Learning and the Brain

We all know that exercise is good for the heart, the body, and the soul. Now educators are learning how important it is to learning. Stacey Schatzabel, a third-grade teacher at Kennebunk Elementary School, is spearheading an initiative that is having an impact in many classrooms at Kennebunk Elementary School and throughout the district as well.

With funding from the Education Foundation, Schatzabel attended the Learning and the Brain Society’s 21st International Learning and the Brain Conference in Boston in November 2008. Among the many ideas she encountered, one that stood out was how exercise is an important part of learning for all students, especially those with attention deficit disorders (ADD/ADHD). Research presented at the conference demonstrates that exercise stimulates the learning center in the brain and helps students to focus.

Bringing mental and phyical energy into balance

But how to bring exercise into the classroom? One answer Schatzabel discovered is stability balls-elastic, inflatable balls of 20-30″ diameter. Sitting on stability balls instead of rigid chairs engages the core muscles, allows for active sitting, and produces the same result as aerobic exercise. When Schatzabel experimented with just a couple of balls in one classroom, what she experienced was fascinating. “I saw an immediate improvement in the attention of my students, and I was able to move more quickly through a math lesson. Students were telling me that they felt better sitting on a stability ball than their regular chair.” Soon all of her students had balls to sit on, thanks to the efforts of parents and KES staff.

The idea continued to catch on. More teachers wanted to introduce stability balls into their classrooms. With an additional grant from the Education Foundation, several other classrooms in the district now have stability balls, and many staff members have been trained in the techniques Schatzabel employs with her students.

Encouraged by Schatzabel’s great success at KES, instructors at other RSU#21 schools have attended other Learning and the Brain Society symposia, each with a different focus.

Mary Hebert, 7th-grade language arts teacher at the Middle School of the Kennebunks, has been teaching for 25 years. After attending a symposium on “Learning, Emotions, and the Brain,” Hebert now says she has scientific proof that techniques she uses in the classroom with students are having the desired effects of helping them relax and learn. “The major thing that gets in the way of kids learning in the classroom is stress. It’s my job to help them de-stress.” Neurologists at the conference explained that students have to be relaxed if they are to retain information they learn, but they must also be stimulated in order for their brains to store information in the frontal lobe, where long-term memory resides.

Who says that balls and books do not go together?

Hebert doesn’t use stability balls; she finds that, for seventh-graders, joke-telling, hand-held fidget toys, optical illusions, and even a smiley face on the electronic whiteboard do the trick. “I’m seeing results and getting more out of the kids, and now I know why.”

MSK music teacher Laurie Ellis is having a similar experience using new approaches to teaching she learned at the “Creative Arts, Learning, and the Brain” conference that she attended. Math skills and musical ability, she says, have always gone hand in hand. But experts at the conference taught her that verbal and reading skills are just as important to developing musical prowess. Now she has students reading a short story for which a composer wrote music. “I had them play parts of the music before reading the story,” Ellis says. “After discussing the story, their playing captures the interpretation of moods and tones better,” Ellis says. “My music students don’t just play the notes on the page anymore; there is give and take and dialogue.” Not only that, Ellis has them standing and marching out rhythms before they play them. “The accuracy [of the subsequent performance] is incredible,” she says. “My whole way of teaching has changed.”

RSU#21 teachers have even spread their successes in applying brain research to learning beyond the local communities. For instance, Stacey Schatzabel has presented at the 5-2-1-0 Symposium in Portland and at the Coastal Healthy Communities Coalition annual meeting held at the University of New England. The Sanford School District requested that Schatzabel share her findings with educators there, and the Sanford junior and senior high schools are now using stability balls in health classes. Schatzabel also has a cousin in Pennsylvania whose wife is a teacher, loved the stability balls concept, wrote a grant to bring it to her classroom, and recently won approval to move forward. It is this kind of cross-pollination and advancement of ideas that EFKA applauds; we hope more students and teachers continue to benefit from these innovative programs that “ignite the spark!”