagogy and implementing curriculum in our schools.

    While neuroscientists seldom give educators specific suggestions on how to implement their findings in classrooms, the research is giving the field a new understanding of how the brain encodes, manipulates, and stores information, in other words, how it learns. The bottom line is that the better we understand the human brain, the better we'll be able to make more informed decisions about how to teach it.

    In this book, educators John Almarode and Ann Miller have made excellent strides in translating the research to practice. They synthesize research findings and theoretical frameworks about teaching and learning to give us a broad-based look at how educators might better engage students in meaningful learning. Almarode and Miller understand that without active engagement, learning is often rote and information is seldom retained. Using cleverly designed and motivating strategies, they provide numerous examples of how to actively involve students and make the curriculum at every grade level truly brain compatible.

    Our students will be the ultimate beneficiaries of this user-friendly book that deserves to be on the desk of every teacher.



    The primary finding is this, student time spent engaged in relevant content appears to be an essential variable for which there is no substitute … Teachers who make a difference in students’ achievement are those who put students in contact with curriculum materials and find ways to keep them in contact. (Rosenshine & Berliner, 1978, p. 12)

    With the recent media attention focused on American students’ performance in science and mathematics relative to the rest of the world, science and mathematics achievement in the United States has become a hot topic in education circles and public conversation (National Academy of Science, 2005, 2010; National Center for Educational Statistics, 2011a, 2011b; National Research Council, 2011; National Science Board 2007, 2008, 2010). After listening to the reports about America's science and mathematics students, the message that most of the public walks away with is that our students are falling behind. For every person involved in this discussion, there is an opinion on how to address the concern. Some argue that we need higher standards, while some argue for more funding, teacher preparation, or even the restructuring of public schools. As a response to yet another approach, Diane Ravitch (2011) stated, “We can't fire our way to excellence,” which counters the desire of some stakeholders to simply fire teachers in low-performing classrooms.

    The framework presented in this book takes a significantly different approach—an approach that is a ground-up framework. The best way to tackle a problem is to start with the things that are within your control. Sitting around dissecting the American Education System leads to a time-consuming conversation that, in the end, solves nothing. Speaking in generalities such as America's students cannot do fractions, think critically, or avoid science and mathematics is purely venting and concludes without a solution. However, this is not the case in your classroom. Your classroom is where daily change can and does happen. The recipe for engagement takes the most recent understanding of how the student brain works and interfaces it with an approach for teaching science and mathematics. The end result is an engaging science and mathematics classroom for a wide range of diverse learners. As students file into our classrooms, it would be very difficult to anticipate or hypothesize about their expectations for the semester or the year. Students take classes for a variety of reasons. Whether students take our classes because biology and geometry are the next courses in the sequence, chemistry and trigonometry are requirements to graduate or they have room for an elective and picked physics and calculus to fill up their schedule influences what they expect from you and your class. However, our expectation should be that each and every student walks through the door at the beginning of class and out of the door at the end of class better off because he or she spent some time with us. This starts by designing each individual activity, lesson, conceptual unit, and science and mathematics course with the sole purpose of engaging the student brain.

    So what would this look like? My guess is that every teacher would be interested in having every student fully engaged in learning from the start of class until the end of class. Would you be interested in picking up strategies that increased the levels of student engagement in your science or mathematics classroom? Would you be interested in a list of “must-haves” for increasing student engagement? That is exactly what this book sets out to provide a framework for captivating, activating, and invigorating your students, keeping them engaged in your science and mathematics classroom. This book presents a list of six essential ingredients for cooking up an engaging science and mathematics classroom. In the form of a recipe, these six ingredients are based on the latest research brought to you by neuroscientists, cognitive scientists, and educational psychologists, synthesized and summarized for classroom application. If you stir and blend these ingredients with the strategies that you are currently using in your classroom, you will take your students’ learning to a new level. This book highlights the relevant application of the research findings to your instructional lessons.

    Important Features of the Book

    This book not only provides a recipe for engaging the student brain in science and mathematics; it also strives to model the very ideas presented in each chapter. To reinforce each ingredient and promote the transfer of ideas from this book to your classroom, several in-text features are included:

    • Stop-n-Thinks to break the information up into chunks and provide opportunities to review, revise, and process the information
    • Exit Tickets to consolidate information and bring closure to the big ideas or concepts presented in each chapter
    • Engaging Professional Development Tasks that promote the application of the big ideas or concepts to your classroom while at the same time encouraging collaboration between you and your colleagues
    • Metaphors and Analogies provide references to concrete objects, events, or topics that promote clarity and understanding of abstract ideas or concepts presented in the chapter (e.g., the hippocampus acts as a surge protector for the brain)

    The important features of the book reinforce each ingredient and promote the transfer of ideas by modeling them. Although the Stopn-Thinks, Exit Tickets, Engaging Professional Development Tasks, and the metaphors and analogies are targeted at you, each of these features can be modified and used in your science and mathematics classroom.

    This brings up the final and most important feature of the book: strategies. Each chapter is stuffed full of strategies that highlight the ingredients of the engagement recipe. These strategies are examples and can be applied to your classroom as is or be tweaked to better fit your unique environment. Furthermore, many of the strategies apply across several ingredients. We have worked hard to provide a range of strategies across the variety of science and mathematics classes found in a typical middle or high school. Our hope is that this book will engage your brain to take the strategies presented in this book and adjust them to work in your classroom.

    Breakdown of Chapters

    In the chapters that follow, we present each ingredient of the recipe, the brain science behind it, and ready-to-use strategies and examples that make each ingredient classroom ready. Before we dive into the recipe, we have to get familiar with the elements of engagement. What we are talking about here is the student brain! If we are going make a deliberate effort to engage the brains of our students, it is helpful to understand how the student brain works, at least in terms of how it engages in learning. Chapter 2 builds background knowledge and familiarize you with the parts of the brain that are implicated in attention, engagement, and learning.

    Chapter 3 presents the importance of priming the brain and the role of prior knowledge in new learning. Chapter 4 presents amazing research on the use of novelty to grab students’ attention and enable them to remember what they are paying attention to.

    Pause for a moment and call up those feelings that surface when a student has just asked, “Why do we have to know this?” or “Is this going to be on the test?” These questions are sure signs that your students are seeking relevance. That is the topic of Chapter 5. Chapters 6 and 7 look at the input and attentional limitations of the brain and how information moves from short-term to long-term memory. Finally, Chapter 8 pulls it all together by helping you develop an action plan for implementing the ideas you came up with throughout the book.

    National Academy of Science. (2005). Rising above the gathering storm: Energizing and employing America for a brighter economic future. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.
    National Academy of Science. (2010). Rising above the gathering storm, revisited: Rapidly approaching category 5. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.
    National Center for Education Statistics. (2011a). The nation's report card: Science 2009 (NCES 2011-451). Washington, DC: Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved February 1, 2011, from
    National Center for Education Statistics. (2011b). The nation's report card: Trial urban district assessment mathematics 2011 (NCES 2012-452). Washington, DC: Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.
    National Research Council. (2011). A framework for K–12 science education: Practices, crosscutting concepts, and core ideas. Committee on a Conceptual Framework for the New K–12 Science Education Standards. Board on Science Education, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences in Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
    National Science Board. (2007). National action plan for addressing the critical needs of the U.S. science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education system. Arlington, VA: National Science Foundation.
    National Science Board. (2008). Science and engineering indicators 2008 (Vol. 1, NSB 08-01; Vol. 2, NSB 08-01A). Arlington, VA: National Science Foundation.
    National Science Board. (2010). Science and engineering indicators 2010 (NSB 10-01). Arlington, VA: National Science Foundation.
    Ravitch, D. (2011). Second response from Diane Ravitch. Retrieved from
    Rosenshine, B., & Berliner, D. C. (1978). Academic engaged time. British Journal of Teacher Education, 4, 3–16.


    Captivate, Activate, and Invigorate was a feat not accomplished alone. For this reason, I wish to thank several very important people for the never-ending encouragement and support they provided to me during this project.

    Thank you Ann for joining me on this project. Your contributions reflect the incredible wealth of information you possess on effective teaching and learning. I am honored to have you as a colleague and, more important, a friend.

    I want to both acknowledge and thank the members of the Corwin team: Jessica Allan, Kimberly Greenbert, Heidi Arndt, Karen Ehrmann, Veronica Hooper, Diana Breti, and Anupama Krishnan. Your time, effort, and feedback during this entire process have been incredible. I am forever grateful for your expertise in taking this manuscript from initial draft to its published form.

    Please allow me share the story about the development of my interest in the brain and learning. In 2004, I began working on my master's degree. In my curriculum and instruction class, one of the recommended readings (recommended, not required) was the book Brain Matters: Translating Research Into Classroom Practice by Patricia Wolfe. I was confused and skeptical. Why would a book about the brain even be on the recommended reading list for a curriculum and instruction class? As a confused skeptic, I ordered the book and started reading it. I read it cover to cover in less than three days. It made perfect sense and I was hooked. Jump ahead eight years to the professional development day for Twin Rivers R10 School District in rural Missouri. I am about 10 minutes away from starting an all-day workshop with one half of the district's faculty. The next day, I would work with the other half of the district's faculty. As I prepare to get started, a very elegant and stately looking woman taps me on the shoulder. I turn around and nothing could have prepared me for what I was about to see or hear: “Good morning, I am Pat Wolfe.” I had crossed paths with the woman whose book sparked my interest in the brain and learning. Although she never knew it until that day in Missouri, she has been an inspiration to me for almost a decade. For that alone, Pat, I am forever thankful.

    My interest in the brain and learning led me to attend a six-day workshop facilitated by Eric Jensen. I was hungry to learn more, and he has a lot of knowledge to share. The six days I spent with Eric Jensen that summer were life changing. His depth of knowledge and delivery of content is something to behold. The next three years flew by as I attended each of his workshops and earned a spot on his certified trainers list. I have Eric Jensen to thank for getting me started as a professional developer. Eric has been incredibly supportive and encouraging in all aspects of my professional career. His work ethic and drive for excellence is inspiring and motivating. I am grateful to have him as a colleague, mentor, and friend. Thank you, Eric.

    Now, on to my teachers. I believe my interest in science and mathematics can be attributed to the fabulous science and math teachers whose classes I had the privilege of attending from sixth grade to twelfth grade: Sally Cross, Diann Snyder, Ellen Clouse, Deborah McCormick, David Wade, Ken Patterson, Len Klein, Thomas O'Neill, Ann Higgins, Richard Showalter, Francis Harouff, Terry Wampler, Betsy Painter, Sam Alexander, Kathy Garber, and Ray Lee. These folks are true masters in their profession and are responsible for a large part of who I am today.

    In addition to being my teachers, Sally Cross and Diann Snyder changed my life. The actions of these two women are the reasons I became a science and math teacher. As my sixth-grade science teacher, Sally Cross served as my first example of a “real” science teacher. The level of emotional, behavioral, and cognitive engagement that she fostered and nurtured in Room 30 at Stuarts Draft Middle School left an indelible mark on me. Diann Snyder has been part of my life since my days in diapers. She found the spark I had for science and ignited the flame into what became a passion for science and mathematics. These two women continue to be a guiding light in my career as a teacher educator at James Madison University. Classrooms and students need more Ms. Crosses and Ms. Snyders. I can honestly say that I would not be who I am or be doing what I do if it were not for Sally Cross and Diann Snyder. These words are not enough, but they are the only option for this page. Thank you.

    I want to say thank you to my former students at Stuarts Draft High School and the Shenandoah Valley Governor's School. Thank you for making my job as a teacher the greatest job on earth. Thank you to the thousands of teachers that I have had the pleasure of working with in professional development settings.

    The first teachers in my life were my parents, Jim and Elaine Almarode, and my younger brother, Joe. They have always offered unyielding support and belief in the choices I have made in my life. Whether I was dissecting a pig in the basement or insisting on a real chemistry set, they were supportive. Their approach to life will forever inspire me to achieve.

    I have saved the most important acknowledgment for last. My wife, Danielle Taylor Almarode, has had front-row seats to this entire process. The sacrifices she has made and the amazing support she has provided have not gone unnoticed. Her personal dedication to my success is admirable and leaves me in awe. I will forever be indebted to her and look forward to a lifetime of “returning the favor.”


    My sincere gratitude goes to my coauthor, John Almarode, who invited me to join him on this journey and continually encouraged and inspired me along the way. I think we make a great team.

    The success of this book would not have been possible without the support of my loving husband. He has always been incredibly supportive of my professional goals, and for that I am extremely grateful. There are no words that could truly express the appreciation and love in my heart for my mom and dad. I would not be where I am today without the strong, loving foundation they provided for me as a child. Much of what I have learned during my life is a result of being a mom to three remarkable and delightful children, all of whom I love so dearly. Thank you, kids!

    Most educators can think of that one special educational leader who made a lasting difference in their lives. For me, that person was Mrs. Rebecca Kaune. It is due to her teaching, guidance, and determination never to give up on me that I enjoy the career I have today. She continues to inspire my thoughts and actions. So to her, I am eternally grateful.

    Thank you to all the readers who are willing to actively explore and implement the content and strategies in this book. I am confident that your students will thank you, too.

    Above all, I thank God for all the blessings and good fortune in my life.

    Publisher's Acknowledgments

    Corwin wishes to acknowledge the following peer reviewers for their editorial insight and guidance:

    • JoAnn Hiatt
    • Mathematics teacher
    • Olathe East High School
    • Olathe, KS
    • Loukea N. Kovanis-Wilson
    • Chemistry Instructor
    • Clarkston High School
    • Clarkston, MI
    • Rosalind LaRocque
    • Professional Development Coordinator
    • American Federation of Teachers
    • Washington, DC
    • Amanda P. McKee
    • Algebra Instructor
    • Johnsonville High School
    • Johnsonville, SC
    • Melissa Miller
    • Middle School Science Instructor
    • Lynch Middle School
    • Farmington, AR
    • Edward C. Nolan
    • PreK–12 Content Specialist, Mathematics
    • Montgomery County Public Schools
    • Rockville, Maryland
    • Patricia Waller
    • Educational Consultant and Retired Science Educator
    • Emmaus High School
    • Emmaus, PA
    • Marian White-Hood
    • Director of Academics
    • Maya Angelou Public Charter School & SeeForever Foundation
    • Washington, DC

    About the Authors

    Dr. John Almarode, an educator and staff developer for many years, has worked with all age groups in education, from prekindergarteners to graduate students. John began his career in Augusta County, Virginia teaching a wide range of students. He then taught Pre-Calculus, Physics, and Modern Physics at the Shenandoah Valley Governor's School for three years. While at the Governor's School, a significant proportion his time was devoted to providing outreach and enrichment activities to preK through eighth-grade students. As a staff developer, John has presented locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally. He has worked with thousands of teachers, dozens of school districts, and multiple organizations. John's action-packed workshops offer participants ready-to-use strategies and the brain rules that make them work. John is a faculty member of the College of Education at James Madison University, where he works with preservice teachers and inservice teachers and pursues his research interests in how to engage all students. He lives in Waynesboro, Virginia, with his wife Danielle, a fellow educator; their daughter Tessa; and their two dogs, Angel and Forest.

    Ann M. Miller is currently the K–12 Coordinator of Professional Development and Elementary Instruction for Waynesboro Public Schools. Ann has a strong teaching and leadership background. She received her undergraduate and master's degrees from the State University of Oswego in New York before completing her Certification of Administration from the State University of New York in Cortland. Ann dedicated most of her teaching career to special education students, focusing on emotionally disturbed students, before making a successful transition to the position of Instructional Specialist. Ann became a member of an elite team of staff development leaders in which her enthusiasm and approachable style help to develop strong, productive learning communities in their nine component districts.

    Over the years, Ann's firm belief in staying on the cutting edge of instructional strategies encouraged her to study differentiated instruction, cooperative learning, Baldrige quality tools, classroom instruction that works, mentoring, win–win discipline, and essential elements of instruction. Although these are just a few areas of study, this wealth of knowledge has provided the strong instructional foundation needed to design and present relevant and meaningful learning opportunities. She understands the challenges of education and is committed to the implementation of quality staff development programs that promote student achievement as well as the recruitment and retention of quality teachers and school administrators.

  • Appendix A: Unit Instructional Plan

    Topic: _______________________________________________________

    Appendix B: Daily Lesson Plan

    Topic: _______________________________________________________


    CORWIN: A SAGE Company

    The Corwin logo—a raven striding across an open book—represents the union of courage and learning. Corwin is committed to improving education for all learners by publishing books and other professional development resources for those serving the field of PreK–12 education. By providing practical, hands-on materials, Corwin continues to carry out the promise of its motto: “Helping Educators Do Their Work Better.”

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