Trustees approve Whole Brain Teaching

Teachers, union reach stalemate

A stroll through the halls of Eliot Elementary School will
quickly banish the notion that successful students sit quietly at
their desks without uttering a peep. Instead, a peek inside most
classrooms will reveal a flurry of activity, complete with
synchronized hand gestures accompanied by a clamor of young
voices.
A stroll through the halls of Eliot Elementary School will quickly banish the notion that successful students sit quietly at their desks without uttering a peep. Instead, a peek inside most classrooms will reveal a flurry of activity, complete with synchronized hand gestures accompanied by a clamor of young voices.

“I saw joy, not only in the teacher but in the kids,” said trustee Tom Bundros after observing a lesson. “It was a really exciting experience.”

Using a method known as “Whole Brain Teaching” – a concept coined by three teachers in Southern California about a decade ago – Eliot has added yet another tool to the arsenal that has fueled its unprecedented academic success in recent years, which hasn’t gone unnoticed by other struggling district schools.

By approving a $7,000 contract with Chris Biffle, one of the creators of Whole Brain Teaching, and outfitting the six remaining elementary schools with the tools to implement his strategies, district administrators and principals hope to replicate Eliot’s success.

In three years, the school’s score on the Academic Performance Index, a statewide measure of academic improvement on a 1,000-point scale, has skyrocketed from 668 to 836, a difference of 168 points.

“This is not a district-mandated initiative,” said Superintendent Deborah Flores. “This is coming from the principals. They’re all very persuaded by Eliot’s results and want to duplicate it at their sites.

“If we can get the results we saw at Eliot this past spring, wouldn’t that be wonderful?”

At Thursday evening’s school board meeting, Eliot teacher Heather Parsons led a demonstration lesson on how to find the perimeter and area of a quadrilateral with about a dozen students to give trustees and the public a taste of how Whole Brain Teaching works.

After leading her students through the class rules – which the children recited out loud and included reminders about raising hands, making smart choices and following directions – Parsons walked them through the lesson. Like the students’ movement, her hand gestures mirrored the subject matter. Every time she mentioned the word “perimeter,” she traced the shape of the quadrilateral in the air. When she switched over the “area,” she mimed shading in the shape.

“Perimeter: you add the sides all the way around,” the students chanted in unison. “Area: you multiply the up and the down.”

“It’s just a lot more fun because I used to be bored to death,” said Justin Fajardo, a pint-sized third grader at Las Animas Elementary, which has begun implementing some aspects of Whole Brain Teaching.

Several Las Animas parents and teachers took the microphone after Parsons’ presentation, urging the school board to approve the contract so that they could take full advantage of what the program offers.

“For the first time, I saw students engaged and participating and not even knowing that they’re learning,” said Eric Fajardo, Justin’s father. “This is a winner. This is a way to have a uniform higher standard of education to engage our students. I want to go back to elementary school so I can do it all over again.”

Whole Brain Teaching works so well because it combines kinesthetic, auditory and visual elements to engage all types of learners, said Las Animas Principal Silvia Reyes.

But other than watching a few YouTube videos on the teaching methods, many district teachers excited to sharpen their skills haven’t received much training.

“We’re really pleading for that training,” said Maritza Salcido, a Las Animas teacher. “What we’re doing now is great but I can only imagine what we can do if we’re fully immersed in the training.”

Like their teachers, students said they wanted to continue learning with the new teaching methods.

“Do you want us to go back to the old way?” Eliot Principal James Dent asked Parsons’ class.

“No!” they yelled.

Though the district will first focus on implementing the teaching methods at the elementary level, Flores said she hopes to eventually expand to the upper grades.

“We need to do it well at the elementary school and then we’ll talk about middle and high school,” she said.

Trustees unanimously approved the contract for Whole Brain Teaching, and the training has been scheduled for Jan. 4 and Feb. 18.

“They’ve had outstanding results,” said trustee Mark Good of Eliot’s success. “We need to model best practices in all our classrooms. If we find something that’s working, it makes sense to spread the wealth.”

In a 6 to 1 vote, with Good dissenting, trustees also approved a contract not to exceed $10,000 with a company called Techability, which will deliver and install laptops, projectors and mobile writing devices for teachers. This hardware will give teachers the tools to enhance their focus on Whole Brain Teaching, Flores said.

While Good said he approves of the concept, he questioned spending that sum of money on an outside contractor to deliver and install the equipment and dispose of the empty cardboard boxes into recycling containers.

Rebecca Wright, assistant superintendent of business services, assured Good at the board meeting that it would cost almost as much to have district employees work overtime to perform the same tasks.

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