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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

It Makes Sense to Use All the Senses to Teach

"When you integrate all of the senses, then the students start to ask questions," McDonald explains. "We say, 'Smell this, taste this, look at this.' And then they ask, 'Why?' And then we respond, 'Let's look in this book and see if we can find the answer.' Kids need a tactile relationship with the environment, and we provide that tactile info, which then can open the mind."

This from Janet McDonald, manager of Rochester Roots, as quoted in Edutopia's recent article Cultivating Minds:  Food-Related Curricula Take Root Nationwide, by Bernice Yueng.

Using food in the classroom has long been a strategy of renegade teachers, although perhaps not in as meaningful a context as this.

Mama and the "Bad Boys"

My Mom first started teaching at Westwood when there was a group of "bad boys" that no one could teach.  She taught this group Math and English and surpassed much of what the other teachers were doing in their classroom.  How did she do this?

Every morning, she baked.  From homemade cinnamon rolls, to cake, to any other thing you could imagine, she did it.

She'd come in the morning and put the delectable food at the front of the classroom, as sort of a centerpiece and then she would lay forth the objectives of today. 

"Today we will learn...."  she'd spell it out.  Then, she'd say, this can take all day, or a couple of hours.  But, if we finish in the time allotted and we all learn what is before us, we'll have a little extra time to eat this ...

It only took one day of whisking the uneaten treat at the end of the class and these boys were hooked.  They only got the treat if they earned it.

Now, there are those who will look down their learned noses at such a base motivation system.  However, everything else had FAILED.  And this worked!! These boys learned a lot, and my Mom stayed on at the school after they graduated to found our technology lab in 1991 in the room in which I now teach. 

She is my original educational rebel.  She would teach "by any means necessary" and do what it took to teach.

The Key to Repetition Is with Variety

Now, in keyboarding, our class average in typing after 12 weeks is over 70 words per minute.  The secret is 50 minutes of typing 5 days a week.  Now, how is that accomplished?  Well, although they type, I break the class into segments that go something like this:

5 minutes - Warm up.  This is bell work, they start doing it immediately.
15 minutes - Oral drills, lessons, and timed writings - This lets the students HEAR what they are typing, or lets them practice to get faster, depending upon the lesson.
15 minutes - Type the lesson during which time I go around and observe the technique of each student.  Each student receives candy from my candy bucket to keep them going.  (I think it helps them focus.)
10 minutes - Typing w/ music playing from the "music group" of the day (they get to bring in an ipod or music playlist and we listen to the music.  I do not allow "picking" of music as it takes them off task.)
5 minutes - Lesson wrap up, printing, cleaning up the room.

Although this is one thing -- keyboarding -- each day we eat, listen to music, hear lessons, read the book, and of course, touch the keys.  If we didn't eat candy or listen to music, I don't think these middle schoolers would be able to make it through the often boring, keyboarding practice. 

The key to keyboarding is repetition.  The key to maintaining repetition is variety. 

Using the Senses Makes Sense

I'm a farm girl and love the outdoors and think that using the outdoors and all senses makes a LOT of sense!

Seeing research from a variety of sources about the affect of smell on learning, I'm tempted to use that.  (But how do I decide what computer should "smell" like?)  One site even lists the Best Essential Oils for Learning as:  Frankincense, Rosemary, Peppermint, and Vetiver (which it says helps kids with ADHD learn.) 

From Sara Ackerman Aoyama wrote a marvelous paper about The Role of the Sense of Smell in Language Learning in which she explores the use of the olfactory sense in the classroom, an area of research which seems to be in its infancy.

I've heard people discussing this at conferences who told me that some studies have shown that if you take a test in a similar environment that you learn in, you will do better at recalling that subject. i.e. if Math smells like cinnamon and then you take the test smelling cinnamon, you'll have better recall.

Of course, we're talking recall here -- and this makes sense.  I just don't know how much it would MEAN and could envision schools having whole "smell strategy" workshops and pumping fragrance into their gyms so that they'll "smell math" when they take the math section.

The Potential of Sense

That gross misinterpretation of this point aside, I DO think that the integration of all of our sense in learning including outdoor learning experiences akin to those in the Edutopia article and geocaching have a lot of potential.

In many ways I wonder if we're sensory deprived and the good teacher is allowed to integrate all of the senses.  I advocate flexibility with this, and not prescription from higher ups, though.  Let the teacherpreneur use these tools to customize the classroom.

I recall a "rebel teacher" friend of mine who slyly told me that she lets her kids chomp on gum while taking tests to keep them focused.  She swears by it and it makes sense as well.

So, how do we integrate the senses into the classroom? 

Tell your story and share how you use the senses to teach.  It would be great to share these stories, either on your own blog, or in the comments below.  Let's learn more about this.

And teacher:  remember, you have the most noble calling on earth.  Have the strength to advocate and do what it takes to make sure your students learn.

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