Principals at schools in Baltimore and Dallas believed they could transform students’ lives and improve academic performance by trying strategies that changed the way students engaged their brains.
The novel approaches worked.
At the recent BrainFutures 2017 Conference, the educators shared how their willingness to embrace innovative thinking changed the overall dynamic of their schools, as well as affect students individually.
The focus of the BrainFutures conference at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center was about the plasticity of the brain—the concept that brain development can continue as we age in response to how we think, eat, act, and respond to our environment.
The programs that each school partnered with took different, yet evidence-based, approaches to helping students retrain their minds. Patterson High School in Baltimore worked with the Holistic Life Foundation to bring a daily mindfulness and yoga practice to the school. Thomas W. Browne Middle School in Dallas partnered with the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas at Dallas to introduce students to a technique that developed advanced reasoning and critical thinking skills.
Principal Vance M. Benton described Patterson High School as “a serious melting pot.” Of its 1,200 students, 35 % come from other countries and speak more than 20 languages. He also discovered after coming to the school in 2011 that many of his students had dealt with violence, multiple deaths in their families and communities, and poverty.
“The stress was real,” Benton said.
After meeting Ali Smith, the co-founder and executive director of the Holistic Life Foundation, through a mutual business associate, Benton knew he needed to bring the organization’s approach to his school. The Holistic Life Foundation already had a reputation of successfully working with thousands of Baltimore students through after-school programs to reduce suspensions and disruptive behavior by teaching mindfulness, breathing techniques, and yoga.
For Patterson, Smith proposed what he called a “school-wide intervention” – a designated Mindful Moment room, a meditation time broadcast at the same time each morning over the announcement system, and instructors rotating through classrooms to work with students.
The program took time to become comfortable—and to get support– from both students and teachers. And as his school starts its fifth year of the program, Benton is often asked to show data about how effective it is. His answer is that he could point to increased graduation rates or other figures, but that’s not how he measures success.
Instead, he says knew the program was working when he observed a quiet moment amidst the everyday bustle one day. He saw a student go to the Mindful Moment room, which wasn’t open yet.
“This young man decided to sit down, right in front of that door, right in that main hallway, and he engaged in his mindfulness,” Benton said. “And what’s amazing about that is, A, he knew he needed to do this, because he came to the room. He knew he still needed to do this, even though they weren’t there. And he knew he needed to do it right now. But he had enough confidence and enough comfort do it in a main hallway of a high school.
“Second part that was amazing was that nobody bothered him. Nobody looked, stared, kicked his foot, didn’t tap his head. Nothing. They walked right by him,” he said. “There is no data that can capture that moment.”
In Dallas, Thomas W. Browne Middle School had been taken over by the state because of its poor performance. Principal Jonathan Smith, faced with improving school performance and a staff where half of the teachers were new to the profession, was willing to try a new approach to learning.
Teachers received training in Strategic Memory Advanced Reasoning Training (SMART), an initiative that promotes deep thinking and problem-solving instead of memorizing facts.
Dr. Jacquelyn F. Gamino, the director of Adolescent Reasoning Initiative at the Center for BrainHealth and one of the cognitive neuroscientists who developed SMART, explained at the conference that teachers encourage students to make connections to help create meaning in the subjects they’re studying.
For the students at Browne, the enhanced learning technique meant that they were able to go from one of the lowest performing schools in the state to one of the top in their district, Smith said.
“They were willing to work with us when we were at the bottom,” Smith said of the Adolescent Reasoning Initiative. “Anybody can come up with another test-taking strategy. … But what if we were actually preparing our students to be thoughtful about their thinking? That’s the shift in when you see students critically thinking–it makes a huge difference as it relates to the classroom.”