Strategy Share: Engaging the Five Senses for Lasting Impact

The following post was written by 2017 Grosvenor Teacher Fellow Brynn Johnson, a middle-school math teacher at the Academy of the Sacred Heart in New Orleans, Louisiana, after her expedition to the Arctic. The Grosvenor Teacher Fellow Program is a professional development opportunity for pre-K–12 educators made possible by a partnership between Lindblad Expeditions and National Geographic Education.

Brynn explores the Arctic. Photo courtesy Brynn Johnson

Snap. Crackle. Pop. After the first few weeks of class, I was sitting on my couch enjoying a lazy Saturday. The morning news was playing in the background and the porch door was open. I could feel the balminess of a typical New Orleans day settle its way into the living room. My partner took a bite of his cereal, and I heard the snap, crackle, and pop of Rice Krispies in his bowl of milk. With the snap, crackle, and pop of the cereal, I was instantly transported in space and time.

I’m sitting on a kayak. Kim, my Grosvenor Teacher Fellow shipmate, is sitting behind me, steering us toward a bubbling piece of ice in Krossfjorden. We are in the middle of the Arctic Ocean! Every sense is heightened; the surprising array of colors of the Arctic, the chill of the air against my face and the occasional freezing droplet of water dripping from the kayak paddle onto my exposed fingers. And the sound of the ice! We paddle right up next to it and simply listen. Snap. Crackle. Pop.

Pop. I was back on my couch in New Orleans. Kayaking in the Arctic Ocean is a memory that has stuck with me. It was a serene moment filled with awe and wonder. Upon learning those distinct sounds were air pockets being released after being trapped for thousands of years in the Arctic ice, I felt even more drawn to this magical place. What had this ice seen? What stories could this ancient ice tell? How many more stories will it be able to tell? What can we do to preserve the ice?

Everyone has had a powerful flashback like this, when a memory is triggered by the activation of one of our senses. Our memory is directly intertwined with our senses, and it is with our five senses that we interpret and explore the world around us. My Arctic expedition reinforced how influential the senses are in triggering memories—and how educators can capitalize on this to build memorable lessons that help solidify the content.

So when I created lessons for my students about my Arctic experience, I did my best to activate their senses. They listened to the ship traveling through the sea ice, and they heard and saw images of wildlife living there. They created blubber gloves with Crisco to simulate what it’s like to be a polar bear and the thickness of fat they have to stay warm. All of these activities were smaller components of math lessons that I used to build their curiosity, get them engaged, and create a memory through their senses that would solidify their understanding.

Creating a classroom culture that capitalizes on incorporating the senses can be achieved in a multitude of ways. Whether interjecting a moment of sensory experience into a lesson or including several senses in an ongoing classroom practice, there are unlimited opportunities in the classroom. Below are just two ways this practice can be implemented into a classroom.

Sensory Experience as a Lesson Add-On

First, I’ll share an example of how I’ve incorporated a moment of sensory experience to reinforce and support an existing lesson.

When my students first calculate problems about how many cubic centimeters fit into a cubic meter or how many cubic inches fit into a cubic foot, the word problems are not only boring to them—they are overwhelming.

However, when I let them construct a cubic foot, a cubic yard, and even a cubic meter, every one of my students is engaged and actively learning. Using their hands (touch) and having the visual comparison (sight) helps them to solve that problem and similar problems in the future.

Brynn’s students use rulers to build a model. Photo by Brynn Johnson

Sensory Experience as a Classroom Practice

Sensory activities can also be set up as recurring and memorable classroom experiences.

For example, every Friday in my class two or three fourth-grade students make bread together during their morning break. They pick the type of bread and the amount needed by the class that day, and then they measure the ingredients and put them in the bread maker. This weekly practice activates all of their senses, which strengthens the memories—both educational and emotional.

The measuring cups and tablespoons are kept out on the counter in the classroom. This visual aid acts as a daily reinforcement of these fractional amounts. Students’ sense of touch is activated when they measure out the correct amount of each ingredient by using their fingers to sift out the extra flour. Since we use a bread maker, all morning long students hear the rattling and clanking sounds as it mixes and kneads the dough. And as the day progresses, they get lingering whiffs of the delicious bread while it bakes. Finally, before heading home for the weekend, students enjoy the taste of their bread.

My first group of fourth-graders are in high school now, and they still recall their bread-making days and say their ability to double a recipe (multiply fractions and whole numbers) or halve a recipe (divide fractions and whole numbers) is stronger for it.

Brynn’s students bake bread on Fridays. Photo courtesy Brynn Johnson.

Regardless of content or grade level, we can look for hooks or moments in our lesson plans to incorporate the senses. What ways can your students explore with their senses? How can your students use their senses as a means to create powerful memories that aid in making their knowledge concrete?

Lindblad and NGS

The Strategy Share series features innovative teaching ideas developed by Grosvenor Teacher Fellows following their field-based experiences on voyages with Lindblad Expeditions.

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