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How Whole Brain Teaching Engages Students

Engaging Students with Whole Brain Teaching
How Whole Brain Teaching Engages Students
Nancy Stoltenberg discovered Whole Brain Teaching (WBT) by accident. “I was trying to prepare for a huge class – 38 kids – coming up in the fall and was researching ways to manage the classroom,” she says. “I saw videos of teachers using Whole Brain Teaching, and I was really encouraged to see how engaged the students were in the activities”.
She began the school year using WBT and the method allowed her to create a classroom environment that fostered learning better than anything she had tried before. “It was really fun,” she says. “WBT is quick and energetic, which keeps kids interested. I’ve been to so many trainings where I bring back a notebook that sits on my shelf, but WBT is simple and easy and it just works. I say, ‘class!’, they say, ‘yes!’ and all eyes are on me. The first time I said, “Class!” to my students, I witnessed change, and as the days passed, I became even more drawn to the energy and positive atmosphere WBT created in my classroom. My students had a new twinkle in their eyes. Challenging students began to ‘twinkle’, too.”
According to Chris Biffle, founder of WBT, “the teaching system incorporates all learning styles simultaneously: visual, auditory, oral, kinesthetic, and it adds an extra jolt of ongoing Funtricity!” The result is an environment where discipline problems are reduced and learning is an appealing activity for children. 
Cooperative Learning and Instant Feedback
Whole Brain Teaching centers on the use of active learning and rituals in the classroom where students become the teachers, and teachers are the facilitators of learning. Learning is broken down into brief segments of direct interactive instruction before the teacher turns the lesson over to students, who re-teach to each other in pairs, collaborative learning. As students use gestures and their own words to educate each other, the teacher observes how well they’ve learned to determine whether to review or advance to the next lesson.
Support for Kids with Special Needs
Stoltenberg says the approach makes lessons more engaging, which reduces disciplinary issues. Quoting Biffle, she says, “If a student’s whole brain is involved in learning, there isn’t any mental area left over for challenging behavior.” A teacher in a Title I school, Stoltenberg’s classroom was where children were mainstreamed from special day classes for subjects identified on their Individual Education Plans (IEPs). Students in her room reached and often surpassed the educational and social goals on their IEPs.
“It’s OK to make a mistake in WBT,” she says. One of the rituals of the program is a classroom chorus of ‘you’re still cool’ when another student offers an incorrect answer. “If students get confused, they say, ‘help me!’, and the class helps. That kind of team spirit creates a safe, no failure, learning environment that encourages students to participate at higher levels. This environment is especially important for our learning challenged kids.”
Presentation of the lessons in small chunks and the movement and engagement throughout also helped Stoltenberg’s students with ADD and ADHD. “And I had many English learners, some who had never been to school before coming to my classroom. WBT has made a huge difference for all these children,” she says. According to Chris Biffle, “it does not matter what style learner, the more brain areas activated in kids’ classroom activities, the more they learn.”
Trying WBT With Your Students
In her role as director of Whole Brain Teaching certification, Stoltenberg has worked directly with hundreds of teachers, including homeschool educators. She says the flexible approach and ample free materials make it easy for any educator to try WBT with their own students.
Many of the downloads available on can be used across a wide variety of grade levels and subject areas. Powerpoint lessons on the site guide teachers through specific topics. “Anyone can register for free on the site and download what they need,” she says. Specific WBT videos of Chris Biffle and other teachers demonstrating Whole Brain Teaching are accessible here and here.
The Core Four
Learning and using “The Core Four” is how she recommends educators start. Below is a brief description of each and links to a full explanation on the Whole Brain Teaching website. 
The first of the four is “Class – Yes”, a call-and-response-type ritual in which the teacher says, “Class!” and the students reply, “Yes!” As Jeff Battle explains in this post, students “have to say it the way I said it. If I say ‘Classity-class-class!’ they have to say ‘Yessity-yes-yes!’. If I say it loudly, they have to respond loudly. If I whisper, they respond in a whisper. They have to match my tone and intensity.”
Second is saying the word, “Mirror,” to signal to students that they should mirror your words and gestures. This is an easy way to engage multiple modalities in the lesson. WBT’s site recommends you “use 'mirror' when telling a story, giving directions, describing the steps in a procedure, demonstrating a process ... anytime you want your class locked into what you are saying.” Teaching with gestures makes it instantly clear who’s engaged in the lesson.
The third element of the Core Four is “Teach! OK!,” in which the teacher says, “teach!” and the class responds “OK!” before each student turns to his or her partner to take turns teaching the lesson. 
The fourth is “Hands and Eyes”. This signals to students that they put their hands together, look at the teacher and repeat, “Hands and eyes!” This is used much less often than “Class – Yes,” and reserved for times when you need the class’s close attention to make a Really Big Point. 
“An Education Reform Movement, Not a Program”
Whole Brain Teaching does have its detractors. Some point out that it’s scientifically unproven, but Stoltenberg points to the rapidly growing number of teachers around the world who continue to adopt the approach. “Teachers who have used Whole Brain Teaching are very devoted to it because they have seen that it works,” she says. “This organization operates because of a large group of committed volunteers. All the materials are free and the conferences are free. We all just want to see kids personally engaged in learning, not only core knowledge but in thinking more critically and in reasoning as they problem solve,” she says. 

About Nancy Stoltenberg: Nancy is the director of WBT Certification. She teaches 2nd grade in Palmdale, CA. She lives in the Antelope Valley right next to the California Poppy Preserve. Every spring the desert comes alive with color there. Just like the desert, her second-grade students put out their beautiful blossoms of growth after all the hard work of the year. They are a sight to behold! Check out her blog, Mrs. Stoltenberg's Second Grade Class: Whole Brain Teaching in Progress to learn more about WBT.
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