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Washington State University
College of Education

November 2011

Alumni researcher delves into Alaskan culture, education

Caitlin Montague-Winebarger lives in a cold place but has a warm spot in her heart for kids. So when the WSU alum went to teach elementary school in  Manokotak, Alaska, she paid special attention to the large number of students who seemed uninterested or were just plain quiet. She’d been told to expect that, and some of her teaching colleagues were troubled by it.

She learned that non-verbal communication was a big part of the local Yup’ik culture, and she adapted.

“Many of my students were using facial cues rather than spoken responses to acknowledge their understanding, or to let me know that they didn’t understand a concept,” she recalls. “It took me awhile to key in on this style, and it required me to be in close proximity to the students, which I wasn’t used to. But soon it became habit. I find myself using still using those cues even though I live in a completely different part of the state.”

Caitlin Montague-Winebarger bundled up on an Alaska hike
Caitlin Montague-Winebarger

Caitlin is now a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Her dissertation research focuses on how pre-service teachers describe culture and cross-culture, and then apply those understandings. The subject is vitally important in Alaska, where there are many distinct native cultures and at least 20 native languages.

Caitlin, originally from Cheney, Wash., headed to Alaska after earning her education degree at the WSU Tri-Cities in 2006. She met Eric Johnson, assistant professor in the Tri-Cities since 2008, at the recent American Anthropological Association conference in Montreal.

“As I told Eric, I really do appreciate the foundation that I received there,” Caitlin said in an email. “It has served me well (so far!).”

Eric and Caitlin have strong common — and interdisciplinary — interests. Her Ph.D. program is based in the School of Education at UAF, but includes coursework in anthropology, cross-cultural studies and English. He has taught in departments of anthropology, foreign language, and education and helps future teachers learn how to succeed in multilingual, multicultural classrooms.

Caitlin’s master’s degree research focused on teacher isolation and technology in a rural Alaskan school district. She also worked as a research assistant for the Alaska Native Teacher Preparation Project, which supported Alaska Native and American Indian students pursuing teaching degrees.

Speaking of another kind of degree … Caitlin says it was minus 25 Fahrenheit when she took a hike the other day and a friend snapped the picture posted here. “But it was sunny!”

SMARTKIDS curriculum links minds, bodies

Associate Professor Jennifer Beller is known for her expertise in physical/moral connections, particularly ethical issues relating to sports. But she’s also keenly interested in physical/intellectual links, as the Moscow-Pullman Daily News explains in this recent article about one of Jennifer’s projects, headlined “St. Mary’s students learn outside the box.”

By Holly Bowen
Daily News staff writer

Pam Wimer teaches a geography lesson using an outdoor map
Pam Wimer teaches geography using an outdoor map (Geoff Crimmins photo)

Children in Pam Wimer’s third-grade class at St. Mary’s School in Moscow enthusiastically ran to, then jumped on, a multicolored map of the 50 United States painted on the playground courtyard.

The map didn’t list the names of the states, but the students had no trouble determining where they were standing or which directions they needed to walk and hop to go further north, south, east and west across the map.

“We’ve never learned the states this early (in the school year),” said Wimer, who has taught at St. Mary’s School for 18 years.

However, the students are participating in the school’s new “SMARTKIDS” curriculum developed with the help of Jennifer Beller, an associate professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Counseling Psychology at Washington State University.

The teachers and professor developed the Smart Kids concept last year when thinking of a favorite game from their own childhoods – jacks – which they said children aren’t familiar with anymore.

Unlike most school curricula today, SMARTKIDS integrates physical activity with cognitive tasks, a philosophy that goes back thousands of years, Beller said.

Jennifer Beller
Jennifer Beller

“Plato never sat,” Beller said. “He always walked.”

Every grade at St. Mary’s School participates in Smart Kids activities for about 15 minutes two or three times per week, in addition to their regular physical education classes.

During SMARTKIDS sessions, students complete academic drills – like multiplication tables, spelling or memorization – while performing physical tasks like juggling, jump-roping, balancing on a beam or inflatable workout ball or jumping on a map.

Beller and Wimer said the third-graders spent four weeks jumping onto and naming the states on the map. When the students took a quiz to gauge their knowledge, all but one student passed with flying colors. Wimer said it usually takes much longer for all the students to demonstrate proficiency.

Better than flash cards

Beller said the idea is to open up more neural pathways in the brain that enable students to recall more information than if they had simply sat at a desk and memorized flash cards.

She said learning to ride a bicycle is an example of using those additional neural pathways. People tend to fall a lot when they first begin riding, but eventually their brains remember how to stay balanced, even if they take a break from cycling for several years.

Wimer said sometimes the students are a bit fuzzy-headed when trying to recall things they’ve learned weeks ago, but once they begin performing the associated physical tasks, that fuzziness disappears.

The strategy seems to be paying off – Beller said the children easily memorized the names of 22 different bones, which usually takes several weeks.

“They all got it in five days,” she said, adding that the physical activity opens up more areas of the brain from which to recall information.

Beller said she and a colleague at WSU recently worked on a study of 200 preschoolers that found strong ties between balance activities and perceptual awareness, quantitative ability and other cognitive skills.

She said it’s not exactly cause-and-effect, but the students’ higher academic performance is correlated to the combination of cognitive and physical tasks.

“The kids can do pretty complex tasks in the process of it, and the more they do, the better they get,” she said.

WSU students collect, assess data

She said she and her own students at WSU are collecting data and assessing the children’s progress in fundamental motor skills and test scores. Tracking that progress will enable the older students to develop more complex activities for when the current crop of children grows older.

Another major bonus of the SMARTKIDS curriculum is the students seem to really enjoy it even when they’re performing memorization drills. Beller and Wimer recalled how one parent said her two boys came home and started playing “Smart Kids” on their own by reading flash cards while balancing on a workout ball.

“They’re willing to practice these flashcards and things excitedly,” Wimer said.

Kid-approved approach

Third-graders Jessica Smith, Megan Cornish, Brigid O’Sullivan, Kirstin Wambeke, Thomas Curet and Eliza O’Murphy were all excited to talk about SMARTKIDS on Wednesday afternoon. They described the curriculum as fun but sometimes challenging – in a good way.

“You get to learn while doing something fun,” Wambeke said.

Curet said he likes to turn SMARTKIDS activities into competitions against his classmates.

O’Murphy, Smith and Cornish said they especially enjoyed learning the states by jumping around on the map.

“I only knew like four states, but now I know all 50,” Smith said with a look of pride on her face.

For those who are interested in learning more about the mind-body connection, Beller recommended a TED Talk lecture by neuroscientist Daniel Wolpert, which is available online.

Reprinted with permission. Article originally published Nov. 10, 2011.

Temple Grandin’s wisdom stems from science, experience

Temple Grandin speaks at the "Family Is Important" autism conference
Temple Grandin speaks at the "Family Is Important" autism conference in Pullman

One of the world’s most influential people is bullish on breakfast sausages and laments that kids don’t have paper routes anymore. She is NOT in favor of coddling. And as for people who conduct inadequate experiments with medication on 5-year-olds … well, don’t get her started.

“I don’t have enough swear words for what I’d like to do to them,” autism expert Temple Grandin told Washington State University faculty this month.

Moments later, she told a story that would make a 10-year-old double over with laughter. She admits to cracking herself up regularly. “My emotions aren’t complex.”

But when it comes to intellectual complexity, Grandin’s audiences are well-advised to buckle their seat belts and turn on their tape recorders. In Pullman, she spoke to nearly 500 people at the autism conference sponsored by Families Together and the WSU College of Education. The night before, a campus crowd of more than 1,000 heard her lecture.

Grandin impresses with plain talk and a mind that works like Google, pulling together related ideas from vast stores of data. At the conference, she shared information on learning challenges, nutrition, medication, career choices, parenting, teaching and animal behavior. She acknowledged the wide range of abilities represented by people on the autism spectrum. On one end are children and adults who need constant care; on the other end are high-functioning people with Asperger’s syndrome, such as Grandin.

She was full of advice, based on experience and science, for educators, counselors, students and parents. Much of it came from observing what she calls “old Aspies like me” who have worked all of their lives. Some tidbits from her torrent of wisdom about kids:

  • Make sure they get protein for breakfast to fuel their brains. “Nuke a couple of those frozen sausage links.” Oh, and “cut out the 20-ounce Cokes!”
  • Get them doing jobs that people want done, which teach responsibility, at an early age. Some examples: walking dogs  or managing a church website.  “Any job on a computer you can start teaching at age 10.”
  • If they need medication, start out with the tried-and-true drugs that have been scientifically proven and have limited side effects. Consider anti-depressants, like the one she takes, to dampen anxiety. “Fear is the main emotion of autism.” Use very small doses. “Doctors are raising doses when they should be lowering them.”
  • Teach them social skills and survival skills. “Johnny’s got to learn how to order food. Get him a debit card. He’s got to learn that when the money’s gone, the card won’t swipe anymore.”
  • Tap into their fixations. If a child draws nothing but horse heads, get her to draw a person on a horse. Then the house the person lives in. “Get them to draw pictures of people’s pets.”

Grandin urged everyone to accept the tears of people with autism, be they children or grownups.

“I had to replace anger with crying,” she said. “The geeks that cry keep their jobs. They’re not going to get by with throwing tools in the equipment room.”

For more information about Temple Grandin, see her website. For photos from the conference and her breakfast with College of Education faculty, click here.