The Science Behind Movement: How to Use it to Boost Learning

The classroom, as far as most people remember it, has changed dramatically over the last decade or so. Whether public or private, chalkboards are a thing of the past. Rows of desks are reconfigured; digital documents are replacing paper copies; the library is now considered a media center; and smartboards project interactive lessons, movies, visual aids, and text-to-speech readings. What is fundamentally different about how schools are transforming is the notion of “doing.” Students, educators, and parents are now doing things in a totally different way. For instance, a smartphone app now texts students and parents reminders about upcoming assignments. Teachers can upload live video screenshots of a math lesson so that an absent student can still participate from home. Students are able to create digital representations of a structure they have designed, upload it to the classroom’s website, and receive comments and suggestions from peers in real-time.

Aside from the gains that technology has brought into the classroom, we have also begun to see learning processes in a new light. Of late, movement and kinetic strategies have been the topic of conversation among educators, developmental psychologists, researchers, etc. How exactly does this philosophy work? Are there any drawbacks to movement in the classroom? What can we do to best implement these strategies at home and in school?

Without getting too far down the rabbit hole in anatomical terms and rhetoric about how the brain works, scientific research supports one major claim about movement and learning: the same part of the brain that processes movement also happens to process learning, attention, and memory—the cerebellum. So in the same way that regular physical activity strengthens the muscles, movement similarly helps construct and strengthen neural pathways.  

The push for movement comes about at an interesting time, in which students as young as kindergarten aren’t having recess in order to accommodate the academic rigor of the school day. Some strongly believe that, in the same way that imaginative play has been somewhat marginalized, physical activity has become collateral damage—pushed aside to catch U.S. students up with the rest of the established world in terms of academics. Proponents of kinetic classrooms, however, wish to marry traditional learning with physical activity. In other words, instead of seeing learning time and recess time as separate entities, instruction and learning would be embedded with movement. This could take the form of yoga balls instead of traditional classroom chairs, standing or high-top desks as opposed to typical desks, rotation or station activities to promote constant movement, and hands-on and outdoor learning to provide real-world application and tangible concepts.

At home, this learning with movement philosophy could be different things, depending on the child’s needs and capabilities. For some, simply rolling a bouncy ball across the desk while studying could boost memory and reasoning. For others, it may help to listen to assigned chapters of an audiobook while jumping on the trampoline or juggling a soccer ball. Pacing while studying is a small tweak that allows kids to focus solely on the material while moving continuously and methodically.

Some concerns about shifting the traditional classroom model involve the distractibility of others. Yes, research indicates that movement helps with focus, attention, memory, and logical reasoning. But, could the movement of one student be a distraction to another? Some say yes. In the same way that a student may unknowingly rhythmically tap their pencil or kick the chair in front of them, movement in the classroom poses that issue on a greater scale. Some educators and parents may choose to start small—like providing a stress ball for the child to squeeze while working. The distraction level is minimal, but the concept of movement still applies.

So, what’s the takeaway? Studies show that movement can and does improve learning. It’s up to you and your child to see what movement-based strategies work best–and to make sure these tactics are approved for use in the classroom or reserved for home use. Regardless, it’s time to get a move on kinetic learning!

 

Outdoor Learning

The summer months are notorious for triggering brain drain. The shear gap in time, combined with the hiatus from hours of learning every day, prompts a decline in knowledge acquisition and retention. Now, it is no wonder why summer activities and routines make it difficult to convince children to complete ungraded practices. Kids would much rather ditch the homework and head outside to soak up the sunshine with their friends. So instead, what if we took the learning outside? What if activities were presented as challenges, exploration, observation and inquiry? The impact could be dramatic.

Research and data indicate that outdoor learning can have immense benefits on student achievement. Western European countries have found major benefits to embracing outdoor and out-of-the-classroom learning. Aside from increasing engagement, learning outside the box, so to speak, allows students to experience hands-on practice, first-hand knowledge, real-world application and academic exploration. The value of outdoor learning experiences has been solidly recognized, so it is essential that parents, educators, and schools incorporate some of these ideologies.

This does not mean that teachers and parents should simply plop children down outside to complete a worksheet—the learning needs to be rooted in an aspect of the environment. Much like using educational technology simply for the sake of using technology, venturing outdoors just for the sake of being outdoors is not one of the fundamental concepts of outdoor learning. Some classes like physics, biology, and physical education more readily lend themselves to outdoor learning opportunities. Say you are studying types of clouds during the weather unit in science class. Instead of viewing drawings in a textbook, students could perform outdoor observations of actual clouds. Groups could discuss temperature, wind, and humidity to assess which variety of cloud is most common for the day’s weather. Math students could make use of the nice weather to plan, organize, measure out, and purchase materials for a regulation kickball field, miniature green house, or standing long jump.

Other subjects take a little more creative planning, but they can just as easily utilize the outdoors. If English students are reading poems by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, they may take the excerpts outdoors to combine the lush descriptions of nature on the page to the physical world surrounding them. If a child is more resistant to spending some parts of summertime explicitly learning or reviewing academic skills, activities can be disguised even further. Ask your child if there are any national parks, landmarks, or other attractions that he would like to visit. Casually seek information about the location by asking questions that would encourage your child to perform some informal research. Once you have gathered enough information, take your child to the park, monument, zoo, or lake. Ask if anything surprised him once you have visited in person—did you recognize any of the aspects that you saw in your research?   

How to Insert Learning into your Summer Plans: For Parents of High Schoolers

It’s about that time: Teens have worked hard all year and are now experiencing the freedom and relaxation that summer brings. It is arguably the best time of year (especially for teachers!), but there is a downside for many. Over the long summer months, learners have a tendency to forget or lose some of the knowledge and skills that they have acquired over the previous school year. Research and statistics indicate that learning and retention declines noticeably during June, July, and August. As expected, if you are not using it, you are losing it—your knowledge, that is. The key here would then be to continue the learning outside of the classroom, which could prove to be a difficult sell for high schoolers eager to follow their own agendas for a few months.

Instead of approaching this sustained study as school work, parents should consider creatively utilizing certain activities so that the learning is there—only presented as a game, puzzle, challenge, etc. Check out some ideas below to help high schoolers retain information over the summer months.

  • Have your high schooler plan the most time and/or cost efficient driving route for the family road trip. Which route allows for fewer toll roads? Which route currently has the least amount of construction? Is there a route without many rest stops that you would like to avoid? Are there any potential attractions along the way that might interest the group? All of these real-world considerations that parents typically consider could mean a great opportunity for your teen to build or expand upon his critical thinking skills. Add in the concept of planning for gas money, and you have another added layer of math practice. Negotiate stereo control or time behind the wheel for the effort they have put into planning the most efficient trip!

  • Read a recent “book to screen” young adult novel together. Be sure to let your teen choose the novel. Discuss the characters, plot, setting, and make predictions about how you think the story will end. Once you have finished the book, rent or go see the movie. Then discuss how the two versions compare. Did the characters appear how you had pictured them? Was anything in the movie noticeably different from the storyline? What creative choices did the filmmaker(s) have to make to translate the text to the screen?

  • Encourage your teen to begin looking into postsecondary education options. Is she especially creative or interested in visual arts, culinary careers, music and performance art? Browse options for liberal arts schools or specialized programs. Is your teen a huge sports fan, athlete, scholar, or philanthropist? Prompt him to peruse options for schools with a large sports following, abundant athletic scholarships, Greek chapters or volunteer programs. Have your teen build a list of non-negotiables when it comes to colleges and universities. Once you have a good idea of what he is looking for, arrange a visit to the campus.

  • Try a competitive activity like golf/mini golf, bowling, Bocce ball where score is kept. Leave the teens in charge of tracking the score and progress of the game to help maintain a strong memory.

  • Get your teen started on a savings plan or spending budget for the summer. Use some money from a yard sale or other chores to start with a base. Set guidelines for the budget, including a minimum amount that must remain in the “account.” Help your high schooler work towards a purchase of some sort, but make sure that she finds the best price for the item by doing research.

  • When doing any summer baking or cooking for a barbeque or party, have your teen help with the measurements. Ask him to double or triple the recipe to suit the large group coming over.

  • Pick up a second (or third!) language together. From the internet to Amazon, disks, apps, and books for language learners are all over the place. Begin by labeling items around the house to familiarize your teen with certain pronunciations. Consider watching a movie with subtitles, then gradually build up from there.

 

Encouraging Student Effort in the Home Stretch

May is the time of the school year when many students and teachers begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel, making it a difficult month to focus and persevere. Even as the adult in the classroom, I notice the excitability in the air when the school year has begun to wind down to mere weeks. The difficulty then becomes maintaining the attention of children and teens when, truth be told, they are likely daydreaming about their soon-to-be-realized freedom. Below are tips for holding students’ interest at the end of the school yearand quelling the impatience that comes with it.

  • Fake it until you make it in order to sustain engagement. Yes, this is the opposite of what the body and mind is telling us. Towards the end of the year, students are not the only ones dreaming of long summer days and sleeping in. As the adults in the room, it is our responsibility to set the tone of the classroom, even when all attention is elsewhere. Students, no matter the age group, feed off of the energy that you bring into your lessons. When we lack motivation or energy, students undoubtedly pick up on that lethargy. When this happens, all bets are off for maintaining a focused and engaged classroom. So, even when you are fried—which you certainly will be—remember the mantra above: fake enthusiasm and let the energetic tone be contagious. 
  • Talk to your classes about the importance of follow-through and self-sufficiency. Remind students of all of the hard work that they have done over the course of the school year. Stress the importance of finishing strong and working diligently through the last assignment of the year. Now is not the time to let distractions interfere with the momentum that has been built since day one in the fall. Instead, encourage students to finish the last leg of the race that is the school year as if each assignment decides their final grade. 
  • Keep creative with lessons and assignments. Obvious? Yes, but necessary nonetheless. Try not to let the allure of summer sunshine blind you—plan engaging lessons that allow students to explore, create, or choose from different options in terms of assignments. Avoid the go-to “busy work” plan that leaves students will dull or redundant worksheets. 
  • Think outside of the classroom. When possible, plan activities or lessons that could take place outside. Keep the activities structured and organized, as to maintain control of the learning. Rotation stations allow for collaboration while ensuring that groups are small and productive at the same time. Feel free to have small blocks for silent reading outside. This practice helps students to see reading as a leisure activity, as opposed to simply a completion box to check. 
  • Consider holding catch-up or work periods to ensure that students are thoroughly completing assignments even as they weeks are winding down. Provide students with additional copies of tasks that they may have misplaced, make-up work from absences, reassessments, etc. For students that are all caught up, have options for them to partake in.

Homework: How to Make it Work

In the education world, homework has become a controversial topic—one in which people are greatly divided. Proponents of homework typically praise the fact that it allows students the opportunity to practice skills, self-check, and reflect on the learning. Conversely, opponents believe that homework has become “busy work,” an unnecessary or burden on young learners. Whatever your stance, most can agree that parents are the likely homework liaisons between young learners and the assignments that frustrate them. Parents are the ones to wipe the tears and pick up the pieces (sometimes literally). Thus, it is not unusual for parents to feel helpless at times when homework is getting the best of their children.

When you are feeling the pressures of homework at home, remember some of these key points:

  • Homework is not your job as the parent. Yes, you should remind, encourage, assist, and guide. However, it is to no one’s benefit that the parent handhold the child through the work. The point of homework is to assess the knowledge or skills acquired during class. If you are the one prompting answers or pulling teeth to get an assignment completed, your child is not getting the most from the learning opportunity.

  • The responsibility piece is huge when it comes to homework. On those evenings when your teen announces a surprise poster is due the following day, remember that this is not your responsibility to go on a late-night Staples spree. Will this frustrate your child? Yes. But encouraging your procrastinating adolescent to “figure it out” will end up being a greater learning moment than if you had scurried into super posterboard mom mode. Just be sure that your method and involvement as a parent matches your child’s age and genuine abilities.

  • Encourage your child to get into the habit of writing down the full details of an assignment during class. If your child or teen is unaware of the exact terms of the assignment, or its due date, the whole assignment can get lost in translation. It is not unusual that, when in a hurry, students will jot down a vague idea of the assignment, with little to no detail about how to complete it. This sloppily-scribbled, nondescript “worksheet” will not be much help when homework time begins. Instruct your child to write down the homework as specifically as possible, i.e., the page number, website, number of questions, chapters to read, or due date.

  • Stress the importance of the attempt. This is key when an assignment is becoming an overwhelming frustration for your child. Crying over geometry homework at the kitchen table will do little to motivate your child. If this happens, encourage your child to complete what she can, and explain the rest to her teacher privately. At this point, it is not about the homework points or credit. It is about the need for clarity before she can master the content or skill. Especially for the younger learners, completion for the sake of credit is not always worth the hours of frustration. Instead, send a quick email to your child’s teacher explaining the effort that your child put into the assignment. Homework is, after all, indicative of the child’s knowledge of the topic. The teacher will be appreciative of the information, as it will help to guide instruction and re-teaching strategies.

Procrastination: Student Strategies for All Ages

Most teachers would admit that every child and teen exhibits procrastination from time to time, regardless of grade level. For some unfortunate souls, procrastination is simply ingrained. So what is the problem with it? Well, when we procrastinate, the task at hand does not diminish or disappear—no matter how much we may hope. Instead, the anxiety of the looming “to-do list” grows, as does our desire to avoid the work at all costs. How can we combat this procrastination tendency?

  • Teach students to assess the situation thoroughly before they decide to evade the work. Of course, everyone, including our students, would rather not have a list of homework assignments or projects to complete. However, the nature of education involves work outside of the classroom—plain and simple. Instead of setting the task aside right away—an out-of-sight, out-of-mind strategy—prompt students to investigate the necessary steps that will be required to complete the assignment. This sort of review strategy forces students to acknowledge the amount of work that the project or paper will entail. The more prepared they are to tackle the task, the less likely they will be to set it aside for lengths of time.
  • Encourage students to jump right in. This does not necessarily mean that they have to rush or complete the task in one chunk of time. Instead, they simply need to scratch the surface and begin. Starting something that they would rather avoid is half of the battle. Once they have begun, the urge to procrastinate is set aside.
  • Remove distractions while working. This is especially difficult for adolescents who would prefer to be glued to their devices while working. Advise students to set aside time to work without any smartphones, television, etc. All it takes is one chime of a notification to derail a work session, further instigating procrastination. A quiet work space, removed from distractions, allows for full focus, which is the best way for students to get the most out of their work time or study sessions.
  • Praise or reward students who complete or submit work prior to the deadline. Whether we are talking first graders or seniors, students respond to incentives. This can mean that the first group to submit work receives their grades first. Or, give praise, small rewards, or extra recess when students exhibit proactivity. Again, the point is to incentivize students so that they are eager to tackle the assignment, as opposed to setting it aside for the last minute.
  • When push comes to shove, stress completion over perfection. The point is obviously to dissuade procrastination. However, there will be times when students simply cannot get the ball rolling in time. When they do put off the work, explain the importance of completing and submitting the work, even when it is sub-par. Of course, keeping high expectations is important. However, the need to perfect something at the last minute is not only stressful, but unnecessary. Use these moments as a learning experience by highlighting the fact that students can avoid this feeling of disappointment or discouragement by planning and working ahead of time in the future.

 

Tips to Improve Reading in the Classroom

Not surprisingly, reading is one of those activities that students either love or loathe. As much as it can be difficult to get a bookworm to put the book down for a second, it can be equally challenging to get a reluctant reader to pick one up. So how can we improve reading skills for both our avid and unenthusiastic readers? The strategies and methods are just as different as the students themselves.

For Reluctant Readers:

Allow reluctant or struggling readers to use digital aids to improve comprehension and ease the stress correlated with fluency and decoding. Listening to audiobooks is a proven method to encourage and boost struggling readers. Explain to students that they must follow along while listening to the text. Many audio tools also allow students to highlight, mark, or pause the reading in order to define difficult terms or make notes along the way. This process allows students to actively engage with the text without relying solely on their own reading skills. While some argue that listening to books on tape is not actively reading, educators know this to be false. These digital tools, such as the audiobook, are simply scaffolds to allow for different avenues of comprehension. Yes, students are following along, but the audio also acts as an added support for comprehension, which can be very encouraging for struggling readers.

Make sure that the Lexile level matches the ability of your reluctant readers. Many students find reading to be discouraging, especially if the level of the text far exceeds their ability to comprehend. Numerous educational applications are available now to help teachers sift through texts and find appropriate levels for all readers. Some apps even provide variations of the same story or article for on, above, or below-grade level readers. This allows all students to read and comprehend the same text, so participation is not an issue.

Appeal to individual interests by providing student choice. As much as possible, students should be provided with texts that engage them and relate to them personally. Yes, the end goal would be for students to embrace reading as a means of exploring new things. However, for reluctant readers, it is all about the incentive to buy in. Charming their interests is a great way to bring enjoyment to an activity that they don’t necessarily love.

For Avid Readers:

Encourage students to explore texts that challenge their current level of comprehension. Voracious readers embrace the opportunity to increase their own vocabulary by encountering more challenging texts. Not only do unfamiliar terms pique their interests, but the complexity of sentence structures or plotlines also helps to stimulate learning and engagement for strong readers.

Allow strong readers to take creative liberties with their writing assignments. Since writing and reading abilities are reciprocal, a strong reader will likely flourish in writing, as well. Provide enrichment by having strong readers extend a novel, poem, or short story. The idea here is that fanfiction not only boosts writing skills, but also encourages advanced reading skills such as close reading, mimicking voice and tone, making interpretive predictions, etc.

Provide time for reading and exploring new texts in class. Obviously, avid readers are happy any time they are able to indulge in their favorite hobby during class. But, more than just silent reading for the sake of it, small bits of class time devoted to reading for pleasure is a great way to foster literature circles or book talks. Socializing over a beloved novel is a way for advanced readers to dig deeper into inquiry-based methods and learn to analyze texts on a more progressive level.  

How-To Stay in the Know: News for Elementary-Age Groups

For elementary students, the topic of news or current events may likely be met with confused faces or outright groans of boredom. I can certainly remember my eyes glazing over when Nightly News occupied the television in my house growing up. And today’s elementary schoolers are no different—they may not be 100 percent enthralled with current events. However, today’s technology means that current events are not only readily available, they are also available to all levels of readers and viewers. For the elementary age group, news events and stories shared with children must be age and reader-appropriate. Below are important pointers and suggestions for staying up on current events with elementary students.

Be sure to preview all news stories, articles, and broadcasts before having students participate. Thankfully, today’s technology and vast number of children’s programs ensure that current events and news articles can be easily assessed for age-appropriate content. Several educational news outlets do this work for us by categorizing material by age group and Lexile range. While it is important that students understand what they are reading, it is equally, if not more important, to be sure that the material is suitable for children. Many issues or headlines are not only disturbing or violent, but confusing as well. Discovery Channel, Channel One, Scholastic, Time Magazine, and CNN all provide student-friendly episodes, articles, and other resources so that current events are academically accessible and appropriate for elementary schoolers.

Keep the news relevant but light. Of course, we want students to be aware of some of the important events happening around them. But, at the same time, we must be sure not to expose them to anything that is too jarring or upsetting. News stories for elementary-age groups should involve topics to which students can relate. Make sure that the information they are getting connects to something in their own lives. This is a great way for students to begin to connect to the outside world, as well as recognize their place in it.

Encourage questions. Questions to ask include: What is the purpose of relaying this particular story, i.e., who will benefit from knowing or learning about this? Who might this news story be targeting? Is there a recognizable tone in the story or clip? How does this story or event affect the people around me? How do I benefit from knowing about this story or current event? Again, these questions prompt students to consider what they have just learned.

Know the difference between credibility and unreliability. Again, this is a new concept for elementary schoolers. When it comes to news stories, news media is so prevalent these days that accurate stories can easily be spun or altered and quickly posted to a pseudo-reliable news source. Fact-checking is something that elementary school students can begin to do in order to double check a source that may seem unreliable. Today’s school libraries and media centers have wonderful resources that help with providing credible sources. Whether primary or secondary sources, schools purchase multiple paid forums, anthologies, and online databases for students to conduct research or investigate specific topics.

Secrets of a Great Student: Part II

Great students have many characteristics in common—prioritizing, accepting challenges, adopting a positive outlook, self-checking, and advocating, among others. Of course, every learner is different, and what works for one will not necessarily suit another. However, here are five additional commonalities among great students.

1. Great students recognize the importance of learning. This may sound obvious, but education is not necessarily immediately appreciated by young learners. For many, school can be frustrating or boring—a negative experience at times. No matter how eager a learner, every student is going to be met with bouts of repetition, memorization, and deep focus—not always mentally-stimulating practices. However, academic success comes with the knowledge that learning can and should be a challenge—that anything difficult is going to come with frustration, but will be immeasurably beneficial.

2. Successful students step outside of their comfort zones to pick up new skills, hobbies, and talents. In the same way that we know that learning never ends, great learners embrace the idea of constantly trying to build their repertoire of knowledge. Whether it be a new topic, sport, artistic skill, social goal, or unfamiliar hobby, successful students are not satisfied unless they are soaking in something new. Their thirst for knowledge transcends what they know they are already good at—instead, they want to try for more. Great learners do not rest on their laurels, but rather recognize that past achievements are mere stepping stones for continuous growth.

3. Great students seek help from others. Much like advocating for oneself by asking questions and seeking help from teachers, learners work through struggles and difficulties by reaching out for assistance and advice from others. Whether this be advice from adults or peers, adolescents find success through collaboration and cooperation. The ability to recognize their own weaknesses as strengths in others helps students begin to utilize their peers. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness—this is a sign of self-recognition and self-awareness. To know what you need help with is to strive for more knowledge from others.

4. Successful learners are eager to teach and/or share what they have learned. As many educators know, mastery of content or skill is best exhibited when students are able to instruct others. To teach someone else indicates that a student understands the inner workings of a concept. It is a crucial opportunity to take information or skills absorbed and articulate the concept in one’s own words.

5.  Successful students practice creativity and innovation. Again, to step outside of the box is a risk and is not always comfortable for young learners. However, this ability to try a new way of doing something exhibits strength, confidence, and ingenuity. Learning is all about growth and development of skills and knowledge. Great learners know that there are multiple roads to success in any given goal. Whether addressing a simple math problem or mapping out a plan for the future, great students know that trails to success are paved individually and creatively.

Secrets of a Great Student: Part I

Being studious is not necessarily innate. Sure, there are some children that seem to take to academia more readily; however, there is no denying that children can improve their propensity for learning. In fact, an important notion of education is that learning is infinite—it is never “over” or “maxed out.” Since learning truly never ends, we can also presume that learners are always improving and growing. So, what exactly do great students do to achieve greatness in the academic realm?  

A great student is sure to prioritize. This is not always easy, especially nowadays when children are overscheduled like never before. Practices, rehearsals, tournamentsall of these activities are likely familiar to school-age children. Families today are packing as much activity as possible into any given weekday. And, as much as athletics, arts, music, and other extracurricular activities are an integral part of education, successful students know that academics must take a top spot on the list of priorities.   

Great students accept and embrace challenges. The wise saying “a smooth sea never made a skilled sailor” certainly applies here. Students who not only accept challenges, but readily chase them, exhibit a few strong characteristics of great students. The pursuit of something difficult means that students are not afraid or intimidated by failure. They are likely confident in their abilities, but also, they know that failure is often a valuable learning experience. The notion that struggle makes you stronger is one that great students try to keep in the forefront when faced with difficulty.

With the grit and hardworking mentality of a great student also comes a positive outlook. Great students not only embrace challenges as mentioned above, they also keep a positive mindset during their endeavors. Remaining positive is quite possibly the most difficult practice for great students. It is natural to feel let down or discouraged when things do not go as planned. However, great students harness those feelings and use them as motivating factors for moving forward—they turn lemons into lemonade, so to speak.

Great students self-check. They are able to recognize their weaknesses and areas of need in order to succeed. Because they are so in-touch with themselves as learners, they know how to study, organize, draft, and execute school work efficiently and effectively. They recognize when they have been able to retain information, and, conversely, when they may have zoned out or missed the mark. Being in tune with how they learn best ensures that time and energy is never wasted when studying or working.

Great students advocate for themselves. This type of productive accountability is often difficult to achieve in elementary school. Students with shy or reserved personalities tend to struggle with this concept at first—speaking to adults can be intimidating for them. As uncomfortable as it may be at first, great students learn to speak up, ask questions, and seek help when necessary. When students take initiative, this type of go-getter attitude also builds self-confidence.