Friday, January 29, 2010

A Teaching Adventure in India

About a month ago I was contacted by The Achievers Programme based in Chandigarh, India to come and give a series of 2 day workshops across the country. Of course I was interested and we began a dialogue about how this might occur. After much planning, many shots and a few hassles later I was on my way. The flight over is about 15 hours, which is simply too long to be in a confined space. However, with my few travel comforts (ipod, computer, travel pillow, and travel blanket) I was able to make it without too much issue. We landed late in the evening and spent at least an hour going through customs. I ended up the last one through the line and found my luggage waiting for me beside the carousel. After a bit of struggling I managed my two bags (full of clothes and workshop supplies) through the airport and outside where a driver was waiting for me.

The first sight outside was of a crowd of people all waving cards and jumping up and down to get attention from the travelers leaving the airport. It was very chaotic and I almost went with the wrong person except that my driver heard me say my name and repeated it over and over until I found him. We wove our way through the throng of people, cars, and animals and walked over rocks and dirt to get to the car. The first thing I discovered in India is that no one uses the lanes, everyone honks, and if you don't like waiting in traffic, you just weave your car around until you make your own way – no matter whether there are people walking along or not. If there had been sidewalks, I have no doubt the drivers would be maneuvering up onto the sidewalks to get around the other cars. No one seemed angry or upset, they all just moved in and out as they were able.

The next thing I discovered in India is that you never know what is going to happen or when. The key to everything here is "Go with the Flow." I was booked on a train to Surat to visit my first school. The train was five hours late and took 17 hours to finally arrive. Luckily I was in a 1A Sleeper car and had very nice travelling companions. There is no such thing as absolute privacy or a private car unless you purchase four tickets. I ended up in a compartment with two older gentlemen. Both were very helpful in communicating to the porter my need for a somewhat spice-free dinner and breakfast. It didn't happen, but they did try. J

Two teachers met me in Surat and took me to my hotel. I was supposed to have arrived that morning and have the entire day to rest and sightsee. However, that didn't happen. J "Go with the Flow." I began my first workshop the following morning after a nice visit with the principal. She and her staff were both warm and welcoming to me and were very enthusiastic about the workshop. My first school was DPS Tapi – Delhi Public School, the Tapi branch. There are many Delhi Public schools across the country and although the name reads as "Public School" it is actually a group of private schools. There I found the teachers to be energetic and full of knowledge about effective teaching practices. I was not sure what I would encounter, but found that children are children and teachers are teachers no matter where you are. The teachers of DPS Tapi have so many wonderful ideas and strategies they are using with their students. They also were very interested in learning new strategies and not at all adverse to getting "reminders" of good strategies they were already familiar with. The attitudes of these teachers were so incredibly positive that I felt completely energized and excited about my teaching when I left them. Many of the ideas I presented for Reading and Writing Across the Curriculum were familiar to them, but they all very much enjoyed the idea of using poetry and pattern books to write about topics learned in the classroom. The Classrooms that Spark workshop went over very well with the teachers. They were unfamiliar with much of the brain research I presented and thoroughly enjoyed the games and other movement activities we did during the day. At the end they all crowded around me asking questions and telling stories about their children and classrooms. I felt so at home and so at one with the teachers of DPS Tapi that I could have stayed there quite happily. J Unfortunately I had to rush to board my train to Ambala on my way to Chandigarh.

This time the train left on time, but was slowed down by the immense amount of fog happening here right now. We were on the train for 29 hours. I don't think I ever imagined that I would be on a train for that amount of time. I was in the compartment with a family of three and we had a very nice time getting to know one another. They brought their laptop as well and we spent many hours watching Indian movies. I didn't understand any of the words, but the action and music more than made up for it! J

Chandigarh is a lovely city and is a planned city, which seems to be a huge deal here. It is also the cleanest city in India followed closely by Surat. From Chandigarh I took a taxi into the mountains to Dherdun and presented my workshops to an all-girls boarding school. The girls were on vacation and the teachers preparing for a new term. Again, I had a wonderful experience with the teachers. Everyone was so informed of current research and eager to learn more. Several of the teachers came to me afterwards and exclaimed that they truly enjoyed my workshop. That made me feel so good knowing that the information I was offering was helpful to them. As a presenter I know that I cannot make everyone happy all of the time, but these teachers have such great attitudes and are so open to new ideas. One teacher had to leave to work with a few girls who stayed over the break and when she returned she happily reported that she already implemented a few of the ideas learned that morning.

So far I have seen that the teachers of India work just as hard as we do in America to give their students engaging activities for learning. They are just as concerned about student behavior and see similar issues in terms of "over-entertained" children in the classroom. Many of their questions and concerns mirror exactly the questions and concerns we face in America as well. They worry they are doing the best for the children, they fret over parent interactions, and they struggle with behavior issues.

The travels have been quite eye-opening and very much an adventure, but working with the teachers has made me feel as if I were home. I can honestly say that I have been blessed by my interactions with each and every teacher I've met here. And if I have been of at least a little help to them in reassurance and in sharing ideas, then this adventure has been more than worth it and I very gladly will return again when asked.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

More Bang for Your Buck: Movement and Learning

When shopping you probably look for the best possible deal getting the most you can for every dollar you spend. Learning should be like that too. For every moment we spend on a topic, concept, or skill we want our students to get as much knowledge out of it as possible. More importantly we want them to retain that information and be able to recall it and use it in the future. For some teachers this means cramming as many facts and figures into each child's head as possible in a forty-five or fifty minute class period. Lecture and skill-and-drill rule the day. However, current brain research tells us that our students are less likely to remember these facts and figures through lecture and skill-and-drill exercises. The Learning Pyramid, developed by the National Training Laboratories, shows that over time students only retain 5% of what they've learned through lecture. This is followed closely by 10% of an audio-visual presentation, 20% of what they read and 30% of a demonstration. These are all passive learning strategies.

What current brain research tells us is that students need to be active to get their brains working and growing. Scientists have discovered that our brains continue to grow even past childhood. For every new stimulation, situation, and challenge we face, brand new neurons grow. The more we use those new neurons, the more they flourish and expand to create synapses with other neurons. For the longest time scientists believed that this new growth only happened in the cortex, the thinking part of our brain, and that only new mental stimulation would increase that growth. However, scientists like Peter Strick, a professor of Neurobiology and Psychiatry at the University of Pittsburg, have traced pathways from the cerebellum to parts of the brain that are involved with memory, attention, language, emotion, and decision making. Whoa, what does that mean exactly? Well, the cerebellum has been thought to only deal with physical movement and not much else. The cortex, on the other hand, has been labeled as the thinking brain because it houses memory, language, attention, decision making, and other mental skills. What Dr. Strick discovered was a series of connections (neural pathways) between the "movement" brain and the "thinking" brain. What can you conclude from that bit of knowledge?

Interestingly enough, the cerebellum is only one tenth of the overall brain in size and yet it contains over half of all the brain's neurons and more than 40 million nerve fibers. That sounds to me like a lot of activity happening in the movement part of our brain. Additionally, the vestibular nuclei (has connections to the brainstem) within the cerebellum is an information-gathering and feedback source for movement. The cerebellum takes these movement messages and combines them with visual and auditory messages before sending the whole package to the cortex (the thinking brain). When movement and thinking are both in play, these "packages" of messages are then relayed back and forth between the cerebellum and cortex. Movement stimulates growth in both the moving brain and in the thinking brain. These links show us that movement is an important part of learning.

Not only does movement increase academic performance, but it also factors into long-term memory. The more multi-sensory interactions, the more synapses are created. Watching a video of how to make adobe bricks only engages the eyes and the ears through audio and visual inputs. However, getting students outside mixing sand, dirt, straw, and other materials by hand to make adobe bricks themselves offers a multitude of sensory inputs through the feel, smell (and for those more adventurous souls – taste) as well as a lively discussion with others about the process. Emotions are also brought into the process through the enjoyment of the activity and the interactions with friends. When we understand how memory is housed in our brain, we have a greater insight into why these interactions with our environment are so important for learning.

"Memory is not an entity, planted in one spot – but planted throughout the brain, an interplay of sensory perception and emotion." Susan Jones, author of Grow a Brain, tells us that memory is separated and stored in segments. One memory is a composite of the different senses as interpreted by the brain. For example, the memory of a slice of pizza is a composite of the smell of the cheese, the spicy taste of the pepperoni, the tangy taste of the sauce, the flat texture of the bottom crust, the crunchy texture of the side crust, the angle the pizza is cut, the pure enjoyment of eating it, and more. This one memory is taken apart into pieces, stored, and then reassembled when recalled. When one segment is recalled, brain is able to retrieve the entire memory or even a series of different memories. Therefore, the more parts of the brain that are involved – sights, sounds, feelings, textures – the easier it is for the brain to retrieve the memory. Think about the last time a particular smell brought forward a specific memory or even a general feeling of well-being, anger, or fear. (As a side note - our emotions are also a very important part of memory and learning, but I'll hit that subject in another blog.) When we help students make multi-sensory connections through movement and activity, we are helping them to plant long-term memories.

You might be thinking, those touchy-feeling activities may be well and good for elementary students, but my secondary students have major tests to pass! You're right. Your students do have tests to pass. And just think how much easier it would be for them to think of a single activity and be able to retrieve all the stored data connected to that activity through direct instruction and class discussion. This is made even easier when the activity was enjoyable, bringing positive emotions into the memory retrieval. Even pantomiming an activity with their hands (such as building bricks) can then help retrieve both the memory of the activity and the data (or learning) connected to it. To top it all off, physical movement releases acetylcholine, a brain-chemical involved in communication between neurons. According to Susan Jones this brain-chemical "aids in the planning and retrieval of long-term memory." As she says, "Movement helps cement memory!"


"Movement and Learning: The cerebellar connection and the link between physical education and learning."

"Grow a Brain!" by Susan Jones.

The Learning Pyramid.

I also highly recommend reading "Have You Heard of Brain Gym?" by Cecilia K. Freeman, M.Ed.

While her article focuses on the use of Brain Gym with special needs children, I found many ways to use these exercises for myself to increase focus, organization, and communication. I can see the benefits of learning small exercises that can be done in the classroom to help when students seem unable to focus or need a bit of physical stimulation to "wake-up" the brain.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Getting a Fresh Start

January, being the first month of the New Year, is a time of setting resolutions and goals. It is also a time for a fresh start. Everyone has just had a lovely, and hopefully refreshing, two week vacation in which most try very hard to forget everything that happened during the previous semester. If you feel that you had a rough start to the school year, this is the perfect time to implement those much needed changes. Even if you feel that your classroom has been doing very well, January is the perfect time to refresh everyone's memory of how your classroom works.

This first month in the year is unique because it offers us the opportunity to make large-scale changes without upsetting the delicate balance of our classroom. It allows us to make improvements in our classroom management and teaching style without causing student distress. Generally, during the rest of the school year, if you are constantly changing your attitude, style, expectations, and procedures, students never know what to expect of you. They stop trusting in how you behave with them and respect is lost. Little changes are always welcome and keep the classroom from becoming stifling, but constantly changing the "structure" causes confusion and leads to chaos. Below are a few tips to help you take advantage of this "fresh start."

Treat the first day and week back as though it were the first day of school. Take some time to go back over your expectations of student behavior and the procedures you want students to follow. If you did not do that great of a job setting expectations and procedures at the start of the year, this is the perfect time to implement new ones. Your students are in a frame of mind that lends itself to change. Later on in the semester, they will not be so open and willing to receive new expectations and procedures and will fight you every step of the way. So take some time now to implement those changes you have in mind.

Begin your training program again. Train students in your quiet signal and in the other various procedures of your classroom, including entering the classroom, leaving the classroom, turning in homework, working in labs, etc. If students do not follow your expectations during that first week or two after the break, stop what you are doing and have students follow the expectation or procedure correctly. This is vital to refreshing student memories of how you expect your class to behave. If you do not take the time to refresh their memory, you may find that your students steadily increase their misbehavior throughout the spring semester.

Take a look at your attitude towards students the previous semester. Did it encourage student learning and positive behaviors? If it did, then continue that positive and uplifting attitude. If it did not, then reflect on how your attitude has affected both student behavior and student learning. What can you do differently in this new semester? Again, this is the perfect time to make those much needed changes. You still have time to earn student respect. While you may have challenging students, remember that YOUR attitude determines the overall attitude of your class. When you face your class with a positive attitude, they will ultimately reflect that positive attitude back to you. The same goes for a negative attitude.

Remember, revamp your expectations and procedures to improve, or review your expectations and procedures to maintain the balance. Start a training program to get students used to what is expected of them on a daily basis, or continue your training program to maintain positive student behaviors. Put in place a positive attitude that will encourage positive student behavior and learning, or continue the positive attitude you've shown all year to maintain positive student behavior and learning. Take advantage of this one time in the middle of the school year when you can make those large-scale changes with a positive benefit and get a <b><i>fresh start</b></i>!


Article by Emma McDonald. Reprinted with permission from Education World. Original article can be found at