High school teachers here will soon be studying how the adolescent brain works, and how learning is affected by what kids eat and drink in the cafeteria and the air they breathe in the classroom.
It's all part of the 60-odd recommendations from the High School Quality Council that were recently adopted by the Niagara Falls School Board. The ideas, many of them revolutionary, will be tried out in the new high school opening a year from now and will eventually find their way into the elementary and middle schools.
The Quality Council report bristles with scientific terms like synergy and kinesthetic.
"It is strongly recommended that teachers become knowledgeable about how the brain operates and how students learn," the group recommended. "One must gain an understanding of how brain parts function and interact with the environment to enable us to learn, remember, and forget."
"We don't all learn the same way," the report advises teachers. "What kind of learner/thinker are your students? Global, analytic, concrete, sequential, auditory, visual, tactile or kinesthetic?"
Maryann Altobello, a special education teacher who was on the Learning Team of the Quality Council, says much of the research on how ingestion affects learning is a mere decade old.
"Sometimes when I'm teaching, a kid will say, 'Can I get a drink of water?' and I think, 'Gee, can't you wait a few minutes?' But maybe they really need it; something in their body is craving this water for the brain," she says.
And so, Recommendation 2 states: "Water will be readily available throughout the building," because of "the role of water in the balance of electrolytes in the brain (a neuronal process associated with learning) and the body's need for 8 to 12 glasses of water per day."
"We don't have to have drinking fountains in every classroom," Mrs. Altobello explains. "But just make it accessible for the kids. Even if it's just to have water available in the lunches and spring water in the vending machines."
Recommendation 3 states: "The oxygen quality of the new high school will be monitored, provisions will be made to increase the amount of oxygen available, and physical activity will be reviewed to include activities that promote oxygenated-rich blood."
Does this mean that special air purifiers must be installed in the new building, or that bottled oxygen will be stocked in the nurse's office?
"Well," Mrs. Altobello says, "put a couple plants in the room; it could be things as simple as that."
The report also recommended that each room have windows opening to the outside, she recalled, but only an emergency window in each air-conditioned room will open.
Thus, many of the original ideas are being, well, watered down, now that they have been turned over to 16 "action teams" of parents, students and community members to figure out how to make it all work in the real world.
Recommendation 4: "The district will secure the services of a nutritionist and will be mindful of nutritional standards," in light of the "relationships between nutrition and optimal learning."
"They're finding that certain foods, like peppermint, are good for the brain," Mrs. Altobello explains. "At the same time, we want to stay away from the snack foods and have more fruits and vegetables and grains."
It also gets a bit exotic.
"If you're into aroma therapy," she adds, "lavender is a very good smell that gets the brain going. I put lavender potpourri in my classroom."
Dr. Chandra Foote, who headed the Learning Team of the Quality Council, says some of these recommendations may call for changing school hours.
"Now that we understand that the brain works in this way, how does this impact how we're going to teach -- and when we teach kids?" asks Dr. Foote, an educational psychologist who teaches the Psychology of Human Learning at Niagara University.
"Take the brain patterns of when teen-agers are most awake," she says. "We now know that teen-agers are wide awake later on into the evening, and they don't wake up until about 10 o'clock in the morning. A 6-year-old will be up at 5:30 a.m. But as it is now in the district, the high school has the earliest starting time, whereas the elementary schools start later."
But if high schoolers are allowed -- or required -- to start school later in the morning, will parents be able to make the adjustment?
"If you're a parent of a teen-ager and you've had years and years of tradition of when you can go to work because this is when your kids leave for school -- then you have to be able to understand the (new) reality of it," Dr. Foote says, "and that's where they're at now."
The action teams will meet throughout August and will submit their proposals to the School Board in the fall. That will give the district a year to work out the details before the 2,500-student Niagara Falls High School on Porter Road opens in the fall of 2000.