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MCAS brain busters

By Mike LaBella
Staff Writer

HAVERHILL -- You can find children in as many as 40 classrooms sitting or standing quietly like human pretzels with legs crossed, hands clasped and folded under.

Or gently tugging on their ears as though they were struggling to clear some sort of blockage.

Teachers say these "Brain Gym" movements help their elementary and middle school pupils expand their creativity, focus their mental energy and get ready for learning.

They use some combination of 26 different exercises when pupils arrive in the morning, switch from one topic to another, and prior to quizzes or big tests like the MCAS.

Brain Gym, in use worldwide, is in its infancy in Haverhill but 40 teachers have been trained in it, many partly at their own expense, by consultant Cecilia K. Freeman of Kona, Hawaii. She travels across the country teaching a program developed in California in the 1980s.

"It's easy and it only takes a few minutes," said Lisa L. Mini, a first-grade teacher at Pentucket Lake school whose pupils start out with exercises in the morning.

"We call it 'getting our brains ready to work'," Mini said. "Since using Brain Gym we are actually gaining productive time. Children are more ready to work, and are staying on task for longer periods of time."

She considers Brain Gym remarkable because it is so simple for children to learn.

"Teachers who begin using Brain Gym will see almost immediate results," Freeman said.

Golden Hill physical education teacher Gail Tatro uses Brain Gym exercises at the start of each class.

"Sometimes children arrive all wound-up and discombobulated," Tatro said. "After just four or five minutes of Brain Gym they can go from wild and unfocused, to calm and receptive."

One of Tatro's favorite Brain Gym exercises is the "Thinking Cap." Children use their thumbs and index fingers to pull the ears gently back to unroll them. This exercise is said to stimulate over 400 acupuncture points in the ears that are related to every function of the brain and body and is designed to enhance organizational skills, ability to focus on a task, and increase interest and motivation.

"It helps me relax," said Golden Hill third-grader pupil Kyle J. Daynard. "I can feel it happening."

Pupil Matthew R. Cleveland likes doing "Hook-ups," a Brain Gym exercise intended to connect the electrical circuits in the body in order to focus both attention and disorganized energy.

"This feels relaxing, but I can't really talk," Matthew said. "My legs are crossed, my hands are crossed, and I'm supposed to keep my tongue at the roof of my mouth."

Mary Candis Cosgrove is a physical education specialist and Haverhill's only certified Brain Gym instructor.

"This isn't a 'fix it' model," Cosgrove said. "It won't necessarily make every child an Einstein or a Michael Jordan, but it can help a child reach his or her fullest learning potential."

Brain Gym exercises are designed to achieve specific goals.

Teachers choose goals such as reading skills, math skills, creative writing skills, even self-awareness skills, then select the appropriate Brain Gym exercises.

Tilton Elementary physical education teacher Christine Munier is convinced it works.

"When doing 'Cross Crawls,' I blend science into this Brain Gym exercise by asking children to take their humerus, the upper arm bone, and touch it to their femur, the thigh bone," Munier said. Her principal Raymond Sierpina likes Brain Gym and asked Cosgrove to introduce the basics to parents at an upcoming PTO sponsored family event.

Children in Lisa L. Mini's first-grade class at Pentucket Lake may be encountered tracing a figure eight pattern with their fingers, a Brain Gym exercise called "Lazy 8." This exercise is intended to help prepare children for tasks such as printing letters of the alphabet, and for reading.

Mini is so taken by Brain Gym she enrolled in a 36-hour class this summer and earned three graduate credits for it.

"My pupils use it on their own," Mini said. "When they feel like they have lost their attention span, or just can't sit still, they will put themselves into a hook-up for as long as they feel they need it."

Anyone can benefit from Brain Gym says Freeman.

"Do one or two movements before a golf game, before typing a report, or before you begin cooking dinner," she said. "It's a readiness activity that prepares the neurological system for optimal performance."

Cosgrove is such a believer she would like to see Brain Gym used throughout the city and is looking into grants to help pay for more teacher training.

"I'd love to see the program expand as I'm convinced it works," Cosgrove said. "Brain Gym renewed my passion for teaching."

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