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Elizabeth Cook


"I am at the end of my career and I wish I had known 29 years ago what I know now about how children learn," says Elizabeth Cook. "I hope college and university schools of education require education students to study brain-compatible learning."

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Cook admits that she has always been skeptical of "fun" activities. However, such books by Eric Jensen as Introduction to Brain-Compatible Learning and Brain Compatible Strategies; and activities from Marcia Tate's Worksheets Don't Grow Dendrites have inspired her to establish "Brain Breaks" in her Albemarle (North Carolina) classroom.

"The activities in these books energized my students, and the kids learned while doing them," observes Cook, a fourth and fifth grade reading and social studies teacher at Endy Elementary School. She and her students periodically take a moment away from their studies for a "brain break" -- to talk, do something active, listen to music, or engage in another "light" activity.>

According to Cook, a good brain break activity involves some type of movement or allows students to be creative. She and her students often practice spelling or vocabulary words while walking around the room or play Simon Says or a game of charades based on a topic the class is studying. The breaks typically last from two to ten minutes.

"My students love the 'three-minute talk,'" Cook told Education World. "I time them while they talk to a friend. Usually I assign the topic, such as 'talk to a friend about a piece of writing you're working on.' Sometimes I just let them talk about whatever they want."

When Cook began holding brain breaks, the class took a break every 20-30 minutes. Now, students break two or three times during a 120-minute period. Some days, there are no breaks so students don't become focused on them. Cook believes the brain remembers better when movement is coupled with learning, so she often provides opportunities for students to get out of their seats.

There is one active brain break that Cook says she won't repeat: "One time I set up an obstacle course in the classroom, with desks and chairs for students to walk around," she explains. "I won't do that one again. I didn't anticipate the numerous ways students would find to go around an object. It was too creative for me."

Cook's students who have special needs have been especially well-served by the brain breaks. For example, she has used an active game by Eric Jensen called "Opposites Attract," in which one student points to an object in the classroom and his or her partner finds an opposite or similar object. Since the activity, her students have had no difficulty with the concepts of antonyms and synonyms. Her ESL students have benefited from games like charades that involve acting out vocabulary words.

"Probably the biggest group helped by brain breaks is my ADD/ADHD students," Cook reported. "Students have to concentrate to be successful at some of the activities. We're often moving. They are short and sweet activities that don't require a long period of concentration or involve a lot of reading and writing. There usually are no materials to organize or manage."

All teachers should read as much as they can about the brain and learning because it is fascinating as well as helpful in teaching, advises Cook. She shares what she discovers with students and tells them that she is into their brains.

"My students actually asked me if we could do a unit on the brain!" Cook added. "We did, and now they know a lot more about why and how they learn."

Article by Cara Bafile
Education World®
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