Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Brain Breaks: Every age person needs them


I used to teach multiple-day workshops for adults and facilitate multiple-day negotiation sessions for small groups in conflict.  It’s hard to sit still that long.  It’s even harder for the brain to stay focused for that long.  Until I learned about brain breaks, I just knew that my adult participants would start behaving like children right around 3 pm.


There’s actually neuroscience theory to support the use of brain breaks.  First, our brain uses 20% of the body’s energy when resting, more when doing difficult mental tasks like reading and listening.  The brain works very hard, especially when we’re concentrating trying to learn something new.  It needs a reset sometimes (as often as every 10  minutes for small children and 30 minutes for adults, if you’re really trying to memorize something).  The idea is to switch neural activity to non-learning networks, so the setting-memory networks can rest a little. 


Some experts also suggest that we try to engage both hemispheres of the brain (generally, the right hemisphere controls the left side of our body, and vice versa) during brain breaks, and help them to work together.  I like to think of this as “windshield wiper-ing” the brain, helping it to clean out the detritus and start again with full focus.


So what does a brain break look like.  In my experience, the sillier, the better.  We’re trying to get the two sides of the brain to do opposite things, which is not so easy to do.  So, there’s a little bit of frustration at first and (hopefully) a lot of laughter.  These are a few of my favorite brain breaks:


·      Start with what most people know:  rubbing your tummy and patting your head at the same time.  After that feels doable (2-3 min?), switch what the hands are doing (i.e., tummy-rubbing hand now pats head, head-patting hand rubs tummy).


·      Wink and snap:  wink left eye and snap right finger; wink right eye and snap left finger; repeat, getting faster and faster (until you’re laughing so hard you can’t continue!).


·      Forward and backward circles:  Make circles, starting with both arms fully extended toward the ceiling; one arm makes forward circles, the other arm makes backward circles.  Once you’re pretty competent with this combination, switch directions for each arm.  (Hint: it’s easiest to get started one arm at a time).


·      My favorite brain break if you have adult foreign language speakers in the group:  Act out the children’s game of Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes, naming the body parts in another language.  This is another one that gets adults laughing hysterically.


There are many more brain breaks to be found here and here.  If you think these brain breaks are just for little kids, you’re wrong.  Every age person/student has the same neurological constraints in their brain.  Working with the brain, instead of against it, will maximize every student’s learning.  My adult workshop participants loved brain breaks. Really.


So, try one of these fun and silly activities next time you’re taking part in a long online learning session.  If you’re a teacher, incorporate regular breaks (as in, leave the screen kind of breaks) and brain breaks, and see if your students don’t stay focused a little better.


And, today on New Year’s Eve, try a brain break activity to help the long wait for 2021 pass by more quickly.  Let me know how it went, or send me some additional brain break activities that you like.  I’ll publish them in a future blog post. 


Happy New Year!


Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Keeping Students’ Attention During Online Learning


A recent article in the Washington Post captured my attention.  Entitled “Why are teachers’ faces covered in stickers? To get kids engaged in remote school – and it’s working,” it highlights some of the challenges of keeping students’ attention in a 100% virtual learning environment. 


In the article, a middle school math teacher had tried all kinds of tricks to encourage her students to actively participate in online class.  Thinks that apparently did not get the students to answer questions or otherwise be engaged in the learning process:  calling on students randomly by name, creating small group discussions in breakout groups, enticing students to earn extra credits through competitions, or breaks called movement or brain breaks.


What did work?  Something very silly (and perhaps not exactly age-appropriate for middle schoolers); the teacher promising to put a sticker on her face every time a student answered a question or participated in a class discussion.  The middle school students initially responded because they thought it was hysterical.  But the competition between the teacher’s three classes to see which class could end up with the most stickers on the teacher’s face was the most effective strategy to foster class participation.


The article gave examples of teachers using the sticker method for students of all ages.  One successful example was a professor of an online college-level introduction to psychology class, who reported that more students than ever had participated in class discussion when he rewarded them with stickers.


So, that got me to wondering what other strategies have been effective to get and keep students’ attention during online learning?  Here’s a quick list of some strategies I’ve learned about:


·      Create an expectation of surprise.  A teacher of students in grades 3 through 8 asks a different class each week to pick which color he will dye his beard that day.  If the vote results in a tie, he’ll dye the beard in both colors (it’s a pretty long beard).  I am assuming that the students in each class need to meet some minimum participation requirements to be included in the weekly voting.

·      Nurture curiosity through mystery.  Present the students with a mystery (an information gap), and send them off to find the missing information.  The example given was to have students find out how dolphins can stay awake and alert 24/7 for 15 days.

·      Encourage exploration by having some assignments done away from the screen or the desk.  For online learning, this may mean assigning students to take virtual tours of museums (see this blog post for some suggestions) or giving hands-on assignments (e.g., ask students to survey their family and friends, ask them to design something).

·      Be clear about the real-world meaning of the lesson.  It is much easier to listen to a long lecture, or to study somewhat tedious details, if the student knows why the content matters.  How the learning is going to be applicable to their current or future life.  The teacher can speak to this point by explaining why the studies are relevant.  A strategy perhaps bringing the point a little closer to home is journaling – asking the students to write a journal entry giving their suggestions of a real-world problem that could be addressed by whatever the day’s or week’s lesson was about.


What’s the moral of these stories and strategies?  Teacher creativity, even silliness, can help students of all ages rediscover their enthusiasm for learning, both in person and online.  If they tune it at first to see what crazy thing the teacher is going to do next, they can’t help but learn while they’re tuned in to class.  If the students are asked to apply the learning, rather than simply regurgitate what the teacher says, they may actually learn to love learning, whether that learning is in person or online.

Monday, November 30, 2020

Bridging the Internet Divide in the Navajo Nation


In a previous blog post outlining the various challenges remaining to ensure that anyone anywhere can obtain quality education at little or no cost (the Straube Foundation’s mission), the first challenge identified was access to the internet.  The past almost-year of pandemic quarantining has only highlighted the number of households who do not have regular quality access to the internet.  Meaning that possibly tens of thousands of children have been left behind in their schooling.


The Navajo Nation provides a perfect example of the challenge of providing internet access in a large, thinly populated, remote rural area.  Due to the high incidence of Covid among the Navajo population, all K-12 schooling is currently online.  Many of the homes don’t have electricity or running water.  They are many miles from the nearest neighbor, and even further from the nearest school or public library or other wifi hotspot.  An estimated 50 percent of the Navajo Nation residents do not have an internet connection.  Stated another way, only 25 percent of the residences have broadband internet access.


The students and their families have taken heroic measures to ensure that the kids can keep up with their schoolwork.  Some hike to the top of a nearby hill every day to catch the elusive cell signal to download and upload assignments.  One high school student even moved to the big city (Phoenix) alone to earn income while finishing up school online.  And many of them drive long distances to access wifi.


The school district has instituted some measures to help.  It sends school buses around the reservation with assignments in hard copy, and returns to the school buildings (and teachers) with hard copy versions of the completed homework.  They have also outfitted 14 school buses with wifi, which are then parked in strategic locations several times a week.  The students or their parents drive to the school bus, and stay parked there for as long as needed. 


Depending on the distance between the students’ home and the parked school bus, they will stay parked there for however many hours it takes for the student to actually do the homework or to attend classes via zoom.  This allows the student to download homework, do the homework, and upload the completed assignments all in one sitting.  In some cases, this is a six-hour session next to the school bus wifi, not counting the round-trip from home (which can also take multiple hours)!  That’s dedication (and a full-time job for the students’ driver parent)!


Since Covid, the school district has put so much effort into online learning, they’ve received state approval of a fully online high school.  Now, let’s hope all the high school students can access the internet to take advantage of that learning opportunity.


Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Let’s bring the voting process into this day and age.  Let’s vote electronically.

 2020 voting in the USA is a horror story.  Our children and children’s children (not to mention the rest of the world) will have a hard time understanding the 2020 election process, as it was conducted in the most atrocious way.  People had to show up in person or use the mail, which then didn’t deliver all the ballots or didn’t process the returns in time to be counted.  Then, the counting took days, even weeks, was disputed, recounted, cut off and not counted.  Then, incumbent went to court to either stop the counting or to dispute the verity of paper ballots, or a specific group of paper ballots.  A nightmare if you ever wanted to see one, except that it really played out that way.

Common sense would have demanded that we vote electronically via our smart phones, handhelds, tablets, computers.  We already use these devices extensively every day, actually 9 hours per day or more on average.

Voting via one’s smart phone or equivalent is a lot more authentic and certainly prompt, no time delay whatsoever.  

So the question is why are we not voting electronically TODAY?  There is really no excuse for wasting paper for ballots and then battling about how that paper was handled.

At least four manufacturers of electronic voting machines already exist (  Electronic voting machines are already in use in various voting locations in the United States, for example in Illinois.

Then there is “ElectionBuddy” (, which will build you the voting software to make your electronic voting accurate and secure.  In other words: the technology exists.  Voting via your smartphone should be no problem at all.  After all, you can manage your bank account, send and receive any amount of money, by pushing the right buttons on your handheld, tablet or computer, any time from anywhere, also absolutely accurate and completely secure.  If the government wants to be super-secure in the voting, it could require that you use your fingerprint for identification and verification, which you may be doing already as your password on your iPhone.  Nothing is easier.  

Therefore it seems that there is really no reason at all not to change to electronic voting in all our elections.

Look at the cost this would reduce!  Dramatically.  And all the commotion, facilities, paid and unpaid workers, that would no longer be needed.  Actually most of it could be run by computers, only monitored and supervised by a few individuals who’d make sure the computers are working correctly.  No need for partisan hacks to come around to mess with the data.  Don’t you think that should be easy to do?

So why hasn’t it been done yet? Why are we still voting in the most medieval way?  Having to show up in person or fill out intricately designed ballots which need to be filled out format-correct, signed, sealed or unsealed according to instructions, and then entrusted to a Postal Service, which in more cases than not, may delay delivery past the voting day time.

Voting electronically is straight forward instead, much easier, 100% secure (see fingerprint), and eliminates all the means which, in one way or another, could be influenced by partisan management.  Plus a considerable side benefit:  Greatly reduced cost of the whole endeavor.

Thus it makes sense if electronic voting were adopted nationally.  In addition to the enormous cost savings, it would make our democracy better and stronger.  Congress or the president could use that electronic voting connection for gauging the country’s position on major issues which may need to be decided.  Congress could go back to the voters in midterm, or any time, to get their thinking on whatever the major issue might be. This ability would eliminate or at least greatly reduce the objections, or even hatred, building up for the next election date.  It would enable the government to govern better because of continuous feedback from the governed.  And the cost therefor would be negligible, if any.

The biggest concern circulating about electronic voting is the presumed possibility of hacking (such as by hackers on FaceBook and Twitter, the Russian disinformation campaigns, etc), and the subsequent alteration of votes to benefit a given candidate.  Well, these same hackers or others like them have been and are trying to crack into your and everybody else’s bank accounts online to move money into their hide-aways.  Yet, the banks’ electronic security systems have been and are making this a rather fruitless endeavor.  Of course the same would apply to the attempt of stealing electronic votes.

By the way, there ARE already countries which do use electronic voting extensively.  So far, Estonia seems to be the only country in the world that relies exclusively on what’s called “internet voting.”  In Canada, online voting is possible for municipal elections in Ontario and Nova Scotia.  Already in 2004, the Netherlands used i-voting for an election to the Rijnland Water Board and in 2006 (for overseas voters) for national elections.  In Switzerland some cantons offer online voting.  And more.

So, there is no good reason why the U.S. is so far behind in using electronic technology to make voting safer, faster, and more reliable.  Now, therefore, after this election is over and well before the next one is coming up, please go to your representative, your senator, the powers-that-be, and urge them to make our democracy stronger, greatly reduce the cost and circumstances of voting, by switching to electronic voting.  Yes, in the 21st century this is not only possible, it is high time to conduct our voting in a 21st century manner.  We just need to do it.

Friday, October 30, 2020

Garbage In Garbage Out: How Food Affects Our Brain Function


I’ve had several reminders recently about the close connection between what we eat and how well our brain functions (or not).  The most recent:  I ate plenty today, so I was not hungry.  But my brain was definitely tired around 3 pm today, even though I’d tried all my usually restart techniques (had a snack, took a walk, did a short mindfulness practice, worked a word puzzle).  I ate a handful of nuts, and presto, about 15 minutes later I was ready to attack the to-do list again.  That little combination of protein and healthy fat was the kickstart my brain needed to re-engage.


The topic of this blog entry is not likely to be news to many of you.  We all know that eating a diet high in processed food, sugars, carbs and saturated fats is unhealthy for us.  But maybe we don’t think there are significant ramifications beyond that unsightly blob of belly fat.  Think again.


Our brain uses as much as 20 percent of the body’s energy.  So, it makes sense that the fuel we give our body to create energy (food) can have a direct impact on how well our brain functions.


A recent study concluded that higher levels of body fat in individuals 65 and older suggested a higher risk of cognitive impairment.  By contrast, greater muscle mass in the same age group suggested that these individuals were more protected from cognitive aging.   Of course, the difference between obesity and greater muscle mass is not merely a function of what an individual eats, but a bad diet is a strong predictor of obesity.


Studies have shown that high sugar intake causes the brain’s memory functions to deteriorate, and may increase the risk of dementia.  Other studies show the opposite, that a reduction in sugar intake can support improved brain function.


The food-brain function connection is certainly a long-term relationship.  The healthier you eat over the years, the better and longer your brain will work for you.  But there is also a more immediate food-brain function connection.  This article suggests a menu filled with protein, healthy fats and snacks to eat the day before and the day of a big test, to give your brain the energy it needs to do its best work.


Interested in learning more about which foods are actually good for you, and should improve your cognitive function?  This chart will tell you everything you want to know.  I think I’ll add some blueberries and dark chocolate to my handful of nuts when I hit tomorrow afternoon’s slump!





Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Free Resource for Our Blog Readers to Empower Your Mind to Learn


Last month, we introduced a new resource that can set you up for success as a learner.   This resource remains available for free for our blog readers for the next ~60 days.  If you haven’t accessed the EMindful website yet, let me tell you a little bit about what you’ll find there.


First, you’ll fill out a 4-question survey to establish a baseline of how you emotionally cope with stressful situations.  Next, you’ll indicate your familiarity with mindfulness (in 3 simple steps).  After that short-and-sweet get-to-know-you introduction, the website’s many resources are revealed.


EMindful’s resources fall into 38 categories, including stress, Covid-19, sleep, relationships, anxiety, focus, happiness, performance and effectiveness, communication.  I selected these three:  resilience, leadership, wellbeing.  Fascinating material, providing relevant and practical strategies.


Exploration of the website starts with a 2-minute video called “What is Mindfulness?”  I would give a summary, but I think you should watch it for yourself!  A tour of the website reveals that there are many live programs, with a daily schedule of guided mindfulness practices.   


There are many live programs (multi- and single session) on topics such as weight balance for life; stress less, live more; social eating and holiday weight loss (a single session happening next week on 10/29).  If you don’t want to be tied to someone else’s teaching schedule, there are also on-demand programs on topics such as enhancing performance, emotional intelligence, avoiding burnout, purposeful decision-making.


So, how will these mindfulness resources help someone become a better learner?  I have an example of something that just happened today.  One of my ESL (English as a second language) students came to our one-on-one session today emotionally upset about events happening in her home country (far from here) that she cannot change.  She was so distracted that she couldn’t concentrate on her schoolwork.  Luckily, she is familiar with mindfulness and we were able to use some mindfulness strategies to re-focus her brain away from the emotional drama and toward today’s lesson plan.


I encourage you to visit the EMindful website today to make the most out of the remaining free trial period we’ve arranged for our readership.

Saturday, October 10, 2020

Improve Your Brain Function With Riddles, Puzzles, and Games


Yes, your brain is plastic; it changes, it grows, it shrinks, it works better, or worse, all depending on what it is up to at the time.


The acquisition of knowledge, all kinds of knowledge, builds the structure of a child’s brain.  The more the child learns, the more it is able to learn.  This process continues all the way through life, though at a slower pace for grown-ups.  Actually, for some of them it may go in reverse, like for Alzheimer sufferers.  That’s why it is truly a staying-alive necessity to exercise one’s mind and keep on learning.  For most adults this needs to be a conscious effort, for otherwise the brain will shrink and its performance will be diminished.  


This becomes most important at the onset of aging and further on into old age, for otherwise decline is going to be rapid and possibly irreversible.


So, what are the easiest ways to keep your mind active, flexible, plastic, and functioning well?  Well, here are a few ways:  Riddles, Puzzles, and Computer Games


Wikipedia in defining Brain Training, points out that puzzles are one of the main categories of mind games for self -improvement.


Here is an article on “10 Best Free Online Puzzle Games” that was published in March  2020 by Cianna Garrison.


Learning is a process that does not judge what you are learning, as long as you are acquiring new information. So never mind if you are a beginner or an expert, as long as you are exercising your brain.


While challenging your brain functions, try having fun with it.  For example:


Whenever I have a free moment or am stuck in a waiting line, I am using “Jigsaw Puzzle,” available from the App Store. It has free daily puzzles you can use. Depending on the difficulty level of your choice, you can choose the number of puzzle pieces.  It surely keeps your mind working, happily.  


You can do a google search for riddles, puzzles, and games which are free or may cost little.  Amazon has a wealth of books on the subject, including “Which is not true?” (ideal for quiz lovers) by Nayden Kostov, which is free for Kindle users in Prime, otherwise $9.49 in paperback.


Have fun!


Guest blogger, Meredani Straube, worked 15 years as Finance & Administration Officer for Deloitte & Touche.  She is now the Director for Finance and Human Resources of the Straube Group companies.



Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Master of Legal Studies Program Creates Alternate Online Pathways


Innovations in legal education tend to be slow. Law schools have been some of the most hesitant participants in online education – if indeed they participate at all. But, slowly, and with the impact of COVID-19, some are coming to see the necessity – and even effectiveness – of the online format for legal learning. The S.J. Quinney College of Law at the University of Utah is at the forefront of these innovations with its Master of Legal Studies Program (MLS program) and attendant online offerings. Starting with the 2021-2022 school year, the MLS program will also be offering its programming to anyone anywhere with the development of a fully online version of its master’s degree. This is an exciting new development for online legal education and for those who would otherwise be unable to attend our in-person program.


The MLS program is a one-year executive, graduate degree program designed for working professionals and offers a broad-based education in legal concepts and practical applications for professionals who regularly interact with the law or lawyers in their work. The program itself is an exciting innovation in legal education as it offers important legal courses to non-lawyers – education that has previously only been available to students seeking a JD degree. As such, this program strives to expand meaningful legal education to anyone, not just lawyers.


Up until now, the MLS program has only been available as an in-person program, running on a weekend schedule to accommodate local students’ responsibilities in their careers and personal lives. However, online courses are now being developed to provide the content to a broader geographical audience. The online development has been aided by the instructional designers working for the university’s Teaching and Learning Technologies (TLT). These designers sit down with the participating professor to map out how that professor will translate his or her live course into an engaging online format. This can be difficult, especially for faculty who are not tech-savvy, but TLT’s technological resources and expertise are helping immensely.


There have also been several challenging aspects to the online development of the MLS program. For instance, we have not yet determined whether or in what ways the in-person version of the degree and the online version should diverge. At present, the goal has been to have the online program mirror the in-person one, which means more development time and costs as we add new or different courses to our in-person program. In addition, COVID-19 has brought both a swift push to put courses online and in the process created strain on the university’s technological resources. The online MLS program was already in development when the pandemic hit. We were forced to delay our timeline by several months as the university struggled to help ALL faculty on campus adjust to teaching in distance formats.


Looking toward the future, the MLS program hopes to expand its online offerings, not just for its online and in-person students, but for others in the local, national, and global community with the creation of online skills badges, microcredentials, and certificates. The vision is to create small, bite-size, affordable courses that can be stacked to confer certificates or other credentials for individuals seeking to improve their work skills, or shift careers. These types of offerings would be ideal for someone who needs specific skills, but who does not have the time or monetary means to invest in a full degree. With these innovations, the S.J. Quinney College of Law is on the road to creating high quality legal education that is truly available online for anyone anywhere.



Guest blog author Carolynn Clark is the Director of the Master of Legal Studies program at the S.J. Quinney College of Law, University of Utah. She also teaches conflict and legal crisis management in that program, and has worked extensively as an attorney-mediator.  Before joining the law school in 2020, she directed the University of Utah’s Conflict Resolution Graduate Certificate Program.