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Santa and the Brain

Have you ever stopped to think about how the magic of our secular Christmas impacts our brain?  At what point does our brain recognize the difference between fact and fiction?  When do we stop believing in Santa and what role does the brain play in this process of development? 

What role does mental time travel, Pavlov’s drooling dogs, cocaine, and neurons have to do with explaining our Christmas brain?!

Check out this recent article posted in The New York Times, Santa on the Brain, by Dr. Kelly Lambert for a more in depth description of how the brain changes as we grow and how that alters our perspective on the magic of Christmas.


image source

‘Tis the Season

“ ‘Tis the Season” is often heard this time of year, but what does it really mean? Does it mean the winter season is here? Technically, it is winter, and this year in Houston it is cooler that usual. So it really feels like winter. Who knows, this may even be one of the years that Houston gets snow. It is rare, but it could happen.
“ ‘Tis the Season” could mean it is the time to go out and give generously (maybe too generously for our budgets). It is definitely a time that we think of giving; giving to family and friends and to the less fortunate. This is the time of year we count our blessings.
“ ‘Tis the Season” could also be a season of rest. Schools are out for a time, so teachers rest but parents don’t. Most work places give time off for Christmas. Here at Houston Baptist University it is a time to fit in a fast term after a break.
“ ‘Tis the Season” may also be a season of travel. Many of us travel to be with family or have family members travel here. It is certainly a time of family.
To me, however, “ ‘Tis the Season” means Christmas. Christmas! The real reason for Christmas is the birth of my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Just the mention of HIS name brings joy and celebration. This is the time we celebrate the birth of Jesus. Did Mary know that the child she delivered would one day deliver all of us from sin? Did Mary know that this season would bring to all of us the perfect gift, the perfect family, the perfect season? Did Mary know that her son, Jesus, would one day do miracles of walking on water, healing the sick, raising the dead, making the blind to see and the deaf to hear? Did she know that one day her son, Jesus, would take on the sins of the world and shed HIS blood for them that we might be saved from the death that sin requires? Did Mary know that her son, Jesus , would rule the world, not as an earthly king, but a Heavenly one? I doubt she thought of all that as she looked into the precious face of her baby, but she did know it was a fulfillment of God’s Word and the Old Testament prophesy.
Because of all of this it truly “ ‘Tis the Season” to rejoice and be exceedingly glad, because Our Father in Heaven loves us enough to send HIS son.

In Memory of Nelson Mandela

The following blog originally appeared on April 11, 2013. At the request of Dr. Renata Nero, it is being reposted in memory of the extraordinary life of Mr. Nelson Mandela.




July 18, 1918 – December 5, 2013

A Lesson in Posttraumatic Growth

And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God. Romans 12:2

Earlier this year, a great man was hospitalized for a recurring respiratory problem. Some speculate that his current health challenge is related to his imprisonment where for 18 years he was confined to a small cell and forced to do hard labor in a lime quarry. Oddly enough, this same lime quarry and small prison cell may have prepared him to lead a nation. This great man is Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, the first democratically elected president of South Africa.

In 1964, Nelson Mandela arrived on Robben Island to serve a life sentence. He along with other co-defendants were accused of plotting to overthrow South Africa’s apartheid regime and convicted of sabotage. His time in prison easily could have spiraled into a life-sentence filled with bitterness, unforgiveness, and hopelessness. Instead it was turned into a series of opportunities for Mr. Mandela to strengthen his commitment to seeking justice and radically transforming the lives of those around him.

One of the opportunities he seized while in prison was establishing a “university”. This “university” was secretly housed in a cave and was beyond the view of the prison guards. The prison guards intended for the cave to be used as a restroom for prisoners working in the lime quarry. Instead, in this unlikely place, Mr. Mandela established a school where history and politics, among other subjects, were taught to fellow prisoners who had little to no formal education prior to being imprisoned at Robben Island.

Furthermore, despite being confined to a small cell where he slept on the floor, Mr. Mandela used this as an opportunity to learn from the prison guards. He entered into debates with them and studied their worldview, history and language. In so doing, he was in a stronger position to form a coalition government with all South Africans once he was released from prison and elected to the highest office in the land. This was yet another way Mr. Mandela transformed his prison sentence into preparation for the presidency.

Romans 12:2 instructs believers to take a Godly perspective when it comes to considering life’s circumstances. In Mr. Mandela’s case, he took a constructive approach when dealing with injustice. As a result, he saw new opportunities he would have missed otherwise, developed relationships with the prison guards he could have viewed as “the enemy”, and became a symbol of strength and courage to people around the world. Conversely, the worldly way of dealing with injustice is to vow revenge, retaliate and harbor unforgiveness. This clearly is contrary to the Word of God. Well, what about those persons who do not subscribe to biblical teaching? Is there a psychological correlate to support this biblical teaching? The answer is “yes” and is found in the area of posttraumatic growth research.

Posttraumatic growth (PTG) research is the systematic study of how adversity has the potential to lead to positive change. Examples of positive change that may result from a traumatic event include the following: 1) finding opportunities and possibilities in the midst of the crisis; 2) developing a closer identifcation with those who suffer; 3) appreciating life more fully; 4) discovering a new level of personal or inner strength and 5) deepening convictions or spiritual beliefs (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 2004).

In closing, there are PTG lessons all around us and one need not be a world leader in order to experience growth through adversity. By choosing to look at and respond to painful life circumstances in a constructive way, there is the potential to exceed the quality of life enjoyed prior to the crisis. Finally and not surprisingly, the biblical imperative for believers to renew one’s mind is not just good for spiritual growth but for psychological well-being as well.


Tedeschi, R. G. and Calhoun, L. G. (2004). Posttraumatic growth: Conceptual foundations and empirical evidence. Psychological Inquiry. 15 (1), 1-8.

The Teacher’s Tale

teachers taleby Dr. Eloise Hughes

I am often comforted by the fact that God not only looks on the outside of a person but most of all concentrates on our inner selves.

“The LORD does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” 1 Samuel 16:7b

Good to know, right?

And I wonder if we, as teachers, should follow His example more closely as we look at and evaluate our students.  Who knows what each child is carrying around on his or her shoulders?  (illness; family death; divorce of parents; peer pressure; abuse; hunger, etc.) How can you tell if each student is performing at his/her potential or is operating with handicaps that are not visible to the rest of us?

How quickly do we judge students’ abilities and motivation at the same time we ourselves are being defensive when others are critical of our teaching? We demand more evidence and second opinions when administrators, parents and students label our work as inferior; however, do we give our students the same benefit-of-the-doubt approach?  Something to think about…

About 25 years ago as I worked on my Med at HBU, I was assigned a “big book” project by our then literacy professor, Dr. Ruth Ann Williamson.  At the time, I was teaching senior English at Westbury Christian School, and as all senior English teachers know, criticism of the content material can be excessive at times, especially if it’s not written in modern English.  The Canterbury Tales is an excellent example of wonderfully entertaining literature that is difficult to understand and often grumbled about by the students required to read and evaluate it.  And so I devised an assignment to add some interest in this historical piece of fiction.  Each of us, including me, the teacher, would write an original “tale” to add to Chaucer’s collection. As you may or may not remember, each tale had to have a lesson or moral, and I knew just the moral I wanted my tale to include.  The text is below, and there is an Animoto video linked here:     The Teacher’s Tale.

The Teacher’s Tale

By Dr. Eloise Hughes

Loosely based on The Canterbury Tales By Geoffrey Chaucer


The journey proceeded the day was gone.

The way to Canterbury was weary and long.

The group made camp at a convenient place.

The were tired after a trip of grueling pace.


The host decided a story was needed;

The tale of the teacher was now to be heeded.

She sat by the fire, the pilgrims around,

Patiently waiting for her to expound.


The teacher, a large old lady with spunk

Pulled out a book from her bag full of junk.

“This volume,” said she, “is full of adventure.”

The pilgrims scoffed, wanting her story to censure.


“Once upon a time, a long time ago,

I showed this same book to some students I know.

They, too, were skeptical.  In fact, they moaned,

‘Not another story from old England!’ they groaned.


“But when I opened the book and began to read

from an author who closely followed Bede,

They were introduced to a variety of pleasures.

Who knew that books could be filled with great treasures?


“Merchants, knights, nuns, farmers and wives…

The characters made the plot exciting with their lives.

Riddles were solved, and love was extolled;

Villains were thwarted, and heroes were bold.


“The stories contained teachings and morals

Learned from mistakes and even from quarrels.

The students were aghast!  They’d really had fun

When the reading was finished, and all the work done.


“The pupils had come to a surprising insight—

That sometimes, MAYBE, the teacher was right!

So, you see dear pilgrims, if all of our stories were put

Into a volume that was someday old, all covered with soot,


“And students asked to study it thought it bland

Were surprised to learn that pilgrimages in old Engelande

Were made up of a variety of people, all classes…

Religious, scholarly and poor, both lads and lasses

Sharing their lives, dreams, souls, and rhymes,

The future folk could better understand our times.


“A book must be opened, its chapters to share

With adventures and thrills beyond compare!

And so dear pilgrims, you, too, can discover


“A book should never

be judged by its cover”


And here are photos of the book I created; remember in 1990, the only way to cut and paste required scissors and glue! The prints included are actual replicas of those published in the first editions of The Canterbury Tales.!i=2891508988&k=bDGQJbx

Just like I wanted my students to give The Canterbury Tales a chance, I need to remember to give the same consideration to students, parents and all the others with whom I work before I make unfounded quick judgments!

McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Improvements Act


Homeless Kid Sleeping

by Dr. Dina Flores-Mejorado

I had the pleasure of attending a webinar on a federal law entitled the “McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Improvements Act.” This law was enacted in 1987 in response to the growing number of homeless families in the United States. Homeless families now number 3.5 million and 1.5 million of those are children. I felt it was important that everyone should be aware of this law in order to help as many students as possible.                        

This law is part of “No Child Left Behind” which was reauthorized in 2002. Prior to the enactment of this law, some 50% of homeless students were unable to attend public schools due to the various requirements for enrollment like birth certificates, immunization records, proof of residency, utility bills, and so on. Most districts have policies that detail how to follow the McKinney-Vento laws; however, many districts do not follow that policy. Teachers and principals may unknowingly be violating federal and state laws by turning students away. When administrators and teachers do not follow this law, students are excluded from enrolling in school and they lose an average of 4-6 months of academic progress for each move. HOW DOES THIS LAW HELP STUDENTS? Homeless students receive immediate enrollment without records. It provides school stability so that homeless students can attend the same school for a whole year. If the students do not have transportation, the “SCHOOL OF ORIGIN” is a provision within the McKinney-Vento law that provides transportation. In addition, they also receive support such as child nutrition, school supplies, and Title I services.

All personnel must be taught to “see” homeless students because their families in transition are not going to come and inform everyone they are homeless. The new middle class homeless includes many teachers, realtors, lawyers, engineers, retail workers, and more. These families do not know how to access workforce services, food (SNAP/WIC) cards, public transportation, or Medicaid. 40-70% of all homeless people are children, and they are in our schools. In Texas, two-thirds of districts reported 83,224 homeless students which were identified by schools reported to TEA in 2010-11. The Urban Institute estimates that about 10% of all children in poverty will experience homelessness in the next year. In 2011, 1,751,180 Texas children lived below poverty level – 10% would be 175,118.

Federal law and Texas law now mandate identification and coding of McKinney-Vento students in the Public Education Information Management System (PEIMS). Many districts use a “Student Residency Questionnaire” (SRQ) to determine the student’s housing status and any students who may be eligible for McKinney-Vento are then referred to the homeless liaison for further conversation. By federal law, it is the responsibility of the homeless liaison to determine eligibility for homeless services and records students’ identifications in the PEIMS records. A homeless liaison should be knowledgeable about all the laws and local rules that are relevant to homeless and highly mobile families. For instance, they should know all the local shelter policies and procedures along with being able to train others to help identify and serve homeless students.

Many people ask the question, “What constitutes homeless?” The Federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act says that children and youth who lack a fixed, adequate, and regular nighttime residence are homeless. For example, children living in shelters awaiting placement in foster care; families or youth living in campgrounds or parks, living in cars, or abandoned buildings; families or youth living in airports, bus stations, or train stations; and families living in doubled-up situations. All district personnel need to understand the barriers homeless students face; For example, lack of continuity in education; transportation and attendance problems; poor health/nutrition; poor hygiene; social and behavioral concerns; reactions/statements by parent, guardian, or child; and lack of privacy/personal space after school. All district personnel need to advocate for homeless students’ academic success through modifications; arrival times; curriculum; uses of technology; field trips; extracurricular activities; and having food over the weekend.

ALL school/district personnel need know the district’s homeless liaison and the “signs” of homelessness. Remember, NEVER use the word “homeless”; always say a student is “McKinney-Vento eligible.” If possible, add information in your weekly/monthly newsletters on how to access workforce services or food cards in your schools area. Display McKinney-Vento posters in both English and Spanish in the lobby of the school. Keep in mind that HOMELESS does NOT = HELPLESS or HOPELESS.

If your school would like to request posters or need additional guidance/information, please visit “TEXAS HOMELESS EDUCATION OFFICE”.

Their staff includes:

Barbara Wand James, Project Director

Vicky Dill, Senior Program Coordinator

Patrick D. Lopez, Senior Program Coordinator

Janie C. Phillips, Administrative Associate

Tim Stahlke, Senior Program Coordinator

Jeanne Stamp, Senior Program Coordinator

They can be reached at:

Charles A. Dana Center

The University of Texas at Austin

1616 Guadalupe Street, Suite 3.206

Austin, TX 78701

Call toll-free in Texas: 1-800-446-3142

Send faxes to: 512-471-6193


Listed below are several references and additional resources:

Gray, S. (2009, March 10). Report says 1 in 50 kids is homeless. Time,,8599,1883966,00.html

James, B.W. & Dill, V.S. (2012, November 14). McKinney-Vento Webinar.

National Association of the Education of Homeless Children and Youth

National Center for Homeless Education (NCHE)

National Law Center for Homelessness and Poverty

United States Department of Education; McKinney-Vento Program

National Coalition for the Homeless

Bullying Prevention Manual by Donna Clark Love (281) 467-4861

Traffick Stop, Tomi Grover, Ph.D.  (214) 418-8318

Coffee: The Antagonist

Giant Cup of Coffee


I love a good cup of Joe as much as the next person.  There is no better way to start the day, right? I agree!  Since we’re in the heart of midterms and finals are right around the corner (insert freak-out here), I have noticed that more and more of my students are bringing their coffee with them to class.  Today let’s talk about how coffee interacts with the chemicals in our brains.  Did you know that coffee is an antagonistic drug? Much like in literature, coffee, specifically the caffeine in coffee, makes it difficult for some chemicals to interact as they normally would.  While caffeine is a stimulant, it does so by inhibiting (or antagonizing) other receptors in the wakeful regions of the brain.  Throughout the day, your body produces a neuronal chemical, adenosine, which will accumulate.  As the day ends, with the accumulation of adenosine, you will begin to feel sleepy.  However, when you consume caffeine, it temporarily blocks the adenosine receptors; meaning that the chemical that has accumulated and been circulating throughout the day will have to wait to bind to its receptors to make you sleepy.  Therefore, you are left with a stimulant as a result of inhibition.

Interesting, right? Try thinking about that, the next time you sip your yummy antagonist in class 🙂

For more “free time” reading on the impacts of coffee on the brain check out here and here.

Helping Digital Immigrants Achieve Citizen Status

by Dr. Dawn Wilson

Marc Prensky (2001) labeled those born after 1989 Digital Natives.  This term describes those who were exposed to digital tools from the time they were small children. In today’s schools, we have Digital Natives being taught by Digital Immigrants (whose who have had to learn the language of the digital environment). Many suggest that one of our major problems in education stems from digital immigrants teaching digital natives using archaic methods. photo(3)While there are many teachers embracing the use of technology as a tool for teaching and learning, many also choose to resist using these tools.

More and more districts are beginning to move 1-1 initiatives into their schools. For those more experienced, less technical teachers, this is a threatening shift.  Teachers must either learn to use the tools, or leave their jobs. Schools now, more than ever, are focused on efforts to challenge immigrant‘s to improve their technology use or move on.

Could it be that the digital immigrant teachers just need to shift their teaching and learning paradigm?  Recently, students in HBU’s undergraduate education program partnered with residents in a nearby senior citizen retirement center in order to help them utilize technology. photo(3) copyWe are beginning our third year of this partnership.

I found it very interesting to see how the needs of these seniors changed in the last year.  Usually seniors ask for help on email, Facebook, downloading pictures, sending e-cards and using Word.  This semester their needs have changed dramatically!  Many of the seniors brought iPads, and want to know how to use this tool for learning, brain exercise, picture taking, and communication. It was great to see the instant partnership develop as the HBU students shared their knowledge of iDevices. It was equally refreshing to see seniors so interested in learning to use technology.

photo(3) copy 2I am inspired! Watching the seniors and college students sit side by side, and investigate, problem-solve and apply new learning together made me realize that we have it all wrong in many districts and schools today. We are encouraging teachers to learn to use technology tools, and then use them with our students. I wonder why one has to happen before the other?  Teachers often resist the use of technology in their classrooms because they believe they must be experts in the tool’s use. The only way to become an expert is to jump in and begin to use the tool.  Why not capitalize on the knowledge and skills our students bring with them regarding the tools, while sharing our own content are knowledge and skills.  If we work together and collaborate as partners with tech tools in the classroom, then we can make room for the most powerful and empowering teaching and learning for all involved.  Let the students teach us what they know the most about – tech tools, and in return we will teach them the content knowledge they need.

Let’s push our egos out of the way and make room for collaborative learning with the most powerful and motivating tools as possible. Develop partnerships in the classroom for learning. It is a win-win scenario for teachers and students. Once we change our teaching paradigm, we will finally be able to overcome the real digital divide.

The Stress and Rubber Band Analogy

By Dr. Valerie A. Bussell

rubber-bandAs a health psychologist I am very interested in how people cope with the various stressors of our very demanding and busy lives. In regards to how we adapt to stress, I often use the analogy of a rubber band.

In my analogy, all people are equipped with various weights and sizes of a single stress absorbing rubber band. Our ability to adapt at any given time depends on the width, length and strength of this band -as a measure of how much load we can bear.

Sometimes, we have great resiliency and our stress rubber bands are thick and long with great elasticity and endurance for all the stressors of life. At other times our rubber bands are thin and fragile and unable to bear much at all.

Using this analogy, the pull or demands on our “stress” rubber band can come from many directions  and our stress endurance would be at what point the rubber band might break from too much stress. The breaking of our band could result in a variety of dis-“ease” – of the mind, the body, and the soul.

External stressors like the demands of our job and relationships are stretching our stress endurance band from one direction while internal pressures like personal ambitions or goals (our “shoulds”) are simultaneously pulling from the other direction. If you have great demands in all directions – the greater likelihood that the band will break and various forms of dis-ease will result.

Now in keeping with this analogy, our stress-enduring rubber bands also have a point that they are at rest – like those rubber bands stored in the kitchen junk drawer. However, unlike the real rubber bands our stress rubber bands are capable of remarkable renewal while at rest.

The usefulness of this analogy is in the importance of self-analyses from time to time to determine the state of our stress-related rubber band while also contemplating the load of stress that we are attempting to bear. Are we attempting to bear more stress than our resources are capable of enduring?

Another benefit of this analogy is to understand the importance of rest and renewal for the state of our stress rubber band and the consequences for our health.

  • What is the current burden of stress in your life? Is it within reasonable limits? What can you do to reduce any extraordinary demands?
  • What is the condition of your rubber band in response to internal and external stress?  Is it approaching its limit and therefore putting you at risk for disease?
  • Are you allowing your rubber band to rest and fortify itself with sleep, worship, and play?

In these busy times, we are demanding much from ourselves while our jobs and relationships are also requiring more and more. In terms of emotional and physical health, it is important that we take stock of our personal resources for stress (the current state of our rubber band) and also take time for valuable rest and renewal.

Exodus 33:14
“My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”

love is action

By Dr. Reifkohl

“By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.”  John 13:35

Have you demonstrated your love for someone today?  Hearing the words is heartwarming, but it is said that actions speak louder than words.  Receiving demonstrations of love is far more believable than just the words.

Have you ever witnessed someone being bullied? October is National Bullying Prevention Month.  Research has shown that the victims of bullying and the bullies themselves can experience psychiatric problems in childhood that can even extend into adulthood. In some cases, bullying can get so bad that victims choose to take their own lives. Bullying is a serious issue but it can be prevented. It is up to everyone (educators, parents, and the community) to use their strengths and skills to prevent bullying. provides a definition, shares warning signs and symptoms as well as specific ways to prevent and to respond. It is everyone’s responsibility to help stop it.

The following is a story about a little boy who wrote a letter to Santa because his sister was being bullied… we can learn a lot from children…

Brain Lady

By Darby Hawley


Among my family, friends, and colleagues I am known as The Brain Lady.  This nick name does not bother me at all; in fact, I find it quite honorable, yet humbling.  I remember the day I fell in love with the amazing brain; I was completely captivated.  The brain is a remarkable structure that God has given us that continually has me in awe; it is such a powerful mystery.  At the content-specific level in both of my graduate and undergraduate Physiological Psychology courses, I want my students to understand the bigger picture of psychology–that science does not just reside in the classroom or in the laboratory.  I want my scientific work and passion for the brain to enhance people’s daily experiences and I want my students to see how salient (personal) science really is.  When science becomes personal, students develop a sense of belonging to the scientific community, thereby making course work more interesting and enjoyable.  Through the lens of psychology, contextualizing material about the brain in such ways leads to greater actual integration and recollection.  By demonstrating how relevant science is to our daily lives, it is my hope to motivate my students to develop an appreciation for the strength and power that the brain has over the entire body while making complex subjects understandable.  So if this gives me the title of Brain Lady, I will gladly take it 🙂

Last spring in my graduate physiological course, each student dissected a sheep brain.  The dissection was a great opportunity for students to see all of the structures we learned about throughout the semester.  Students were able to identify and locate where structures were within the brain and in relation to each other.  Not only did this dissection challenge help students to have a hands-on experience in the classroom that would facilitate learning for assessment, but it also helped to make science tangible and personal.

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Romans 12-2

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