Brains gone wild

The older elementary years can mean difficulties


Heather Cunningham

The word tween is more than just a marketing phrase. It is an identification-one worn proudly by the 10-, 11- and 12-year-olds who navigate the chasm between child and teen during the years of fourth and fifth grade. "I am a tween now," my oldest son said shortly after he turned 10. "That means that I am not a little kid anymore … I am almost a teenager."

He certainly fits the part: suddenly obsessed about appearance and easily embarrassed by his younger siblings and parents, this opinionated fourth-grader is now managing long-term school projects without assistance and writing essays about the injustices that he views in the world.

"Peer importance just keeps increasing at this age," says Barbara Ley, director of the University Training Programs for the Academy for Urban School Leadership and adjunct professor of educational psychology at National-Louis University. "Self-concept and esteem relates a lot to the feedback that they get back from their peers and their teachers."

At the same time the ability to organize information and concentrate for longer periods increases, and a real sense of right or wrong emerges. Otherwise complicating the dynamic of the older elementary years is that these changes take place in the middle of a brainstorm.

"Around age 11 a monumental brain shift begins and there is a tremendous pruning of excess information," says Pat Wolfe, a former teacher and current educational consultant in Napa, Calif., and author of the award-winning book Brain Matters: Translating Research Into Classroom Practice. "The brain is constantly making connections, but at this point the 'highways' or 'roads' that are most used are left in place and the ones that aren't are eliminated."

Eric Jensen, author of the book Teaching With the Brain in Mind and president of the Jensen Learning Corp. in San Diego, puts it even more simply. "From birth to age 5 the brain is on fire, but between the ages of 10 and 15 it is on fire again," he says. "In between that time, between ages 5 and 10 it develops and changes at a slower rate."

That raises a challenge for educators to teach in a way that allows older elementary students to learn and retain as much as possible. "The focus needs to be on hands-on and the big picture," says Wolfe. "Instead of teaching based on the facts, this is a time to really spotlight the big concepts behind them."

Do you really, really like me?

Experts say, though, that at the older elementary level it matters how those concepts are delivered.

"Research shows that for this age group motivation at school is closely linked to whether or not they think their teacher likes them," says Ley. "In one study the greatest motivation to learn was not grades, but the facial expressions of their teacher and conversations they had with them."

Sue Biddle, a fourth-grade teacher at Kaneland John Stewart Elementary School in Elburn, sees this play out daily with her students. "Even though they are getting older, the teacher/student bond is still very strong," she says. "The things that the kids feel comfortable telling me are unbelievable. It makes sense that the interest I show in response is proof that they matter, and because they feel they matter in the classroom it becomes a safe environment to do well."

Modeling a supportive classroom environment where everyone is heard is also crucial at a time when students are gaining the capacity to form strong opinions-yet trying very hard not to stand out as different.

On a recent afternoon the class was discussing an article about the differences between gray and red wolves, which led to a conversation on wolves in zoos and the pros and cons of captivity. "We discussed things like whether just putting fencing around their natural habitat would keep the wolves safe, and if so whether or not they would still be free," says Biddle. "All of the students felt strongly one way or another, and were not afraid to show it."

Wolfe says that when students talk about things like red and gray wolves in the zoo, they are relating their learning to personal experience-because this is likely the only place they have ever encountered them.

"This creates emotional connection, which drives the ideas home," says Wolfe.

Organization makeover

At the end of each week, Susan Codell, a fifth-grade teacher at W.A. Johnson Elementary School in Bensenville, asks her students to clean out their desks and folders. "I can guarantee that some of them still have papers smashed at the bottom of their backpacks," she says. "A few are more organized than I am, but others for the life of them can't find a paper that I gave them three minutes ago."

Scientists say that as children hit the late elementary school stage the frontal lobe of the brain begins to develop, creating opportunities for them to grasp organization and planning that they couldn't do when they were younger.

While the cognitive ability is documented, educational experts say there is a difference between readiness and application.

"Some are not there yet," says Codell, who says that it is crucial that those organization and time-management skills are honed before middle school or junior high. "I stress the importance of it to both students and their parents."

And some students need individualized plans. "You have to work with them where they are," says Biddle, who has developed one-on-one organization strategies for some of her struggling students. "They are just beginning to have the capacity to grasp juggling multiple assignments, some long-term, and all of the pieces that go with it."

Ley, for one, hates trapper keepers (three-ring binders that hold folders and papers). "We need to have a goal for organization at this age, but there can't be only one way for all children to get there," she says, remembering her work with a child who was thrown by having to keep all of his papers in that type of binder-but it was the only one that teachers would allow. "We can't take an age, slap it out there and say that all kids should be ready at that point to do it the same way. Educators need to be able to teach different strategies in teachable chunks."

Project work is one kind of teachable chunk. These assignments give teachers another way to introduce the concept of organization to students with brains now prepared to understand. "We break them down for the kids," says Biddle. "It gives them a sense of how they can organize projects step-by-step, and the sequence involved in completing multi-task assignments."

Test mania

Older elementary school students have more tests than ever before in their school career, including the standardized variety. This year fourth-grade students will be tested in reading, math and science using the Illinois Standards Achievement Test and fifth-graders on reading and math. Many schools prepare students up to a year in advance-something that Wolfe considers almost reprehensible.

"Giving them facts and tests that ask them to repeat information back is educational bulimia," she says. "They need to understand information and [how] it works in the real world, otherwise we are wasting our time. The problem with focusing so heavily on tests is that they are not an indication of whether or not students can use information and understand it."

As a teacher who prepares students for this type of testing, Codell believes that understanding and good scores can co-exist. "If we teach them in a way that gets their attention, and makes connections so that they remember what they learn and can use it, they are going to do well anyway."

Ley agrees, saying that teachers must be allowed to teach in a brain-friendly way and not to the test-even if it looks unconventional.

"If you walk into the classroom and see groups talking and see excited learning chaos in action, some might not think that it appears to be good learning. But doing individual work at individual tests, quietly, with paper and pencil, is not always what good learning looks like."

Wolfe blames the No Child Left Behind program for less available time to teach that way. "It is a big problem, because it was written by someone who has no real knowledge of the learning process," she says. "Because of the emphasis on test scores teachers are feeling a tremendous amount of pressure to get their students to perform."

Fourth-grade slump?

Most will perform, because they are ready to learn, and some are even ready to organize both the tangible and the intangible. Others, however, are not. The most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress shows that 40 percent of all fourth-grade students are reading below grade level, many of them low-income students-a phenomenon some researchers call the fourth-grade slump.

Wolfe says those are dangerous numbers. "People assume that you have an inborn circuitry for reading, that you don't have to pick it up," she says. "That's not true. While language is hard wired into the brain, reading is not normal. And if you don't pick it up when it is taught early on, you might be left behind."

Jensen says that parents need to be strong advocates during the older elementary period if they see their child's progress declining in any area. "The parent has to be absolutely vigilant and on the school's case to get them help," he says. "If you have to be the squeaky wheel, do it with a smile and do it every day until you get your child the accommodations they need."

Just as devastating as a child who begins to fall behind just when the rest of his peer learners are speeding up, are those who begin to define themselves by those failures.

"By middle elementary school, a student's observations tell them where they fit into the picture," says Ley. "And once they have that picture set it is very hard to change-even if they have future successes in an area they think they aren't as good at."

Jensen says that brain research has shown us that nothing is set, and that is a message we need to pass along to our fourth- and fifth-graders. "All brains are malleable and have plasticity and the ability to change," he says. "That information puts them in control of how they do and where they end up."

If you visit Debra Jongebloed's accelerated enrichment classroom during test time, it wouldn't be out of the ordinary to see one student finishing an exam standing up.

"She tests better that way, and I can understand that," says Jongebloed. "It is proven brain research that some people think better on their feet. We as teachers just have to be comfortable with allowing that flexibility."

For Jongebloed, that flexibility goes beyond where students sit, or don't sit, during tests. At this age it becomes critical for children to realize that while there may be only one right answer, there are many different ways to get it, she says.

"I may give my students one method of solving a math problem, but I explain that they don't have to complete it exactly that way," she says. "It is more important for them to be able to verbalize how they got the answer. When they do that it gives someone else the opportunity to see how another person thinks, and everyone learns from that."

Brigid Ward, who has four children ages 10 to 16, says she has learned to appreciate learning differences. "The standard methods of traditional teaching don't work the same for everybody," she says. "Brain-based teaching meets kids where they are at, and can make material relevant to children from a wide range of academic abilities."

The Oswego school district uses the Everyday Math curriculum, gleaned from the University of Chicago School Mathematics Project. Her fifth-grade class is the first in the district to have used the program since kindergarten.

"The kids have phenomenal number sense, and their ability to see patterns and recognize math in the world around them is just outstanding," says Ward. "Why? Because the program makes math relevant, it includes games and activities that bring the concepts home."

And that, both teachers agree, is the point. "The whole thing about brain research is connection," says Jongebloed. "You have to connect what you are presenting with something that the students have had experience with or it will be totally meaningless …"

Ward spends a lot of time trying to find out what her fifth-grade students care about. She says that about 80 percent of the boys relate strongly to sports teams and figures, where girls' interests are more diverse.

"But at this age they know what they love and what they care about," says Ward. "Each of them really wants to understand, or be good at, a particular area of expertise. Once you know what that is for each of them, you can target learning techniques so that they tie into those passions."

For instance, if they are studying the Civil War, she may give students a variety of project choices, from an organizational chart on the differences between the North and the South to a drawing or research paper.

"The different projects are graded equally. Who says that a person with a beautiful picture of a cotton gin understands it less than the student who researches its definition?"

Ward also keeps a bin of party hats in her classroom, for students to wear during tests, to take the edge off any pressure. She is a big proponent of song and movement as well. "A change of scenery stimulates the brain to pay attention," she says. "I might ask them to sit on top of their desks if they know the answer to a question, or take the overhead projector onto the floor and have them join me there for a lesson."

While they might not be pushing each other over to sit next to the teacher during those lessons on the floor, experts all agree this age group still cares very much about what their teacher thinks.

"They are very interested in approval from the teacher, and they are very perceptive," says Jongebloed. "If they think a teacher is favoring one student, they will communicate that they think it is unfair-and they are all about fair." She levels the playing field by choosing group leaders or teams from names in a jar, so no one student feels that they have an advantage or disadvantage.

That, researchers say, is an important part of using brain-based learning concepts to create a secure, supportive classroom environment. "If they are feeling uncomfortable or threatened in any way, that is what comes to mind for them-not what we are trying to teach at the moment," says Jongebloed. "Teachers of this age group have to make connections with their students emotionally, to let them know that they will all have equal chances and not to be afraid to take risks."

Eric Jensen, author of Teaching With the Brain in Mind, and president of the Jensen Learning Corporation in San Diego, says that offering that kind of classroom safe zone factors into enhanced learning. "Prolonged stress, or distress, inhibits the creation of new brain cells. Anything we can do to help make the classroom a less stressful place to learn is going to enhance brain function."

Fast Facts Brigid Ward, Fox Chase Elementary School, Oswego District 308, fifth-grade teacher, former fourth-grade teacher

Debra Jongebloed, Mill Creek Elementary School, Geneva District 304, accelerated enrichment teacher for third-, fourth- and fifth-grade students


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