Filming at Roland Park

Ramona Persaud, producer of "Grey Matters," films Josiah Johns (left), 9, as he reads. At right, Avon Johnson, 9, listens. Persaud is working on a documentary about the Brain-Targeted Teaching Model and Roland Park Elementary/Middle School is one of the schools featured. (Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun / September 18, 2013)

When filmmaker Ramona Persaud decided to home-school her children, she soon realized how difficult it would be.

"I would keep asking [my daughter], 'Why aren't you getting this? Why aren't you remembering?' And telling her, 'We can sit here all day,'" Persaud said. "She was getting visibly frustrated and stressed, as was I. It was just not working."

Then Persaud came across a teaching approach — the Brain-Targeted Teaching Model developed by a Baltimore educator in one of the highest-performing schools in the city — that she said gave her a reality check. Her daughter wasn't retaining information, she realized, because of the way our brains are wired.

Now Persaud is filming a documentary at Roland Park Elementary/Middle School in Baltimore that will illustrate the neuroscience-based teaching model. Teachers across the city and nation have been trained in the model, which tailors teaching practices to how students' brains process, store and retrieve information.

"The whole idea of fun in learning — because you remember the fun stuff — we don't think about that as grown-ups because life is hard, life is work," Persaud said. "When we hear fun, we hear frivolous. What this film is going to do is show these fun learning environments and the progress."

Persaud said the documentary will show a "complete paradigm shift in education" under the model, which has drawn international attention since Roland Park's former principal, Mariale Hardiman, created it more than a decade ago.

Upon researching the model, Persaud realized that her interactions with her daughter lacked a positive emotional connection — the first of the six targets to be achieved under the model. In short, her daughter wasn't enjoying the learning process.

"I just really sucked at teaching," said Persaud, who continues to home-school — but now follows the brain-targeted model.

The remaining targets are: creating physical climates conducive to learning, designing big-picture concepts, encouraging mastery of skills through arts integration or repetition, incorporating real-world application in lessons, and performing ongoing evaluations of student performance.

Hardiman left Roland Park in 2006 to join the Johns Hopkins University, where she is now a professor of education and heads a cross-disciplinary program called the Neuro-Education Initiative. She said the model became a culture at Roland Park.

While the targets may seem like common-sense teaching practice, she said, "teachers' heads are sometimes spinning, throwing out the old for the new that comes with the focus of the year."

The model mirrors best practices under what's known as the Common Core curriculum, which teachers in Maryland and around the country are adopting this year. For instance, the Common Core requires students to show mastery of content through more writing and projects.

"We're about 10 years ahead of Common Core," Hardiman said. "But Common Core will be the avenue through which children will be able to learn this way all the time."

Every target is directly linked to a part of the brain that is responsible for learning.

For instance, setting a positive emotional climate is important because "information that comes to the brain is processed first in this emotional center before being processed in the cognitive or 'thinking' center, located in the frontal lobe of the cerebrum," the model explains. And students' physical environments are important because "the active brain constantly scans the environment seeking stimuli."

"It's not a curriculum, it's not a marketed product; it's a philosophy, it's a way of teaching," Hardiman said. "When teachers get it in their bones, the model becomes invisible. When I walk around today, I see it everywhere. There may be teachers who can't tell you what all of the brain targets are, but they've embodied them."

Even the staircases — covered in murals — are meant to inspire and stimulate students.

And in Justin Holbrook's classroom at Roland Park, the model manifests itself in the teacher's childhood Tonka trucks lining the shelves, his fist pumps for correct answers and "whoosh claps" to congratulate students for a job well done.

Lessons include mapping out thoughts, becoming scientists and exploring an imaginary Grand Canyon, or requiring students to pretend they are floating to get a tissue or use the bathroom to reinforce the laws of gravity.

For her documentary, Persaud will follow two students who are relatively new to Roland Park, and track their progress through the end of the year. Persaud also plans to film the model in use at a New York high school and a Pennsylvania college.

The film, titled "Grey Matters," is on schedule to be completed by the end of next year by Persaud's company, Change the Lens Productions. Persaud said she is financing the independent feature through a crowd-funding campaign and through grants.

Her first film, "It's a Different World," which followed three children with autism, was produced with the National Film Board of Canada and distributed by the Filmakers Library in New York.

Alejandra Whitney, a fourth-grader who transferred to Roland Park this year and will be part of "Grey Matters," said she first noticed that the "classrooms are bigger" than at her former school. Then she discovered that her new classmates check homework together, "instead of just the teacher checking it."

"Some of the things I'm learning here, I learned them already," she said. "But they're much funner. Like when we read the book together, instead of separately."

Another student in the documentary, Josiah Johns, said he thinks Roland Park is fun "because we get to learn more stuff, and I can feel myself getting smarter."

For example, Josiah said, his lesson in Holbrook's class about erosion taught him something new.

"I didn't know that water could do that, even though I saw it at the beach," said the fourth-grader, in his second year at Roland Park.

Holbrook, in his fourth year of teaching, said he feels he has reached his goal as a teacher when "kids learn and they don't even recognize it." And the model allows him to do that, he said.

The model also taught him to use approaches with students, such as humor, that he overlooked in his first two years of teaching.

"The first two years as a teacher is like trial and error," he said. "But if you have something laid out for you, with research behind it, it helps to organize your brain. The type of planning that goes into this is exhausting. But once you do that up-front, it's good."

Many students, he said, are "taking risks and putting themselves out there to absorb this stuff from you, so you have to do that, too.

"And when everyone is comfortable, you can see their little brains humming."

erica.green@baltsun.com

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