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Minds on the move at Stall High School

Stall High School’s “Brain Room” looks less like a classroom and more like a first-class fitness center with $50,000 in workout machines and computers.
But this is where Paulette Cryer takes her chemistry class to review for an upcoming test on the periodic table’s history and trends.
One student pumps his legs on a StairMaster as he matches elements with similar properties. Three girls quiz one another on the structure of the periodic table then take turns jumping through a ladder on the floor.

Every student is on task, and every student is moving.

The Brain Room is the pilot site for a concept that will be launched nationally next year. It’s intended to develop students’ cognitive skills as well as reinforce academic concepts through movement. Students also are supposed to learn about the way the brain works and why certain activities help their bodies and minds.

“It’s not just going in there and working on machines and doing P.E.,” said Jean Blaydes Madigan, an educational consultant who helped the district create its Neuro- Nasium, the official name for the Brain Room. “It’s movement with a purpose. That’s the concept behind action-based learning.”

Research shows exercise helps the brain grow brain cells, reduce stress and calm behavior, and it also supports the connection of movement to learning. An MUSC study using downtown Mitchell Elementary, which encourages activity to boost students’ academics, found doing so helped increase test scores.

Need further proof? Walk into any high school with 90-minute classes and talk to a student. Stall High junior Jacky Romero spends the vast majority of her day sitting in class, and it makes her head hurt, she said.

“It gives us a break from being in classes all day,” she said of the Brain Room. “When we come in here, even though we are doing our work, it’s a better way of learning. Moving around, it clears our minds.”

Action-based learning

Madigan got involved in Charleston and its action-based learning efforts after receiving a phone call from Dave Spurlock, the district’s coordinator for health and physical education, athletics and ROTC.

With so many state and federal mandates focused on students’ academic achievement, Spurlock thought he needed to make P.E. more relevant than “it’s healthy for kids.” He researched how learning is affected by exercise, and his findings further convinced him of the importance of incorporating movement into academics.

“We’ve sentenced kids to 12 years in a desk,” he said. “It’s a two-by-two cell. What we offer is an opportunity to learn in a different way.”

He brainstormed the concept for the Brain Room with Madigan and former Stall Principal Dan Conner before construction started on the new high school. The new building opened last school year, and the Brain Room got under way in January.

It’s taken some time to fully equip the room and explain the concept to teachers, who have to buy into the idea that a traditional classroom isn’t always the best learning environment, said Adriane Audley, a P.E. teacher who spends most of her day overseeing the Brain Room.

Audley knew the benefits of physical activity, but even she was skeptical of whether it would affect students’ grades. She tested the theory this past spring with 11 freshmen who came to the Brain Room three times a week for six weeks to work on their cognitive skills. At the end of that time, fewer students were failing, and their behavior improved.

The brain room

The room has nine main stations, each with a different purpose. Some are intended to develop students’ brains, such as the Makoto. Students stand in the center of three towers and tap poles when they hear a buzzer and see a light, and it’s supposed to help the coordination of the auditory, visual and kinesthetic senses that aid the brain in following the flow of words, solving problems and sorting information. Others reinforce academic concepts, sometimes as simply as students moving into a push-up position to answer questions.

Crystal Coakley, Cryer’s student teacher, checked out the room for Cryer after Audley told school faculty about it.

“I think the movement helps because it gets their blood pumping,” Coakley said. “It helps their brains to remember what they are learning, and it’s also good exercise.”

She and Cryer initially tried to pack too much academic review into the fast-paced Brain Room activities, but they’ve learned and adjusted their lessons. It takes time to plan lessons that fit the room’s setup, but Cryer said it’s worth it because students love it. Junior Trey Watts agreed.

“It beats sitting in a classroom,” he said.

Going forward

Spurlock’s goal is to see every school have a similar room. None of the Brain Room’s funding came from the general operating budget, which pays teachers’ salaries and general classroom expenses. The money came from grants and construction dollars.

A scaled-down version of the Brain Room has been created with similar funding sources at Northwoods Middle, the six North Charleston elementary schools that feed it, and Mitchell Elementary. The spaces aren’t as comprehensive as the one at Stall High.

Northwoods Middle has two rooms for action-based learning, and its lowest-level readers mostly use them. The school has used the labs for the past school year to reinforce academic concepts.

“By incorporating movement into their learning, we’re making them more able to learn,” said Meg Reilly, one of the school’s P.E. teachers who spearheaded the project.

At Stall High, educators from as close as neighboring Berkeley County and as far away as California are checking out the Brain Room.

“Charleston County School District is a forward-thinking leader in the nation in these P.E. concepts,” Madigan said.

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