- Associated Press - Sunday, February 28, 2016

SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) - Using a projector and whiteboard, Jackie Williams writes - while verbally ticking off - the morning’s agenda for her students.

“Let’s go over our priority list. If you have not yet finished that math online pretest, get that done first. After that, go into ‘Spelling City.’ If you have the option to do a vocabulary practice test, you should do that, too.”

Questions before you work?” she asks her third- and fourth-graders.

In this high-ability classroom at Mishawaka’s Liberty Elementary School, students are free - much of the time - to move around and work on what they want, where they want, when they want - as long as they stay on task.

She says this informal style of teaching and learning results in fewer discipline problems and higher student focus and engagement.

Her students can sit on the floor cross-legged under a short table in a corner. Or stand at the counter that flanks the windows at the back of the room.

Even during what Williams calls “high-focused” times, like when she’s teaching a lesson or giving a test, kids aren’t required to sit perfectly still.

Thanks to thousands of dollars in donations from parents, former students and others, Williams has furnished her room this school year with an array of seating options, from stand-up desks to stability balls and Wobble Stools.

In education-ese, hers is an “activity-permissible” classroom.

And her students, half of whom she had as a teacher last school year too, love it.

Abilina Dubree, a fourth-grader, said before what the class calls “flexible seating” was an option here, “lots of people fidgeted. And that got distracting.” She said, “Now, we can move.”

Though for Williams’ class it’s too early to gauge the more quantitative effects, such as the impact on standardized test scores, research supports the benefits of doing school this way.

Sydney Zentall, a retired Purdue University professor of special education and psychology, has studied attention deficit hyperactivity disorder for four decades.

She said she’s not surprised by Williams’ findings.

“The brain needs stimulation. It needs to be aroused at an optimal level in order to perform well,” Zentall said, “so as a mechanism to increase arousal and stimulation to the brain, we move.” That activity, she said, increases blood flow.

The effects of that boost in stimulation, she said, include an increase in a child’s - or anyone’s, for that matter - ability to sustain attention. It also decreases impulsiveness.

But, Zentall said, “it only improves performance on those tasks the child already knows how to do. Because activity, like stimulant medications (for ADHD), doesn’t teach you anything. It just allows your brain to do more, like “read long and boring books,” she said. “But it doesn’t teach you to read.”

All teachers, she said, would serve students well by allowing them to tap, jiggle, doodle.

But, the irony is, sometimes, teachers don’t want students doing those things because they think they keep kids from paying attention.

John Kilbourne is a professor in the department of movement science at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He’s leading efforts there and in western Michigan to create activity-permissible classrooms.

Classroom design during the days of the Industrial Revolution, he said by phone, put students in neat, tidy rows, looking at the backs of their peers’ heads.

“It was the factory mentality,” he said, you go from one thing “to the next, to the next, to the next.”

Research in the past decade, however, shows the more active you are, the more you learn, he said.

Kilbourne partnered with a teacher in Grand Haven Public Schools in Michigan and wrote a grant that brought in $10,000. That, combined with donations of furniture and other items, allowed for the renovation last school year of a fourth-grade classroom at Mary A. White Elementary School.

That classroom became the lab for Kilbourne’s research.

“We looked at (students’) group work, focus, development,” he said, “all of them just soared” after the classroom renovation.

Student engagement went up, too, along with attendance and creativity.

“I think the revolution is starting to happen,” Kilbourne said, “and people are starting to realize that fixed, neat, tidy rows (of desks) are a thing of the past.”

Two kindergarten teachers in Penn-Harris-Madison School Corp., both recipients of grants from P-H-M’s Education Foundation, said they’re also seeing benefits of using seating that allows students to move.

Dana Latham, a kindergarten teacher at Elsie Rogers Elementary School, has had 10 Wobble chairs in her classroom since December.

For some students, namely those with attention problems, Latham said she’s noticed some big improvements.

“Those kids,” she said, “have a hard time sitting still. And it’s really not a choice the child can make.”

With a Wobble Stool, they can move backward, forward and from side to side, but in a restricted area.

But, “it’s not like they’re on the carpet doing somersaults,” she said.

Peggy Reisdorf said because of the increasing academic standards for kindergartners these days, she thought her students at Prairie Vista Elementary School could also benefit from some different seating options.

Each week, she draws names to see which students get to use the special chairs.

One student in particular, she said, who has been overly talkative and had difficulty focusing has shown improvement in both areas since using a stability ball to sit on.

As time goes on, Reisdorf said, she expects to see even more positive results.

Williams, the Liberty teacher, says it doesn’t necessarily take raising significant amounts of money for teachers to be able to make their classrooms more activity-permissible.

For kids in younger grades, she said, it might be possible to raise the height of traditional desks to use as standing desks.

Items such as SitFits, which are placed on chair seats, and Bouncy Bands, which attach to desks to allow kids to bounce their legs, are fairly inexpensive, she said.

“Give them tactile tools (to hold) like an eraser or a stress ball. Let kids have free choice around the room,” she said. “Let them work at a back counter.”

Kids need to move. And, if it the classroom culture doesn’t allow it, Williams said, they’ll do it in disruptive ways.

“I think, for kids,” fourth-grader Lilyana Ptasienski said, “it shouldn’t just be a privilege to move around. It should be a right.”

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Source: South Bend Tribune, https://bit.ly/1p1Qb5t

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Information from: South Bend Tribune, https://www.southbendtribune.com


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