Wow! Ed: Newsletter from the Center for Educational Improvment
Creating Good Memories
January 2016
In This Issue

Bring Kindness into Your Classroom
Check out "Moments a Day"
Includes recommended books on kindness, and ideas for a Vision Board for youth.
Workshops and technical assistance also available.
Register now for CEI's Preschool STEM/STEAM Workshops
Our series starts in DC. Contact us to bring workshops to your area.
CEI seeks a virtual intern (5-10 hours a week) to help advance
CEI's research, blogs, marketing, and use of social media.
Dear Educators,

Are you looking for a relatively quick way for you or your teachers to boost academic achievement?  Most educators are familiar with the call to increase hands-on experiences. Most educators also are familiar with the adage to have high expectations.  However, fewer teachers may be aware of the memory problems that interfere with learning for many children. In this issue of Wow!, Sheri Brick describes the impact of trauma on the brain as well as strategies to help accelerate learning for traumatized children. One quarter of the nation's children come to school having already experienced a significant trauma -- so these strategies are crucial for schools today.

Also this month, I have written two articles. The first provides some research supporting the notion of the importance of "creating good memories."  In the second article I provide an argument for a greater focus on strategies to help students remember. It includes some hints for how to use mnemonics to make learning more fun and engaging for students.
Working Memory and Traumatized Children: Healing the Brain
By Sheri Brick, CEI Intern

Let's start with an exercise. First, say and internalize this phrase: "We can't heal the pain, but we can help heal the brain." If you are one of those with an exceptional memory, later on, these words will be easily retrieved. For many of us, this phrase will escape the brain as fast as a new memory tries to work its way in. By the time I finish the day's to-do list, I will have quickly forgotten this phrase - a phrase I created to help me remember why working memory is so important in the classroom. However, with a few strategies of my own, I could rescue the saying. With a little help in retaining, we could all remember the information that is important in our lives.

Many school children experience trauma or pain that cannot always be healed. Research has shown that these experiences, without the proper help and support from adults, can have an adverse impact on student learning and achievement. The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child calls this "toxic stress" or the prolonged activation of the body's stress management system. Prolonged activation can damage the part of the brain called the hippocampus, which is primarily associated with learning and memory. As educators and caring adults, we all wish we could erase the pain caused from traumatic experiences in a child's life. We might not have that elusive power, but we can be there during those critical times to help "heal the brain" from interrupted development. This can be done by creating a positive and safe classroom community.

Enhancing the working memory of a trauma sensitive student is rooted in the belief that a safe and supportive environment is foundational to changing the brain. Eric Jensen, author of Teaching with Poverty in Mind, suggests that fostering a mind-set of hope, determination, change, optimism, and security will combat chronic stress and the effect it has on the brain (Jensen, 2009). In a research update, Jensen (2014) states "Among the many amazing things about our brain is its plasticity. This refers to the capacity to change through neural reorganization. Memory (working OR short-term) can be enhanced through several strategies". Building memory skills come through practice and purposeful teaching. This can be done in an engaging and meaningful way that will have students coming back for more.

As a first grade teacher with a classroom full of students who have working memory deficits, I continually ask myself, "How am I going to remember to teach memory building skills into our day when we already have so much going on?" The trick is that memory building skills can be integrated into every aspect of the day. Amanda Morin, writing for Understood, an organization that supports students with learning and attention issues, suggests eight easy to implement memory boosting ideas to improve a child's recall. Several of these ideas can be used during instruction. For instance, having the child teach someone else allows him or her to explain and make sense of information learned from a lesson. Or, helping the child to make connections to previously learned information will bridge the gap between prior knowledge and new material. The brain training does not stop when instruction ends. Recess and movement breaks are a great time to build working memory. "We now know that we can grow new neurons through our lifetime and that they are highly correlated with memory, mood, and learning. This process can be regulated by everyday behaviors, which include exercise." (Jensen, n.d.) 
In the ACTIVATE [TM]learning program, designed and developed by C8 Sciences to improve cognition, physical exercise is one of the three main components. It has over 100 different physical exercises for kids that are written for either physical education teachers or general classroom teachers. Is also includes carefully designed computerized exercises that have been shown to improve not only attention and memory, but also have been associated with improvements in reading and math.

Need more ideas for improving working memory? Consider the working memory series by Learning Works for tips and strategies. Happy retaining!

The Relationship of Working Memory & Good Memories to Learning
By Christine Mason
How are memories created? And how does the capacity to learn impact the capacity to retain good memories or vice versa? Experts have defined the capacity to learn as "working memory" - a mediating factor related to fluidity of intelligence, which in turn impacts the ability to recall information, understand and explain complex concepts, and make inferences or generalizations to new situations (Baddeley, 2012). Research shows that a strong working memory, particularly in the early grades, is the number one indicator of school success. (Alloway & Alloway, 2010). And of course, with success comes positive memories. Therefore, a strong working memory supports the creation of positive memories.

Obstacles to Retaining and Recalling Good Memories. Think back to your childhood. Consider a memory of something that makes you smile. Do you have a school memory of something positive? Perhaps a kind teacher? A successful school project? Or is something blocking your memories? Children enter school with a wide array of memories. Even at a young age, some children step into classrooms with more good memories than others. Do these children have an advantage when it comes to learning? At a minimum, they have more brain power available for learning. Thus, it might be said that positive memories enhance working memory.

In terms of remembering the good, unfortunately the way our brains are structured, trauma typically triumphs over almost everything else. Our brains are wired to keep us safe, so that when trauma is present it is usually foremost in our minds and thoughts. Even if we push unpleasant thoughts down deep inside to suppress memories, our brains then focus on being hyper-alert and finding ways to avoid the trauma or the memories. When this happens, the amygdala takes over resulting in less neural capacity available for higher level thinking and learning.

What is life like for children who have been traumatized? Consider a child who has been bit by a strange dog and develops a fear of dogs. With this fear, the brain sends messages to be aware, and over time the child might take actions to either push the memories down, perhaps creating a "numbness" and depression, or to find more active ways to escape. For the short term, it may well be that an impulsive action to run will create relief. For this child, the brain may actually help create a sense of caution and thus prevent future injuries.

Creating Conditions in Classrooms that Impede or Facilitate Learning. For students who have unpleasant memories of school, what happens? In these cases, their reactions may or may not be as adaptive as for the child with a fear of dogs, especially since schools are an important part of preparation for life. Children with repeated academic failures, difficulties in learning, and perhaps awful memories of classrooms or teachers, are likely to "disengage" either through choosing not to focus on the unpleasantness of school, or through acting out to escape instruction.

Given these realities, what can teachers do to help create good memories in classrooms? Research suggests that memories are enhanced by creating a Wow! Factor  (see CEI's website)- something that is in fact engaging and memorable (Zimbardo, 2005). This might include connecting learning to student interests, adding a hands-on component, engaging more senses for additional sensory input, adding options and choices, pairing learning with something out of the ordinary (soft music; a vivid, engaging story; an unusual assignment), or adding a "fun factor" so that students have opportunities to laugh and hear others laugh together.

The Role of Working Memory. In terms of working memory and learning, one critical factor is how quickly a student can "grasp critical information that is not conveyed explicitly" (Banas & Sanchez, 2012). To reflect on the importance of learning by osmosis so to speak (without intentional effort), consider how tedious it would be if everything required one person instructing, modeling, and perhaps even reminding another person how to complete a task. It might take a considerable amount of patience on the part of both people, and also obviously more time and less capacity to work with a group of students as the teacher focuses on making sure the student is taught step by step how to proceed.

Readers with lower levels of working memory have trouble making "global connections across multiple texts" (Banas & Sanchez, 2012, p. 599). If working memory is impaired, the student may need more direct instruction to comprehend or process the importance of the connection between events. This could impact ability to make inferences, draw conclusions, or even determine the "moral of the story." Working memory appears to play similar role in reaching scientific conclusions (Best, McNamara, Ozuru, & Rowe, 2005) and in performing complex math problems and in particular those math problems that require ability to hold or retain information on one procedure (perhaps the rules for determining percentage) within the context of additional information (comparing fixed and variable interest) (Swanson & Beebe-Frankenberger, 2004).

Strengthening Working Memory and Building Positive Memories. What conclusions can be reached? Teachers can help students create good memories in school by creating conditions that support student interests, engagement, and success. Working memory, a mediating factor for learning, can be strengthened through strategies that aid recall and retrieval such as mnemonics, verbal rehearsal, storytelling, grouping/chunking, and visual imagery (Turley-Ames & Whitfield, 2003). Good memories can also be enhanced by strategies that help students overcome blockages to learning and help to replace negative and fear invoking memories with positive experiences. By strengthening working memory and making an intentional effort to create positive school memories, teachers are taking important steps to establish better conditions for learning.


Galloway, T.P. & Alloway, R.G. (2010) Investigating the predictive roles of working memory and IQ in academic attainment. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 106(1): 20-9.
Baddeley, A. (2012).Working memory: Theories, Models, and ControversiesAnnual Review of Psychology, 63, 1-29.
Banas, S., & Sanchez, C.A. (2012). Working memory capacity and learning underlying conceptual relationships across multiple documents. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 26, 594-600. 
Best, R.M., McNamara, D.S, Ozuru, Y., &Rowe, M. (2005). Deep-Level comprehension of science texts: The role of the reader and the text. Topics in Language Disorders, 25 (1), 65-84.
Swanson, H. L., & Beebe-Frankenberger, M. (2004). The relationship between working memory and mathematical problem solving in children at risk and not at risk for serious math difficulties. Journal of Educational Psychology, 96, 471-491.
Turley-Ames, K. J., & Whitfield, M. M. (2003). Strategy training and working memory task performance. Journal of Memory and Language, 49(4), 446-468. 
Zimbardo, P. (2005). Optimizing the power and magic of teaching. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 24, 1, 11-21.
Memory, is it Worthy of Attention?
By Christine Mason
While good memories can help us feel that we have lived a purposeful life, a good memory or ability to recall information can also enhance our lives in many, many ways.

Memorizing Facts and Figures. When we look at Bloom's, rote memory is way down at the bottom of the hierarchy. Pure recall. Yet it trips up many students. If students aren't accurate with math facts, then all the reasoning in the world won't help them come up with the correct answers. Or spelling? The more words a person spells correctly, the faster writing tasks can be completed. Even if one is unsure of a spelling, that uncertainty causes us to pause. It, in essence, slows down our work. If your misspelling isn't even close to the correct spelling, spell checker may be of little help. Then of course there are scientific formulas, historical dates, and even rules for punctuation and grammar. Facts, facts, and more facts.

Even with our technology today, memorizing is an important academic and life skill. We memorize routes, bus schedules, birthdays, and dates of upcoming events. Even with MapQuest and electronic calendars, it helps to remember some things independently without Google support. And if you are like me, you even like remembering that you are going to a concert on Friday or meeting a friend on Saturday.

Ode to a Nightingale. Perhaps some of you recall times years ago when students memorized poems as an activity in part to sharpen the brain. I remember memorizing the Gettysburg address "Four score and seven years ago..." There was something so patriotic about that. Or a line from Keat's: "Was it a vision, or a waking dream? Fled is that music:-do I wake or sleep?" Or perhaps Shakespeare, "The lady doth protest too much, methinks." Knowing Shakespeare (or Keats) was part of having a well-rounded education.

However, in recent years, memorization has gone by the wayside or taken a back seat to higher levels of thinking such as inquiry, comparison, and analysis. Yet even today, students can be heard reciting raps, participating in poetry slams, and memorizing songs. Something we sometimes even enjoy this participation that relies on remembering words, rhythms, and sounds. 

Memory: With and Without Apps. On a more mundane level, there are also basic ways of living that are facilitated by our memories-remember to eat from the five basic food groups, remember to chew your food thoroughly before swallowing, remember to watch for black ice on the road. While apps such as "Remember the Milk" can ease the burden on our memories, they only go so far. Then there is the need to remember how to use our technologies (how do I save a picture to Facebook? how do I turn off my PC now that I have Windows 10?). And each time there is a technological upgrade, there is something to unlearn and a new procedure to remember.

It is fascinating to consider that even in this 21st Century, when our PCs and handhelds serve as an extension of our minds, memorizing is a useful skill. Those with good memories are more likely to be in the right place, at the right time, with the right message, with or without their apps.

However, memory is also helpful for tasks that extend beyond the basics. As I travel around the US, it is helpful to know about the capitals of each state, their approximate population, and their proximity to historical sites and national parks. Perhaps even something about the climate in each region of the country, and the industries that provide the livelihood for various towns and cities. And of course, something about the culture of the area - the best restaurants, the entertainment, the sights to see. The more I am able to remember, the less dependent I am on technology and others to fill in the gaps for me. In a sense, a good memory, frees one to live, to be.

As students progress in school, their memories are stretched from a basic retention of facts, to a synthesis of information and understanding at a deeper level. Yet mix up a few facts, transplant Midwest farmers to the Louisiana Bayou, and poof! how can we even hold an intelligent conversation, how can we empathize for their plight when a drought occurs, how can we even understand the impact of a storm?

Today, in 2016, when we consider remembering, we know that there are apps to help. But what else can be done? Are there strategies that teachers can use to help accelerate learning through expediting memory, retention, and recall?

How to Help Students Remember. There are myriad ways to help students with memory, retention and recall. Verbal rehearsal, visualization, overlearning, repetition and drill are commonly used. However, there is one strategy that I believe is worthy of more time and attention from teachers. Mnemonics.

Kathy DeLashmutt (2007) conducted action research on mnemonics with her 5th grade class to teach math. DeLashmutt describes how she would introduce new math concepts to her students by chanting a rhyme or singing about the concept. DeLashmutt used mnemonics every day for two months as she was teaching about common denominators and adding, multiplying, and dividing fractions. She used surveys (with a 1-5 scale) to ask questions about the students' understanding of math concepts and attitudes about math. She also conducted individual interviews with 10 of her students. She reports that all 10 were excited about the approach she used. They stated: "This year math was easier because Mrs. DeLashmutt shows it first then I get the hang of it."  "Mrs. DeLashmutt helps you and it's like a game. It's fun!" "She makes it easier and she goes over it with us and she makes up rhymes to make it easier to learn math."

Mnemonics may a particularly important tool for students who are struggling academically. Vannest and colleagues (2008) identify mnemonics as one of the most effective interventions for students with behavioral and emotional problems. It could be that mnemonics helps to elevate study from a place of tedious and rote memorization to a more dynamic, personalized, and even perhaps creative way of learning. Moreover, researchers have found that students have increased confidence in their knowledge of information that was mnemonically learned (Mastropieri & Scruggs, 1998). Confidence in what one knows and remembers. Another important tool for freeing the mind and spirit to take on other tasks.


Gettinger, M., & Seibert, J. K. (2002). Contributions of study skills to academic competence. School Psychology Review, 31(3), 350-365.
Mastropieri, M. & Scruggs, T. (1998) Enhancing school success with mnemonic strategies. LD online.
Vannest, KJ, Kalis, T.,  Gonzales, J., & Zionts, L. (2008). "Top ten" academic interventions for students with emotional and behavioral disorders. L.M. Bullock & R,A. Gable (Eds). Ensuring a Brighter Future for Troubled Children/Youth: Challenges and Solutions. Arlington, VA: Council for Children with Behavior Disorders, a division of the Council for Exceptional Children.
Memories, Like the Corners of My Mind

. . . It is the laughter we will remember.  Whether it is listening together to Barbara Streisand, or providing some tools to help students remember the more mundane stuff, there are ways to brighten corners for students.

January may be a very good time to have your students and teachers share how and when they are intentionally using strategies to improve their memories. 



Christine Mason
Center for Educational Improvement