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TEACHERS COLLEGE RECORD, Columbia University, New York

Commentary by Abby Brown, Elementary/Health Educator

 Stillwater, Minnesota

March 2009

 

It has been exciting to have reporters visit our sixth grade classroom just north of Stillwater, Minnesota to interview and take photos for ‘Stand Up for Learning.’  This is an innovative, action research project that began two years ago. In the first months of school last fall, students warmed-up to media attention when local anchors and camera crews began to visit our classroom to gather information and footage.  By the time the ABC World News crews arrived last fall, the students were confidently experienced and took the visits in stride.  We have something intriguing to share and have become known as the experts on a new concept that is beginning to impact learning environments for children around our country.  These sixth graders and I are thrilled others are taking notice.

 

Why all the attention?  In my classroom, and an additional three at Marine Elementary School, students have the option to position themselves in a variety of ways as they learn.  These classrooms contain desks that enable fidgeting, standing, leaning, swinging of legs, or sitting at a high stool that has been adjusted to match the students’ standing positions. My students and I call the adjustable height desks “standing stations,” but Sunway, Inc. in Centuria, Wisconsin, has trademarked this new furniture option as the AlphaBetter Desk and has patented the Pendulum footrest that students and teachers love.  These desks are a unique addition to an age-old strategy for working and learning productively on your feet.

 

The design of the desk was a result of connections with the local ergonomics company that took interest in the idea.  It wasn’t until after I was granted money to begin the research that I discovered there weren’t any student style standing desk options available from school supply companies.  I tried a variety of drafting tables made in other parts of our world, but the desks were not durable enough to withstand even a few months of classroom use.  The Sunway team and teachers came up with the AlphaBetter Desk design by considering the best features of each trial drafting table and adapting them for student use.  The addition of the Pendulum swinging footrest was a brainstorm of the company’s CEO with inspiration from his wife. 

 

Prototypes are still in use in our classrooms, though with student input, improvements have been made for the AlphaBetter Desk now available.  Teachers learned students could tip high stools onto two legs making a game of balancing, so the Sunway stool was designed to prevent this danger and has proven to keep the “best of the tippers” on four legs.

 

At any given time of the day, I observe students using all options while learning.  One may be standing with foot moving in a rhythmic swing, while other students may swing as they lean against the stool or sit completely upon it.  In my next glance, I will notice that they’ve switched positions, naturally adjusting to what they need to focus on the task before them.  We’ve found that standing for math, science, and art is most desirable, and pulling up a stool to sit and read aloud is still our preference during reading time.  There is less standing after physical education class and recess, but even while sitting, the students like to swing the Pendulum.  This concept of option empowers them in ways the traditional classroom does not.

 

In our building you will see a variety of classroom arrangements, much the same as with traditional desks.  Some consideration does need to be made to accommodate shorter students so that the view of the teacher or front area is not obstructed.  Because I just make it over the five-foot mark, I have added a footstool, known as my ‘command station,” to perch upon and increase my visibility.  Although students have free movement within their own desk area, there are still those that like to wander over to the pencil sharpener to whisper an important message to a classmate, and being social creatures means my 6th graders love the larger tops that allow them to gather together to do group work.  It creates an environment where children want to learn.

 

Through this project, I have rediscovered my love for wellness concepts.  My undergraduate degree is in health education with a fitness emphasis.  Being an elementary teacher allows me to do some health education, but up until a few years ago, it never dawned on me that the time I spend standing is much greater than that of my students.  Our school day was increased in length with no additional time for physical activity. NCLB has brought stories to my ears that tell of “no time’ for physical education in the high stakes academic setting our country has been subjected to in recent years.  This concerned me.  What I have come to realize is there are countless educators who are not aware of the ways in which their attempts to meet the new academic demands are counter to allowing the whole child to develop.

 

Recent research on issues related to health and wellness support the ‘Stand Up for Learning’ change in the classroom environment. 

 

In SPARK, The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, author John Ratey, Ph.D., notes the hypothesis that exercise enhances school performance. As neuroscientists conduct research, it becomes clearer that exercise better enables student brains to be ready, willing, and able to learn. It is essential for students to engage in aerobic activity to reach their full potential.  Adding the option for students to stand while in the classroom may be a good supplement for aerobic activity, leading to increased fitness levels and overall wellness.

 

A study released in November 2007 by Marc Hamilton, University of Missouri, and Theodore Zderic, Amsterdam, indicates there are health benefits to standing at a desk.  In the article, “MU Study Finds That Sitting May Increase Risk of Disease” evidence suggests there is a misconception that actively exercising is the only way to make a healthy difference in an otherwise sedentary lifestyle. Hamilton’s studies found that standing and other non-exercise activities burn many calories in most adults even if they do not exercise at all.  Additionally, exercise alone was not sufficient to reverse the negative effects that sitting has on fat and cholesterol metabolism.

 

The Education Minnesota Foundation is funding an on-going research project to determine possible impact of the standing option on academic achievement. Researchers are documenting student body positioning in both the traditional setting as well as in our classrooms that give students standing options.  Researchers are also collecting data on the effect of standing options on students’ classroom behavior and standardized test performance (Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments and NWEA.)

 

Professors of kinesiology from the University of Minnesota are also conducting research utilizing highly sensitive accelerometers with students who have the standing option. These devices are measuring kilocalorie expenditure of each child while working in both classroom settings over a two-week period.

 

Other groups that have taken interest in pursuing research regarding impact on ADD and physical health range from doctors of behavioral medicine to the Office Ergonomics Research Committee supported by such corporations as Apple, Dell, and Chevron. The current objectives of the OERC have been to understand the association between office work and discomfort, fatigue and musculoskeletal disorders.  Now their interest expands to the impact of ergonomically sound standing options for students in the classroom.  This change will in turn impact the working environments of adults.

 

The research potential is wide open for future investigations. I hope that work on the variety of wellness areas this option potentially impacts will take place in other districts around our country.

 

In their co-authored book, Fidget to Focus, Roland Rotz, Ph.D. and Sarah D. Wright, M.S., A.C.T. explain that “fidgeting is a rhythmic sensory stimulation and our body’s natural way of activating our understimulated brains to facilitate focus, which allows us comfort and rest.” (p. 31)

 

Fidget to Focus reminds us that adults have the freedom to move around, change tasks, take breaks, or use whatever techniques are necessary to stay alert and focused while children in the traditional classroom do not.  The standing station with a pendulum footrest option is a ‘respectful fidget’ that does not distract others and allows the needed simultaneous sensory-motor stimulation to arouse and activate the brain.

 

My students’ reactions to the standing stations provide compelling evidence to support making the change to an environment that allows natural movement. Although we should not always give in to children’s savvy attempts to convince parents to purchase new things such as the latest electronics, students’ requests for a standing option is one that parents, school board members, and administrators should take to heart.  Since we have started using the standing stations my students appear to be more focused.  They report having more energy at the end of the day.

 

Consider this letter from one of my sixth grade students: “Standing stations are amazing; they improve so many things, such as posture, handwriting, and I focus way better.  At home when I do my homework, I have to stand!  Although I don’t have a standing station at my house, I use a dresser.  It’s not as great as a standing station, but I get the opportunity to stand.  I have also been more active.  I have been able to spend more time with my super-active brother and that means a lot to me.  Thank you for giving me the best learning environment possible, Mrs. Brown.” ~~Audrey

 

The ‘Stand Up for Learning’ initiative has become an amazing professional journey for me; one that has grown due to the support of researchers, teachers, parents, and community organizations. An idea that started as my plan to improve the learning environment of my own classroom has begun to impact classroom learning environments around our globe.  The International Herald Tribune, owned by the New York Times, ran Susan Saulny’s story on the same day that it hit the Times’ front page in the United States.  The international title; “In education, furniture matters, too.” Ms. Saulny writes:

 

“With multiple classrooms filled with stand-up desks, Marine Elementary finds itself at the leading edge of an idea that experts say is gaining momentum in education — that furniture matters and should be considered as seriously as instruction, particularly with childhood obesity on the rise, and as schools scale back on physical education and recess.”

 

Robert Brooks, Ph.D., expresses my sentiments in “Physical Exercise in School: Fitness for Both Body and Mind” as he ends with these thoughts: “I look forward to the day when educators at all grade levels in all schools detail the ways in which their approach is rooted in the latest brain research, including that which confirms that physical activity and learning are inextricably interwoven. I also look forward to the day when removing recess is not applied as a punishment; instead, recess and other opportunities for physical expression are used to strengthen learning and interpersonal skills. Hopefully, that day is not too far in the future.”  Ditto from me.

 

The opportunity to ‘stand up for learning’ is here.  Join the efforts.  Children need adults to advocate for them.  Students do not make decisions regarding classroom materials, curriculum, and furniture.  Without us, the option to move naturally as needed while learning cannot be a choice for them.

 

How can you do this?  Start by seeking out desks in need of replacement in your building.  Ask that capitol funds be used to purchase new ones that allow the standing option.  Add a few to your room; it will spark parent and community interest that could lead to more funding.  If you work with primary students, find tables or intermediate desks that can be raised to the top height.  These will provide a standing area for the younger children.  And breaking the habit of saying “Sit down!” is one of the first steps in moving toward changes.  You, too, can make a difference.  J

 

 

 

 

Basi, C, November 2007, MU News Bureau, MU study finds that sitting may

    increase risk of disease, MU Professor offers solution: Just stand up!

    January 2009,

http://munews.missouri.edu/news-releases/2007/1115-hamilton-inactivity.php

 

Brooks, R. September 2008 “Physical exercise in school: Fitness for both

    body and mind, March 24, 2009, http://www.drrobertbrooks.com/writings/articles.html

 

Ratey, J., (2008) SPARK, The revolutionary new science of exercise and the brain, New York, New York, Little, Brown and Company

 

Rotz, R., & Wright, S., (2005) Fidget to focus, Outwit your boredom:

    Sensory strategies for living with ADD, Lincoln, NE, iUniverse

 

The International Herald Tribune, February 25, 2009, Susan

     Saulny, reporter; “In education, furniture matters.’ http://www.iht.com/articles/2009/02/25/america/25desks.php

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