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Published August 12, 2013, 10:00 PM

Active Minds: Teachers find that getting kids moving leads to better results in the classroom

Fargo -- Some area teachers are getting their students to pay more attention in class, better understand what they’re learning and retain that information, all by adding movement to their lesson plans.

By: Tracy Frank, INFORUM

Fargo -- Some area teachers are getting their students to pay more attention in class, better understand what they’re learning and retain that information, all by adding movement to their lesson plans.

Jenna Farkas, a third-grade teacher at Westside Elementary School in West Fargo, frequently has her students dance, jog and race around the classroom.

“Their stamina for being able to work is a lot longer because we exercise often throughout the day,” she said.

Farkas and her students feel re-energized after their short bursts of movement she calls “brain breaks.” And her students no longer shut down in the afternoons.

They exercise hard before tests, running and jogging in the classroom. And if Farkas forgets to give her students a break, they’ll eagerly remind her, she said.

“The second I do one they have a newfound passion for being there,” she said.

Farkas learned about the importance of brain breaks and incorporating physical activity into teaching methods at a Be Fit 2 Learn training session two summers ago.

“It basically has changed the entire way I look at how kids learn,” she said.

Be Fit 2 Learn is an educator training program founded by area teachers Ann Goldade, Lois Mauch and Holly Inniger that shows educators how adding movement to their lesson plans can improve student learning.

Goldade, who recently moved from West Fargo to Texas, researched the topic for her doctorate. Then she joined forces with Mauch, of West Fargo, who works as Warren-Alvarado-Oslo, Minn.’s physical education program grant project director, and Inniger, an iPad integrationist and former elementary teacher for Barnesville (Minn.) Public Schools.

Research shows most of the brain is activated during physical activity – much more so than when doing work seated, Goldade said, citing author John Medina’s “Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School.”

That’s why cutting physical education classes and recess in favor of more reading and math time is a mistake, said Mauch, a former phy-ed teacher.

“Cutting physical education isn’t helping kids learn at all,” she said. “No research has shown that kids are doing better learning by taking away PE.”

“When we move, it triggers our brain to be activated, and when our brain is activated, we can then pay attention to things and thus learn things,” said Goldade, who has taught special education and was an assistant professor of education and special education at Minnesota State University Moorhead before moving to Houston to become director of special education for Houston Public Schools.

“Our brains, depending on age, check out about every 10 minutes, so in order to keep students engaged, you need to do something to alert their attention. Their brain doesn’t pay attention to boring things,” she said.

So a student labeled “difficult” because he won’t sit still, may just be trying to do what his brain needs to stay focused, she said.

“What he’s doing is he’s trying to find an acceptable way to move,” Goldade said. “His brain is telling him to move to pay attention. He’s trying to use a helpful strategy to pay attention, but the teacher is saying, ‘Don’t move, but pay attention.’ ”

Kids brains aren’t developed enough to be able to focus for long stretches of time, but teachers can use active learning strategies to help them pay attention, Goldade said.

An ideal situation might be for a teacher to lecture for 10 minutes and then repeat the lesson using movement, Mauch said.

“The sit-and-get is out,” she said. “They’re not getting it.”

Teachers can use strategies like having students count by fives or tens while doing jumping jacks. They can use Geomotion mats printed with letters and numbers and have students jump on letters to spell their spelling words or jump on the answers to math problems.

“I can see down the road desks being out of classrooms or high desktops for kids who want to stand and work,” Mauch said.

Research shows that 20 to 30 minutes of physical activity can lead to up to two hours of sustained attention, Goldade said.

Goldade said people have a chemical in their brains called brain-derived neurotrophic factor that helps memories travel through the synapses and stick in our hippocampus, which is where the whole short-term memory process begins.

“To activate BDNF we need to use large muscle motor movement, things like jumping, hopping, skipping,” she said.

The more that chemical is activated, the more those memories will stick, she said.

Behavioral problems also decrease with the implementation of active learning, Goldade said.

“If you’re brave enough to do it, you’ll get the results,” she said. “The thing is it’s not the status quo in school.”

Despite the positive results active learning strategies have shown, some teachers might be hesitant to try them because of the time involved in implementing the methods, Inniger said.

“It’s learning something new and finding the time to incorporate it,” she said. Time is huge. When you’re always having to make and create everything, that’s a little bit of a hindrance.”

Laurie Stuhaug, a Norman County East first-grade teacher went through the training in June and is excited to implement some of the methods in her classroom this fall.

“The big thing is going to these workshops and coming back and spreading the word and showing others how it does work and that it’s positive,” she said. “That’ll help them change their ways a little bit. But change is difficult.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Tracy Frank at (701) 241-5526

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