The following guest post is by Laura Fenn, former teacher and current Co-Founder and Executive Director of The Walking Classroom.
I miss fifth grade. Standing on desks, writing on the underside of desks, running around desks—it was fun. I did these things while teaching fifth grade because sitting behind the desk all day was a real drag, for me and for my students.
It’s no secret that you get back what you give. Students are likely to respond to new information with the same level of enthusiasm with which it was given to them. Tell the students about Michaelangelo’s process for painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and they have one more fact added to their brain (hopefully). Tape a sheet of paper to the underside of their desks and have them lay on the floor and draw a simple self-portrait, well, the depth of understanding might change a little bit.
Active learning can and should be just that—active. But try as I might, it wasn’t always possible to differentiate the learning experience of my students and infuse some sort of activity into my lessons on the Pony Express or Manifest Destiny. Truth be told, as the years went on, my students were getting less and less activity during the school day. PE was cut to two days a week, recess was limited to the days when the students didn’t have PE, and many students were regularly held back from recess so they could receive additional remedial instruction—all in the hope of improved standardized test scores.
During my 10 years as an elementary school teacher, I witnessed an increase in the weight of the students at school and a decrease in the time allocated to physical activity. Knowing how much I enjoyed going for a walk while listening to podcasts after school and on weekends, I thought that maybe my students might enjoy doing the same. I scoured the Internet for educational podcasts that were *somewhat* related to our curriculum, and I loaded up a class set of mp3 players. My students would get some fresh air and exercise, but I could also convince my principal that we weren’t sacrificing any instructional time.
Away we went–walking, listening and learning. My students went nuts for the walking program—they thought they were getting out of something, but in fact, they got so much more: they returned to class in better moods, more focused, and more productive. The best surprise was how effective walking while learning was for my non-traditional learners. I had several ADHD boys who struggled in class simply because they poured every ounce of energy they had into trying to stay out of trouble. While we walked, they could jiggle and wiggle as much as their bodies needed to, so their minds were freed up to absorb the content they were listening to. I also had autistic students and dyslexic students who, for the first time in their academic career, regularly started participating in class discussions after our walks. Kinesthetic learning was a preferred style of learning for these children that they didn’t know about.
We can tell our students all about different learning styles until we’re blue in the face, but until a child experiences a style of learning in which s/he succeeds, the words are empty. To witness a child enjoy feeling smart is like no other joy that a teacher can experience. I decided to really develop the walking and learning program that I started, and today I am the Co-Founder and Executive Director of The Walking Classroom Institute, an educational nonprofit dedicated to improving the health and education of America’s students. I was worried that my experience might not translate to others that implemented the program, but we hear day after day from teachers around the country that have started walking, listening and learning with their students, and the message is the same: they love it.
It’s nice to know that you can incorporate active learning into a lesson on the Pony Express without actually jumping on a horse.