November 3, 2010 // Local

Student engagement is message to teachers at education conference

By Brigid Curtis Ayer

INDIANAPOLIS — “If you cannot connect with kids, you cannot teach.”

Keynote speakers Eric Jensen and Debbie Silver drove home this message to nearly 2,500 nonpublic school educators who traveled to Indianapolis to learn how to engage students at the Indiana Non-Public Education Conference at the Indianapolis Convention Center, Oct. 28-29. The conference was hosted by the Indiana Non-Public Education Association (INPEA).

The conference opened in prayer lead by Michelle Priar, assistant superintendent for the Diocese of Evansville and co-chair of the conference planning committee who said, “We are really blessed to be able to share our gifts and be the face of God to all those we meet.”
Following Priar, John Angotti, Christian recording artist, continued the prayer and worship to God through his music. At keyboard and microphone, Angotti revved-up conference attendees when they joined in song praising God, and concluded arms locked together and sang “Lean on Me.”

“The energy created by Mr. Angotti from his music at the opening session to his concert on Thursday evening was characteristic of attendee engagement throughout the two-day conference,” said John Elcesser, INPEA executive director.

Thursday’s keynote address given by Eric Jensen, founder of a brain-based learning center called the Jensen Learning Corporation, offered strategies for student engagement based on seven discoveries about the brain.

Jensen defines brain-based teaching as implementing educational strategies based on current cognitive science. “Some education strategies have absolutely no research basis at all or are based on either out of date or highly biased research, which renders them ineffective,” said Jensen. “Every time a teacher struggles with poor achievement, there is a mismatch between what the teacher is doing in the classroom and what really works.”

The seven new brain discoveries discussed by Jensen include, 1) Allostasis — the brain’s stress management thermostat does not reset to normal after extended chronic stress; 2) Emotional learning links — emotional connection to subject matter is vital to learning and memory; 3) Neuroplasticity — brain matter is not fixed, but changes based on environmental input; 4) Malleability of memory — memories are not fixed; 5) Neurogenisis — brain cells are not fixed, but new brain cells grow with proper input; 6) Social Neuroscience — positive human relationships are vital to learning; and 7) Gene Expression — genes do not determine educational destiny, but only account for 30 to 40 percent of the brain’s outcome. Environmental input and integration impacts education more than was originally thought.

“Each area of discovery brings a vast potential for new opportunities for increasing our learning,” said Jensen.

“Children do not arrive at school pre-assembled by their DNA, as was previously believed,” said Jensen. “Instead, they are glued together by life experiences. The single discovery of neuroplasticity means that the brain changes by input from the environment. Teaching is a highly targeted form of environmental input. Therefore, teaching and teaching methods change the brain.”

Jensen told teachers that what they do in the classroom really matters. “Current research shows everything a teacher does in the classroom will affect and change the student’s brain development,” said Jensen. “You have much more to do with how your students turn out than you think.”

Jensen, who is based in Maunaloa, Hawaii, has taught at every level and has authored 24 books.

Friday’s keynote speaker, Debbie Silver, of Melissa, Texas, delivered the message of student engagement in a candid, yet comical manner based on her 40 years of teaching. “Drumming to the Beat of Different Marchers” the title of Silver’s keynote address and also the title of her book, gave teachers practical strategies for reaching students who may seem to be unreachable.

Silver, who holds a doctorate degree in education, said, “First, you need to find out where each student really is. Not where the standards say they should be, or where you think they should be, but where they really are,” said Silver. “Then raise the bar just beyond where the students are. Make them stretch, but also make the goal reachable,” she said.

“All students must be given a reasonable chance to learn and succeed,” she said. “When they are given this opportunity, they will be engaged, and reach beyond where even they thought possible. Raising the bar and steering kids toward self-efficacy is what teachers need to be doing in the classroom.

“Kids are starved for individualized attention,” said Silvers. “Be with kids.” Silver said she understood the pressures of content, and paperwork and other teacher responsibilities, but told teachers, “When you’re in the classroom, being really present to the students is the best thing they can do for their educational success.”

Becky Thibodeau, who teaches junior high language arts at Trinity Lutheran School in Indianapolis said, “Wow, these were top-notch speakers with great information. I think what I took away about the brain is that we can actually grow new brain cells. Mr. Jensen’s information about improving the learning state for students is going to affect my teaching.

“Dr. Silver really inspired me to watch for people who are different marchers and encourage them,” said Thibodeau.“The sectional on motivating gifted and struggling students will change my teaching the most. Silver talked a lot about how to praise a student, and what not to do,” she said. “I found that although I am trying to encourage, my words might be discouraging or making students think they are only successful in some things. I plan to encourage students in the process and not as much on the product. This way everyone can learn and grow in class,” said Thibodeau.

The 20-year administrator, Steve Westrick, principal of St. Mary’s in Muncie, said he enjoyed the feeling of community most about the conference. “We don’t see each other day to day, but when we gather as a group at the INPEA, it is very powerful. We realize we are not alone. We are part of a large community of educators who are working to make a difference in the lives of young people every day.”

Pam Daugherty, who teachers third grade at St. Mary’s Catholic Academy in New Albany, said she was most interested in learning about the differentiated learning. “Every child should have an I.E.P., an individual education plan, because all students are different and learn differently. It’s tough to do,” said Daugherty, “but if your heart is in it, you will find a way.”

Matt Goddard, principal of St. Michael the Archangel, Indianapolis said he’s taking away from the conference the primacy of student engagement. “If the student is not engaged, learning is not happening,” he said. “The quick solution is to get the blood flowing.” Goddard, who has a background in physical education, said he’s open to leading jumping jacks over the announcement system if necessary.

Patty Mauck, a kindergarten through eighth-grade music teacher at Holy Family School in South Bend said she’s always felt that connecting with the student is more important than the specific music content that she’s teaching. Silver’s talk confirmed that for Mauck. “It’s been my experience that it is the arts: music, art, computer or other enrichment courses are the things that keep kids going and engaged throughout their education,” said Mauck.

Elcesser thanked teachers for their hard work and because of it, said his job is “made easy.” “It’s an exciting time for education,” said Elcesser. In addition to the professional development opportunities and community building that the conference provides, Elcesser said the INPEA would be working the advocacy side during the upcoming 2010 Indiana General Assembly. “This year could be huge for education at the Indiana General Assembly.” He also encouraged them to stay informed and engaged. “As lawmakers return to the statehouse to consider a new budget and develop education policy, our educators and our school communities need to be a part of the public policy discussion.”

Eric Jensen offers a free Brain-Based monthly newsletter. Subscribe at
Debbie Silver’s book “Drumming to the Beat of Different Marchers,” and other resources are available at

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