Body breaks: 5 minutes of somatic learning

This year, I’ve changed my daily routine to include five minutes called a “body break”: a physical activity that either increases students’ understanding of current topics or gives them time to explore getting to know their body and brain better.

As students and teachers, we spend a lot of our time in our minds somewhere else, whether that’s on the next step of our lesson plan, the reading we forgot to do the night before, or stressing about an email we have to respond to, like, yesterday.  Taking 5 minutes from my regular class time more than makes up for itself during “regular” instruction because it regrounds my students and me in the moment.  Pausing to take a breath and think about bodies from a physical perspective allows the brain to relax, focus, and really listen – it gives me and my students fresh eyes during each class period.

Learning with the body and putting this as the priority has also led me to develop a number of creative ways to think about anatomy, physiology, and health topics in a more kinesthetic and somatic way.  I start my classes with five minutes of a “body break” each day.  I lead them Monday-Thursday, and a rotating student leader takes it on during Fridays (which are also our reading discussions).  Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Five minutes of mindfulness.  Taking a breath and noticing the sensations in your body are a great way to spend 5 minutes regrounding in the present moment.  I’ve used body scans, breathing exercises, and simple “body time” (where kids can just notice themselves and be in their own headspace without interacting with others) on many occasions, especially when a class seems particularly rowdy or stressed.  I once had a student enter my classroom crying and after just 2 minutes of sitting in silence, she was fine to continue class.  Silence is powerful stuff!
  • Building self-knowledge of one’s own body and how it works.  We practice stretching specific muscle groups as a way to learn about the anatomy and physiology of muscles, and look at the differences between muscles, tendons and ligaments in interesting parts of the body like the fingers. We also observe muscle strain and lactic acid buildup during anaerobic exercise by doing wall sits or planks, noticing how different it is to do repetitive motion versus sustained motion.  We also do proprioception practice, using balance and self-awareness as a natural relief for those experiencing stress at home or school.  Kids also love to share their favorite weird body tricks, including pressure points, double-jointedness, and proportions – did you know that your foot is about the same length as your forearm, for example?
  • Modeling anatomy and physiology features.  In addition to looking at our own bodies, we can model major body systems and tissues using fun and engaging tactics!
    • Surface area to volume ratio: dodge ball!  When talking about villi being built to maximize surface area, we modeled randomly moving nutrient particles using soft balls that were thrown while blindfolded.  We measured how many of the balls made it when student targets stretched out as big as possible, and how many hit when those students were crumpled up tight like a ball.  In general, the bigger the surface area, the more successful contact with the “nutrients” there was.
    • Peristalsis: hula hoop pass!  We played this game while talking about peristalsis, which passes food down the esophagus using muscle motions that move in one direction.  Have the class race itself to see how quickly they can move that bolus!
    • Polysaccharides & enzymes tag  Like “blob tag” – students are all saccharides trying to join as one large chained molecule.  1-3 students are enzymes that can split apart people whose hands are joined, creating a kind of homeostasis if the numbers are just right!
  • Core skills of medicine.  Students can practice the skills that medical practitioners use in their daily operations!
    • Measuring heart rate/pulse with the fingers.  During our cardiovascular system unit, we discussed a number of things that impact heart rate and why they change it.  We measured our pulse one day, then did experiments the rest of the week using aerobic exercise, mindfulness/resting, and even an ice bath!
    • Using a stethoscope and measuring blood pressure are fun skills to practice if you have access to stethoscopes and cuffs.  Students learn a lot about blood and the heart through the physical nature of these tools.
    • Directions of the body can be learned using motions on the body or around the room to learn and review important location terminology (dorsal/ventral, anterior/posterior, superior/inferior, etc.)
  • Content review.  It is always nice to be able to go through recent content with kids while playing a game or moving our bodies!
    • “Cerebrum’s Coming”: Uses the same model as “Captain’s Coming,” but the things that are called out are locations in the brain (relative to the whole classroom) or motions associated with parts of the nervous system.  (Amygdala = freeze in a “fight” stance, neuron = “nerve cell” with a salute, etc.)
    • Pepper is a technique from “Teach Like a Champion” that asks kids fast-paced review questions while tossing a ball back and forth as they answer them.  I always play it before quizzes and tests as a way to “warm up” and get kids in the zone for the assessment.  It can also be a fun body break reviewing from the previous day, or from a distant unit that kids haven’t thought about in a while!
    • Paprika is my riff off of Pepper, where kids are the ones asking the questions.  All students stand up, and I start by asking a question and passing the ball to a student. Then, that student asks a question about the unit and passes it on.  All students need to both ask a question related to our unit and answer a different person’s question correctly before they can sit down.  The benefit of being last?  You get to ask me anything you want!
    • “Oh Cells” is based on “Oh Deer” , a game I loved as an outdoor educator teaching about ecosystem dynamics.  In this game, cells are the ones looking for nutrients, water, and oxygen in the body.  When they reach the Hayflick Limit (3 turns), they go through apoptosis.  Later in the game, a twist comes in when cells develop mutations that lead to cancer: they don’t “pop” any more and cancer takes over the living system!

Takeaways: One thing that I LOVE about body breaks is that it turns our classroom into a laboratory.  As an anatomy & physiology teacher, the kinds of inquiry-based labs I used to do when teaching physics don’t work in the same way… unless kids are doing things that are feasible with their own physical selves.

Another thing that body breaks emphasize is how different each body is from others.  Textbooks tend to imply that everyone’s insides are identical, or that the way each brain is wired is precisely the same.  In reality, though the basics are the same for every human being, there are distinct differences for each individual that make each body unique.  Not weird, or wrong, just different – that’s the beauty of the human experience!


Think like an expert: teaching kids to see the big picture, Part 1

I mentioned in a previous post that I am currently enrolled in a(n awesome) physics class.  On the first day, our professor showed us this photograph:

Take a look… what do you see?

At first, it looks like a sea of random dots.  However, when you look at it more closely, in the center of the frame is the outline of a dalmatian, surrounded by leaves along a road.

This, our professor said, is seeing like an expert – taking in a whole system of dots, like equations, theorems, specific experiments, and seeing the larger pattern that unites them all.  This image can never be unseen – it becomes an internalized part of your way of seeing the world.

Students, on the other hand, come to our specific disciplines and typically try to memorize as many dots as possible.  They create mnemonics to make certain clusters of dots more recognizable, practice finding dots quickly over and over before an exam, and crate long study guides covered in every possible iteration of dots to prepare for any kind of question we might throw at them.

Ultimately, our goal as teachers is to help our students see science like an expert.  Instead of partitioning body systems into concrete boxes, we hope students will understand them intuitively as interacting in a larger system aimed at homeostasis.  Instead of thinking of Newtonian physics with a series of equations, we encourage students to develop intuition about particular phenomena, based in science rather than their naive conceptions.  When approaching a calculation, we hope students will think first of what magnitude they expect their answer to be before applying an equation into the mix.

I have been blown away by how clearly this has been taught in my physics course, which uses the Physics by Inquiry curriculum developed by Lillian McDermott and the Physics Education Group at the University of Washington.  Our two-week intensive has covered the topics of basic electrical circuits and the phases of the Moon – both topics that I have taught in the past – and breaks down those topics into student-led, direct inquiry lessons that build models from the ground up.

Instead of starting with equations, the curriculum encourages students to create an intuition about phenomena that rises out of observed patterns in their data.  Starting with something as simple as creating a complete circuit with a battery, a single wire, and a light bulb (Guess what? There’s 4 different ways to do it!), the curriculum builds an intuitive, qualitative model of electrical current and voltage.  Only after the groundwork is laid and set – a good 30+ hours of instructional time into the unit – does anything like Ohm’s law enter into play.  By then, it’s almost a given!

I cannot recommend this curriculum enough.  Even going through one of the units yourself is an eye-opening experience for any science teacher.

After completing this course, with its many “aha” moments in both teaching and physics, I have been energized to dig into the literature and see what other curriculum planning tools and constructed curricula exist for teaching science effectively.  Specifically, as someone teaching human biology for the first time, I wonder how these same research tools could be applied to teaching that much less mathematical and systematic discipline.  More on what I’ve dug up from the MSU library in future posts!