Birmingham Covington: Building a Student-Centered School

Edutopia

Here are some fantastic examples of student-centered learning.  Be sure to watch the videos.

 

Educators take on the role of guides and motivate students to direct their own learning.

A group of middle school students in full beekeeping gear examines one of the hives their school keeps in the woods nearby. “Ooh, there’s honey!” says one excitedly. “I see nectar!” says another.

These eager fifth and sixth graders from Birmingham Covington, a public magnet school in suburban Michigan focused on science and technology, are empowered to become self-directed learners through hands-on experiences in and outside their classroom.

Birmingham Covington’s student-centered philosophy is embedded throughout the curriculum, from third- and fourth-grade classes focused on teaching individual resourcefulness to an almost wholly independent capstone class in seventh and eighth grade called Thinkering Studio. Teachers at the school often say they’re “teaching kids to teach themselves” and rarely answer questions directly; instead they ask students to consider other sources of information first. Even the classrooms, with their spacious communal tables and movable walls, emphasize fluid group and peer-to-peer dynamics over teacher-led instruction.

By relentlessly focusing the classwork on student interest and independence, the educators at Birmingham Covington hope to transform students into active learners who will be successful throughout their lifetimes.

“When you get kids collaborating together, they become more resourceful and they see themselves as experts,” said Mark Morawski, who’s been the principal since 2013. “All of a sudden you’ve opened the ceiling to what kids are able to do, and they surprise you sometimes.”

Solving Real-World Problems: The Bee Project

Birmingham Covington’s unique bee project, like much of the coursework prioritized at the school, was driven by student interest. After reading an article about the extinction of honeybees in their science literacy class, fifth- and sixth-grade students said they wanted to do something to help.

In the class, which combines inquiry-based science and English language arts (ELA), students build their research, literacy, and collaboration skills through small group projects aimed at effecting lasting change around real-world problems. Working on a range of activities—from building a website to managing a real beehive—students become more active and engaged learners, teachers say.

“Science literacy is teaching our kids to be curious about the world around them, with the problems they identify,” said ELA teacher Pauline Roberts, who co-teaches the class. “Even as students, they are learning how to become effective agents of change. It’s bigger than the science content—it’s about helping to develop the citizens that we hope our children become.”

Teaching Resourcefulness

Throughout Birmingham Covington, both coursework and instruction push students to learn lifelong skills like independence and resourcefulness, which teachers encourage early on in the primary grades.

Third- and fourth-grade teacher Jessie Heckman says she empowers her students to become more resourceful by solving common problems with the support of their classmates. Instead of raising their hands when they have a question or encounter a hurdle, for example, Heckman’s students clip clothespins to their computers and fellow students circulate around to troubleshoot—a system she calls the help desk.

“Kids need to learn teamwork-based skills because every other class in any other subject that they have—third through eighth grade—requires them to work in different sized groups accomplishing different tasks,” Heckman explains.

Modeling Collaboration: Teacher Labs

Students aren’t the only ones at Birmingham Covington improving their collaboration skills—teachers also identify as a “community of learners” who use planned, peer-to-peer feedback to help each other raise student outcomes throughout the school.

The school’s voluntary Teacher Labs—facilitated by an instructional coach and organized around a clear, written protocol—enable teachers to reflect on their craft with support from their peers. Through the labs, small groups of teachers observe each other’s classes and then offer constructive feedback around a stated objective.

“We’re really asking teachers to step outside of their comfort zones,” said Roberts, who serves as the lead facilitator in the labs. “We are creatures who live behind closed doors. To experience being in someone else’s classroom is really powerful.”

Increasing Independence for Older Learners

As they near the end of their time at the school, Birmingham Covington seventh- and eighth-grade students are accustomed to self-reliance and problem-solving. They put these skills to use in Thinkering Studio, an elective class where they design their own independent learning projects, and Engage, a class focused on design thinking—a system of solving problems that follows the steps of inquiry, ideation, prototyping, and testing.

In Engage, teachers Roy McCloud and Mathew Brown guide students to work on various self-directed, team-oriented projects like designing a new sport for third graders or building a roller coaster. Their support and feedback direct students toward the right resources while encouraging them to dig deeper: Did students ask the right questions? Did they get the right information? Did they go to other groups for feedback?

In these culminating classes, as in the curriculum more generally, teachers act as guides rather than instructors, directing students toward helpful resources but ultimately insisting they solve their own problems.

This innovative, student-centered approach to learning—the bedrock of the school’s vision—takes the long view, helping students develop skills and interests they can continue to draw on after they leave the school. The school believes that this model better prepares students for real-world challenges, since modern workplaces are increasingly collaborative and involve complex, interdisciplinary problem solving.

“The ultimate questions we’re going to be asked by future employers is ‘Can this person work well in a team? Does this person have the ability to problem solve and critically think?’” said Morawski. “Because our students are more resourceful, they have more intrinsic motivation in the learning process and ultimately, are learning to be learners.”

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Why Students Forget—and What You Can Do About It

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Our brains are wired to forget, but there are research-backed strategies you can use to make your teaching stick.

Teachers have long known that rote memorization can lead to a superficial grasp of material that is quickly forgotten. But new research in the field of neuroscience is starting to shed light on the ways that brains are wired to forget—highlighting the importance of strategies to retain knowledge and make learning stick.

In a recent article published in the journal Neuron, neurobiologists Blake Richards and Paul Frankland challenge the predominant view of memory, which holds that forgetting is a process of loss—the gradual washing away of critical information despite our best efforts to retain it. According to Richards and Frankland, the goal of memory is not just to store information accurately but to “optimize decision-making” in chaotic, quickly changing environments. In this model of cognition, forgetting is an evolutionary strategy, a purposeful process that runs in the background of memory, evaluating and discarding information that doesn’t promote the survival of the species.

“From this perspective, forgetting is not necessarily a failure of memory,” explain Richards and Frankland in the study. “Rather, it may represent an investment in a more optimal mnemonic strategy.”

The Forgetting Curve

We often think of memories as books in a library, filed away and accessed when needed. But they’re actually more like spiderwebs, strands of recollection distributed across millions of connected neurons. When we learn something new—when a teacher delivers a fresh lesson to a student, for example—the material is encoded across these neural networks, converting the experience into a memory.

Forgetting is almost immediately the nemesis of memory, as psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus discovered in the 1880s. Ebbinghaus pioneered landmark research in the field of retention and learning, observing what he called the forgetting curve, a measure of how much we forget over time. In his experiments, he discovered that without any reinforcement or connections to prior knowledge, information is quickly forgotten—roughly 56 percent in one hour, 66 percent after a day, and 75 percent after six days.

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So what can be done to preserve the hard work of teaching? After all, evolutionary imperatives—which prune our memories of extraneous information—don’t always neatly align with the requirements of curriculum or the demands of the Information Age. Learning the times tables doesn’t avail when running from lions, in other words, but in the modern world that knowledge has more than proved its mettle.

The Persistence of Memory

The same neural circuitry appears to be involved in forgetting and remembering. If that is properly understood, students and teachers can adopt strategies to reduce memory leaks and reinforce learning.

MIT neuroscientists, led by Richard Cho, explain the mechanisms for synaptic strengthening in a 2015 article, also published in Neuron. When neurons are frequently fired, synaptic connections are strengthened; the opposite is true for neurons that are rarely fired. Known as synaptic plasticity, this explains why some memories persist while others fade away. Repeatedly accessing a stored but fading memory—like a rule of geometry or a crucial historical fact—rekindles the neural network that contains the memory and encodes it more deeply.

Researchers have also learned that not all new memories are created equal. For example, here are two sets of letters to remember:

  1. NPFXOSK
  2. ORANGES

For readers of English, the second set of letters is more memorable—the more connections neurons have to other neurons, the stronger the memory. The seven letters in NPFXOSK appear random and disjointed, while ORANGES benefits from its existing, deeply encoded linguistic context. The word oranges also invokes sensory memory, from the image of an orange to its smell, and perhaps even conjures other memories of oranges in your kitchen or growing on a tree. You remember by layering new memories on the crumbling foundations of older ones.

5 Teacher Strategies

When students learn a new piece of information, they make new synaptic connections. Two scientifically based ways to help them retain learning is by making as many connections as possible—typically to other concepts, thus widening the “spiderweb” of neural connections—but also by accessing the memory repeatedly over time.

Which explains why the following learning strategies, all tied to research conducted within the past five years, are so effective:

  1. Peer-to-peer explanations: When students explain what they’ve learned to peers, fading memories are reactivated, strengthened, and consolidated. This strategy not only increases retention but also encourages active learning(Sekeres et al., 2016).
  2. The spacing effect: Instead of covering a topic and then moving on, revisit key ideas throughout the school year. Research shows that students perform better academically when given multiple opportunities to review learned material. For example, teachers can quickly incorporate a brief review of what was covered several weeks earlier into ongoing lessons, or use homework to re-expose students to previous concepts (Carpenter et al., 2012; Kang, 2016).
  3. Frequent practice tests: Akin to regularly reviewing material, giving frequent practice tests can boost long-term retention and, as a bonus, help protect against stress, which often impairs memory performance. Practice tests can be low stakes and ungraded, such as a quick pop quiz at the start of a lesson or a trivia quiz on Kahoot, a popular online game-based learning platform. Breaking down one large high-stakes test into smaller tests over several months is an effective approach (Adesope, Trevisan, & Sundararajan, 2017; Butler, 2010; Karpicke, 2016).
  4. Interleave concepts: Instead of grouping similar problems together, mix them up. Solving problems involves identifying the correct strategy to use and then executing the strategy. When similar problems are grouped together, students don’t have to think about what strategies to use—they automatically apply the same solution over and over. Interleaving forces students to think on their feet, and encodes learning more deeply (Rohrer, 2012; Rohrer, Dedrick, & Stershic, 2015).
  5. Combine text with images: It’s often easier to remember information that’s been presented in different ways, especially if visual aids can help organize information. For example, pairing a list of countries occupied by German forces during World War II with a map of German military expansion can reinforce that lesson. It’s easier to remember what’s been read and seen, instead of either one alone (Carney & Levin, 2002; Bui & McDaniel, 2015).

So even though forgetting starts as soon as learning happens—as Ebbinghaus’s experiments demonstrate—research shows that there are simple and effective strategies to help make learning stick.

6 Traits of Life-Changing Teachers

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We asked our community what makes teachers unforgettable. Here’s what they said.

 

Michael Foley, my high school Shakespeare teacher, was a known tyrant. As underclassmen, my friends and I would walk past his closed door, peer in the narrow vertical window, and see him gesticulating wildly at some hapless senior, blood vessels popping in his forehead.

We were genuinely terrified.

I would eventually discover that Foley wasn’t up there tearing into a student. He was channeling Othello, consumed with jealousy and demonstrating how pettiness can destroy even the most powerful of leaders. Foley did this with all of Shakespeare’s works, pulling out the most impactful bits and pouring his heart into them: impish Puck, Juliet at death’s door, and the gravedigger, woefully regarding Yorick’s skull.

For me, at least, terror became inspiration. I’ve never forgotten him.

In education there’s a lot of talk about standards, curriculum, and assessment—but when we ask adults what they remember about their education, decades after they’ve left school, the answers are always about their best teachers. So what is it about great educators, like the theatrical Michael Foley, that leaves such an indelible impression? If the memory of curriculum and pedagogy fades with time, or fails to register at all, why do some teachers occupy our mental landscape years later? We started getting curious: What are the standout qualities that make some teachers life changers?

To answer this question, we asked our Facebook community directly. Over 700 responses poured in from teachers, parents, and students. When we analyzed the responses, some clear patterns began to emerge, across all age ranges and geography—even subjects.

Life-Changing Teachers Help Their Students Feel Safe

The research is unequivocal: People can’t learn if they’re anxious, frightened, or in trauma. Safety is part of the education starter kit. Unsurprisingly, many of our readers recalled that the best teachers establish a culture of safety and support in their classrooms, whether it’s physical, emotional, or intellectual.

Kristina Gorsuch Modaff describes her third-grade teacher, Mrs. Hilier, as having “a calming presence. She made me feel safe. She made me feel confident.” And when a student’s home life is less certain, school can be a welcome oasis: Jacqueline McDowell fondly remembers that her sixth-grade teacher “was constant and stable—she saw the whole me and was steady when other things in my life were not.”

And there were numerous stories of children with learning disabilities who found a haven and encouragement with a supportive teacher. Amy Rottmann’s high school creative writing teacher, Mrs. Harris, “made the quiet girl in the back with dyslexia realize she had a voice through poetry.”

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Life-Changing Teachers Possess a Contagious Passion

A passion for education is in the blood of the best teachers—the word passion showed up 45 times in our audience responses—and the best teachers pass it on to students.

Math teacher Dave Bock’s passion for his material was “contagious,” recalled Jennifer Reese. “He delivered engaging lessons that piqued our curiosities, and gave us time to puzzle through solutions in our own ways.” Far away from math class, Lisa Maree Wiles thanked David Sidwell, her music teacher who gave his students “a love for music, a respect for our craft, and the passion to always be the best we could be!” And at least one teacher’s passion was ahead of its time: Jessica Chiado Becirovic remembers her senior year English teacher, Anne Godin, who “staunchly advocated for introducing her classes to multicultural literature before it was seen by many as important and valuable. She was a pioneer with a rebellious spirit.”

Life-Changing Teachers Model Patience

Learning can be slow and messy. Classrooms are filled with students—sometimes more than 30 at a time—who arrive each day with different emotional needs, and learn at wildly different speeds. Remarkably, life-changing teachers find a way to stay calm amid the chaos and play the long game, giving their students the time and support they need to learn.

Judy Barrera remembers Bernie Griff, her third-grade teacher. “He… went to the high school to get me books to read, and was the most patient teacher I have ever had. He gave me so much while I probably gave him a headache!” Some teachers don’t just model patience, but teach it as a life skill: “As a student I was always in a rush to see results and I made lots of mistakes,” said James R. Lamb. “Mr. Ingram taught me to slow down and keep my thinking ahead of the work.”

And long before learning from mistakes was supported by research, high school algebra teacher Susan Gilkey calmly taught her students that it was “OK to make mistakes, learn from them, and try again. She never made kids feel bad about it,” recalls Karen Spencer, a former student. “I hope I make her proud now that I carry on that same thinking with my middle school math students.”

Life-Changing Teachers Know When to Be Tough

If life-changing teachers are patient, they also know when to change gears and get tough. They’re the teachers who challenge us to be better students and better humans—and then up the ante and demand that of us.

For Claire Bush, that someone was Mr. Zimmermann, her 12th-grade English teacher. “I’d finish my work and then goof off. He was the only one who actually called me on my crap and challenged me. Being challenged actually helped me reach my potential. Now I’m an English teacher. I wish I had the chance to thank him.”

Tough teachers don’t just hold students to high standards in the classroom—some kick their students out of the nest. Heather Miles remembers teacher Allan Edwards, who expanded her horizons and always “gave his English students rigorous content and pushed us to see beyond the small town in which we lived. He believed that we could always do more, and taught us to never settle.” And Barbara Minkler praises French teacher Mr. Smith: “He respected us, yet challenged us to reach our potentials. He stretched us with French existential literature. We had to give speeches, put on plays, and individually meet pronunciation and writing goals. He laughed with us, got mad and frustrated with us, and celebrated with us.”

Life-Changing Teachers Believe in Their Students (and Help Them Believe in Themselves)

The power of a teacher’s simple, unequivocal belief in a student was mentioned almost 70 times by respondents. Most of us have had some sort of self-doubt, but many students are crippled by it. Life-changing teachers have the gift of seeing potential in kids when others don’t, and then have the perseverance to help the children find it within themselves.

High school biology teacher Mr. Kyriakos was the one who helped Rachel Poff find her strengths: “He taught me that I was smart. I just needed to believe in myself. He died while I was his student and I cried like he was family. He changed my life.”

Laura Reilly Spencer’s teacher Libby Sciandra Cowan not only helped build her confidence as a student, but inspires her teaching practice to this day. “She believed that I could do great things, and I came to believe that, too. I hope I am half the teacher to my students that she was to me.”

Supportive advocates aren’t always teachers. Counselors and coaches can play this pivotal role as well. Nick Tutolo’s former coach, Jeff Ewing, continues to inspire him nearly 20 years later. “He valued teamwork, hard work, and pride. For a kid who was struggling to figure out where I fit, this went a long way.”

Life-Changing Teachers Love Their Students

Respondents used the word love a whopping 187 times (and that’s not counting an additional 157 heart emojis). Showing love for students—through small but meaningful gestures of kindness—is far and away the most impactful thing life-changing teachers do.

When Michelle Moyle was sick in bed, her fourth-grade teacher, Liz Thomas, arrived at her house with a stack of books to cheer her up—a gesture Michelle remembers some 38 years later. (If home visits are too hard, a positive phone call can do the trick.)

Kayla McNeil’s second-grade teacher, Kathy Nygren, showed her feelings for her students through her playful spirit. “She really loved all us kids. You could tell in the way she taught us, making learning fun by dressing up as a dinosaur or pilgrim. You never knew what was in her bag of tricks.”

Students can also feel a teacher’s love in something as simple as pronouncing their name correctly. Jena’ Lowry’s family moved all the time; she remembers how teachers used to constantly mispronounce her name. She was dreading it yet again on the first day of her 11th-grade English class, but her new teacher, Mrs. Holman, pronounced her name perfectly. “I was speechless,” Jena’ recalls. “She addressed us as if we each meant something to her. She captured our hearts, therefore she had our minds.”

Taking a step back, it appears that the most direct and longest-lasting way to reach a child—to really make a difference in his or her life—is through so-called noncognitive dimensions like passion, patience, rigor, and kindness. And when students are lucky enough to find a life-changing teacher, the benefits last a lifetime. In many cases, those students take up the vocation themselves: 145 of the people who responded to our question had become teachers, passing the gift of education forward to the next generation.

As the Fool in Twelfth Night says, “There is no darkness but ignorance.” Thanks to all who are bringing the light.

The Risks of Guesstimating Homework Time

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Studies show that homework is ineffective beyond a certain amount per night.

It is often said that a sign of insanity is doing something over and over again and expecting different results each time. This sums up how most American schools are dealing with the homework issue.

Not only does homework impact students but it also impacts their families. It is common for students and families to feel that they don’t have the time it takes to maintain a healthy balance between work and the rest of their lives. Family time that could be spent getting outdoors, visiting friends and relatives, and relaxing is being unnecessarily burdened by the large amount of homework kids have to do.

One student’s homework has the power to reshape how the entire family spends its time and sets its schedules. I don’t think most teachers appreciate this fact when they assign work.

Guesstimating Pitfalls

Despite studies — such as this one from Stanford — that show homework is ineffective beyond a certain amount per night, teachers and administrators continue to assign too much homework.

Teachers promise to assign a manageable amount of homework, but they don’t gather data on how long it takes their students to complete their homework. And exactly how do teachers estimate how long an assignment will take? Do they do it themselves first — not factoring in that they already understand the content? How on earth do you measure the length of time it takes for a student to think through a problem or a question, and not just write the answer down on a piece of paper?

One negative result of guesstimating time allotment is that students who take more time than is allotted for the assignment can feel that they are somehow inadequate, when the truth is that the allotted time is arbitrarily set. Students might also grow cynical and believe that the teachers are gaming the system by not being honest in stating the allotment, knowing that the homework will probably take more time than promised.

Valuing Free Time

I’ve heard some teachers argue that if students stop multitasking and stay off social media, they could then get the work done in the time allotted. Perhaps, but in addition to this argument also lacking data, it is built upon the dangerous idea that young people are experts at wasting their own time.

Too many adults seem to vastly undervalue the benefits and necessity of free, unstructured time. They undervalue the impact of relaxation and social time on forming well-rounded, healthy adults. So, when students get home from band practice, a game, or their extracurricular activity at six (if they have a short commute), are eating dinner by seven, and doing their homework by eight, at what point do they have time for decompressing, connecting with friends, pets, and family?

This is a plea to teachers and administrators: Take these studies and the testimonies of students and families seriously. Gather data, and if the assignment can be done in class, determine whether making it a homework assignment is truly warranted.

A Tale of Two Perspectives: My Experience Starting with a Clean Slate

In my 10 years of teaching the ninth grade, I, as have many of my colleagues, have struggled with a certain category of students – the low performers. These are the boys and girls who walk into our classes on the first day of school expecting to fail. They know nothing about us, but we represent every adult that has ever failed them in the past. These kids have a legacy of failure. One so deeply instilled into their own self-image that the prophecy is undeniably self-fulfilling.

For 9 years, I tried a multitude of strategies, all with negligible results. But last year, I tried a very specific strategy that went against everything I was told to do as a teacher. Yet, it completely changed the atmosphere of my classroom and the way these “low performers” saw my class. What’s most amazing is that this entire strategy took place on one single day – the first day of school.

I’m first going to walk through my standard first day of school prep from a teacher’s perspective. During the week leading up to the first day, as my new rosters of students were being made available for me, I would focus on every bit of data I could possibly acquire about them. Wanting to get to know their strengths and weaknesses early, I valued and appreciated everything. First and foremost, there were the legal documents for my Special Education kids (IEPs, BIPs, etc). Then, I’d focus on my district’s tools to access all previous state assessment, district assessment and cognitive testing scores. I’d then work diligently to establish a seating chart with a focus on heterogeneous grouping. For each group of four, I’d place one high student, one low student, and two middle students together. I’d work especially hard to make sure my Special Education kids were separated and in the front groups. This way, from the first day, my kids could learn from each other, develop strong relationships, and grow as a group.

Sounds great, right? Everything I’ve ever been told about the first day of school supports this idea. However, things always seemed to go south after just a few days. My high kids seemed annoyed, my low kids seemed annoyed, and my middle kids seemed completely apathetic. What makes so much sense in theory was crashing and burning in practice, and I couldn’t figure out why.

Now, let’s consider this same first day from the perspective of the low performer:

“I’m so nervous about going back to school. It brings nothing but negative emotions to mind, and I always feel so dumb. My teacher’s going to hate me because I’m so dumb and the smart kids are gonna laugh at me.”

“But maybe this year will be different! Maybe, if I try hard from the start, I can change things! Maybe it won’t be so bad!”

Walking in on the first day:

“There’s a seating chart. Okay, wait a minute. I’m in the front. Looking at my group, one kid’s super smart and gets everything right. The other two are good students, too. I’m obviously the dumb one. All the super smart kids are split up one per group. All my SpEd friends are split up, too, and we’re all in the front. I’m stupid to think things could ever change. This is my role. This is what I’ll always be.”

Last year, on the first day of school, I tried something completely different, and I told my kids all about it when they walked in. There was a seating chart, as I wanted to establish some basic norms, but it was alphabetical and backwards, with my Zs at the front and As in the back (because I figured the Zs were tired of always being in the back). The kids walked in and sat down. I then proceeded to blow their minds:

“I want to talk to you a bit about your seats. I want to make it very clear that I have purposely avoided learning anything about you except your names, and I promise not to look up anything about you for the first two weeks of school. This way, any ideas or thoughts I have about you will be based on our face-to face interactions every day. Today, in my class, all of you start with a clean slate. I don’t care how successful or unsuccessful you’ve been in the past, because in this class, it doesn’t matter. How you perform this year is based entirely on how much effort, excitement and motivation you show in this class every single day. I’m so excited to start this journey with you, and I can’t wait to see how far we’ll move together.”

Of course, I did the legal stuff. I paid attention to any required accommodations and quietly made them available, but I didn’t let those Special Education kids know that I knew. I let every one of my students develop whatever persona they wanted. I developed relationships with every one of my kids that were sincere, honest and mutually respectful. Then, the two-week mark passed. As a homage to everyone that has ever told me how valuable data is, I looked up my kids… and was completely shocked! Kids I clearly would have pegged as GT were not. Those with horrible assessment scores were many of my group leaders. The low socioeconomic status kids were actively engaged with smiles on their faces.

My kids honestly felt as if they were equals, both with each other and with me. We continued our journey together for the rest of the year, and my “low performer” group was nonexistent. My kids always knew I saw them for exactly who they were and not what their stats said about them. They knew I had no preconceived ideas about them, no stereotypes. They knew I cared about them because I took the time to truly get to know them.

A new school year is starting soon, and I know exactly how I’m going to prepare my student background analysis… I’m not.

The Teenage Brain: Stress, Coping, and Natural Highs

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During a workshop that I was facilitating on marijuana and the teen brain, a high school sophomore said to me, “I take Ritalin on weekdays for attention, but go off it on the weekends because that’s when I smoke weed.” I asked him, “Are you saying that you’ve got a mind-altering substance in your brain every day?” He answered with a concerned look, “Do you think I should get off the Ritalin?”

It’s no surprise that young people are taking more psychoactive chemicals for psychological problems, such as poor attention, anxiety, and depression. In many cases, like the student above, they choose to self-medicate in addition to using a prescription drug. In some schools, I’ve been told that as many as 25-40% of their students are on medication for psychological and behavioral problems, and that does not include recreational use. In addition, when I meet with teens as part of my work speaking at schools across the country, the vast majority of them report that they have stress, anxiety, and trouble paying attention in class. Medication can save lives for those with severe and debilitating conditions, but for everyone else, I believe we can do better.

In order to foster a sense of resilience and encourage healthier ways to cope with life, we need to educate young people about natural highs. Over the past decade, neuroscience research has shown that exercise, meditation, positive social support, laughing, and many other factors can elevate mood and improve brain functioning. These activities don’t require putting a chemical into your body, but they do take time and effort to have an impact.

The Teen Brain vs. the Adult Brain

Teenagers have lots of reasons for being more anxious, stressed, and distracted than adults. They deal with high expectations from parents, social pressure from friends, and the constant fear that their smartphone will go dead and totally ruin their life. To make things worse, the teenage brain is generally more anxious than the adult brain. This may be due to the rapid development of the amygdala, a brain structure involved in emotional expression, compared to the slower development of brain areas involved in decision making and reasoning. Also, the teen brain has a larger pleasure center than adults, which means that rewards feel — well, more rewarding. This is particularly true of risks taken in unsupervised settings with their peers. As a result, the teenage brain is a contradiction of epically exhausting proportions, both more anxious and more thrill seeking than its adult counterpart.

Teenage angst is nothing new, but using natural highs to alleviate it might be novel. One of the best-studied natural highs is running or any form of cardio exercise. My wife loves running. She even runs when it snows. I always tell her, “If you get lost, I’m not coming to get you.” When I ask her why she runs, she says, “It makes me feel better, even when I’m tired. It also helps me focus at work.” It turns out that there’s a lot of research backing her up. Thirty minutes of any physical activity that elevates the heart rate helps to release endorphins and improve mood and cognitive functioning. Regular running has also been shown to increase the volume of the hippocampus, the most important brain structure for memory. It doesn’t have to be intense physical activity, either. Taking a walk in the woods has shown benefits for memory, mood, and attention.

In my case, I love meditation, despite having been a skeptic for many years. Meditation has proven to be a powerful stress reliever for me, particularly at night. Students report some of the highest levels of stress during the evening hours when they’re tired but expected to finish homework and fight off distractions. Meditation is like a cell phone charger for the brain. I encourage students to start out with 5-10 minutes in the late afternoon, before dinner, to test it out. The goal is to practice calming the mind. Nodding off is fine, even welcomed. I’ve presented this to students and staff for over a year, and the response has been tremendous. They are in a better mood after the meditation and report experiencing greater productivity that doesn’t interfere with their sleep.

Exploring Your Own Natural High

Whether you love surfing, biking, cooking, or gardening, consider your favorite pursuits as means to your own natural high. Invite young people to experiment with perceiving the activities that make them happy through the lens of a natural high, and then report back to you about how it made them feel. This can be a great bonding experience for the classroom and teach skills for dealing with stress for years to come. Check out yoga and meditation classes in your community — some might even be free. Visit websites such as Inward Bound or Guided Mindfulness Meditation, along with meditation apps that you can download. For the classroom, check out Natural High, an online source of free videos and curriculum for teachers to help youth identify and cultivate their passions.

Does your school have a dialogue with students about recognizing stress and exploring the best means of coping with it? What does that look like? Please share your thoughts in the comments section of this post.

What the Heck Is Service Learning?

Edutopia

Here’s a simple definition for service learning with details and resources for planning a unit.

According to Vanderbilt University, service learning is defined as: “A form of experiential education where learning occurs through a cycle of action and reflection as students seek to achieve real objectives for the community and deeper understanding and skills for themselves.”

Wikipedia explains service learning as: “An educational approach that combines learning objectives with community service in order to provide a pragmatic, progressive learning experience while meeting societal needs.”

That second definition is easier to comprehend, but it still feels more complicated than it needs to be. How about this: In service learning, students learn educational standards through tackling real-life problems in their community.

What Does Service Learning Look Like?

Community service, as many of us know, has been a part of educational systems for years. But what takes service learning to the next level is that it combines serving the community with the rich academic frontloading, assessment, and reflection typically seen in project-based learning.

In a service-learning unit, goals are clearly defined, and according to The Center for Service Learning and Civic Engagement, there are many kinds of projects that classrooms can adopt. Classes can be involved in direct issues that are more personal and face-to-face, like working with the homeless. Involvement can be indirect where the students are working on broader issues, perhaps an environmental problem that is local. The unit can also include advocacy that centers on educating others about the issues. Additionally, the unit can be research-based where the students act to curate and present on information based on public needs.

Here are several ideas for service-learning units:

  • Work on a Habitat for Humanity building site.
  • Pack up food bags for the homeless.
  • Adopt-a-Highway.
  • Set up a tutoring system or reading buddies with younger students.
  • Clean up a local park or beach.
  • Launch a drought and water awareness campaign.
  • Create a “pen pal” video conferencing group with a senior citizens home.

The Breakdown of a Service-Learning Unit

It’s not enough to help others. Deep service learning isn’t afraid to tackle the rigorous standards along with the service. You might find it helpful to split your unit into four parts:

1. Pre-Reflection: Have your students brainstorm in writing the ways in which they can help their world or their local community. Check out Newsela, CNN Student News, or their local papers for articles on current events and issues of interest to get in informational reading, as well.

2. Research: Guide your students in techniques to help them search wisely and efficiently. They should conduct online polls (crowdsourcing) and create graphs to chart their findings. Students should summarize their findings using embedded images, graphs, and other multimedia elements. (Try an infographic tool likePiktochart.)

3. Presentation: Have your students present their findings to the school, each other, and outside stakeholders. They can develop posters to promote their call to action, write a letter campaign, or develop a simple website using Weebly. Students can “go on the road” with their findings to local schools and organizations or produce screencasts for the school website.

4. Reflection: Ask your students to think back on what they gained from journeying through this project. Have them reflect on the following:

  • What did you learn about the topic?
  • What did you learn about yourself?
  • How do you now think differently?

Assessing Service Learning

Another element that tends to make service learning unique is that multiple stakeholders assess students:

Community assessment: The community partners can get their say as well by assessing the students. They may even get voice in developing the rubric or criteria for evaluating the students.

Teacher assessment: Along with evaluating students on the content, you might additionally assess them on how well they accomplished the writing, graphing, researching, or speaking.

Student assessment: Your students might conduct self-assessment as a form of reflection. They also may assist in developing the rubric that other stakeholders use to assess them.

What we’re talking about here is a form of engagement. It’s about leveraging the need to do something good in the world as a means to help kids hit their learning objectives. It’s about teaching empathy as well as literacy. It’s about teaching compassion as well as composition. It’s about teaching advocacy as well as algebra.