Posts Tagged student engagement

Refuel Kids’ Attention with Short Movement Breaks

Published by — It makes no sense to take dynamic young bodies and insist they sit still for hours at a stretch.


In a technology class at the International Charter School (ICS) in Pawtucket, RI, second and third graders are learning to change fonts on their laptops.  They look droopy, so I ask how they like the class.  They love it!  “Computers are so fun.”  “So cool!”

But the languid body language doesn’t match.  It’s the end of a period; they’ve been glued to screens.  So they’re fine with putting the electronics away and quickly arrange themselves into a formation that looks like back-up dancers at the ready.

Cynthia Sime, their regular teacher, leads them through a one-minute “energizer.”  Together they do a spoken-word doo-wop with a made-up word that sounded to me like Aroostasha sha sha sha.  The kids use the last four syllables to mark beats, as their hands slice the air from left to right.  It repeats as Sime adds a new physical challenge prior to each four-beat chant.  “Hands together! (hands smack together in front of their bellies).  Legs out! (jump into wide stance). Elbows in! (elbows whip back).  Knees bent!  Bottoms up!” (butts stick out).  And the last challenge she adds is “Tongue Out!”  With that the nonsense word sounds like total garbage, so when they’re done, kids dissolve into giggling.

Then, without asking, they settle right back at their desks, alert and ready for math.  The buzz in the air is palpable.  When Sime gives a first direction, they’re on it.

One minute of movement, release and a bit of fun tees up high-quality attention for this happy teacher, who isn’t battling restless, fried kids.

Darlene Pugnali, ICS Assistant Director, notes that outsiders often notice and commend the school’s calm and quiet atmosphere.  The quick, structured releases of energy, like the one I just saw, help the kids use the rest of the time for concentrated learning.  Pugnali explains that the school is deeply committed to Responsive Classroom (RP), whose website proclaims, “Teaching students to stay focused.”  They’ve generously put online a large library of these one-minute fool-arounds designed to give kids a jolt of fresh vitality and fun as they transition from one subject to another.

The payoff?  Better behavior, better academic results.

Pugnali says, “We’re always looking for the root causes of misbehavior.  Under what conditions does it takes place?  Sitting too long is certainly one of them.”

Many teachers at other schools say they don’t have time for breaks, recess, or any other down time.  Social Worker Soraya Gomes suggests that if teachers added up the time they’re spending redirecting behavior problems, they’d see it’s a whole lot more than one minute invested in recouping the kids attention.  “The engagement is so much higher.”

Jean Cavanaugh, Occupational Therapist, bluntly notes that energizers get “so much more out of them in a shorter amount of time.”

In Ben Keefe’s class, fourth-graders sit on a rug studying literature.  Using a cue indiscernible to me, teacher and kids pop off the rug to do what looks like a squats exercise.  He sings “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean” one syllable at a time, at irregular intervals, as the kids mirror his knee bends.  The rhythm gets faster, the squats more rigorous. It looks exhausting.  The kids plop down, ready to go back to examining their book.

Keefe is considered the energizer school champion.  He says that he himself went nuts trying to sit through his graduate courses for his Masters in Teaching.  “So here I am with 10-year-olds, thinking it’s got to be far worse for them.”  His class takes a break every 20 minutes, and if he goes over time, the kids tap their wrists to indicate to him that they’re due a break.

They’re not learning if you don’t have their focus.

While Keefe is the champ, everyone likes pick-me-ups for transitions.  Still, Pugnali says, “I remind them gently that if the transition is coming in 15 minutes, and you’re losing your kids, don’t wait.  If they’re restless, stop in the middle of a lesson for one minute to get them back again.  One minute of movement can buy you 13, 14 good minutes of attention.”

ICS’ big claim to fame is its dual language program with strands in both Portuguese and Spanish.  Teachers bring energizer-like games and songs from other countries as a way of immersing the students in their kid-culture — a totally fun lesson in social studies.

ICS’ academic achievement hovers just above and below state average.  This is a feat, given that 38% of the kids are fresh-off-the-boat English-language learners, as compared with 6% statewide.  Fully 60% are eligible for subsidized lunch (a poverty indicator), compared with 47% statewide.

Too often schools just burn out their kids’ attention and then get irate when they misbehave, space out or resist.  Our education system takes dynamic young bodies, sticks them in a box called a school, and insists they sit for hours at a stretch.  It makes no sense.  It’s like a college professor teaching to a class of students checking Facebook the whole time.  The channel for learning is just not open.  Focus and attention need to be cultivated and used wisely.  ICS has it down.


Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Give Students a Voice So They Can Improve Their Own School

Published by — Working on a system to help troubled students stay in school, but be accountable to the community.


Regina Winkfield, Principal of E-Cubed Academy in Providence, went into a minor tailspin when district budget cuts eliminated her Student Resource Officer (SRO).  Of course, SROs are a double-edged sword.  As police officers, carrying guns, they’re sworn to arrest anyone engaged in illegal doings, including fighting.  SROs contributed to America’s soaring suspension and expulsion rates.  But even if her SRO wasn’t a great solution, Winkfield wondered how she’d cope with the rough student behavior besetting her urban high school minus that help.

The answer to that question turned out to be the kids themselves.  But not according to any intentional strategy.  While learning about civic engagement and advocacy, E-Cubed students found their “voice.”  As Junior Roxanne says, “everyone is getting along better because we have more voice now.  We’re empowered to talk to the adults.”

About four years ago, an opportunity quietly emerged.  Two Brown University students, Scott Warren and Anna Ninan, invented what is now the national organization Generation Citizen (GC).  Distressed by young people’s bad rap for disengagement from their communities and from political life in general, the civic-minded pair had an idea: teach teens how governments make decisions by helping them work on their own community or social issues.  They recruited college-student volunteers, called “Democracy Coaches,” to weave civics lessons into discussions of what specific community improvement could be accomplished and how.

Twice a week, a Democracy Coach worked in John Healy’s history class.

The City of Providence had never painted crosswalks on the busy streets surrounding the relatively-new school building.  The school community had complained for years.  Crosswalks were a clear, modest ask.  With instruction, students understood the relevant powers that be and managed to guilt the City into doing its duty.

Winkfield rolls her eyes musing that kids accomplished what adults had failed to do, and not for want of trying.  That day, watching those workers paint white lines, a light lit for her.  Supporting students’ voice in practical matters not only got things done, but got kids engaged.  “After all,” she says gesturing dramatically at the school’s mission statement, “we’re supposed to be a student-centered community.”

In the fall of 2013, she dropped hints to students about tackling their high suspension rate.  The kids’ research found that in 2011-2012, their small school of fewer than 400 students had nearly 300 suspensions, or an average of 1.65 suspensions every day – the third highest rate in the district.

I spoke with a group of these newly-engaged citizens about their accomplishments.  Now a University of Rhode Island student, Garren Jansezian took time off his spring break to crow with his younger colleagues about their impact on the school.  “We wanted to know what the implications were of those suspensions.  Was there a cycle of delinquency?  Were the problems of home being carried into the school?  We wanted to work on a system that would help [troubled] students stay in school, but be accountable to themselves and the community.”

Furthermore, after surveying their fellow students, they found that many had been suspended, mostly for petty vandalism, class disruptions, or tardiness.  Really?

Surely there were the alternatives.

The Democracy Coach gave them articles about other schools using restorative justice and peer mediation programs.  The students settled on starting a peer jury system designed to interrupt the zero-tolerance approach enshrined in the district’s Code of Conduct.  They developed a research paper, a process and several forms.

With their respectful voices and advocacy skills, they sold the idea to the principal, the faculty, and their fellow students.  They got the green light, but more impressively, 30 students applied to be peer jurors.

Angela, now a senior, took one of the first cases.  “(The student) had talked back to a teacher.  We all knew he’d done what he’d done.  Guilt was already determined.  But then the student was allowed to tell his side of the story.  We determined that the offense was not so severe that he should go to Ms. Winkfield for suspension.  Then we told him what he had to do to make it right.  At the end he said thank you.  I liked helping my peers not get suspended.”

In another case, a kid who trashed the bathroom avoided suspension by working with the janitor to get it cleaned up.  Yes, he was reluctant and resentful at first, but sucked it up and let himself be held accountable.  As Jansezian says, “Second chances are powerful things.”

Winfield concludes, “We needed a paradigm shift.  It’s easy to suspend a student, but it’s a lot harder to change a mindset.  For the students, it’s not about snitching, it’s about working together.”

Diana, a senior, says, “My mindset changed.  I look at people who do bad things over and over again, people I used to think of as bad.  Now I think, what’s happening to them that they’re getting in trouble?”

Fatoumata, a Junior, says:  “Voice is everything.  No matter how small, your voice has a deep meaning.”

For the record, they’ve only had one fight this year and a handful of suspensions.  With great pleasure, the students I spoke with took full credit for this minor miracle.  The adults beamed at them.


Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Math-Haters Love Crunching Numbers for Business Plans

Published by — For far too long, project-based or “constructivist” learning has been at war with the “drill-and-kill” focus on building skills first.  A balance is best.

Five high-school seniors cluster behind a pillar in a lecture hall at Rhode Island College.  Behind them is a movie-sized screen, and in front looms a modest but intimidating stadium of seats.  With the giggling and “Oh my God!s,” they’re reviewing the game plan for making their upcoming presentation.

To my eye, these students, urban and suburban, don’t seem academically challenged.  But none of them passed the math section of last fall’s state test, which is now a graduation requirement.  Fully 38 percent of RI’s seniors are at risk of not receiving a diploma.  The field refers to them as the “Level 1s,” the lowest test level, “substantially-below proficient.”

While some people vigorously oppose the requirement itself, others organized “cram camps” to give these students urgent-needed help.  The Northern Rhode Island Collaborative, an education-support organization, hired Christine Bonas to assemble educators to develop and deliver this two-week summer intensive.  An ex-math teacher herself, and now guidance counselor, Bonas gets both the academic demands and the kids’ lack of motivation.

Because whatever kept the kids from learning math before, they’re into it here.  The program is brilliantly designed.  Teachers spent the first day asking students what they don’t like about their community.  Answer:  plenty.

Okay.  So get into teams and pick one problem — like, no place for teens to hang out, bad public parks, a need for animal rescue shelters.  (Yes, many shelters exist, but so what?)  Then, build a business model with a plan that will solve the problem.  Don’t whine; take an entrepreneurial approach.  With your idea in hand, research the costs of rent, labor, utilities, equipment.  Prepare multiple spreadsheets that explain income and outflow, start-up costs and maintenance.  Develop “what if” scenarios for unanticipated expenses.  Talk to local business leaders, provided by the program, about your calculations.

Lastly, learn how to pitch your idea.  To add a competitive game element, local businesses pooled $1,000 seed money for the winning plan.  I’m at their pitch rehearsal, but superintendents and business leaders will evaluate the final presentations tomorrow.

The giggly group emerges and makes a thoughtful presentation.  Their business eliminates the hated condition of teens depending on family and friends for rides.  They show us an example of eco-friendly electric mini-buses that will take kids to the mall, their friends’ house, wherever.  The team wanted a cost-free service, but crunching the numbers ruled that out.  (A snootful of Reality is such a good lesson.)  Taking turns, students walk us through slides of spreadsheets that show us they’ve been steeped in manipulating numbers effectively.

Apparently, the these students’ final presentations were so good, the kids surprised even themselves.  Business planning gave them a real-world feel for what they could actually DO with math skills.  Bonas says “The light dawned on them that this is what math is for.”  Bingo.  This should have happened long ago.

Why can’t school be like this all the time?

Bonas was blunt.  “As a former math teacher, I can tell you that you’re handed a textbook and told how to do it.  We’re not able to think outside the box.”  Partly that’s a result of the way teachers are trained, and partly because districts have gotten more and more prescriptive for their teachers.  She says, “It’s a manufacturing process.  You’ve got too much to do and you’ve got to get it done.  You don’t have time to be a dynamic teacher.”  She explains that “project-based learning,” where students actively pursue a project of interest to themselves, takes more work to plan.

“To teach them a slope, we (math teachers) put a formula on the board, give them graph paper and show them the rise over run.  There’s always one kid who says, When am I going to use this?  The teacher says, uh, well, see that roller coaster?  Parabolas are how to keep them from crashing.  That’s no answer.  They don’t care.  But if you ask a kid to show me how your business is going to make a profit, they can show you time on the “x” axis and increase in cost on “y”, suddenly we’re looking at a negative slope.  Oh!, they say.  Because we’re teaching in context.  Parabolas have to have something to do with their lives.  Making a profit is something they can care about.”

For far too long, project-based or “constructivist” learning has been at war with the “drill-and-kill” focus on building skills first.  Skills are critical, but as Bonas notes, the kids don’t learn if they don’t care.  Learning can’t be either/or.  Get kids hooked on solving problems that matter to them, but stop them here and there to teach and reinforce the skills they need.  Both/and.  Bonas’ kids talked to bankers, attorneys, accountants.  As one girl said about these interviews, “They, like, so opened my eyes to how much detail you need to have.”  Of course details matter.  Dream all you want, but the math has to work.  Skills and projects need a healthy balance.

We’d have fewer “Level 1s” of all kinds if school were more engaging, creative, meaningful.  Bonas says, “I’m amazed by the growth I’ve seen in just two weeks.”  Now imagine the growth after a whole year of that.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street.

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