Publication Type: Web Article
Year of Publication: 2007
Laurie Wasserman, an NBCT and learning-disabilities teacher in Massachusetts, is disappointed in the “not quite specific enough strategies” in Willis’ book on special-education strategies with a neurological background. Willis provides “Gray Matter” sidebars on brain function and gives explanations of the brain patterns behind disabilities like ADD.
Citation: Willis, J. (2007). Brain friendly strategies for the inclusion classroom: Insights from a neurologist and classroom teacher. Alexandria, VA: 2007.
By Judy Willis, MD
2007 (220 pp./paperback)
$25.95 ($19.95 to members) Reviewed
by Laurie Wasserman, NBCT
Learning Disabilities Teacher
Imagine a neurologist who becomes a classroom teacher, then writes
a book sharing her medical expertise on how the brain works,
then combines this knowledge with strategies to help those
kids in our classrooms who struggle. The promise of such a
book was what grabbed me when I first read Judy Willis' attention-getting
I have taught learning disabled kids for 15 years, both in the
middle school inclusionary setting and in self-contained classrooms.
I've always been fascinated with how the brain works and how
we can teach kids to compensate for their weaknesses while
utilizing their strengths. I have always hoped for a book
that would help my regular education teammates and me gain
insight into the reasons our students struggle so much —
a book that would provide us with strategies we could share.
Sadly, this book disappointed me on many levels. It is clear Judy
Willis knows her kids from a medical standpoint. She intersperses
her commentary with "Gray Matter" side material, where she
describes aspects of the brain like "reticular activating
systems" (which help us to connect learning to long-term
memories). But she rarely is able to communicate how she has
utilized her expertise in the classroom.
Dr. Willis has taught elementary and middle school students, and
I kept looking for those case studies of children she worked
with, lessons she created, and handouts she would eagerly
share with us. Unfortunately her book was inconsistent in
its descriptions of methods we could use to help kids. In
her chapter titled, "Success for All students in Inclusion
Classes," she devoted a page to the use of rubrics, under
the subheading "Provide Feedback," but basically referred
us to two websites, including Rubistar, a popular site among
educators. She didn't provide examples of ways we could tailor
our rubrics around kids with IEPs, or learning difficulties.
She recommends learning logs in her section subheaded "Teach
Organizational Strategies," but never provides examples of
actual learning logs she has used and how this would benefit
kids who frequently misplace classroom materials, forget their
homework, or become overwhelmed with deadlines. Dr.
Willis' book is arranged in five chapters, encompassing "Success
for All Students in Inclusion Classes," "Looking Into Multiple
Intelligence Brains," "Teaching Students with Attention Disorders,"
"Enriching the Inclusive Learning Environment," and "Review
and Test Preparation Strategies for Diverse Learners." The
remainder of the book is devoted to an Afterword about the
application of brain research to the classroom, four sample
lesson plans for the inclusion classroom, and a very extensive
glossary on neurological terms.
The first two chapters were disappointing. I kept wanting more
real classroom examples and lessons, but instead there were
generic strategies such as rewarding students' efforts by
letting them "watch a film version of a book they've been
assigned," or using the Internet "for finding strategies to
bring fact heavy, cold-data lessons to life."
I wanted specific sites she had used to help her students, as well as lessons
she had created using the Internet to make those "cold data
lessons" meaningful to our students. It
is when Dr. Willis provides comprehensive lessons and strategies
that she is at her most engaging and helpful. Chapter 3 was
very detailed and thorough in teaching us the difference between
ADD and ADHD. Her "Gray Matter" discussion on MRI scans, the
neurological reasons why one-third to one-half of adolescents
with substance abuse disorders have AD/HD, and the consequences
of engaging in risk-taking behaviors — something I've
observed first-hand — now made perfect biological sense.
She then tells the story of Sandy, a 12-year-old student who
needed specific goals and strategies (e.g., using a calculator
to help her with long division). She explains why kids with
ADD/ADHD tap their pencils on their desks or their feet on
the floor ("it creates an external patterning rhythm that
may help their brains' attention networks converge on a single
predominant sensory input.")
This is when Dr. Willis excels, sharing real-life examples we
can relate to as educators. Unfortunately, this information
doesn't appear until almost halfway through the book. She
discusses "James," a student with "great intentions and
big plans, but landing long enough to do them is hard for
him." How many of us have students like James in our classrooms?
She then briefly writes how she used organizational techniques
with the school learning specialist, but, alas, never provides
specific examples of these organizational techniques and
how we can utilize them with our own Jameses.
She does offer a fantastic lesson on how to recreate in our
classrooms what it must be like for a student with ADD/ADHD
who has to learn new and difficult material. It provides
an opportunity for the entire class to experience firsthand
the frustration of being distracted, while feeling self-conscious
For the most part, Chapter 4 was more of the not-quite-specific
enough strategies, as she mentions the use of Learning Centers,
but neglects to provide us with specific examples of actual
Learning Center activities we can utilize, or how to organize
our classrooms in the set-up and implementation of them. Chapter
5 mentions teaching our students how to utilize metacognition
(teaching kids the way they learn and process information
the best), but never gives good concrete examples of the various
learning styles and disabilities and how we can best accommodate
Overall, my high hopes for this book were not realized. There were
some good lessons and strategies, but it is not an easy
read (very medically technical) and is not formatted in
a way that an educator could pick it up, find a strategy
or easy-to-follow lesson, and implement it with his/her