Teaching the Reading Brain to be “Biliterate “


As a teacher and a reader, I love to learn new words.  It expands my vocabulary and my understanding of things.  I was blessed to learn new words and expand my understanding of the reading brain as I read the book, Reader, Come Home, by Maryanne Wolf.  And as an added bonus, this book also amplified my view of teaching readers in the digital age.

I learned that I want my students to be “biliterate”, which means they will become “expert, flexible code switchers between print and digital mediums”.  By teaching the students this skill, I will give them an important tool as they grow up in the Information Age.

Blog- Digital and Reading Brain

This skill is important because the devices in our digital age can be a distraction – children spend a LOT of time looking at screens on phones, computers, iPads, etc.  They attend to their devices and then to their environment in “continuous partial attention”, a term coined back in 1998 by Linda Stone at Microsoft.

This is type of behavior is challenging our children’s development of cognition, which is important, right?  We know that children learn to focus their attention with ever more concentration and duration from infancy through adolescence.  Sadly, learning to concentrate is an ever more difficult challenge in a culture where distraction is omnipresent.

So, I want to give my students the skills to address this challenge.   I can do this by creating a curriculum that includes both print and digital:

  • Print:  I have always preferred reading in print to text on a screen, and I notice that the majority of students feel the same way.  As mentioned in her book, Wolf says that “reading in print . . .  adds important tactile associations in the young reading circuit, and provides the best possible social and emotional interaction.”  We want children to think and read deeply in order to develop their capacity to form their own ideas and form a foundation of knowledge.
  • Digital:  But I also want to give my students something called “digital wisdom”, which Wolf explains is “learning how to make good decisions about content and also how to self-regulate and check their attention and ability to remember what they have read during online reading.”

My goal is to guide students to develop the capacity to allocate their time and attention to deep-reading skills regardless of the medium.  That would be the best of all possible worlds.



The Reading Brain Requires a “Balanced Diet”


I know I need to eat the right foods to stay healthy.  According to the USDA’s recommendations, a balanced diet includes foods from five food groups:  protein, vegetables, fruits grains and dairy.  There used to be a food pyramid to guide me, but as nutritional science has changed, it is recommended that I build a ‘balanced plate’ and half of my plate should consist of fruits and vegetables.  This helps me manage my diet so I don’t eat too much of the fun foods, like carbs and sweets.

We can compare today’s digital technology consumption along the same vein – we need a balanced diet of the right activities for a healthy reading brain.  I can enjoy my time on Facebook and Twitter, along with aimless Google searches, but I need to make sure I still make time for other activities, such as deep reading for critical thinking.

An article by MindShift by Holly Korbey, Digital Text is Changing How Kids Read – Just Not in the Way That You Think, states that digital reading is “good in some ways, and bad in others”.  While texting, social media and even gaming has increased word knowledge, it is not making kids better readers because they are not engaging in deep reading to enhance critical thinking.

And online interactions absorb a lot of time!  According to this article, “the average 8- to 12-year old spends about 6 hours a day in front of a screen”.  We need to ask ourselves what this is doing to us.  Is it affecting our attention spans?  Is it training our brains to crave fast-paced experiences that feed us with very little effort?

As I read the book, Reader, Come Home, I understand that many digital interactions do not develop our brain the way we need it to grow and learn over time.  As illustrated in the figure below, critical thinking is developed during deep reading when we use multiple portions of our brain – both right and left hemisphere.  We really don’t tap into these important regions when we are playing that game on our phones, right?

Blog Pic Deep Reading

As mentioned by Wolf, “the formation of the reading-brain circuit is a unique achievement in the intellectual history of our species.  Within this circuit, deep reading changes what we perceive, what we feel and what we know and in so doing alters, informs and elaborates the circuit itself.”  Isn’t this the type of learning connections our children should pursue?

So, perhaps we need a guide that can help us manage our digital consumption just as well as we manage our food consumption.  Is there a ‘balanced plate’ analogy that could help us understand how to ‘feed’ our reading brain?

Blog Feed The Brain Image

Reading is Like a 3-Ring Circus


I started reading at a young age, and cannot remember a time when I was without books.  And it was in 6th Grade that my reading became a passion when I chanced across Jack London’s books in the school library.  Each week held the opportunity for a new story about survival in the wilderness!

I assumed that reading was a natural skill given to human beings, like our ability to learn a language.  But that is not true.  We must be taught, and the brain is designed to learn this unnatural thing.  In the book, Reader, Come Home, Ms Wolf compares it to a 3-ring circus with the main acts consisting of cognition, language and vision.

Reading 3 Ring Circus

This is a perfect metaphor to explain all the functions that are needed for reading.  Thus, the act of reading is a miracle. Every new reader’s brain possesses the extraordinary capacity to rearrange itself beyond its original abilities in order to understand written symbols.  We taught our brain to read only a few thousand years ago, and in the process changed the intellectual evolution of our species.

As we come to appreciate how the evolution and development of reading have changed the very arrangement of our brain and our intellectual life, we begin to realize with ever greater comprehension that we truly are what we read.  Or not read . . .

There are no shortcuts for becoming a good reader, but there are lives that propel and sustain it.  Aristotle wrote that the good society has three lives: #1) the life of knowledge and productivity; #2) the life of entertainment and the Greeks’ special relationship to leisure; and finally, #3) the life of contemplation.

I am concerned that the third life – the life of contemplation – is daily threatened in the evolving culture of the Information Age.  We live in a culture that rewards immediacy, ease and efficiency.  For these things, we are drawn to our devices and all the hyper activities that come with it.  And leave the quiet  life of the book behind.

So, this reflection is not only concerned about the lack of reading due to digital devices, it also recognizes the impact of adding ‘makerspaces’ to/or replacing libraries. As noted by A.J. Juliani in his article, “Why We Need Libraries in a World Filled with Noise“, we must not forget that we need to offer a place of refuge for students to discover books.  I know it made a difference to me, and it will to our future students.

What is Happening to Reading in Today’s World?


I have been teaching for 13 years, which qualifies me to make certain observations about students.  Having taught English-Language Arts in middle-school grades through the majority of this career, my teaching has focused on developing the skills of reading and writing.  I think these are critical skills in the Information Age, a historic period in the 21st century, and I am reflecting about the growth and development of students during the digital age.

One of my observations about students pertains to their reading habits.  I notice in our increasingly digital world – where many children spend more time on social media and gaming than on just about any other activity – that reading has become less common in the daily lives of children.  Free time can now be consumed by devices that offer distractions that overshadow the quiet contemplation of a book.

What is the impact of these changing reading patterns?  To explore this, I am perusing the book, Reader, Come Home, by Maryanne Wolf, which is an investigation of the reading brain in a digital world.  Ms. Wolf is highly qualified to publish on this topic as she was the director of the Tufts Center for Reading and Language Research.  A decade ago, she published Proust and the Squid which revealed how the human brain learned to read and how reading has transformed our thoughts and emotions as a species.  This new book describes her concerns and hopes about what is happening to the brain as it adapts to the digital mediums.

I am grateful that I am not alone in this concern about our reading habits as we become increasingly dependent on digital technologies.  As a teacher, I hope to better understand the changes in our society during the Information Age and the long-term impact on our students’ learning.

Recreation and Relationships


A summer to embrace the 4R’s:  Relax, Recreation, Relationships, Reflection.  This has been an amazing season, and this lens of introspection using the “R’s” has been helpful.  It has helped me see the importance of relaxing – something that I once viewed as sloth-like and unbecoming of productive people.  I now see it as an integral part of life that provides insight into peacefulness (especially among family members!)

Today I embrace the beauty of recreation, and its ability to build relationships.  This is based on my experience in three venues: A family reunion, a trip to an educational conference and a trip to nature:

Family Reunion:  My daughter graduated from high school, and the family from Minnesota joined me in June to celebrate this occasion.  Since this event was held in Atlanta, a Braves game was the major attraction.  (See the awesome picture in this article).  Words cannot express the enjoyment of this outing, and the bonding achieved with my brothers as we shared this sport.

Educational Conference:  I travelled to Portland, Oregon to attend a conference focused on expeditionary learning – expanding lessons beyond the classroom.  I made connections to other educators and learned new techniques to build relationships with my students.

Trip to Nature:  A visit to Cumberland Island has been on my bucket list for years.  I was thrilled to hike into pure nature – the only access is by ferry, and since motorized vehicles are not allowed, one enjoys the island only through hiking and camping.  I appreciated the beauty of wild horses, armadillos and other assorted animals, and renewed my relationship with Mother Nature.

I love teaching, and I look forward seeing a new group of students in a few weeks.  I know I will do a better job with it because I am renewed by this time of rest.  Before I step back in the classroom, I need to reflect on the new ideas I have embraced this summer.







4 R’s


I embark on my first full week of summer break; two months outside of the classroom to refresh and relax.  Those words do not belong in the above-mentioned ‘R’s, though.  The four words that I will pay attention to are:

  1. Rest
  2. Recreation
  3. Reflection
  4. Relationships

Rest:  Since I stopped setting an alarm and I don’t have to eat lunch in the cafeteria in a 20-minute timespan, I figure I am resting.  This really feels good.

Recreation:  My ability to recreate has expanded as well.  I can garden in the morning before it gets too hot, so I can curate these lovely spaces of earth.  I can also fit my exercise regimen into a time of day when I actually have energy;  this is not sandwiched between a full day of work and making dinner.

Relationships:  I am very focused on relationships with my family, as I have missed them during the busy school year.  With my daughter heading off to college this fall, I want to make sure I have a good foundation of communication with her before she starts that journey.  Reunions with extended family, and a trip to the beach sound perfect.

Reflection:  I left this one to last, because it is my challenge for the summer.  According to dictionary.com, this word means “a fixing of the thoughts on something; careful consideration”.  I plan on ‘fixing my thoughts’ on the investigation of  BME (a new acronym in education) – Brain/Mind/Education, which is the integration of neuroscience into lesson planning.  This sounds like “very serious thought”! But, this excites me, as I initially had dreams of pursuing a career in psychology, yet time and money had me short-circuit to a shorter path.  But, NOW . . . I can explore this passion and it has a real feeling of purpose.

I look forward to summer, and this one holds much promise.




Reflection is an Important Phase in PBL for Students and Teachers


As I finish up our PBL unit on science fiction in sixth grade literature, I am reminded of the power of reflection.  This  important step has benefitted not only the students, as they recognize the process of learning, but it has benefitted me as the teacher in recognizing the attainment of skill development in the classroom.

Most importantly, did this unit hit the 4C’s: Critical Thinking, Communication, Collaboration, Creativity?  These are the skills we want for our students, so I gauged the effectiveness of the unit through a student reflection.

First, the PBL developed critical thinking as it focused on two topics in our curriculum; the investigation of outer space in Earth Science and the introduction of the genre science fiction in Literature.  From my vantage point, it appears the lessons on space were successfully blended with an investigation of the genre of science fiction.  In his reflection, Christopher confirmed this: “I learned lots of things about space and things like that. What was important to the (science fiction) production was to research and make sense. To make it science fiction some of it has to be real and scientific. It was fun and research can really help your stories.”

SciFi Colony

Second, the unit advanced the students’ communication skills as they enhanced their writing skills by creating science fiction stories, as well as their presentation skills when they presented their storyboard ideas to the class.  Hunter’s insight was on the importance of time management in the writing process of her graphic novel, “ . . . I also learned that it takes a while to finish a whole novel. I learned to use time management for any upcoming projects. I have learned many lessons from this and will use it in real life.”

Third, choice/voice enlightened some students’ views on the collaboration aspect on this unit.  After writing their storyboards, students could choose their own format for producing as well as whether they wanted to work independently or collaboratively with other students.  As Isabella pointed out, “. . . I loved how we got to connect our science project with this (project) and I love how we can work with someone if they are going to the same planet.”  While this degree of student choice felt like it created chaos (and I definitely felt that I had totally lost control of the classroom), it turned out beautifully and I was so impressed with the final products.

SciFi Movie Trailer

So, I definitely noticed the creativity! As Sam pointed out, ” I think the most important thing about the production was the free rein part. I think it is great that Mrs. Menkus let us produce our project in anyway that we wanted. . . .”  While some students wrote science fiction stories, others created iMovies, stop motion videos, graphic novels and audio productions.  

SciFi Pic

In closing, I realize I would not have had these insights without this reflection.  Not only did it confirm that the skills of critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and creativity were developed, but I also confirmed that this was an authentic experience for the students.  As Jackson pointed out, “I liked researching things about space. . . . . . It was also good that I thought about what could happen in the future.”  I have enjoyed reading their comments, and it is helping me plan an even better unit next year!

Virtual Reality Works in Literature


I love to teach my students about great books and authors – I never grow tired of it because there are endless examples of both!  However, sometimes I notice my students grow weary of the ‘reading and writing’ process and need a little stimulation to create some new energy around this discipline.  I think new technologies such as virtual reality has been a great addition to literature class!

“When Science and Fiction Take Students Into Space”

My current project-based learning (PBL) unit is a collaboration with Earth Science as students learn about space to prepare them for a three-day field trip to Space Camp in Huntsville, AL.  Not only do they study the solar system, but they get to select a planet for colonization. After much research, they not only select a colony location but also determine HOW to build the colony with challenging atmospheres, temperatures, etc. They worked on teams to build models of their colonies, which were put on display at the school.

As a complement to these science learning outcomes, my literature class investigated science fiction focusing on space.  While I get to show them classic stories from Isaac Asimov and H.G. Wells, this unit was enhanced with experiential learning using the above-mentioned colony models and virtual reality! (See pictures above)

The students loved exploring Mars, the Moon, and other celestial bodies! They were excited to be walking at the location of their colonies, and I used this stimulation to prepare them to write their own science fiction stories!  They now could describe a setting using their own experiences instead of just words in their heads!

I really love to teach students to explore their imagination through books and media, but 3D displays and virtual reality were very powerful motivators in the classroom.  What more could a teacher ask for?


Project Based Learning (PBL) Turns a Book into Reality


I am a teacher who LOVES to teach students about literature.  Books open the doors to students’ imaginations so they can explore life’s possibilities. Students learn about authors and their mastery at creating a story.  There are no limits to the number of paths a book can take in the classroom.

But I discovered a LONGER path with books when I added project based learning (PBL) into my lesson planning!  I discovered that I could not only tap into students’ imaginations, but I could turn a book into something real in their lives!  I still got to teach about story structure, plot line, theme, point of view, etc (KEY KNOWLEDGE, UNDERSTANDING AND SUCCESS SKILLS).  But when I added a challenging question and an authentic task to the book’s ideas, it took on a sense of reality that broadened the meaning of the book.


Students read the book, Flush,  by Carl Hiaasen, which focuses on the theme “Standing Up for One’s Values” as the protagonist takes action to protect the Florida Keys from water pollution when a casino boat is dumping its waste into the ocean.  This was a good theme to explore as students questioned their own impact on the environment and what values did THEY think were important regarding this issue?

The driving question:  DO we impact the environment on our planet? If so, do we do this in a positive or negative way?  What can we do to minimize the negative human impact on our environment?


I had no problem keeping this conversation going throughout the unit, as students organically questioned the reality of the book’s environmental situation in Florida Keys and applied it to their own situation in Georgia.

  • Do they think pollution is a problem for our planet?
  • Which type(s) of pollution concerns them the most?  Which one(s) do they have control over?
  • In their opinion, what is the biggest problem (air, water, land?)

As students read Flush, I collaborated with the science teacher on my team to scaffold information about our environment.  Using the following resources and some visual thinking routines, the students were able to understand the important issues regarding their environment:

  1. Video:  Introduction to the Florida Keys Habitat followed by See/Think/Wonder visual thinking routine
  2. Article: Environmental Threats to the Florida Keys used as informational text analysis and ranking of threats
  3. Video:  Human Impacts on Earth Systems followed by What Makes You Say That? visual thinking routine
  4. Video: Trash Talk (NOAA) followed by I Used to Think/Now I Think visual thinking routine


As students learned about the human impact on their environment, and applied it to the setting of their book (Florida Keys), they overwhelmingly identified water pollution as the primary threat to this habitat (they ranked this higher than urban development, global climate change, boating, introduced/invasive species, and overfishing). Students investigated the different types of water pollution (dumping waste, agricultural pesticide runoff, point source and non-point source pollution, etc.)  This investigation indicated that the accumulation of plastic was the biggest concern (such as The Great Pacific Garbage Patch).  The students then focused on plastic pollution, and their investigation brought them to many sources and organizations that are involved in this issue.


After learning about these initiatives and the problems caused by the accumulation of plastic in the ocean, the students participated in the Kids Recycle Day sponsored by CHaRM (Center for Harmful to Recycle Materials).  Not only did this give their campaigns an authentic purpose, but it made them more aware of the plastic products used/thrown out in their OWN households (now it became personal).  Their recycled plastic products were used as artifacts to help them build empathy for the situation and how they were personally involved in it.  As they engaged in this initiative, it was decided that public awareness campaigns (PAC) should be developed to educate others about the plastic problem (#plasticproblem).

Public Awareness Campaigns:  Student groups were formed, and each group identified their focus for educating others about the issue of plastic pollution in the ocean.  For example, some groups connected with existing initiatives such as “One Less Straw” by One More Generation while others chose to focus on specific products such as 6-ring packs that cause damage to turtles.


The DEEPdt “design thinking” process was used in the development of the campaigns because it is people-centered problem solving, a unified framework for innovation and a practical tool for integrating 21st century skills into the classroom

Each step enabled the students to develop their understanding of water pollution and provide feedback through visual thinking routines, group discussions and group presentations:

  • Discover: Find your team, start with questions, preflection
  • Empathize: Needfinding, synthesizing, MoVe, HMW . . .
  • Experiment: Brainstorming, prototype, narrow focus
  • Produce: Prototype, test & feedback, “storytell”, ship it

Critiques and revision did not happen only in the classroom environment.  The development of the public awareness campaigns was also guided by:

  • External Experts (both parents of students):  
    • John Rizzo, product and sales development, eco-fi; a company that makes high-quality polyester made from 100% post-consumer recycled plastic PET bottles. 
    • Dana Davidson, UGA graduate of Environmental Science, focused on water pollution
  • Upper School Students:  The Environmental Prefect (Megan Lienau) collaborated with 6th Grade in the Kids Recycle Day to expand awareness of plastic pollution; she was joined by juniors and seniors from the Upper School Green Club in the presentations and feedback process of the public awareness campaigns
  • MV Administration:  Middle School and Upper School administration viewed multiple presentations and provided feedback on the public awareness campaigns



  • Each student was responsible for both creating and presenting their public awareness campaign and received feedback from their team members using a Team Evaluation Form
  • Each student had the opportunity to reflect on the following activities in this PBL using the Reflection on public awareness program that was placed in their shared folder:
    • Activities – scaffolding of classroom activities that helped them prepare for the public awareness program
    • Culmination Event – developing and presenting the public awareness campaign
    • How has the research/work you have been doing throughout the PBL and reading of Flush informed and prepared you for the creation of this public awareness campaign?
    • Now that you are more aware of plastic pollution, what will you do differently about reduce – reuse – recycle plastic?  What values will YOU stand up for?


  • Each team presented their public awareness campaign and received feedback from their peers using a Student Observation Form

Whole Class:

  • At the end of the presentations in each class period, students discussed the entire unit including the book and the PBL initiative.  This was a very productive process as they collaborated on certain ideas yet were comfortable challenging others’ perceptions on the PBL outcome.


As I read the students reflections on the public awareness programs, and reviewed all the student observation forms and my own examinations/reviews from classwork activities, I discovered a sense of pride with my students’ learning throughout this project.  I witnessed my students embrace a complex challenge and develop/present answers to a central question. I saw them reach outside the classroom and encounter new initiatives in a world they did not know existed.  I think this project changed us – I know it changed me in my perception of plastic.  I see that our perceptions about our planet and its environment is different now because we took on the challenge to understand it.  Who knew this book in a literature class could take us SO far down this path?

Visible Thinking – Brainstorming with Spidea Web


As students read the novel, Flush, by Carl Hiaasen, they became curious about the primary external conflict – water pollution.  Specifically, water pollution in the ocean.  They learned that this is different from the water pollution in Atlanta, Georgia, a city that is land-locked and pretty far away from the ocean.  But, they discovered that the Chattahoochee River carries their trash all the way to the Gulf of Mexico – so they are part of the problem!

This has been an eye-opening experience, because we used to think that ‘marine debris’ was caused by people on the coast.  But, now we know that plastic trash is an ever-growing problem and continues to cause problems because of single-use plastic products.

We Use to Think . . . . . . . .   Now We Think . . . . . . . . . .

Water pollution was an issue SSWater pollution is a real big problem!
Water pollution in ocean made beaches nasty Water pollution in ocean could hurt fish and people!
Water pollution in ocean was caused by people on beach Water pollution in ocean is caused by us (in Atlanta)!  It travels a long way!
Plastic trash was not a big deal Marine debris is primarily plastic!
Plastic trash comes from big companies Plastic trash comes from us – single use objects (like grocery bags, straws, cups)

Because of this investigation, students are now focused on the issue of plastic consumption and how we can address the problem of ‘marine debris’ water pollution in the ocean.  So, this week our Visible Thinking Routine was a ‘Spidea Web’ which helped us brainstorm this complicated issue.


Working in groups, students provided ideas on the issues of the 3R’s of our plastic consumption: Reduce-Reuse-Recycle.  Many good ideas came from this classroom activity, and students had many ideas.  However, I found that providing samples of plastic trash from my own waste basket gave the students ‘hands-on’ experience which helped them become more realistic with their ideas.


They now understand the issue with ‘single use’ plastic products and how they are contributing to the problem.  This is a problem that will continue to grow and impact their upcoming generation.  So, it is time to address this issue!

Our next step will involve the DEEPdt process (Discover-Empathize-Experiment-Produce) Design Thinking.  In their groups, they will gain insights into the plastics industry to understand how this has become such an integral part of our consumer behavior.  Through this process, we may uncover a solution that will provide sustainability of the ocean habitat, and our long-term survival on this planet.