One of my former graduate students, who is soon to lead a classroom of her own, requested that I write about brain breaks! And so, here goes! Brain breaks are usually associated with movement breaks, especially cross-lateral movement that is meant to 'wake up' both sides of your brain. While some research suggests it's important to move every 20-30 minutes, I actually think we don't move enough in and outside of the classroom.
Even though students may have recess, they don't all take advantage of playing, running, and actively moving while they're outside, especially the older they get. In middle school, many students choose to sit with their friends and just talk, or they try to stay indoors to continue to study, catch up on missing assignments, or to chat with their friends. Students tend to be quite sedentary as they rely on technology to communicate or as a way to shut their brain off for a number of hours. Students aren't alone. Many adults have also become sedentary as they've become addicted to their phones and spend countless hours browsing, often not even looking for anything specific. This is a cultural problem. We just don't move enough. Of course, there are exceptions, but moving daily and being active is no longer the norm.
As important as physical education is, we cannot let that be the only place where students move. Some may argue that part of the problem could be the classroom layout and design. Why build a classroom filled with individual desks and chairs? Doesn't this suggest that there won't be much movement anyway and that students should sit and write on their own? Perhaps a room with a few standing tables on wheels might be a better fit - as this would communicate that people may work collaboratively and could choose where they would want to work. Some schools have replaced chairs with exercise balls as a way to activate students' cores as they maintain their balance and complete their work at their desks. While this is a move in the right direction, we're still stuck thinking of classroom space, and even office spaces as places with desks and chairs. I think the design and layout of a space affects the expectation of what is to be done in that space. If tables and chairs fill a room, one would expect to find people sitting at those chairs and using their desks to work. With sitting comes little movement, and with little ability to move, comes the inattentive behaviors, because no one was meant to sit all day for hours on end! While schooling may have been modeled to imitate an office environment with people sitting at desks, the work space is being re-imagined as well with spaces like WeWork, but even most mobile work spaces have desks with chairs! Again, the expectation is to sit at those desks and 'do work'. So, yes, I do think the design and layout of a space affects our ability and willingness to move!
Since I teach theatre, I don't have any desks or chairs in my classroom space. It's a big open space. I have access to chairs and tables, but those are kept folded for students to use if needed. So then what do we do in this large open space? Well, anything we want really! I can choose to configure the room in any way I wish. Each student has a binder and where I place the binder in the room marks where they begin and end each class with me. I usually choose to set up our class in a circle for consistency and have assigned spots, but I can choose to make the circle small or large or I can split up the binders into small groups, or really put their binders anywhere I wish! I could also keep the binders on their designated shelf and have students retrieve them if they will need them. But after we check-in or after we reflect as a group, I have so much flexibility since movement is expected and encouraged in my classroom. I realize I teach theatre, but even if I were teaching another subject in the space, I would relish the flexibility of the space and want the same layout if I were teaching social studies, language arts, or even math! I don't tend to encounter the same kinds of unexpected behaviors in my classroom because movement is encouraged and because the set-up is different than most spaces. So I happen to have movement breaks quite frequently in my classroom or rather, there are times, we even take 'breaks from movement'! I also encourage kids to lie down, to stretch, to meditate, to jump up and down, to act wild as their characters, and this allows them to move their bodies in ways that is often looked down upon or not allowed in many of their other classes.
That being said, I view brain breaks as falling into two categories:
1. Energizing Breaks
2. Calming Breaks
Some brain breaks can be quite short, but their use and intention needs to be clear and purposeful. If students are overly excited and come running back to the building from recess, it may be beneficial to do a calming brain break to reset the body and refocus the mind. However, if students seem sluggish and tired, they may benefit from an energizing break to wake them up. If students have been sitting for too long and their blood has drained from their brain to their bottoms, they will need to move to allow the blood to flow! Here are two of my favorite brain breaks in each category below:
1. Cross over hands: Place your right hand on your nose (without squeezing any unwanted goo out) and your left hand on your right ear (so the left arm has to cross over the right arm). Now, switch: Place your left hand on your nose and your right hand on your left ear (where your right arm crosses over the left arm). Now keep switching and look at a partner to see who can go faster just for fun. This cross-lateral move is more challenging than you may think, but it's fun and usually elicits some giggles. This can be done while seated, but why not stand and do it! This is also a really short brain break! (can be done in a couple of minutes)
2. Clap, snap, stomp: Get into pairs. Each pair is to count to 3, taking turns, i.e. A says 1, B says 2 and A says 3 and B says 1 and so on. This freaks out the brain as there are two people but you're working on 3 numbers or eventually three different movements. When comfortable, each pair agrees on a sound and gesture, which will replace 1 in the counting. Then, replace 2 with a different sound and gesture and then 3. It's called clap, snap, stomp, as the number 1 can be replaced by a clap, number 2 can be replaced by a snap, and number 3 can be replaced by a stomp, but of course this can be modified to fit a unit of study. This will take a bit longer, but it's a great brain break to do with partners that will work together on a project - it's a lovely way to break the ice!
1. 4-16-8 breaths: Have students lie down on their backs on the floor with their feet straight out in front of them. I have my students place one hand on their heart and one hand on their tummy. They breathe in through their nose for 4 counts, hold their breath for 4 counts, and then breathe out of their mouth for 4 counts. I then have them breathe in for 4, hold their breath for 8, and breathe out for 8 counts. On the last breath, I have them breathe in for 4, hold their breath for 16, and breathe out for 8. This helps to slow their heart rate, to calm their bodies down, and to focus their energy on their breathing.
2. Yoga: Have students learn a few yoga poses and learn to hold those poses and to breathe through them. If you can teach them a Vinyasa and have them flow through it slowly a few times and then end in Shavasana (or corpse pose) on the floor as they relax, this is another wonderful tool to have students focus their energies on their bodies. Yoga is a way to wake up your brain and it can calm your mind.
What brain breaks/movement breaks do you use in the classroom? What have you found to be successful?
How conducive to movement is your classroom environment? What can you change to encourage more movement?
As a kid, I played Super Mario Brothers, because, well, it was awesome. And I still remember the theme songs: the happy little tune when Mario and Luigi jumped over obstacles and knocked into boxes to get rewards as well as the more haunting tune when they jumped into the plumbing to face bad guys. I liked the challenge, the rewards, and completing the mission.
I'm fond of video games, even in my adult life. While I don't support the video games that are unnecessarily violent or those that perpetuate stereotypes, there are actually a lot of good qualities in a thoughtfully crafted video game.
Here are five qualities of a video game that can be transferred to the classroom experience:
1. It's fun: Learning should be fun! Learning is fun! It's fascinating to discover something new about our world. It's fun being transported to a brand new world in an exciting book. It's fun to act out a story. Those that feel learning shouldn't be fun are missing something inherent to learning. If learning isn't fun, then what should it be? Boring? Dull? Having fun does not mean goofing around and being off task. We can have fun while being on task and engaged in an exciting activity that helps us learn something. After all, if something isn't fun for us, why keep doing it?
2. It's collaborative: My favorite games are the ones that require you to work with other players to achieve a common goal. Even if you're playing on your own in the game, often the game is set up to make you feel like you're part of a group and that everyone has a role to play. But, if you play split-screen with a partner, you have the choice to play against each other or together to fight against a common obstacle. I much prefer the collaborative aspect of a game where people work together to achieve a common goal. The best part is that most people have different jobs, different missions, different experiences, and different ideas on how to achieve the mission. This can be transferred to the classroom experience. Every student should have a specific task, a specific job, and will naturally have their own ideas on how to solve a mission.
3. It's challenging: As Lev Vygotsky would say, working with another makes you a head taller than yourself. If you're in the zone of proximal development, you are pushing yourself to take on more. With another person, you are able to do even more than you might be able to accomplish on your own. Video games can be quite challenging, but they're designed to still motivate you to complete the challenge and get to the next level, the next mission, the next location, and eventually the next part of the story. When I've played Portal, for example, it's fun to solve the puzzles with a partner, but it's even more rewarding to overcome the challenge and get to the next level.
4. It's engaging: I enjoy the story line in most video games. There are characters we often root for and those we are against. Being a part of a story and even crafting a story together is naturally engaging. Creating compelling characters and situations we want to fight for or against are important. Making learning relevant isn't new, but teaching and presenting through stories is becoming more popular and is incredibly effective when done well.
5. It's beatable: I love beating the game. I want to complete the mission, save the princess, protect the world, and maybe even save the universe. While these are lofty goals, in video games, they are attainable if you work hard enough. But there's a finish line. This needs to be clearly articulated in the classroom too - what's the end goal? What will happen at the end of the mission? I don't mean to say rewards are needed, for the idea of completing the task should be reward enough, especially after facing challenges. The end of the mission should be clearly laid out (with some surprises to come later), but students should be excited and should want to get to the finish line. They should want to beat the game.
What else can gaming teach us? How else can we apply it in the classroom?
1. Express gratitude: Write down what you're grateful for either at the beginning of the day or at the end of the day. I also encourage you to share your gratitude with someone close to you and encourage them to share what they're grateful for. It's a wonderful way to get closer with a love one or simply pass on positive joy to a friend.
2. Get physical: Spend at least a half hour a day getting some physical exercise or focusing on your body in some way - whether you take time for meditation and are taking thoughtful breaths, whether you practice yoga, you work out at the gym, or you take a walk, get your body moving. Considering we have 24 hours in a day, and if you sleep 8 hours and work 10 hours, you still have 6 hours - 360 minutes to find 30 minutes for some physical movement. As we know, physical exercise will not only make you feel happier but will improve your health and might even help you live longer!
3. Laugh: Whether you look at a funny video, make weird crazy faces while at a stop light, or talk to someone you know you usually laugh with, do whatever you need to find a moment of laughter each day. For instance, I have a student who makes the funniest expression when I explain anything to the class - that's his thinking face, but it literally makes my day! Try even having a giant smile for a while and see what happens to you! Laughing is so important - it will fill you with joy and will hopefully remind you to appreciate all the good things in your life.
4. Fuel your passion: Do what you love as often as possible. If you don't have a job you love, then find another job! Okay, I realize many people don't always love their jobs, in fact, at times it can feel taxing, but perhaps try to find something about your job that you love - whether it's going for a walk, talking with a co-worker, completing a particular task, etc. I also encourage you to find something you love outside of your job - whether it's painting, writing, reading a book, reading a funny article, cooking, eating chocolate, going dancing, spending time with someone you care about, learning something new, taking a bicycle ride, looking at the sunset, going to the airport to celebrate good landings, whatever it is you want to do that just fills your heart with joy, do it.
5. Schedule time for happiness: Take control of your hours in the day and plan time for your happiness - whether it's time with friends, family, someone important, or time to yourself, rest time, break time, pampering time, please take the time to love yourself. There's always time for you - you just have to make sure you give the time you deserve to yourself to find joy, happiness, and then pass that joy on to others.
What do you do to bring happiness to your life?
1. Chip Wood's Yardsticks: (Great Resource Book)
Anyone who is teaching/raising kids ages 4-14 needs to read this book! It's a go to resource that I look through pretty often! Great in terms of children's development and getting a sense of what you might expect socially, emotionally, along with appropriate curriculum ideas for each age group. Of course, differentiation is key, and each kid will fall along the continuum in each category, but I've just found it to be helpful in my planning, curriculum development, and in conferences with parents!
2. Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish's How To Talk So Kids Can Learn: (Great tips!)
I've found this book to be incredibly helpful over the years. I've become fascinated with the language we use, or often don't use enough of, in classrooms and how this directly impacts relationships, safety, and learning.
3. Responsive Classroom's First Six Weeks of School: (Helpful guide)
I picked this book up a few years into my teaching career and loved it. I've also had the opportunity to train in levels 1 and 2 of Responsive Classroom and have incorporated the morning meeting strategies and many of the other tools in my classroom. While I initially was moved by Harry Wong's The First Days of School (and I appreciated all I gathered from that book), I found this book to be quite helpful when it came to planning out my year at the beginning. I actually highly recommend several of the Responsive Classroom books - but would suggest a training to get a better sense of the program and to utilize the philosophy as intended.
4. Debbie Silver's Drumming to the Beat of Different Marchers: (Uplifting viewpoint)
I loved this book - it's an easy read - with lovely poems sprinkled in. If you find yourself frustrated and want to be uplifted, or you're searching for some lovely ideas to love on each kid and find ways to differentiate your instruction, this is a definite go to!
5. William Glasser's Choice Theory: (Great read on behavior)
I appreciate this book as a lot of my own classroom management strategies stem from a few of his core tenants, such as: the only behavior we can control is our own. This may not immediately jump out as an educational book, but I include it here as we often get sucked into reading just in our own 'educational' books. It's important to look at psychology, business, arts, science, and books in all fields really, to find the connections to our own work. While I don't agree with all of Glasser's points, and even question a few of his bold statements, I found this to be an interesting read and one that I often think about when it comes to classroom management.
What are some of your favorite books?
1. Model positive body language: Have you ever noticed that when you smile at someone, they usually smile back? How about those people that seem so happy to see you - don't you get excited to see them too? For those of us with dogs, think about how happy your dog is when you come home - aren't you happy to see your dog too? We tend to mirror the body language that we encounter. If we see our boss happy and smiling and walking towards us, we feel good. Imagine, however, seeing your boss looking upset and walking towards you - wouldn't you shut down, walk away, or try to avoid your boss? It's the same in the classroom. Start by smiling, a genuine smile. Have an open body position - avoid arms crossed and a frown, welcome students with a smile. You can even tilt your head with a smile - this is inviting - just notice how students respond to you! Often, I'll have students smile at me to show me that they're ready - at times I'll have them hold their smile for an uncomfortably long time, which often leads to some laughter. This is good - the mood has been lifted and you've just made the classroom feel a bit happier.
2. Use an appropriate sense of humor: I had to add appropriate, as it really depends upon the grade level and subject you're teaching. It's important to know students' development and realize what jokes are appropriate and whether or not sarcasm is an appropriate or a demeaning form of humor to use in the classroom. I tend to avoid sarcasm as I don't consider it to be friendly and I also think it sets a rather negative tone in the classroom. I also don't mean knock knock jokes, but rather a playful sense of humor to break any tension or to lift the mood in the classroom is always enjoyable.
3. Be playful: For instance, when I was teaching fifth grade, we decorated our pencil sharpener - gave him eyes, hair and even a mustache! We called him Mr. Mustachio. The students thought it was hilarious. When Mr. Mustachio's eyes were closed that meant we couldn't bother him to sharpen pencils. Instead, we would place our pencils in the pencil hospital and retrieve another pencil that was already sharpened. But sometimes, Mr. Mustachio was awake and those were the times to sharpen pencils. This set the procedure for sharpening pencils in a playful way and students were obsessed.
4. Get to know your students and what makes them happy: This seems obvious but often we forget that students make up 99% of the classroom! If you don't know what your students like, love, enjoy, or what makes them laugh, find out! Incorporate this information into tests, quizzes, homework assignments, and class activities - they will feel heard, appreciated and might really enjoy doing a math problem that deals with the number of Drake records sold. Or perhaps, they would be excited to receive a secret mission to complete that relates to their interests while still tackling some core content standards.
5. Meditate and encourage moments of quiet/stillness: Students are coming from some place of chaos before they come to your classroom - a great way to get them all settled is by taking some moments to breathe together, to meditate, to even practice some yoga together, whatever works to get them all calm, settled, and realize they're in a safe space where they are cared for, where they are valued, and where they will have fun while learning. I do this frequently in my classroom and it's amazing to feel the difference shift from some anxiety, negativity, and wild behaviors to a calm and happier balanced classroom. Try to start your classes this way or also close out in this way before they share their learning take-away and you dismiss students from your classroom. This will set the tone for your classroom and they will know that no matter what they experienced before they came to your room, they'll have the chance to take a breath, slow down, connect with themselves, and be fully present. My 8th graders often ask that we start class this way and they smile when they hear the meditation music - because they have a moment to just relax and breathe.
What's worked for you to foster a happier classroom?
1. All in one: Put everything in one place. I recommend a binder that can hold all the subjects. Each subject area should go under a different tab and in each tab, have the student organize that subject by classwork, tests/quizzes, and you can further label the categories, if you so wish. Things become difficult for students who need to balance multiple folders, binders, and books. I realize not everything can be consolidated, but try to consolidate as much as possible.
2. Designated work area: Students need a designated space to work on homework at home with a calendar posted or available that lists all upcoming assignments/assessments.
3. Write it down: Students need to write everything down that needs to be done and then prioritize what needs to be done today and what can wait until tomorrow. It is incredibly helpful for students to become acquainted with to do lists/check lists. Make sure students write down what needs to be done, how long the task may take, and when it will be done! Some students use planners, some use iPads, some use a piece of paper, but it needs to be written down. Most of the trouble my students encounter is when they rely on their parents, on a website, or another system where they aren't responsible for keeping track of it themselves- they forget more easily and more readily what needs to be done!
4. Color Code: Give each subject a color - anything that has to do with that subject should go in that color tab. I also recommend book sleeves that match the color designated to the subject for their textbooks.
5. Homework Folder: This can be in the front of the binder, but must be the first thing the student sees - one section should be labeled: "To Do" and the other section: "Turn In"
6. Regular Cleaning Sessions: Students must take the time to clean out lockers/desks/backpacks at least once a week and to go through their large binder/folder/organizer to make sure all is in order. Some things can probably be recycled if they're no longer needed or put into a storage binder in case. Regular cleaning sessions will help students start the new week out fresh.
7. Organization/Study Buddy: Have students connect with another student who turns in assignments on time and seems to be organized to develop study habits from a peer.
8. Break it down: Take big projects and break them into smaller tasks that can be done over time on a daily basis. Spend time breaking down assignments and tasks with students and have them insert these tasks into their planner/calendaring system. Over time, give them the task to break down larger assignments and have them create their own mini-due dates and check-ins.
9. Do what you've got to do before you can do what you want to do! Enough said!
10. Nightly ritual: Encourage each student to pack his/her backpack the night before and double check that all items that are needed for the next day are actually in the bag. Encourage students to also lay out the clothes he/she will wear the next day to make the morning a bit easier. Especially as students get older, the more they will crave their sleep. The more stress that a student encounters in the morning, the more disorganized they are going to be during the day as they will feel rushed and unsure about what needs to be done.
What else works when it comes to student organization? Share your ideas and stories below!