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West Dallas Middle Schoolers Get Brain Training

BJ Austin

The brain of a middle school child is a mystery. If you’re a parent, you may have found yourself saying “What were you thinking?” or “Use your brain”.  That’s just what 6th, 7th and 8th graders in West Dallas are going to do at a brain-training boot camp. Nine language arts teachers at Edison Middle School and Learning Center are using a new program to teach kids critical thinking, starting today.

Of the 700 students at Edison Middle School and Learning Center in West Dallas more than 90 percent are Hispanic or Black and most all qualify for the free or reduced lunch program.   Edison is in the 11th poorest zip code in the nation. And here’s why that matters.

“The new information that’s coming out is that kids who grow up in poverty their brains don’t develop the way kids who don’t grow up in poverty because of nutrition, lack of stimulation,” Dr. Jacquelyn Gamino says. ” The environment is not as enriched.”

Dr. Jacquelyn Gamino is with the BrainHealth Center at University of Texas at Dallas.  She says growing up in poverty can actually affect the brain’s so-called wiring and have negative effects on attention and learning. So, that’s why the BrainHealth Center’s SMART program – Strategic Memory Advanced Reasoning Training – has come to Edison: ten brain training sessions over the next month to teach students a new way to think and to learn: to look at the big picture in the stories they read in language arts class: to find meaning, make connections and discover relevance to their lives.

“So what does that date mean? What does the conflict mean?” Gamino says illustrating the sort of classroom discussion prompts/  “What does this science passage mean to use as living human beings?  What does Newton’s law mean to a car accident?”

Gamino says that sort of critical in-depth thinking actually strengthens the frontal lobe of brain. It’s the part responsible for reasoning, decision-making, analysis and problem solving. And brain exercise and training is especially important in middle school when the frontal lobe revs up and develops rapidly.

Tim Bennett and his eight language arts colleagues took the SMART brain training over the summer. So, what’s his message to students?

“Once you learn how to think, you can master anything,” Bennett says. “You don’t have to worry about the test, the STARR or end of course exams.  Let’s just learn how to think.”

He has high expectations for his 7th graders. He’ll lead discussions to get students to look beyond the obvious details of what happened in the story they’re reading to why it happened and what does it mean? Part of the brain-training revolves around a poster pyramid that gives students five steps to take to develop their own ideas and interpretations: including “bounce it” – bounce around ideas; “arrange it” and “link it”.  Sixth grade teacher Greg Parker says in brain-training SMART classes there are no right or wrong answers.

“It’s a safe environment for kids to express what they think,” Parker says. “There is nothing more crucial in teaching or in learning. Because once a kid can open up and say what they believe without feeling that they’re going to get ridiculed then they’ll be more open to trying new things. And that’s what this is about.”

But the students aren’t the only ones to be transformed by the brain-training boot camp.  Bennett and Parker say the teachers have a whole new way of thinking, too.  A $250,000 grant from the Communities Foundation of Texas is funding the brain training at Edison. Later, all 70 teachers will be taught how to incorporate the training in their classes.  And that will make Edison the very first brain-trained SMART school in the state.

Center for BrainHealth SMART Program

Former KERA reporter BJ Austin spent more than 25 years in broadcast journalism, anchoring and reporting in Atlanta, New York, New Orleans and Dallas. Along the way, she covered Atlanta City Hall, the Georgia Legislature and the corruption trials of Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards.