In the Classroom: Lessons in Biology

With the return to more normalcy, it has also given me a chance to sit in on lessons more regularly. Watching our talented educators engage with students and observing students learning is always a delight.Part of my professional practice has been to document the great teaching and learning that occurs in our classrooms. Recently during one of my walk throughs of classes, I found myself in a 9th grade Biology class. When I entered the room, I immediately saw groups of 3 or 4 students staring at cards on their table discussing what was printed on the cards and moving them around. 

Curious about what they were looking at, I stepped into the room to get a closer look. Spread out on the tables in front of each group was a series of cards that had information about various animals, creatures, and plants. The cards were organized differently on each table and when you turned them over, the backside was filled with information. Students were talking about the role each element played in the ecosystem. 

It was clear that students were activating critical thinking skills as they sorted the information. And then, Ms. Stublarec introduced a new element that would turn the activity into one that engaged students in higher order thinking skills. Students also had “disaster” cards and at this point in the class they had to consider how different types of natural and human-made disasters would impact what they had just been discussing. How would forest fires change the balance of nature? What would it mean if war laid waste to the land and top predators were killed in the process? And how might this impact the balance of the food chain? 

In this lesson students were learning about the complexities and interconnectedness of ecological relationships. The activity that was set up by our Biology teachers, Zoë Stublarec and Jared Smith, allowed students to explore the fragile relationships that exist in our nature world and allow them to build their understanding by discussing these scenarios. In that moment our students were not just teenagers sitting in a classroom, learning biological concepts, instead they were bioecologists studying how nature adapts to change and developing predictive models that could be used to help preserve resources in the future. And in doing so, this powerful lesson not only helped students understand these concepts and develop scientific skills, it helped model what a career in the field may look like.

Mindfulness: The benefits and alternative ways to connect

It has not been due to a lack of effort, but I have never been able to get into yoga. Hearing about all the positives that are associated with it, both of mind and body, I was eager to try it. After a 10-week session a number of years ago, I enjoyed the physical aspect of yoga, but was never able to connect effectively with the mindfulness piece.

Over the last 5-7 years, the efforts to improve wellness programs and include mindfulness exercises has been a national trend in schools. At Brimmer, we continue to evaluate our programming, tweak existing options, and provide new opportunities. This has included inviting Will Slotnick from the Wellness Collaborative to talk with students about managing stress and anxiety and the risks involved in using alcohol, drugs, and, more recently, e-cigarettes. Slotnick addresses the subject from the perspective of managing stress and incorporates meditation and mindfulness into the program. After sessions, students report feeling more connected to their thoughts and feeling more relaxed. In addition to being armed with important information, they can physically be seen carrying their shoulders lower as much of the stress has melted away during the sessions.

In a 2011 article (full publication can be found here)from the American Psychological Association journal, Psychotherapy, Dr. Daphne Davis and Dr. Jeffrey Hayes share “empirically supported benefits of mindfulness.” The list of benefits is one that we would all want for our students and children: stress reduction, boosts to working memory, improved focus, and more flexibility in challenging situations. In 2013, in an article published by the National Institute of Health in Social Cognative and Affective Neuroscience, research on the use of meditation was reported to improve emotional stability, supporting and building upon the documented research of its benefits. This was further supported by neuroscience research that showed increased serotonin levels in those that practiced meditation. So, while incorporating mindfulness as skill has been a trend, it is also very much supported by nationally recognized research.

Knowing this, I have continued to listen and research what experts are saying, often trying out techniques to improve my own mindfulness. Slotnick has recommended phone apps like Meditation Studio to our students. Dr. Helen Riess, who spoke recently at Brimmer about her book, The Empathy Effect, suggested HeadSpace, and those with an Apple Watch or Fitbit are likely familiar with the built in mindfulness activities focused on controlled breathing and reducing one’s heartrate. I know that I have found these to be useful from time to time, but more importantly, many students have incorporated them into their daily routines to help manage stress.

I fear that when we talk about meditation and mindfulness we often lose Apple Piepeople once we use those terms. For some people, meditation and breathing exercises do not work. What do we tell those who cannot connect in this way? During Thanksgiving preparation last week, while I was preparing my apple pie, peeling apples, slicing them, and rolling out the dough, I found myself experiencing a heightened awareness of my own senses. During that process, I recognized that I was experiencing what I was missing during those yoga exercises. It turns out that baking, and also sports activity, that requires intense focus and mimics the effects of meditation.

Pyschology Today writes that mindfulness is “a state of active, open attention on the present. When we are mindful we carefully observe our thoughts and feelings without judging them as good or bad.” As we continue to venture into a world that moves quickly and we encounter incredible amounts of information at unprecedented speeds, we are going to find mindfulness activities will grow in importance. Whether it be through meditation, breathing exercises, baking, or shooting free throws on the basketball court, it is important that we help our students and children develop these skills.

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Photo Credit: Business Improvement Architects