Keeping Students Engaged By Keeping Them Active

Sitting still and staying focused on formulas, equations, and practice problems for an hour is difficult for just about anyone, but it can be especially difficult for boys in tenth and eleventh grade. Jim Douglas, a math teacher at Blue Ridge School, knows this better than anyone.

“It’s unreasonable to expect that our students should enjoy sitting at their desks for that long a time without any kind of physical movement,” said Douglas, “I love math, but even I wouldn’t want to do that!”

Teacher Jim Douglas has added DeskCycles to his classroom in an effort to increase student productivity and attention.

This year, Douglas undertook an action research project in which he sought to explore how incorporating some physical movement into his classes might result in more engaged and productive students. “I’d love to just give them a 15 minute stretch break in the middle of class,” Douglas said, “but that’s simply not possible; we have way too much material to cover, and not very much time to get through it; I need every minute of instructional time I can get.”

In order to allow students to move while not having to sacrifice class time, Douglas came up with the idea to install small DeskCycle bike pedal units under each student desk in his classroom. Rather than the whole class taking a formal break in the middle of a lesson, students would have the opportunity to be physically active during the lesson while remaining engaged and attentive.

Installing the bike pedals was certainly not a silver bullet that resulted in every student suddenly discovering a newfound passion for math, but they made a noticeable difference. Some students embraced the pedals right away. When asked what he thought of them, one junior replied, “They helped me stay awake in class and also made me feel good at the beginning of the day.” Another boy stated, “It is a great way to get out some energy instead of talking or using your phone. I love the cycles and think they should be in every classroom.”

When Douglas surveyed his students at the end of the year to gauge their opinion of  the pedals, 83% of them reported that they enjoyed having them available, and that they used them during some portion of each class period. There were, of course, some students who did not find the cycles helpful, one boy noted that the cycles brought him painful memories of the difficult practices he endures as a member of the School’s mountain bike team. Another student noted that the pedals weren’t enough for him, and what he really needed during class was an occasional mental break rather than a physical break.

“Good teachers are constantly reflecting on, and evaluating their practice- looking for things they can change to improve student learning, and experimenting with possible solution while keeping what works and discarding what doesn’t,” said Dean of Faculty Pete Bonds, “That’s exactly what Jim did here, and what so many Blue Ridge teachers do regularly.”

Students arriving in Douglas’s Algebra II classes will quickly notice that the pedals are still under the desks, and they’ll all be welcome to cycle as much or as little as they wish while they learn. Not many students can say they learned about the quadratic formula while cycling, but based on Douglas’s research, perhaps that won’t be so uncommon in the future. 


Learning the way of El Camino de Santiago

Marcia Kozloski
Marica Kozloski, at left, with fellow students at the Universidad de Santiago de Compostela.

Veteran foreign languages teacher Marcia Kozloski spent three weeks in Spain this summer participating in Programa de Formación de Profesores Lengua y Cultura el Camino de Santiago, an international professional development program at the Universidad de Santiago de Compostela.

The opportunity was made possible through Blue Ridge School’s Faculty Summer Research Grant. The School started the grant to fulfill its Strategic Plan goal of recruiting and retaining exceptional faculty.

The Camino de Santiago is a network of pilgrimage routes leading to the burial site of St. James in the Galicia region of Spain. Since the 9th Century, Christians have traveled the 1,500-km pilgrimage trail, which is now recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Ms. Kozloski says the benefits of the program were two-fold: she learned about the history, literature, and culture associated with the centuries-old Camino de Santiago; and she learned many new teaching tools she can incorporate into her classes and share with her colleagues at Blue Ridge School.

“The classes were very good. They use a lot of technology. They use memes to teach everything from history to math.” She says she learned about engaging students by using parody and music: “They use trap music—not rap music, but trap music. I had never heard of it before.”

Additionally, she says she exchanged ideas with her fellow students, who were experienced teachers from around the world—Mexico, Venezuela, South Korea, and the United States.

“I have some project based learning (PBL) programs ready for my classroom and I am working on a program for my colleagues. With my students we can use the Camino de Santiago to learn about history, geography, literature, economics, the ruins, the legends, the symbols. There are so many interesting things.”

Ms. Kozloski is from Brazil, and she teaches both Portuguese and Spanish at Blue Ridge School. This program gave her an opportunity to improve her Spanish fluency through foreign-language immersion. “The classes were all in Spanish. I had to write in Spanish. I didn’t hear a word of English while I was there. It was very good for me.”

Ms. Kozloski is starting her 18th year at Blue Ridge School and is chair of the Foreign Languages Department. She says one of the joys of teaching at Blue Ridge School is facing new challenges every year. “I love a challenge. I change my classes every year. I give new tests every year. And the boys change too. We are there with them every day. We get to figure out how each student learns. I love this school because they let us be flexible. If I want to incorporate more music, I can add more music. As long as we teach, we can be creative.”

While her colleagues are anxious to learn how they too can incorporate new teaching tools into their classroom, the students are likely more interested in hearing about Ms. Kozloski’s new interest in trap music.

Doing the Work of Historians

11th grade US History teacher Pete Bonds has long been puzzled with some aspects of traditional history instruction: “We ask math students to do math, like mathematicians; we ask science students to do science, as if they are scientists. But then when they get to history class, we ask them to memorize a bunch of facts. Why aren’t we asking our students to do the work of historians?”

That query was the driving force behind a project recently completed by Mr. Bonds’ second period class. Mr. Bonds reflected that teaching about slavery has long been challenging. The impersonal lists of facts and numbers don’t provide a sense of the lived experience of so many millions. To bridge that divide, his students dug deep into the slave narratives compiled by the Federal Writers Administration in the 1930s.

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The Ten Commandments of Writing: How to Write Well

Since I arrived at Blue Ridge about four years ago, my educational philosophy has shifted dramatically. When I first entered the classroom as a fresh-faced young twenty-something, I cared deeply about content. I had visions of turning my students into lovers of history, one fascinating anecdote at a time.

Fast-forward a few years, and very much has changed. I still love history for the sake of content — of course I do, that is why I am a history teacher. But my students might not, and that is okay; almost all of them will go onto careers in which those facts and stories do not have any immediate relevance. The real purpose of teaching history in a 21st century classroom is not necessarily to pass on information that anyone can Google in the blink of an eye — instead, I see my most sacred duty as teaching your children how to write well.

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Tree Triplets on the Blue Ridge School Campus

One needs to look no further than the Blue Ridge School interpretive trail to see a most unusual and fascinating tree – one that has been formed by the combination of three different tree species!

Years ago, the seeds of three very different native species must have landed in the same location.  While it’s impossible now to know exactly how this happened, I can guess that the seeds were blown by the wind, dropped by squirrels or maybe intentionally planted by a BRS boy. The rich soil and abundant sunlight helped the trees grow together and ultimately combine into one tree.

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College Road Trip

With spring break on the horizon, most of the boys are looking forward to time away from campus, hopefully better weather, and a chance to relax after the long winter trimester. For juniors however, I recommend they use the upcoming spring break as a chance to visit college campuses. The college visit is one of the most important ways that students can learn firsthand what a college offers.

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