Let’s Move! Energy Breaks For The Language Classroom

Let’s Move! Energy Breaks For The Language Classroom

By: Marc Helgesen

Editor’s note: Our own Marc Helgesen wrote this superb article for us originally. One of our cousins, the Neurolanguage Collective Magazine, NLC, in Europe, liked it, so he published a revised version for them. Now we have asked for it too! *NLC Magazine is edited by another one of our muses, and energy power station, George Kokolas.) We love the way we share the same mission.

Human beings are not designed to sit still all day. Thousands of years ago, on the plains of the Serengeti in Africa, people walked 10-20 kilometers every day (Medina, 2014). It has only been in the past century or two that people everywhere moved to cities. Later, we started going everywhere in cars and trains. We might have gotten used to it but our bodies haven’t changed in that short time. We still need to move.

As teachers, we often stand and move around. It is easy to forget how hard it is to stay alert when people are just sitting. (If you go to faculty meetings, you might have an idea.) How long do your students sit during class? For most teachers—other than children’s teachers—the answer is “the whole class.” But when people sit for 20 minutes, blood flows south. There is a build-up of blood in the feet, lower legs and buttocks. When we stand up and move for just one minute, there is a 15% increase of blood and, therefore, oxygen to the brain (Sousa, 2017).

And it pays off in the classroom.

Something people might find surprising, brain science shows that exercise correlates with increased scores on seemingly unrelated subjects like math and science (Ratey & Hagerman, 2010). The same writers cite research that shows increased rates of vocabulary learning among physically active learners.

For some time, I’ve been experimenting with “energy breaks”—short bits of physical activity in my classes. They really are short—usually less than five minutes. But it is a great use of time. The students really are energized. They are more ready for the rest of the class.

My favorite for introducing the concept is one that features New York University Neuroscientist Wendy Suzuki (2016). She calls it an intenSati, “inten” from the word intentional and “sati” from the Pali word for “mindful.” It is a short, one-minute exercise routine. Better yet, as you watch, do the actions you see. Repeat what Suzuki is saying. Before you start, notice your own energy level. After you do the activity, notice how that has changed. Most of us find we have an increased energy level. Wouldn’t that be useful in your English classes?

Another example is “5 right here, right now,” located just below the Suzuki example on my site. Students identify at least five physical exercises they can do in the space around their desks. Obviously, things like running are not practical but there are many things they can do: jumping, stretching, balancing on one leg, squats, etc. Then students work in pairs. One student in each pair starts an exercise. The other partner starts doing the same exercise. When that partner wants to change the exercise, they make an “X” gesture with their arms and start a new exercise. This continues until the other partner wants to start a new exercise. The whole exercise time only lasts one minute—but it is a minute that re-energizes the whole class.

My own classes are 90 minutes long. I try to introduce energy breaks at about the half-way point. They provide a change of pace and increase the learners’ energy for the rest of the class. Most include some language but even those that are just physical movement offer an increase in vigor that make them a valuable use of time. As with any teaching, flexibility is a plus. Just last week, I was teaching the 11th week of a 15-week semester. A lot of the students are getting tired. We started the class with an energy break, rather than putting it in the middle. The boost in student power was helpful.

I’ve made sixteen short PowerPoint Energy Break presentations. Eight introduce a physical task, along with a “Brain Byte” that briefly explains a bit of neuroscience that I hope they’ll find interesting—and will explain why their English teacher is asking them to do things that previously they only did in gym class.

Four others feature a song. Students sing along and mimic the actions they see. Of course, as long as COVID19 is still a problem, we have to be careful about singing. As Bahl et al. (2021) point out, singing generates droplets that can spread the virus. At present, I encourage my students to “sing silently.” They mouth the words but make no sound so they don’t spread aerosols and the virus. They do gestures to go with the songs.

Like most teachers, I love it when I learn things from my own students. I introduced Energy Breaks to an MA TESOL class on Positive Psychology in ELT. One graduate student was perplexed. She teaches English at a senior citizens center. The physical exercises I was suggesting would be too much for her learners. Within a couple weeks, she had a solution: Tai Chi. She incorporated the same idea with Tai Chi videos from Youtube.com. Those are included in the options on my website.

Why should physical exercise be our responsibility as ELT teachers? I don’t see it as a responsibility. It is more of an opportunity. Exercise improves everything from mood to memory. Medina (2021) says that, like mindfulness—the latest thing for many teachers—physical exercise improves impulse control. What learners wouldn’t benefit from that?

The PowerPoints are on this page of my site. While you are there, you might want to check on some of the other handouts on various topics. The full PowerPoint for the Wendy Suzuki routine, with the brain science is next to her picture.

I hope you and your students are moved.

References & Additional Reading

  • Bahl, P., de Silva, C., Bhattacharjee, S., Stone, H., Coolan, C. Chughtai, A., & MacIntyre, C. (2021). Droplets and aerosols generated by singing and the risk of coronavirus disease 2019 for choirs.  National Institutes for Health. https://doi.org/10.1093/cid/ciaa1241

  • Medina, J. (2014) Brain Rules: 12 Principles for surviving and thriving at work, home and school, 2nd/ed. Pear Press.

  • Medina, J. (2021). Brain rules for work. Scribe Publications.

  • Ratey, J. J., & Hagerman, E. (2010). Spark! How exercise will improve the performance of your brain. Quercus.

  • Sousa, D. (2017). How the brain learns, 5th ed. Corwin Press.

  • Suzuki, W., with Fitzpatrick, B. (2016). Healthy brain, happy life: A personal program to activate your brain and do everything better. Dey St. Books.

Marc Helgesen is professor emeritus at Miyagi Gakuin Women’s University. He’s an author of over 200 professional articles, books and textbooks including English Language Teaching and the Science of Happiness (ABAX) and the English Firsthand series (Pearson). Websites: ELTandHappinessHelgesenHandouts

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