Prize comes as school gears up to bring students back to campus

This article was updated with additional information on March 3. 

The pandemic has put a hold on a lot of things over the past year, and while school has looked different, it hasn’t stopped Brooks Elementary School and its principal Annette Zucconi from continuing to innovate.

One such program, implemented before the transition to distance learning, and curtailed but not eliminated over the last year, has just been recognized with the 2020 Jack London Award for Innovation from Sonoma State’s School of Education.

The Brain Integration Station is the brainchild of former Brooks P.E. teacher Laurel Green. According to a presentation on the award, “the goal of the Brain Integration Station is to provide any school site with a place for students to go to work on re-centering their thinking, their emotions and their mind, using physical activities that require balance, crossing the midline, audio-visual responses, pulling, jumping, rolling on a ball and hand-eye coordination. The Brain Integration Station provides a minimum of 13 different activities.”

Green had already discovered the importance of integrating mind and body through her own experience training as a bike racer, rehabbing from injuries and doing different workouts as she trained for her teaching credential.

“In 1997 when I took a tumbling class for 18 weeks to prepare for my teaching credential in Physical Education, I found out for real, how challenging the balance beam was if my right and left brain was not integrated. I needed to spend some time in my warmup making sure I was ready to be unstable by practicing warms ups that included crossing the midline,” Green said. 

Green incorporated versions of crossing the midline and brain integration exercises into her P.E. classes over the years, including stability (yoga) balls and jumping rope, which she says can be extra challenging for people struggling with brain integration.

Zucconi got a copy of the book “Bal-a-vis-x” by Bill Hubert on recommendation of Brooks’ librarian, and then got a copy for Green. Green was not a full-time teacher at Brooks (and she has since gone on to be the full-time P.E. teacher at Windsor Middle School), and had two blocks of “open time” during the week. According to Zucconi, Green took the free blocks and created a place for kids to have a “brain break.” Students could self-select to attend, or they could be sent by a teacher, and they could be in any other class at the time and get sent to the Brain Integration Station.

“I found that exercises that integrate the brain were coming into my view more and more,” Green said. “In 2018, I wrote a grant to the Speed Stacks company to set up Speed Stacking activities at my school site. It was a hit ,but the students needed more time to learn the stacking patterns so I did not incorporate the Speed Stacking cups right away.

“In 2019, after learning about the power of the rope-pull through studying sensory integration research, and learning about Bal-A-Vis-X through a book, I started to realize that what I was envisioning was becoming a reality: An actual program including all of these things with the sole purpose of integrating a student’s brain for deeper learning capacity and healthier interpersonal relationships. With Annette Zucconi’s encouragement to apply for an award for the Brain Integration Station, I was hesitant, but went for it. Her intuition was accurate. It was a hit,” Green concluded. 

“It’s a grounding activity and kids can return back to class feeling refreshed. They got movement in and something scientists say is good for brain and learning,” Zucconi said. “Some schools have a room where kids can go to destress, and this was my hope to start developing something like that. Most people can’t sustain perfect attention all day long, even with recess and lunch. I, as an adult, stand up and take a break, but students can’t do this and there isn’t always a place to go.”

They submitted the program last year for the award, but when the pandemic hit, everything came to a halt. When SSU started gearing up for the award again, they asked for a video, which of course proved nearly impossible given no kids were still on campus. However, they were able to create something and were informed of their win last month.

The award comes with an Amazon gift card the school is using to acquire more items for their P.E. program. Green has moved on, but the foundational program she left behind will be implemented by the school going forward.

“As a principal, I like to get out of way of teachers and let their gifts show up and she had all the insight when she created this. I  bought a few items, including the book and she took it to a beautiful place,” Zucconi said.

The program was fully integrated with all the grade levels at Brooks, meaning kids from any grade level can be in the room at any one time. There was one morning and one afternoon session open per week, and the thirteen stations including activities like rapid cup stacking, balance boards, rope work and more. Some stations are meant to be done solo, while others are cooperative and require kids to work together.

Zucconi said the most popular station by far was the cup stacking, and that not just the kids utilized the station as needed.

“I even went in when I needed a break,” she said. “I wasn’t that great at the cup stacking but I really liked the balance boards.”

Some parts of the program continued over distance learning (not all activities required tools to accomplish) and they are planning on continuing the program when students return to class. Zucconi says she is already hearing from students they are excited to utilize the program again going forward.

Moving forward and welcoming back

There are two projects delayed by COVID that Zucconi is hoping to get COVID-safe parent volunteers to help with in coming weeks.

The first is the completion of the school garden, a project that was slated for completion last spring. They’ll be installing irrigation, planting in the existing boxes, filling in their horseshoe shaped teaching garden and more, and Zucconi will be soliciting help in a future parent newsletter.

Last spring the school received a $5,000 grant from the Windsor Education Foundation for “fun new playground stencils” but COVID stopped them before they could be utilized. This year they’ll be used to brighten up the playground during spring break, so they’ll be ready to brighten kids’ days when they return.

Brooks has also been working hard to prepare for students to return.

“Our site plan is done and we’re working with our custodian team, our office team and our teaching team and with our classified staff, catching up and making sure our plan will work and asking, ‘what ifs.’ We’re in process of that and we feel really confident,” she said.

Students are slated to return to classrooms in early April, and Zucconi became emotional when considering the return of children to her campus.

“None of us do this work because we want to look at computer screens all day,” she said, fighting back tears. “We want to be with kids and nurture growth and celebrate with them in person. It’s the same as a principal and wanting to be with my teachers and staff. I’m just in awe.

“My first year I was lucky that (former superintendent) Brandon Krueger took a chance on a brand new principal, and I’m so blessed right now that our current superintendent (Jeremy Decker) has the eyes and ears of an owl and just knows what we all need. He is so attentive and responsive. I just couldn’t imagine that my first year would have a wildfire and a pandemic and the second year would be 100% distance learning,” she finished.

Though it may have delayed things, the pandemic has not stopped the next step in Brooks’ development — the implementation of project-based learning.

“I distribute a survey at the end of each year gather as much information as I can about our teacher’s needs and what to do next,” she said. “I listed out a lot of things for them to consider and one of those things was project-based learning; they all wanted to know about it, but I could do none of that in the fall.

“I dipped a toe in the waters by putting in my School Plan For Student Achievement in January, but of course (teachers) have been so, so consumed with creating digital versions of curriculum. In January we took them on a project-based learning tour of New Tech High, the big wig in project-based learning and then last week we had a 75-minute training with the Center for Excellence.”

Zucconi said the training dug deep into the framework of PBL and that after the training 90% of her staff stated via a survey that they wanted to move forward with implementing it. 

“As a leader, when considering something new, if you want it to go well and have it stick, you have to give people time to consider the impacts and get questions answered, because often times they can flop,” she said. “PBL offers rigorous standards-based academic skills but gives them the opportunity to have kids put it into practice in real world scenarios. We just decided last Thursday that Brooks is going PBL.”

Zucconi added that it will be a two to three-year implementation before the program is fully integrated at Brooks.

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