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“Now I Know My Brain Is Growing When I Read Every Night”


This past weekend I wrote a post — Reading Logs — Part Two (or “How Students Can Grow Their Brains”) — sharing some  research and reflections on helping students see that it is in their self-interest to read at home each night. In that same piece I shared a lesson I was going to use  in my ninth-grade mainstream English class that I hoped would let students see that intelligence is not innate, and that when they read each night they literally helped their brain grow by creating and strengthening neurons.

It was one of those lessons that I thought was either going to be a huge success or a total fiasco (and I certainly have had my share of the latter).

I can happily report, however, that it definitely exceeded my expectations — so much so that, after sharing what happened with a number of my colleagues, it looks like some colleagues may be trying it out in their classes.

I stuck pretty much to the plan I laid-out in my previous post — with a couple of exceptions.

One change occurred at the start.  I began with the question I had originally planned:

“Some people say you’re born with a certain amount of intelligence – you’re either smart, average, or below-average — and that’s just the way it is and always will be.  Others say we’re all pretty much born with the same amount, and that people who work harder at learning just become more intelligent.  Take a minute and think about those two perspectives.  Write down which one you think is right and why.”

However, even as I was saying it, I had doubts that students would get “it,” and I was right.  So I quickly rephrased  and put two questions on the board — asking them to choose one and explain why:

Option One:

Yes, I think the brain is like a muscle and the more you exercise it, the stronger it gets.

Option Two:

You are born with being however smart or dumb you are and that’s the way it is.

One would expect that most students would choose Option One and that’s what happened.  However, and this is where I gained an incredible insight:

The students in class who faced a number of academic challenges and who I’d lay odds have been inappropriately and inaccurately labeled “dumb” in the past all chose Option Two.

The other change was that I asked students to write a short reflection at the end of the lesson sharing what they thought of it.  They universally liked it, and the video that actually showed neurons forming made a huge impact (the link to that video is in my previous post).

One of the students who initially said that people are either born smart or dumb wrote the headline of this post:

“Now I know my brain is growing when I read every night.  It creates neurons.”

Here are some other examples:

“This was interesting because the more you learn, the bigger your brain muscle will get.  Now I know how to exercise it.”

“I liked it because it showed how you learn and your brain grows.”

“It was interesting to watch because now I know what happens when I learn.”

“I should start using my brain as much as possible.”

“It was interesting to learn about brain cells and what happens when you learn.”

Of course, we’ll see how much impact this will have over the long-term.  But I’m hopeful, and will continue to refer to it throughout the year.

(“This Is Your Brain On Learning” tells about a follow-up lesson to this activity.)

I’ll also be modifying the lesson so that it’s accessible to my English Language Learners, and will share that when it’s completed.

(Alice Mercer has posted an excellent post describing a lesson she’s done with a similar purpose. I highly recommend that you take a look at Is your brain grass or a glass?)

You might also want to see The Best Articles On The New Study Showing That Intelligence Is Not “Fixed.”

Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.


  1. I wonder if this sense of inevitability and intelligence sinks in as kids get older. I did a bit today with fourth graders on whether their brains were grass (could grow) or a glass (that you could only fill so far). All of them agreed with grass, and I did some scenarios with them about kids reacting to test scores as an example.

  2. Pingback: Is your brain grass or a glass? | Reflections on Teaching

  3. The ideas you have in this post (and your preceding ones) are fabulous Larry. I am going to be much more intentional with the way I speak to students about ‘exercising’ their brains. I hope that we can include some of the ideas across our whole school when we begin our new year in February. I think this type of intentional approach would be very beneficial at the beginning of a school year.

  4. Hopefully, the students in your classes who cannot read at the 150 words per minute needed for “reading to learn” will get the 1 to 2 hours of systematic instruction in reading that research indicates is the only way to get them to that point. Too many programs for middle and high schoolers “wish and hope” that through encouragement and focus on comprehension that these kids will learn to fluently decode the words. Take some text and cover two or three words out of every eight and try to make sense of it. Many of these kids who are now older never got the type of phonics-based reading instruction when they were little and since it takes four times the effort when they are older to come close to “catching them up,” no one wants to do it. Sorry, I had to rant, because these kids hide their reading deficiencies and the pain for them is overwhelming.

    • Lynda,

      I appreciate your leaving a comment, but I have to say I’m uncomfortable with a focus on reading instruction that is primarily phonics-based. Phonics certainly has its place, but I’d also say it has to be kept in its place. The research I have read, and what I have seen in my own experience, is that phonic-based approaches can often lead to the ability to decode words, but doesn’t necessarily lead to comprehension development nor towards helping students gaining a love of reading. I’m also not convinced of the validity of needing 150 words per minute in order to “read to learn.” Very few of my ninth-grade mainstream students are at that level, and they’re still doing excellent work.


  5. I like Alice’s idea of grass or glass 😉 and will use this idea to create a discussion using the concepts you laid out here.

    I think the LP you’ve laid out here has even greater potential outside of reading and will go about the challenge from their learning styles perspective as well – asking my students to think about all the different ways they learn and what effect practicing the ways they don’t learn well can affect those neurons too.

    I reckon this is a good one-of-the-first-classes-learning2learn-lessons…

    And by the way, Larry – I really enjoy you making my brain grow more!

  6. I have used a clip from the movie Dangerous Minds. It’s when the teacher introduces the idea of working hard before they begin Dylan. She uses talks to the class about the brain being a muscle and needing a workout…like on a track, etc. This clip would be great to use with the lesson described here. 🙂

  7. Pingback: Grow your brain | mathsrc's Blog

  8. I would love to know the name of the video you used Larry, was it on you tube or did you get it from elsewhere.

  9. I think this is the link to what Jodi was thinking about

    I was looking for something more ‘how the brain works’, I’ll check out the previous post, new here sorry Larry

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