September 1, 2014

Southern Maine school staff and teachers learn about brain development at REAL School workshop - By Elizabeth Richards

While most students were busy enjoying the last few days of summer vacation, teachers, social workers, administrators and staff from Southern Maine school departments spent Wednesday, August 20th, at the REAL School learning about neuroscience. Presenter Karen Williams, a nationally renowned expert on the subject, translated the most current cognitive brain research into easy to understand terms, and offered recommendations for changes to educational best practice.
According to Williams, the growing interest in the teenage brain comes as a result of recent scientific research that suggests by understanding brain development and the impact of distress, anxiety, and trauma on students, schools may create more responsive school cultures and increase student achievement. 

 “The young brain (under 25) is built to learn. It has to encounter interference in order not to learn. Adults often remove the obstacles to learning and when we do, we remove the obstacles to development. Learning is the way we develop. When we change the behavior of adults, we change the behavior of youth,” said Williams.

The training was sponsored by The Maine Juvenile Justice Advisory Group, a group led by Barry Stoodley, chair and former Maine Associate Commissioner of the Division of Juvenile Services, believes strongly that paying attention to brain research is critical. “My hope is that once we understand the current research, we may operate with a different lens within our many systems—education, mental health, corrections,” said Stoodley. 

He added that research and tools are available to learn and share information that will help improve the lives of Maine’s youth and families. “It is primarily a matter of leadership, passion, and inclusion, as we strive together in this important work,” he said. “The well-being of children is our central concern.”

Jane Armstrong, a teacher in the Portland School Department, said that Williams’ workshop reminded her that teachers can be powerful change agents. “Trauma is a common denominator for all students. As educators, we need to keep this awareness when we are in the classroom,” she said.
REAL School Culinary Arts and Agricultural Program students Justice Wright, Curtis Arnold, and Kyle Palmer were also involved in the day, preparing and serving a locally-sourced lunch with generous donations from local businesses. “We received over $300 in donated ingredients for our lunch,” said Arnold, adding that the culinary team was very grateful for the generosity of Stone Cipher Farm, Crystal Spring Farm, Turner Farm, Royal River Natural Foods, Dunkin’ Donuts, Otto’s Pizza, Panera Bread and Summer Hill Farm. 

 “We are excited to partner with the JJAG and we are grateful for their support to bring Karen Williams to the Southern Maine educational community,” said Pender Makin, REAL School Director. The REAL School (Relevant Experiential Authentic Learning) is an adventure- and service-learning-based alternative and special education public school with minimally restrictive components of day treatment for students with social, emotional, behavioral, and academic needs from RSU14 and several other districts in Southern Maine.

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