High energy and Whole Brain Teaching at Sheridan

Someone new to Emily Wiebeck’s third-grade classroom at Sheridan Elementary School might think she looks as much like a musical conductor as a teacher. Her arms and hands dart and weave and wave in every direction throughout the day.

“I’m a high-energy person.”

She’s not leading a musical ensemble, though. She’s guiding her 23 students through lessons in reading, writing and math using an instructional method called Whole Brain Teaching. This method is intended to maximize student engagement by focusing on mimicry, which is considered a natural way for the brain to learn. Whole Brain Teaching gets its name from the idea that if you’re engaging multiple parts of the brain while learning - through speaking, listening, seeing, moving - you can better retain the subject matter.

So when Wiebeck makes a hand motion to represent an apostrophe, for example, her students mimic the hand motion. When she makes a noise or says a word to represent something being learned - “zoop!” in the case of an apostrophe - her students repeat it or say it in unison with her.

“They still remember these things three years later because we’re doing them constantly,” said Wiebeck, who taught at Elliott Elementary School and Roper Elementary School before joining Sheridan four years ago.

There’s a book’s worth of specific techniques and strategies for Whole Brain Teaching, but Wiebeck concentrates on three when she’s teaching a new concept:

  • “Hands and Eyes” - Students close their hands and listen to her explain the material.
  • “Mirrors Up With Words” - Students repeat what she says and mimic her actions.
  • “Teach-Okay!” - Students use “Mirrors Up With Words” to teach a partner what they just learned.

“It’s also about community because they’re learning from each other and building on each other,” Wiebeck said. “That’s a huge part of this - the classroom community.”

Wiebeck first learned about Whole Brain Teaching seven years ago as she began her classroom career. Since then, she has slowly built her knowledge and use of the method. Two years ago, her colleagues at Sheridan took notice and wanted to learn more. Last year, Sheridan teachers used time during four of their early-release staff development days to learn from a Whole Brain Teaching trainer via web conferencing.

Viviana Morales, a fellow teacher and the instructional coach at Sheridan, said Wiebeck's dedication to Whole Brain Teaching has had a major impact on her students.

"It helps her combine classroom management, flexible learning for all students, constant formative assessment for next steps and all the while keeping students enthusiastically engaged," Morales said. "It's a class where we'd all love to learn."  

Wiebeck stresses that she’s by no means an expert on Whole Brain Teaching, nor is she the only teacher at Sheridan who is now a practitioner. “There are so many amazing teachers here who are implementing Whole Brain Teaching with their own twist.” She also is quick to point out that it’s certainly not the only effective way to teach.

But it works for her.

“It’s been life changing.”

Not to mention tiring.

Published: April 3, 2019, Updated: April 4, 2019

"It’s also about community because they’re learning from each other and building on each other. That’s a huge part of this - the classroom community."

Emily Wiebeck, third-grade teacher at Sheridan Elementary