Norwalk educators take lessons in brain-based teaching

quiz each other Monday at the Norwalk Inn
Kelly Bocuzzo, a Kendall Elementary School teacher, is quizzed by her colleague Doris Rois Monday at the Norwalk Inn during a seminar on brain-based teaching led by author Eric Jensen.
Eric Jensen, an educator and author of "Engaging Students with Poverty in Mind"
Eric Jensen, an educator and author of “Engaging Students with Poverty in Mind,” leads a seminar Monday at the Norwalk Inn.

NORWALK, Conn. – Brain-based teaching came to the Norwalk Inn – and Norwalk Public Schools – Monday in a seminar marked by occasional bursts of dancing and encouraging words about providing positive role models to children.

The seminar led by author Eric Jensen was arranged by Kendall Elementary School Principal Tony Ditrio, who led Kendall on a pilot program based on Jensen’s techniques last year after being exposed to them at an administrator’s convention. It was attended by at least two representatives of every school. That included 10 people from West Rocks Middle School, every teacher at Kendall and Tracey Elementary Schools and five teachers and two principals from three schools involved in the project, Ditrio said.

“This is the guy who is going to take us where we need to go,” Ditrio said, explaining that the seminar is a kickoff for spreading brain-based teaching beyond Kendall.

Jensen talked about the brain, including references to neuro-transmitters and information gleaned from brain research.

“The human brain gets exposed to a lot of input every day. It’s hard for your brain to say everything’s important so it doesn’t unless you help make it important,” Jensen said, after mentioning that suspense and curiosity are ways to spark the brain.

Much of his conversation was about poverty. Children in middle class families are exposed to hope every day, he said, using his own life as an example. When he was a kid his parents routinely mentioned that he’d be going to college, he said. Kids from poor families don’t get that, he said.

He challenged the educators to come up with a list of jobs they routinely assign to students. The group easily came up with paper passers, line leaders, bathroom monitors and attendance takers but then Jensen took it one step further – he asked them to come up with an adult equivalent, something the kids could aspire to.

Tanika Vellucci of Nathan Hale Middle School said the PowerPoint presentations printout would help her remember the things she learned in the 5-hour long seminar Monday.

A buzz filled the room. One teacher asked a neighbor what the “caboose,” the child at the end of a line, could do as an adult.

When the answers came in, Jensen said he’s keep the one suggested by Teddy Lopez of Ponus Ridge Middle School: An attendance taker could be a census taker. Other answers were a mail carrier for a paper passer and a bouncer for a bathroom monitor. That caboose? A security guard.

Jensen provided an example of a high school in which all the students came from a poverty and 96 percent of the students went to college.

“They’re pretty good,” Jensen said. “The staff isn’t perfect but there’s not a lot of gaping holes in what they do. They know how to build effort and they don’t make excuses. They are good at building cognitive capacity and they don’t make excuses when kids don’t have it. They know how to build attitudes and they don’t make excuses when kids don’t have the right attitude. They just roll up their sleeves and they do it.  They just figure that’s who we have. Parents send us the best children they have.”

Ditrio said Jensen had been talking about building working memory and cognitive capacity. He was showing teachers to believe in the children so the children would believe in themselves.

“I wish everyone could have attended this because it’s really, really helpful,” said Tanika Velluci, a Nathan Hale Middle School seventh grade teacher. “It’s totally in line with what we heard today in convocation.”

Velluci was referring to a motivation speech that morning from Geoffrey Canada at the annual convocation.

Jeff Beckley, Ed.D., a fifth-grade teacher at Kendall, said Ditrio sent three teachers to San Antonio to attend a seminar with Jensen.

“We are trying to tackle poverty in our district instead of the way we have been tackling because, essentially, we have kind of flat lined, we have plateaued,” Beckley said. “… Nothing is really changing and why is that? Sometimes you go as far as you can with a certain set of strategies. The answer is to try something different. The research has been done for years. One of the reasons he is here is the research is there to back up what he is talking about.”

From left. Teddy Lopez of Ponus Ridge Middle School, Tanika Vellucci of Nathan Hale Middle School and Shannon Lugebrink of Roton Middle School
From left. Teddy Lopez of Ponus Ridge Middle School, Tanika Vellucci of Nathan Hale Middle School and Shannon Lugebrink of Roton Middle School dance at Eric Jensen’s urging Monday in the Norwalk Inn.

Jensen occasionally stopped teaching the teachers, turned on some music and told them to move.

The idea is that children need to move and that teachers need to punctuate teaching with physical activity, Beckley said. “If you think about it how long can you sit still?” Beckley said.

“It’s the brain. It’s the body. It’s basically trying to get to the soul,” Beckley said. “So it’s not just academics anymore, it’s about trying to get to the whole child. It was Tony’s idea and this is one huge component of it.”

Correction, 3 p.m., Ditrio sent three teachers to San Antonio, not including Jeff Beckley. 


3 responses to “Norwalk educators take lessons in brain-based teaching”

  1. Anne Sullivan

    One of the best workshops I’ve attended. It is too bad that all Norwalk teachers from pre-k-12 were not there. I have some very exciting ideas to try in my classroom this year.

  2. Admo

    Way to go Tony! Spread the word!! This is how to tackle the achievement gap

  3. Lifelong Teacher

    It can be done, and it is big done in Norwalk. Why there’s been no publicity about it, not quite sure,

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