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We'd Like to Make a Motion...

By Ron Nash

In many of my own high school classes in the 60s, my classmates and I looked longingly at something called a restroom pass. It was a small piece of wood with the room number on it, but it was more than that; it was a passport to the hallway, and it represented a chance to stretch and exercise for a few minutes. Our teachers must have thought they had been assigned all the kids with severe bladder problems; those wooden restroom passes were very much in demand. Then, as now, if students at any grade level are not given opportunities to move “legally” inside the classroom, they will look for ways to get to the pencil sharpener (even though the pencil is fine), head for the restroom, or look for more creative ways to become active rather than passive. Kids gotta move.

When I started teaching social studies in the 70s, I stood while my freshmen sat. I moved around the room while they sat. I talked while they looked at me and smiled; I assumed they were all engaged mentally. In reality, those ninth-graders were veteran students who had learned to play the game called school; they could look at me, smile, and nod knowingly—even as they went to a better place in their minds. I used something called an overhead projector in those days, and in a semi-darkened room (Mr. Nash, we could see better if the lights were off and the shades drawn!) I held forth and gave my students the benefit of four years of studying history in college. For their comfort, the school district was nice enough to provide some welded chairs and desks. What’s not to like?

The truth is that when students enter a typical classroom with six rows of five desks, and a projector and screen, they know they can’t really move much even if the teacher wants them to—the furniture in those neat rows nearly fills the room. So early in my career, my students were passive for the most part, while I played the role of active participant. When students are in passive mode in classrooms, they’re in the role of attendees, rather than participants. If they don’t get the opportunity to move, pair with someone, or share as part of a small group, students of any age are likely to go to a better place in their minds after about 10 minutes.

Today’s students are used to socializing and interacting almost constantly at home, and the moment they leave the school building they are calling or texting someone in what may be a very wide circle of friends. They control the flow of information, music and communication—until they enter the classroom. The flow of information then narrows, and may be decidedly auditory and in one direction, from teachers to students.

The problem with this mainly auditory methodology is that the kids are tuning teachers out, and frustrating teachers used to operating in direct-instruction mode. Marc Prensky, author of Teaching Digital Natives, says, “I liken this to Federal Express: you can have the best delivery system in the world, but if no one is home to receive the package, it doesn’t much matter.” Students who are mostly seated and mostly passive may find themselves mostly dissatisfied. When this is the case, bad things can happen, and a teacher unable to connect may begin to ponder once more why he didn’t go into real estate or banking.

 There are two basic problems here: Students need to move, and students need to interact with peers—and they don’t want to wait until school is out to do it. The good news is that there is a great deal teachers can do, at any grade level, to combine movement and exercise with collaboration in classrooms—all in the name of continuous improvement and happier campers. It begins, however, with a close look at the configuration of the student desks. Six rows of five desks, or five rows of six desks, is wonderful for the custodians. While the night custodian cleaned my room one evening, I noticed she was using a dust mop the exact width of the space between each row. It was at that moment, perhaps, that I realized my classroom had been set up not for learning, but for cleaning.

Many teachers have ditched this lineup for another look, such as arranging desks so students can work in quartets or pairs, making them able to turn to a partner to share something or process information. When the desks were brought closer together in this fashion, it opens up large spaces for movement. This will enable you to move your students quickly into standing pairs, trios or quartets when you want them to process new information, come up with questions based on what they just heard or read, or work together on a bit of problem solving. The most successful teachers with whom I have spent time over the years are not content with whatever arrangement they inherited. If the furniture isn’t nailed to the floor, it gets moved—and often! 

Beyond the question of how to arrange furniture, why do we want to get kids up and moving anyway? Back to my childhood again: We as kids spent a good deal of time outdoors, playing any number of games—kick the can, tag, snow football, red rover come over—and often we just chased each other for no apparent reason, just because it felt good to move! Getting the amount of exercise we did in our free time not only kept us healthy then, but it set us up for life. Obesity was a vocabulary word, not the epidemic it is today. Kids today need more exercise, and not just for reasons related to health, as critically important as that is. Exercise, even mild exercise, improves cognition.

Anything we can do in classrooms to get students moving and exercising is a good thing. I’ve observed many elementary classrooms where teachers have the kids up and doing some very basic exercises several times a day, releasing essential neurotransmitters in the brain and getting students ready to learn. In one high school classroom, the teacher has his students up and moving frequently, transitioning from seatwork to feetwork; almost anything that students can share with a partner or partners while seated can be done standing. Students who just took notes on a short video can stand (with their notebooks and a pencil) and compare those notes with several partners, discussing what they have and why they thought it was important enough to write it down. This can also be done after a short lecture, or after students read a short passage from a set of supplemental materials. This gets them up and moving, gives them a break and a bit of exercise, and has them processing new information in a way that leads to new understandings—all within the space of a few minutes.

Transition periods can be accompanied by a piece of upbeat music. I saw a third-grade classroom where students stood and moved into standard learning-partner pairs to the accompaniment of Walking on Sunshine. In another classroom, a fifth-grade teacher used music to get the attention of her students. They moved into standing pairs with an upbeat song, and when they were all standing with partners, the teacher brought the volume up, cut it off, and they turned toward her automatically—they had practiced this many times during the first week of school. Movement and music make a great combination.

One problem teachers encounter with standing pairs, no matter what grade level, is that the “listener” can look right at the speaker and smile, while having removed himself to another mental galaxy, often far, far away. Or the listener may choose to interrupt, look at his watch, fidget or otherwise distract the speaker. This can be solved by simply giving the listener something to do when the speaker is done. For example, students can be instructed to summarize what the speaker says, essentially making the listener the speaker. The listener can also be directed to continue describing or explaining some topic or concept when the speaker is done, without repeating anything the speaker said. Doing this provides needed structure; it is called paired verbal fluency, and it is a wonderful bit of scaffolding that can be effectively removed when students are used to speaking, listening and summarizing as a matter of course. I worked for two days with fourth- and fifth-graders using this strategy, and they did beautifully.

Elementary teachers working with students on writing complete sentences can have them move around the room in trios as they go from chart to chart, determining which among a list of would-be sentences are fragments or run-ons. They could also write their own sentences on the charts, checking each other and shifting the marker to another member of the trio as they move to the next chart—accompanied by music, of course. This strategy (called a walkabout or gallery walk) has the benefit of having the students doing the work while the teacher circulates as she checks for understanding. She can alternately offer encouragement, ask probing questions, or give specific praise when appropriate; she is also learning who needs help with what.

When students have worked in pairs, trios or quartets (standing or seated), it is important to give them the opportunity (not on every occasion, but a few times per week) to think about and talk about how they did working together. Did they avoid interrupting? Did they offer encouragement to partners? Did they use positive body language and facial expressions? Did they speak clearly and slowly enough to be understood? I was in a middle school classroom where the teacher had a five- or six-question checklist on the wall, and she periodically had her students go through the questions in pairs or groups, once they had finished working together in some capacity. The idea here is that when student spend time thinking about their thinking in this way, they become better communicators and collaborators.

Finally, I have been lucky enough over the past several years to spend time in hundreds of classrooms. The most effective teachers (with the happiest campers) are those who combine movement and student-to-student interaction in ways that permit young people to reflect interdependently, process new information in the context of what they already know, summarize and ask questions in the interest of clarification, and move frequently in classrooms configured for those interactions. Unlike the students who came into my early classrooms knowing exactly what to expect, the best teachers I have had the pleasure of observing keep students guessing, talking (legally!), laughing, moving…and learning.

Nash (RonConsult@cox.net) is the author of several books, including The Active Classroom (2009) and From Seatwork to Feetwork (2012). A former middle and high school teacher, he retired in 2007 to form Ron Nash and Associates, Inc. He spends his time writing and facilitating workshops around the country for schools and school districts, and has presented at conferences sponsored by ASCD, VASCD, Learning Forward, Learning Forward Virginia, VAESSP, VATE and VDoE. His website is www.ronnashandassociates.com.
  


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