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Being mindful of the mind at Willmar Middle School

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Briana Sanchez / Tribune Mark Stier, sixth-grade math teacher at Willmar Middle School, talks recently about how areas of the brain are engaged when students are moving throughout the learning process. Stier uses an "active learning environment" to teach his students. He says the students' brains are more receptive when they are active. For more, see video at wctrib.com2 / 6
Briana Sanchez / Tribune Cecilia Buzzeo, left, and Emma Villnow, right, rest their heads on the desk during an activity focused on mindfulness during Mark Stier's sixth-grade math class. Stier has the students take a break after their physical activities and before their lecture. Stier instructs the students to create their own "comfortable pose."3 / 6
Briana Sanchez / Tribune Students at Willmar Middle School participate in interactive classroom activities Feb. 1 in Mark Stier's sixth-grade math class. In Stier's active learning classroom he keeps the students moving throughout the learning process.4 / 6
Briana Sanchez / Tribune Bethany Molash, third from left, and Cecilia Buzzeo, second from right, throw paper snowballs for a class activity Feb. 1 during Mark Stier's sixth-grade math class at Willmar Middle School. 5 / 6
Briana Sanchez / Tribune Israel Medina, a sixth-grade student at Willmar Middle School, sits on an exercise ball Feb. 1 during Mark Stier's math class. One of the ways the students can learn comfortably, according to Stier, is by having different seating options.6 / 6

Mark Stier, a sixth-grade math teacher at the Willmar Middle School for more than 25 years, takes a rather unique approach to teaching.

Here is a quick question and answer on how he structures his class:

Q: How many students are in your class? What time does class run?

A: 24 students, 8:10 a.m. to 9:35 a.m.

Q: Describe your class from beginning to end?

A: The kids come in and read a scavenger hunt message on the front board, they have to figure out the clues.

Then they wander around the room. I have eight mini-white boards that have clues and problems on them. Some of the stations talk about what's going on in town or in the world.

A couple of the stations are physical stations — we need to cross planes in their body — different movements that we use to help the functioning of the brains and the functioning of academics.

We have a couple hands-on projects — to build something — it's a concentration thing.

With the mindful classroom we incorporate physical being.

They look at their objective for the day. Then we do a mindful meditation for one minute.

Now they are seated and I calm down their breathing.

Then for 15 minutes we work on the lesson of the day. As they hit that 15-minute mark, they are starting to snooze again so it's time for them to get up. Then we do a snowball activity. Think of it like a phy-ed class, we have snowball fights with crumbled-up paper or we play catch so we get their brain going one more time.

Then we move into the last 10 minutes of class.

If they need help, they come up front. The ones that know what they are doing move to the back.

Q: When did you first implement the interactive classroom?

A: 2015-2016 school year.

Q: Did you volunteer to give this approach a try, or was it assigned?

A: Sam Nelson, a former phy-ed teacher with the district, started brain research so she started the active classroom. I wasn't being as creative, so I found a way to get creativity back. I believed in the research. My test scores were really high after last year. Blue Cross Blue Shield has used my data that active classrooms are proven in the classroom. Let's let them talk and move around so they can get it out of their system.

Anticipated growth was achieved by 75 percent of the students; 92 percent showed growth.

Growth is what a kid at their level is anticipated to meet at the end of the year. About 25 percent will learn it regardless of how you teach it; 50 percent are on the edge. They might need something to believe in. The 25 percent that struggle are the ones that benefit. They see things a little differently.

You can single them out, with everyone moving around, in a way so no one notices.

They are mindful. I haven't had a kid late, I haven't sent anyone to the office.

Q: What benefits have you seen from having students move around more in class?

A: I think one thing we realized is that what you and I consider trauma is different from what they consider trauma. I give them a chance to talk about that clutter. The goal is by the time we hit that math lesson their brain is decluttered.

Think of how you deal with stress yourself.

An interactive approach is something that you put a little extra work in, but on the backside I really enjoy it. I show them the research and I teach them yoga-based stuff. You control your breathing and you try to control your mind. Be mindful.

It's more of an environmental thing than an academic.