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'Whole-brain teaching' at Leonard

Chelsea Schlak's and her second-graders review the "five classroom agreements." Photo by Trevor Keiser. (click for larger version)
November 20, 2013 - If you happen to step into the classrooms of first-grade teacher Jessica Peyerk and second-grade teacher Chelsea Schlak at Leonard Elementary,you might notice a lot more repetition and hand signals going on than other classrooms.

That's because Peyerk and Schlak have adopted a new style of teaching called "Whole-Brain Teaching."

"We both kind of found different paths to Whole-Brain Teaching," Schlak said. "We had seen videos and things on websites (last year) and this summer Jessica purchased the book and spent a lot of time (reading). I found different articles, videos, websites and I just kind of watched tutorials and read through it and thought 'Hey, why not give it a try.'"

While they both had talked about Whole-Brain Teaching a little bit last year, neither knew the other was doing it until school started.

"We started this year and ran into each other the first week of school and realized we were doing the same thing," added Schlak. "This is great because we have somebody we can share ideas with."

Whole-Brain Teaching was developed by "Whole-Brain Teachers of America," a grass roots, education reform movement that began in 1999 by a college professor and two elementary school teachers.

What is Whole-Brain Teaching?

"It's based on a classroom management system," Peyerk said. "It's a way to manage your classroom based on how the brain functions."

The idea of Whole-Brain Teaching to create a classroom environment that is "both engaging and fun." This is done by seven teaching techniques known as the "big seven," which include Class-yes, the five classroom rules, teach-okay, the scoreboard, hands and eyes, mirror and switch. Each technique is based on how the different areas of the brain work.

Class-yes is an attention getter that activates the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which is the part of the brain that controls decision making, planning and focus of attention.

"We say 'class' and they have to say 'yes' the way we say class. We have a lot of fun with it and vary it. We say classy, class, class opera style, scary style, military style and they love it," Peyerk said. "Again, it is something that triggers something in the brain when you have to listen."

In Whole-Brain Teaching there are five rules of the classroom also known as "agreements" that are practiced three times a day with coordinating hand gestures which activate the five areas of the brain.

"I think it's a positive way to channel their energy and their movement into something that can be used as a learning tool," noted Schlak.

Agreement number one: follow directions quickly, Two: raise your hand for permission to speak. Three: raise your hand for permission to leave your seat. Four: make smart choices, and five: keep your dear teacher happy.

"We say if you follow agreements one-through-four, we're always happy," Schlak said with a smile.

The agreements also expand to a lot of different things, she said.

"What does it mean to make smart choices?" Schlak said. "You're keeping your hands and feet to yourself, you're walking in the hallway. It can be applied to whatever class they're in, whether it is Spanish, (physical education), recess or lunch."

"And (it expands) further down the road in life because we all need to make smart choices," Peyerk added. "We're ingraining that in lower elementary."

Schlak said constantly reflecting on the rules is also an easy way to resolve situations when a rule is broken by asking a student to recite which rule they broke.

"Instead of us having to have 10-minute conversations with them about 'this is what you did wrong and this is why you're doing it wrong and this is how you fix it,'" she said. "It's just really nice for us to quickly, as teachers, not interrupt our whole day and just say 'review rule or agreement number three.'"

The scoreboard, which is divided by a smiley face and frown face is another effective tool used in the classroom. When the class is doing the right thing and following directions they get a mark under the smiley face followed by an "Oh, yeah," but when they're doing something wrong or not paying attention, they get marked under the frown face, followed by a "mighty groan."

Teach-OK, mirror and switch all have to do with teaching lessons in more precise short ways and then having students teach each other.

"When you incorporate whole-brain teaching into your lesson, things are supposed to be taught really short and explicit because of their attention span and how long they can stay focused," Schlak said.

"It's making us reflect on our teaching," added Peyerk. "What are the important parts we want them to understand and we're giving those to them quickly and explicitly so they're picking things up a lot faster as well."

Schlak said Whole Brain Teaching has helped her "feel a lot looser and more laid back as a teacher."

"I'm having more fun with them as opposed to focusing on following the rules and being so rigid. I'm really enjoying it with them and that's been really nice," she said. "It's just so much more effective that I don't see myself ever going back to the way I was teaching before."

Peyerk agreed.

"I love that connection to the brain research with the gestures and the upbeat moving from one thing to another," she said. "The day flows much better with the whole brain teaching. I like it."

The other thing, noted Schlak, is that the kids don't realize they're always learning.

"We're always laughing and being silly," she said. "But they're learning, picking things up, and grasping concepts."

Leonard Principal Paul McDevitt said he has seen the excitement about Whole-Brain Teaching that Peyerk and Schlak have.

"They put a lot of thought into implementing it into their classrooms and I've been in a few times to watch the kids reciting their agreements and things like that," he said.

"There are a lot of kinesthetic learners out there where this is right up their alley and you've got visual learners and auditory learners," continued McDevitt. "This (teaching style) kind of hits on all that stuff and allows kids to kind of find their niche and how they want to learn."

Peyerk and Schlak both said they would love to see Whole-Brain Teaching implemented at least school-wide, but think it could even be implemented district-wide as well.

"It would be wonderful to see," Peyerk said.

McDevitt said he would definitely support it on a school-wide basis.

"We're going to see how it goes (this year) and then we'll probably allow Mrs. Peyerk and Mrs. Schlak to develop it and present it to our entire staff and maybe see if our whole school can start using it," he said.

"I am excited to sit down at the end of the year and see how far we've come," added Schlak. "What's worked, what hasn't worked and get started for next year."

For more information on Whole-Brain Teaching, visit

Trevor graduated with degrees in English and communications from Rochester College. He wrote for his college and LA View newspapers before joining The Clarkston News in May 2007.
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