Fifth-graders excitedly skip through April Becherer's English class at Signal Hill School in Belleville.
Becherer needed a way to get her students' attention so she had them act like Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz." Her students skipped and clicked their heels three times and recited Dorothy's famous line, "there's no place like home."
It might sound unusual, but Becherer and other teachers in the metro-east are using a teaching method called "whole brain teaching," which gets students actively engaged in the learning process. Students are encouraged by their teachers to get up and move around and talk to their classmates. In whole brain teaching, teachers assign gestures and catchy phrases to an educational concept in order to help students remember it.
Becherer and other teachers from Signal Hill School District 181 and Belleville School District 118 attended a free two-day professional development training session on whole brain teaching taught by one of its creators, Chris Biffle, in Union, Mo., during the summer. Biffle created the concept of whole brain teaching in 1999 with fellow teachers Jay Vanderfin and Chris Rekstad in California.
Teachers at Signal Hill and Abraham Lincoln Elementary School in Belleville fully implemented whole brain teaching this year, and the teaching method has gotten rave reviews from administrators, parents and students.
The first time she saw whole brain teaching being used in her child's classroom at Abe Lincoln, parent Holly Jackson said she was impressed. "I was just amazed at how the kids responded so quickly. It was just really neat to see," she said.
Once a teacher teaches a whole brain lesson, each student then goes over the lesson again with a partner, mimicking their teachers' words and gestures.
Abe Lincoln second-grader Jalisa Head, 8, said it's easier to remember lessons and she enjoys teaching a friend what her teacher taught. "If you say something over and over again you will remember it better," Jalisa said.
District 118 Superintendent Matt Klosterman said aspects of whole brain teaching are being used at the eight other elementary schools in the district.
"It has touched all of our elementary schools," he said. "If teachers find it to be useful for students in their classroom, we support them implementing it to whatever degree they find successful for their students."
Abe Lincoln Principal Ed Langen is passionate about whole brain teaching. "It is honestly, to me, one of the most exciting, positive, productive and engaging instructional delivery systems for students, and teachers, I've seen come along in my 24 years in education," Langen said.
He described whole brain teaching as another tool in a teacher's tool belt of instructional delivery methods that incorporates student engagement, movement, speaking and listening at a high level.
How does it work?
During an English lesson Wednesday, Becherer described a sentence with just a noun and a verb as a "blah sentence" using the gesture of being bent forward with arms dangling. A "spicy sentence" added adjectives to the sentence, and the students gestured this by pointing to different parts of their upper body and sizzling. An "extender sentence" added a prepositional phrase, which was illustrated by physically putting your hands out and pretending to extend the sentence.
After Becherer explained the concepts and corresponding gestures, she asked the students, "Do you know it?" After they responded with a loud yes, Becherer says, "Then show it."
The students excitedly stood up at their tables and went over the gestures with a partner. When Becherer yelled "switch," the students switched who was describing the different kinds of sentences with the gestures. When Becherer shouted "seat," the students all returned to their seats.
Once the whole brain lesson was completed, all the students wrote a complex sentence. Several students then read their sentence aloud while fellow students animated the different words with gestures -- saying the word "swoosh" and pretending to draw a comma in the air when there should be a comma in the sentence.
Third-grade teacher Marcy Hock-Knaus at Abe Lincoln recently started a lesson with an energetic "class, class," which her students responded with a hearty "yes, yes" all in sync.
Hock-Knaus then asked her students to "mirror" her words and gestures, and all the students put their hands up with palms forward to act like a mirror and copied exactly what their teacher said and did.
Hock-Knaus explained what an urban community is by assigning gestures to the following descriptions: it has tall buildings, lots of people and it's a city.
"The gesture helps anchor that concept in their brain so it's easier for them to recall it," she said. "It ties in audio visual sharing, and since it's fun it ties in that emotional part of it too. The kids feel like they're a part of their learning."
Teachers also check in with their students while they are pair sharing or teaching one another a whole brain lesson. "It gives you a great chance right away to access your kids," said Abe Lincoln second-grade teacher Cindy Lotz. "I feel like I'm getting a more immediate assessment if they are getting what I'm teaching that day or lesson."
Fellow Abe Lincoln second-grade teacher Jill McGovern said she often utilizes whole brain teaching during vocabulary lessons as words easily lend themselves to gestures. For example, the vocabulary word "nibble" can be gestured by placing both hands near your mouth and pretending to take small bites of something.
In addition to implementing whole brain teaching methods in classroom instruction, the entire Abe Lincoln School adopted the five rules associated with whole brain teaching that all have corresponding gestures, Langen said.
The rules are to follow directions quickly, raise your hand for permission to speak, raise your hand for permission to leave your seat, make smart choices and make your teacher happy.
"The kids love the rules," Lotz said. "They know those rules in their sleep."
At Signal Hill School, Becherer said the entire school building has also adopted the five rules.
Abe Lincoln fourth-grade teacher Staci Casto said another "vital" piece of whole brain teaching is what's referred to as the scoreboard, which has a smiley face on one side and a frowny face on the other side. If students perform a task well, they receive a tally on the smiley side, and if they don't follow directions or aren't paying attention, they receive a tally on the frowny side, she explained.
"You are making tallies on both sides throughout the day," Casto said. "It's kind of like you are playing with them the whole day."
Hock-Knaus is a big fan of the "super improver wall." She explained students earn stars on a card only for improvements. "The kids that may struggle and can't get A's all the time but is improving their reading score or reading more words per minute or getting their multiplications done in a shorter amount of time, they get a star for that," Hock-Knaus said. After 10 stars, they move up to a different level on the wall. "They are so excited about it, because it's based on their achievement."
Becherer also incorporates a "super improver wall" in her classroom at Signal Hill. "It's intrinsic -- you're holding yourself accountable," she said.
What are the benefits?
Lotz, who's been teaching more than two decades, said she prefers whole brain teaching instead of the traditional style of teaching, which involves a lot of lecture to the students.
Traditional teaching is an effective method for some children, Lotz said, but "it doesn't work for all kids, because not all children learn that way. Whole brain teaching gets the children involved with both sides of their brain," she said. "You have the kids doing a lot of the talking, and the gestures really help the children retain the information."
One of the main benefits of whole brain teaching is students are actively engaged, according to Lotz. "They enjoy it so much more," she said than traditional teaching. "I've seen a big change in all kids, but especially the kids who have trouble sitting still; it works great for them. It eliminates a lot of the behavior issues."
Becherer also praised whole brain teaching for its ability to keep students engaged. "A lot of kids learn better through conversation and movement," she said.
McGovern said she feels her students' retention is improving as a result of whole brain teaching. "It's been said, 'If you can teach it, you know it,'" she said. "When they are teaching each other, you know it's sticking with them, and the retention is so much better."
Casto said during state standardized testing last month, she saw many of her students performing various gestures in an effort to recall information needed to answer a question. She also said it makes the students "feel responsible for their learning. They want to pay attention to you, because they know in a minute they have to turn to their partner and teach," she said.
Becherer explained whole brain teaching can be challenging for some teachers. "You have to have the personality to pull it off," she said. "It's fun, but you have to be willing to be goofy. You have to go out of your box to do it. Kids nowadays are getting harder to reach -- you have to be more energetic in the classroom."
Becherer is working toward becoming a whole brain teaching trainer so she can host workshops for fellow educators in the metro-east.
What do parents, students think?
Abe Lincoln parent Beth Van Horn of Belleville credits her 8-year-old son Quinn's new passion for learning to Hock-Knaus and whole brain teaching.
Van Horn said Quinn, a third-grader, never liked school, because he always got in trouble for being disruptive in class. That isn't the case this school year; she said Quinn has a new found interest in school because of whole brain teaching.
"This gives him the full freedom to be who he is, but to learn," Van Horn said. "This year he has just flourished. It's completely transformed his whole personality. Even at home, he's much more respectful."
Van Horn said whole brain teaching also has affected her fourth-grader, Xander, 10, who's quieter than his younger brother. "This is great program for him, because it forces him to socialize," she said. "I'm so grateful this program has been provided to them."
Parent Robin Wangelin said both of her daughters enjoy coming to Abe Lincoln because of whole brain teaching. "They want to go to school and learn. It's fun," she said. "It has made a huge impact on them."
Abe Lincoln second-grader Sophie Boente, 7, said she likes learning new things and the gestures help her remember what her teacher teaches.
Fellow second-grader Olivia Jackson, 7, said she enjoys mirroring her teacher's "big gestures. We get to learn a lot and have fun with gestures," she said.
Quinn enjoys the super improver wall. "I like how when you move up a level you get excited, because you worked to that level."
Contact reporter Jamie Forsythe at 239-2562 or firstname.lastname@example.org.