Brainstorm, The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain, is a lesson plan that you don’t have to read chronologically. Daniel J. Siegel, M.D., author, father, and psychiatrist explains that after reading Part 1, “You may want to experience this book in whatever approach is best for you.” Siegel is concerned about “effective learning” and not how we get there. As a teacher, I respect his non-traditional approach immensely. The very premise of his book, that we have perpetuated unproductive and even harmful myths about adolescence, judo flips tradition on its face.
Siegel offers “four features of the adolescent brain” in order to help readers understand the often misrepresented twelve to twenty-four age range. Novelty Seeking, Social Engagement, Increased Emotional Intensity, and Creative Exploration are impulses generated from within the slowly integrating young brain.
In my classroom, the impulse towards social engagement is not only palpable, it’s immediate. I work very hard to create a quiet morning routine in my classroom. I know this may sound antiquated and perhaps even unnecessary to some educators, but then you haven’t been in a windowless room with thirty, twelve and thirteen year olds while trying to guide them towards real, measurable, learning. The nano second they walk into the room they are pulled towards each other by invisible forces. The chatter begins, a headlock ensues, a chair is leaned back in and a kid balances with the dexterity of a circus clown. His friend tries to break his concentration by passing an open palm as close, and as quickly as he can by the tip of the would-be acrobat’s nose. Some just stare at each other, smile through metal framed teeth, and communicate by stealing each others’ pencils, notebooks, and tasty snacks. Notes, hand signs, animal and robot noises, flow easily back and forth in a world where adults can be turned instantly invisible, and social engagement can be prioritized as the number one goal
Science dispels the myth that talkative teens are being bad. “Social engagement enhances peer connectedness and creates new friendships.” Siegel is straight with the negative by-products of this impulse: “Teens isolated from adults and surrounded only by other teens have increased-risk behavior, and the total rejection of adults and adult knowledge and reasoning increases those risks.” The positive side of social engagement, the side that served our adolescent prehistoric ancestors, actually has a lot to do with the modern adult’s future psychological make-up. “The drive for social connection leads to the creation of supportive relationships that are the research-proven best predictors of well-being, longevity, and happiness throughout the lifespan.”
I’m a practical man, and I better be because I teach middle school. I’ll leave theory for the professors and focus on what teachers can implement tomorrow in order to use social engagement and not be burdened by it. Take a look at this Expeditionary Learning site here. If you’re interested specifically in harnessing social engagement then check out the Chalk Talk video. Imagine four corners; one for agreement, one for disagreement, one for strongly agree, and one for strongly disagree. After a reading, video, lecture, or lesson, your students situate themselves in different corners. The students have to participate, even if it’s just by standing. They state their opinions and even change their minds and move up and down the continuum. In the brilliant words of one of the students in the video, “It’s a nice, easy, comfortable way to have an argument.” This particular EL protocol is one way to harness the power of social engagement.
Nicholas Philliou, 7th grade humanities teacher in Durango, Colorado