Positively Influencing Through Structure


Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.  I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.  This is the interrelated structure of reality.

  –Martin Luther King, Jr.

The beginning of the school year is filled with teacher workshops and trainings.  I have enjoyed reading posts from fellow bloggers regarding various seminars that have inspired them to think and consider how they want to approach the students in their classrooms intellectually, emotionally, and behaviorally.  I, too, have been able to experience motivational trainings as I prepare for the upcoming school year.  Today I participated in a workshop focused on the use of positive discipline in the classroom.  This topic is not new to the staff at my school as this is our fourth year of delving into the idea.  What is new is the movement within the staff to take the whole idea a step further.  The collegial conversations and excitement after today will certainly spill over into next week with the arrival of our students.  A comment made by Dr. Jody McVittie, director of Sound Discipline (www.sounddiscipline.org), lingered in my mind throughout the rest of the day.  She mentioned how structure provides safety for students of trauma and those who are considered the “high flyers” resulting in fewer discipline issues.

One of the reasons the comment lingered in my mind was because I kept thinking how important it is for teachers to make connections at the beginning of the year to create the sense of support and care.  At the same time, those connections are reinforced when teachers are able to clearly state the purpose and establish necessary structure within the classroom walls. While this thought was rumbling through my mind, another thought kept invading its territory.  In previous entries, I mentioned how physical movement helps to reduce stress and anxiety. Studies have indicated that students who engaged in physical activity regularly had lower levels of anxiety and depression
(Greenleaf et al., 2010; Gondoh et al., 2009; Parfitt et al., 2009). Students who were physically active were showed fewer depression symptoms because they were most likely content with school (Kristjansson et al., 2009).  In fact, physically active youth tend to have higher levels of self-esteem, self-worth, and body perception (DeBate et al., 2009). So, if students who are engaged in physical activity are less anxious, and students that are members of classrooms with structured environments experience reduced stress, why not combine the two concepts at the beginning of the year when the change students experience as a result of starting a new school year instigates stress and anxiety.

One of the pillars of establishing positive discipline in the classroom is the establishment of routines.  The routines provide students with the necessary structure they strive for in a learning environment.  The implementation of physical movement activities at the beginning of the year with a solid structure and easy to follow routine will pave the way for success throughout the school year.  More importantly, the structure and the physical movement of students at the beginning of the real has the potential to reduce the stress and anxiety so many of the students are experiencing.

There are several ways to include movement at the beginning of the year.  Many teachers design some sort of scavenger hunt or get-to-know-you activities that involve students getting out of their chairs and interacting with others.  These are wonderful ways to help students meet students in their classroom communities.  Besides these activities, I would emphasize putting the structure in place for actual physical movement activities that will be used throughout the school year and not as a one-time activity.

An activity that I like to introduce mirrors the Vocabulary Tableau activity (to a degree).  To emphasize correct pronunciation of vocabulary words, I like to utilize a call-and-respond activity (in fact, that is what I call it).  I have all the students stand and I say a word, students repeat the word, I say the word louder, and students say the word louder.  I then add a physical movement while saying the word to help students remember the word.  Students repeat the movement while saying the word.  I then perform the movement without saying the word and students follow suit.  I usually try to do this at the beginning of a lesson or class.  At the end of class, I call out words and students perform the movement associates with the word.  This is a simple activity that I have modified to include key concepts or academic vocabulary that we use in the classroom.  The activity requires little explanation and repetition adds structure.  Moreover, the emphasis and repetition of correct pronunciation helps to reduce anxiety over difficult words as students encounter the words in the future.

Even if teachers start small, structure plus physical movement can be a powerful way to start the school year successfully.  As teachers continue to add to their physical movement repertoires, student engagement may increase while student misbehavior decreases.


Vocabulary Tableau: Making Meaning Through Pictures



One of my goals as an English teacher is to develop a variety of ways for students to learn, understand, and study vocabulary.  Teaching vocabulary can be a mundane task that for many students and teachers is seen as important, but is can also seem tortuous.  Of course, this may be a bit extreme….  I actually like teaching vocabulary (and I’m sure there are others like me).  I love thinking of ways to make vocabulary fun and interesting for students so the don’t fear it, hate it, or shut down when we start to learn words from a vocabulary list or academic vocabulary.  There are several activities that I like to use when teaching vocabulary.  The activity I am going to describe in this post is a modified activity from my days as a drama teacher and director.  The name of the activity is Vocabulary Tableau.  The purpose of this activity is to activate the brain by using physical movement, recall vocabulary definitions through application, and internalizing vocabulary physically to help recall definitions in the future.

In order to understand the activity, it is important to understand the definition of the word tableau.  In fact, I often go through the origins and the definition of the word before I explain the activity with my students.  For the purposes of this post, I consulted Dictionary.com, which defines a tableau as:

1.  a picture, as of a scene

2.  a picturesque grouping of persons or objects; a striking scene
3.  a representation of a picture, statue, scene, etc., by one or more persons suitably costumed and posed
Once students understand the definition of tableau, they start to predict what the activity will be about, which begins to build anticipation.  I provide students with the opportunity to guess what the activity will be about based on this definition and the title of the activity.  The next part of the activity will vary depending on what type of vocabulary words students will be using.  If I am using a standard vocabulary word list, then I might organize the students in groups of three and tell them to pick a word from the list that they are going to analyze, or I might assign groups a specific word from the list.  Once students have either chosen a word or have been assigned a word, they are informed to look word parts, word origins, and all definitions of the words.  I usually have students read them aloud to each other.  Students are then instructed to think of a group picture (a frozen image or statue) that they can create based on the definition of the word.  I minimize the time to create a higher sense of need to accomplish the task, thus motivating each member to listen and work effectively with each other.  Depending on the difficulty level of the words, I limit the time to 1-3 minutes.  When time expires, I count down from 10.  When I reach zero, all groups will be frozen in their positions.  At this point, the activity can take many directions.  Sometimes, I have each group show the other groups its position while the other groups guess which vocabulary word is represented in the group’s tableau.  The group then has a chance to explain why it chose each person’s position and the relationship of the position to the definition of the word.  Sometimes, I assign multiple groups the same word and we compare the different tableaus.  Sometimes, as a quick review, I have students work alone.  I shout out a word, give students 30 seconds to think of a position, and then have the entire class freeze in the different positions.  The 30 seconds allows for processing time and assigning everyone the same word allows students to borrow someone else’s tableau.  During this variation, I make sure I have students explain their positions.
Check a newer post for additional variations at:  http://teachingthroughmovement.wordpress.com/2016/01/19/vocabulary-tableau-part-two/

How Exercise Rewires Your Brain

This is a short, but informational video, explaining how a recent study from Princeton University reported that exercise actually reorganizes the brain to handle stress better.

The video supports the thought that physical activity is helpful for all levels of students. Not only does it help students who need to get up and move, it helps students deal with stress and anxiety. Adolescence is a period of time when students are feeling stress and anxiety due to social, physical, and behavioral situations.

Studies have indicated that students who engaged in physical activity regularly had lower levels of anxiety and depression (Greenleaf et al., 2010; Gondoh et al., 2009; Parfitt et al., 2009). In fact, physically active youth tend to have higher levels of self-esteem, self-worth, and body perception (DeBate et al., 2009).

As teachers begin to plan for the new school year by creating lessons focused on community, respect, and responsibility, it may be worthwhile to add physical activity to those lessons. A stress-free, or reduced-stress, environment may translate to a safe learning environment.

Walking with Starfish, Math, and Journals


“From there to here, from here to there, funny things are everywhere!”  

Dr. Seuss, One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish

Summer is one of my favorite times of the year.  I love being outdoors enjoying the sun, the beaches, the forests, city parks, and so on.  I think one of the greatest elements of summer vacation that I enjoy the most is spending time in nature with my 2-year-old and 6-year-old.  We love to explore together in nature alone by looking at the different types of trees, the variety of rock formations, the bubbling of a brook, and listening to the songs of seagulls flying overhead.  When we were walking along the marina the other day looking for starfish, an elderly gentleman commented on how being outdoors was the greatest education.  Thus, we were engaged in experiential learning.  I’m sure John Dewey, David Kolb, and Jean Piaget would be proud of us as we walked, witnessed, and wondered about the world around us.

During our little escapades, I also liked to throw in reading and math skills that my soon-to-be first grader and preschooler should know or review prior to the start of school.  When we saw some sort of sign, I would ask my first grader to read various words, and I would ask my preschooler to identify simple letters.  When we located starfish, I would have my preschooler to count how many he saw, and I would ask my first grader how many more she would need if we wanted to have 20 total.  These are grand moments that both my children adore.  Probably the moments that make me smile even more are when we return home, they ask to practice more math and reading.  I believe in experiential learning, and obviously, the power of movement during the learning process.

These learning and teaching experiences during the summer remind me of similar activities I use in my junior high English classrooms.  One of the activities is what I call Journaling our World.   During this activity, my students and I travel to various parts of our school campus and observe what we see.  For example, we might begin by walking to the library first.  At the library, students would have about five minutes to silently write down and observations that they see such as what types of posters were on the walls, what students and teachers were doing in the library, what sounds they heard, and so on.  After about five minutes, we would travel to a different location on campus.  The goal is to visit about five different places before returning to the classroom to talk about our observations.  The notes and the discussion lead to a journal entry reflecting on the community around them.  This is a wonderful activity to do at the beginning of the school year as students are starting adjust to their new environments.

A similar activity that I do is called a Vocabulary Nature Walk.  During this activity, I lead students to different locations outside of the school buildings.  For example, we might go to the track, the nature trail, or the grassy field.  Prior to this activity, we would have reviewed several vocabulary words from the most recent vocabulary list, so the words are fresh in the minds of the students.  Once outside, students would practice making sentences using the words in relation to the outside environment.  First, students would practice the sentences in their minds before sharing in a Think-Pair-Share walk.  After a few minutes of this activity, we would return to the classroom, where students would write down some of the sentences they heard before sharing them out for the entire class to hear.

Students love to escape the classroom, and I love being outdoors, so these activities are some of my favorite to do.



I like nonsense, it wakes up the brain cells.  Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living, it’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope.  Which is what I do, and that enables you to laugh at life’s realities.   –Dr. Seuss

My family and I love Dr. Seuss.  My first grader thinks his books are absolutely hilarious, and I have to agree he was a genius.  I have always believed that a sense of creativity inspires, motivates, or simply, helps people learn.  I am a big proponent of elective courses.  Brain cells are activated by creativity, but my focus in this blog is on physical activity.  In previous posts I mentioned that physical activity was important to brain function, but I did not elaborate beyond mentioning how studies support improved academic and on-task behavior.  The fact of the matter is that the brain becomes active like students become active.  There are several studies that have analyzed brain development and exercise with mixed results.

Several things are happening when students engage in physical activity.  This is obvious to anyone who observed a classroom full of students participating in some sort of energizer or brain break activity.  Students become engaged, discipline issues subside, and the general atmosphere in the classroom is positive.  What is not observed (visually) is what is going on in the mind of the students.  As students begin to move, various areas of the brain become active:  the cerebellum, the prefrontal cortex, and the hippocampus (Ratey & Hagermann, 2008).  Students that are involved in moderate-to-vigorous physical activity for a duration of time can experience a stimulus in neurons increasing neuron and cellular growth (Cotman et al., 2007).

In the hippocampus,  the growth factor known as the brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) helps to improve the “function of neurons, encourages their growth, and strengthens and protects them against the natural process of cell death” (Ratey & Hagerman, 2008, p. 40).  BDNF helps create synaptic plasticity, which occurs when dendrites grow, synapses are created, and more cellular connections are made (Ratey & Hagerman, 2008).  The growth and strengthening of neurons and the creation of synaptic plasticity contributes to the learning process as information is passed from one neuron to another and connections are made (Ratey & Hagerman, 2008, Zoeller, 2011).

Several studies have indicated that the production of BDNF increased during exercise (Cotman et al., 2007, Hillman et al, 2008).  The increased levels of BDNF have led to improvement in cognitive function, learning tasks, and memory tasks (Griffen et al., 2011; Winter et al., 2006).  Multiple studies have indicated improved memory performance following exercise (Berchtold et al., 2010; Hopkins & Bucci, 2010; Vaynman et al., 2004).  Findings have also pointed out that BDNF levels were not just higher immediately after exercise, but were higher for up to 1-2 weeks following exercises (Berchtold et al., 2010).

The results of these findings are pretty exciting to me.  Sometimes I become tired as a teacher, or become behind in a lesson, and I am tempted to skip physical activity, but I realize that is a mistake when the activity can not only stimulate the minds of my students, but can stimulate my own mind!  There are several studies analyzing other areas of the mind other than the hippocampus and BDNF, which I plan to report in future posts.

While this may sound cheesy, I like to refer to BDNF as Brain Development Needs Fitness (as in physical movement).  I’m sure other people can think of other sayings, and I would love to hear from you!

Moving, Thinking, and Processing….

soccer kick

I recently read an article published by ASCD regarding the importance of processing time.  Processing time, or wait time, is an importance component of teaching that several teachers struggle with.  It isn’t a difficult concept, but over anticipation of the “right” answer and the time crunch of getting through all components of a lesson sometimes interfere with this process.

“The classroom teacher’s goal is to successfully integrate material into a student’s working, relational, and ultimately permanent memory.  When students are rapidly overloaded with material, however, the teacher’s chances of achieving this goal decrease” (Roake, 2013).

As I read this article, I couldn’t help but think about how perfect it would be to insert a brain break, or energizer, within a lesson to help with the overloading of information.  This type of break was actually suggested within the article.  Providing students with a change of pace helps to “refresh students’ processing abilities.”

Ultimately, I was reminded of one of the energizers that I use in my classroom that combines movement and think time. I call the activity The Physical Question Challenge:  Who is the strongman (or woman) of knowledge?   I know that title is corny, but kids love it (and groan about it) when teachers are corny.  This activity involves review questions.  These can be thought of before class if the activity is used as a warm-up or key pieces of information need to be reviewed, or the questions can be thought of on the spot if it looks like students need a break from what they are engaged in at the moment.

I begin by calling out a physical movement.  Students then begin doing the movement.  After student have started the movement, I ask one the questions.  Rather than have students answer the question right away, I make them perform the movement for 30 seconds.  After 30 seconds have occurred, I either ask for a volunteer or I pull a name from the Cup of Dreams and Opportunities (my fancy way of using names on sticks).  Students stop doing the movement and we wait for the correct answer.  I then call out a second type of movement.  The students begin doing that movement, and then I ask the second question.  The students perform the activity for 30 seconds before an answer is provided.

The type of questions can really vary during this activity.  They can be simple review questions with straightforward answers, or they can be questions with open-ended responses.  Either way, students are stimulating their minds with the physical movements, refreshing their minds after intense learning, and they are being provided with processing time to help each student be successful regardless of how long it takes to process information.

Movement Action Ideas:

1.  marching in place (without having the toes leave the ground)

2.  straight arm circles (arms out the side and moving in a circle)

3.  elbow to knee raises

4.  throwing punches/shooting an arrow

5.  jumping jacks

6.  hammer throw

7. soccer kick



The ten-minute fight….encountering blissful moments



Healthy People 2020 was designed to set guidelines for people on how to live a healthier lifestyle.  In addition, it was designed as a way to help combat obesity and other health related concerns.  People of all ages should refer to the guidelines as a way to help them incorporate physical activity into their own lives in order to maintain a healthy lifestyle and remain physically active.  It is recommended that adolescents participate in at least 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity each day.  The 60 minutes of activity does not have to be completed all at once.  It can occur during physical education classes, after school during sports clubs, and it can occur during short bouts of time such as during recess or participating in physical activity breaks (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2008).  Since youth in our culture are becoming increasingly sedentary, it is important for schools and communities to continue to offer programs that help get youth active.

The great thing about the physical activity guidelines is that the 60 minutes of activity can occur in as little as 10-minute segments throughout the school day.  If teachers incorporated 10-minute physical activity breaks throughout the school day, these segments, in addition to the time students spent in physical education classes, would help students achieve the minimum of 60 minutes of physical activity needed to achieve the health benefits of both the mind and body that exercise provides. In its review of studies, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the use of physical activity in the classroom increased academic achievement, improved student concentration, and improved student attitude.  Moreover, research has also linked the participation in physical activity to decreased levels of depression and anxiety, increased levels of self-esteem, and successful management of ADHD symptoms (Greenleaf, Petrie, & Martin, 2010; Parfitt, Pavey, & Rowlands,  2009; Prasad, St.-Hilaire, Peterson, & Loftin, 2009).  Adolescence is a challenging time for most people.  During adolescence, students are experiencing changes emotionally, physically, socially, and mentally, leaving a classroom full of a compilation of emotions, abilities, learning styles, and motivation levels (Wiles & Bondi, 2007).  If utilizing physical activity breaks in the classroom can create some type of balance, then why wouldn’t teachers want to use them in the classroom?  Ten minutes of activity may seem like a significant chunk of  a class period; however, if students are relatively focused for the remaining 40 minutes of class, isn’t that better than a class lacking focus for an entire class period? Also, if ten minutes can help students who are restless (such as many adolescent boys) and those that have been diagnosed with ADD or ADHD concentrate better wouldn’t classroom management be easier due to fewer classroom disruptions?  Yes, I am an advocate for using physical activity in the classroom.  I DO feel the pressures of time, but I combat the time barrier by adding curriculum content during the physical activity.  Much of the content utilizes review strategies, which I would do any way if I kept my kids seated and was too uncomfortable with using physical activity in the classroom. I originally started using physical movement activities as a way to help me manage my classroom, but the benefits for students is even more powerful than I thought and why wouldn’t I want to help them be the best that they can be?  I’m willing to put on the physical activity boxing gloves and knock down some classroom barriers to help students learn in a safe and positive environment.  After all, I know that I will win (most of the time)…..