On Friday one moment second-graders were blogging about snow with their counterparts in Australia. Later they were twisting colorful pipe cleaners into shapes and watching their teacher attach them to the large, colorful brain hanging from the ceiling at the front of the room.
The classroom belongs to Clegern Elementary School second-grade teacher Diane Dahl, and the students are using the pipe cleaners to represent brain cells.
“We label and connect these pipe cleaners to show how the brain connects related ideas students are learning in class,” Dahl said.
This is a visual representation of what new things they have discovered for the week connected to what they already know. They plan to continue adding to the display throughout the year to represent the “neural pathways” of what they are learning.
“Thinking skills are a huge part of our week,” she added. “Whatever we do we try to include and talk about our thinking processes. I don’t want students who can regurgitate information; I want students who can think about and discuss what they know.”
The students seem to like the learning process also.
“It helps us learn better and make connections in our brains,” said Sophia Berges, “and it makes it fun.”
Simon Nardia agreed.
“It is fun. It makes things easier to learn, and we can learn quicker and learn more,” Simon said.
Dahl said they try to start each day with Track Time where the students run and jog around the school’s track in the morning and in the afternoon.
“It makes the students more alert and better learners,” Dahl said.
Clegern principal Bill Powell encourages brain-based teaching, which combines information about how the brain works with how to apply that research to increase student motivation and achievement.
“I think every teacher at this school as well as teachers throughout the district use every strategy possible to help their students succeed,” Powell said. “ Ms. Dahl has found a strategy that works well for her and her students.”
Dahl believes teachers have to introduce different methods to help students learn and retain the knowledge they come into contact with each day.
“Standard teaching methods aren’t good enough anymore,” Dahl said. “For instance, did you know that after 24 hours, students only retain 5 percent of a lecture? Having students read only brings retention up to 10 percent.”
Dahl said her journey in understanding these issues came together when she began studying for her master’s degree in Brain-Based Teaching with a concentration in Reading and Literacy through BrainSMART, an online master’s degree program offered by Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Previously she taught each subject to her second-graders mostly independently of each other.
“Math had its hour, Language Arts had its time, and so on,” Dahl said. “What I’ve discovered is that students learn better when subjects are connected, integrated, and therefore more meaningful.”
When it’s time to teach polygons and adjectives at the same time as the War of 1812, she blends the lessons.
“We read a story about a family quilt from the era,” Dahl said. “We talk about the families’ experiences and how adjectives help describe them.”
She said she has students look for polygons in the quilts.
“We describe the polygons using adjectives,” Dahl said. “They identify polygons in the flag that flew over Fort McHenry and inspired Francis Scott Key to write a poem that would become ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’ The subjects ebb and flow together throughout the day.”
Dahl said it takes time and creativity to blend lessons instead of just sticking to the usual teachers’ manual, and she appreciates having a principal who supports this concept and is also very helpful and inspiring.
“Some of my approaches might seem unconventional,” Dahl said. “We practice back-spelling (spelling out words on the back of the student in front of them) so they feel how the word is written as they spell it out loud.
“We spell out words in shaving cream on desks so students have another physical and visual connection to the words. Using color pencils gives them yet another mental picture with the added definition of color.
“Previously, we had about four students or so who had trouble with spelling tests. Now I have none.”
At a time when one hears a lot about the need for education reform Dahl said her answer is simple.
“When principals and teachers create an environment of working together to understand how the brain thinks, students are the real winners,” Dahl said.
Diane Dahl blogs about her experiences at www.fortheloveofteaching.net.
She and the co-developer of BrainSMART, Dr. Donna Wilson, will hold an information session on March 1 in Oklahoma City. More details are available at www.brainsmart.com.
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