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Chemistry Reactions That Transform Students:
OptimaLearning at Tempe High School

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by Leo Wood
Excerpts from articles in Essence and Impact of OptimaLearning.

As you enter my classroom, a painting by Monet will catch your eye. Models and posters of molecules and polyatomic ions that will be studied hang from the ceiling. Colored pictures of chemistry and the miracle of life cover the bulletin boards. You will hear relaxing music from the OptimaLearning® Baroque compact discs. The classroom is colorful, interesting, and relaxing. I greet the students individually as they file into the classroom and find their seats. They are in a state of expectancy, not knowing exactly what is going on, but knowing that something is about to happen. A student may ask: "What are we going to do today?" I respond with a smile, "We'll see," concealing the magical and joyful activities that are about to unfold. Nothing is ever the same in this class.

The students visit quietly while I quickly take roll. To get the attention of my students I ring a bell or a brass bowl or sometimes I just stand in front smiling until the students calm down. With a purposeful movement I try to greet the students in a loving and caring voice. For a brief moment I may discuss something of interest in the students' lives, something scientific in the news media, or a local event to gain rapport and to show interest and concern for my students.

Putting on my lab jacket, I go to the lab demonstration table. The students know that something neat is about to happen. I pick up a vial of a chemical while describing its harmful and helpful effects and then I pour it into a large test tube. I repeat this with a second chemical and also poured it into the same test tube. Walking around the classroom so everyone can see the chemicals, I begin talking about the density of the two chemicals. The students can observe the effects of density. Back at the demonstration table I add a third chemical. Then I walk to the light switch, turn off the lights, and turn on the music of Borodin from the OptimaLearning Imagination and Creativity compact discs The suspense of the students is heightened; the room is very quiet. Suddenly little sparks of light begin popping in the test tube-one at a time. I talk about light and life and their interaction. When the popping becomes more rapid, sparks become brighter. As I walk around the classroom, the students' eyes follow with deep interest.

I introduce the theme for the chemistry class, "Life is a miracle and you and I are part of that miracle. As we study chemistry this year..." Walking back to the lab demonstration table, I pour the contents into a large beaker as I says, "We will learn how miraculous life really is." A big flash of fire flashes out of the beaker and into the test tube as the music reaches a climax. The lights go on, the music goes off, and the students are silently processing what has just happened.

In only fifteen minutes using OptimaLearning techniques I have introduced the theme for the year, discussed properties of three compounds and their density, and demonstrated the relationship and interaction of light and life. The students have been quiet, attentive, and excited.

After a moment of silence, to allow the students time to contemplate what has just happened, I ask in a quiet manner, "What is the source of light that allows life to exist on the planet earth?" Several students respond. Students relate what they know about the sun, its energy, its characteristics and what possibly happens on its surface.

After a ten-minute discussion about the sun and its tremendous energy production, I invite the class outside to experience the intensity of the energy of the sun. Facing the sun with eyes closed, arms outstretched, palms facing the sun, the students stand for 30 seconds in silent concentration on the intensity of the sun's energy. (They are reminded not to look directly toward the sun even with their eyes closed.) The heat this fall day in Tempe is intense and can be felt on the face and the inside of the arms and palms of the hands. After thirty seconds, the students clearly remember that the sun's energy is essential for life, but too much of the sun's energy can destroy life. That knowledge is encoded through mind and body.

When the students return to the classroom, I ask them to write their impressions. The music of Dubussy from the OptimaLearning Imagination and Creativity album is very appropriate for this activity which lasts about five minutes.

After sharing their impressions with the class, we discuss the possible reaction of what happens on the surface of the sun. Next I ask the students to stand to participate in a demonstration of the fusion reaction that occurs on the surface of the sun. Each fist represents a hydrogen atom and they are brought together in a clasping position to indicate the fusion of the nuclei to form a helium atom. We make a big circle with our hands and arms to simulate lots of energy. By the time we have repeated this demonstration three or four times, the students have learned the fusion reaction in a way that they will never forget.

We have a little oral quiz at the end of class and everyone always gets 100%.

I share this one example to show how I have tried to implement the principles of OptimaLearning into my classroom. During the class the different brain states are activated. The brain is in a pseudo-passive state while the students are very calm during the "miracle of life" demonstration. The dominant process in the neocortex of the brain is inhibition and minor excitation. It is contrasted by an energetic cognitive discussion where the students become an active part in the discussion. Here the dominant process is excitation with minor inhibition (dynamic equilibrium state, as Dr. Barzakov calls it).

The sun activity allows the students to go outside, which is a highlight for them. The students then come back into the classroom and are involved in a writing activity where they are allowed to concentrate on their feelings and integrate emotion with subject matter. Then a discussion allows them to think and express their views. Then the final demonstration of fusion allows the students to become physically involved with the subject matter of fusion. This allows the students to integrate the mental and physical levels of the brain. The brain is always involved in its various brain states while emotion and subject matter is continually integrated. All of this is done while the students are having a good time and have opportunities to be relaxed and unthreatened.

The students leave the classroom saying, ""Wow, I wish the other teachers would teach this way." They are energized, excited, awake and enthused about chemistry and what was learned. They go to other classes and talk about what happened in class. Teaching and learning has been joyful and fun. They never forget what they learn on this day.

Comments from Tempe High School Students in Mr. Wood's Chemistry Class

"I think the OptimaLearning is fun. I remember things better with this method of teaching. In the beginning of the year I thought it was stupid, but now I enjoy the songs, dances, etc. Music in class is relaxing and should be continued in other classes."

"When the teacher reads information to music it stays in my mind."

"OptimaLearning is the best thing that ever happened to chemistry. At the beginning, OptimaLearning in chemistry seemed strange, but now it is really interesting. I see myself doing very well."

"OptimaLearning produces a new thinking process different than my other classes. I have learned to love chemistry and I was scared at the beginning. I love the singing!"

"OptimaLearning is truly effective. Chemistry is more understandable and enjoyable. The first day was stupid, but now I understand the OptimaLearning method and it is good. More Bach, please. Reading to music is effective and music in lab is perfect. It gives me a chance to succeed."

"School can be boring, but OptimaLearning makes it fun. I thought chemistry would be really hard. It's a breeze compared to what I thought it would be. The strong points in the class that we need to continue are the little fun silly things we do."

"It seems really weird at first, but it does help you learn. I didn't think I was going to like chemistry, but the OptimaLearning has helped to make it easier. The visualization and characterizations Mr. Wood uses and the way he incorporates learning in his stories are the strong points of chemistry."

"No matter how 'dorky' it seems, try to accept it and learn. I've learned to accept OptimaLearning. I think it can be used more. Music in class and in the lab is very good. Reading to music helps clarify the topic."

"I feel that OptimaLearning has truly made an otherwise difficult class comparatively easy. I feel much more confident about my abilities as a student to apply myself to work in the lab when it is as fun as it has been. I feel that I have improved drastically in the past few months, not only in chemistry, but in other classes as well, thanks to self applied OptimaLearning."

Experiences with Students and OptimaLearning by Leo Wood

  • The Transformation of Douglas
  • Reunion of Father and Son Through Chemistry
  • Blossoming of Ginny

These vignettes of my students illustrate another aspect of OptimaLearning. I believe that subtle differences in teachers' attitudes make profound differences in the way students perceive and respond to teachers. Two OptimaLearning techniques have helped me shift my patterns of response in the classroom.

Dr. Barzakov's techniques, as Tim Maples explains in his Accelerated Learning Manual and Compact Disc Course, are as follows:

"In OptimaLearning Barzakov uses a process which becomes an underlying philosophy of ACKNOWLEDGEMENT, ACCEPTANCE and ACTION around the learners' mental state plus our own. In other words, we must acknowledge and accept whatever learning barriers/belief they arrive with. An initial group sharing in the introduction where each participant including the facilitator shares how they are feeling, is an excellent way to become aware of 'what's really going on'. Our action, he further suggests, is to continually INVITE, ALLOW and ENCOURAGE as compared to 'you are really blocked and you have to change'. Here there is an underlying Principle of Expansion versus replacement. The brain is invited, allowed and encouraged to expand versus replacement or correction where it perceives threat and downshifts."

In many of the stories below, these techniques have made the difference.

Note: The ACKNOWLEDGEMENT, ACCEPTANCE and ACTION and INVITE, ALLOW and ENCOURAGE processes presented above come from Barzakov's OptimaLearning theory.

The Transformation of Douglas

Doug was an obnoxious, rude, smart aleck student who was totally disruptive and would laugh at inappropriate times. Douglas rarely did his homework and, when he did, it was very poor quality. Even the students around him could not tolerate his behavior.

One day I was absent from school attending a workshop. My student observer from Arizona State University, now my student teacher, who was working with a substitute teacher, took control of my classes. They did a lab in which they were observing mercury in a closed bottle. (Mercury is a poisonous substance that should not be handled. Mercury vapors are also poisonous.) Doug, being the type of person he was, opened the bottle containing the mercury and spilled mercury on the lab table. Instead of picking it up as he was instructed to do, he ignored the teachers in charge and began playing with it rolling it around on the table. Upon my return, I quickly removed Douglas from class and dropped him with a failure in chemistry. I went against OptimaLearning in a fit of anger. He was gone. I was the victor.

That summer I taught chemistry. The first day of class, Douglas walked into my classroom. My heart sank to my toes. He smiled at me and walked to the back of the room and sat down quietly like a dog that had just been beaten by his master. I had told myself that this summer class was going to be an OptimaLearning class. So I quickly went through the OptimaLearning techniques of Acknowledgement, Acceptance and Action and Invite, Allow and Encourage and, with much effort, I smiled back.

My interaction with Douglas changed as I continued to apply these techniques on a daily basis. His behavior began to change. He seemed to become a totally different person open to learning and to others. He was kind, happy, courteous, and became one of the top students in the class. He was quickly surrounded by four girls who always went to him for help, because he knew and understood the material. They would come to me to verify that what Doug told them was really true. My favorite saying to them was: "If Doug said it, it is true." Doug was a joy in class and also in the lab. He was extremely helpful, staying after class several times to help other students, relieving my load. He earned an "A" for summer school chemistry. Can you imagine the feeling I had for Douglas as I shook his hand and handed him his grade?

At the present time Douglas is taking Physics and is doing well. He comes and visits me often. We often talk about the good (and the bad) old days. As a matter of fact, last week he came in and requested to be a teacher's assistant for me next semester. I agreed. He did not want to wait until next semester to begin working for me. He started three days before Christmas break and cleaned up my lab and washed the glassware without being told. I didn't even know he was there until I couldn't find something that he put away. Another miracle in my OptimaLearning career! Now, we are both victors.

Reunion of Father and Son Through Chemistry

Jeff was one of those immature boys for his age, who constantly seeks attention and approval of his peers. Jeff was my first challenge in OptimaLearning. He was noisy in class, always talking out loud. He asked questions that were unrelated to the subject matter being discussed and was always causing disruptions that would attract the attention of and laughter from his fellow students.

I would have normally dropped Jeff from my class on the second day of school as too immature and not capable of learning chemistry. But, just having finished a 10-day workshop in OptimaLearning in San Francisco during the summer of 1986, I was determined to reach Jeff. It was very tough. Many a day I said that today was the day that Jeff would be dropped, but again I remembered the principles of OptimaLearning Acknowledgement, Acceptance and Action and Invite, Allow and Encourage and would say to myself: "I'll wait until tomorrow."

I did not give any failures and Jeff received an incomplete "I" as a grade for the first grading period. I did not expect him to make up the work and was strongly considering changing it to a failure. But I kept saying, "He is not failing, he is just not doing the work. He has a sharp mind; he just did not use it."

Before Christmas break in 1986, Jeff's father came in to see me about Jeff's progress. We had a one hour conference about Jeff, in which I learned that Jeff's parents went through a very bitter divorce. Jeff hated his father and resented the fact that they were divorced. Jeff was not speaking to his father. His father pointed out that Jeff was not responding to his mother's advice about success in his schoolwork. The father was willing to try to help if it were possible to do so.
Traditionally, I would have said that it was too late; Jeff could not make up the work. He had already received a failing grade and would need to drop Chemistry and possibly take it again next year. But because of OptimaLearning I was able to offer her an expanded opportunity and a second change by saying that he had to complete the required assignments and turn them in and he would receive a passing grade of "C". I gave the father a list of the missing assignments which were many. He said that he and his son were not speaking, but he would sure try to help in some way.

Several days after school, during the following two weeks Jeff and his father were in my classroom. I would offer help when needed and Jeff and his father worked together on the make-up work in a very pleasant and touching father-son relationship. The day before Christmas break, Jeff handed in his last assignment to get credit for Chemistry. Jeff, his father and I had a teary-eyed discussion over the happenings of the previous two weeks. The discussion was about how a father and son were reunited, with a son being successful in Chemistry. Jeff finished the year as a pleasant and brilliant student.

Blossoming of Ginny

Ginny began the school year as a very mixed up young girl. At sixteen she was living with a twenty-five year old Army recruiter. She was poorly dressed and looked like she just got out of bed. She missed a lot of school and was not doing well in classes. Due to OptimaLearning's emphasis on reduced stress and threat, I offered her an expanded opportunity and a second chance with kindness and assurance that we would help her.

She accepted, coming in before and after school to make up her work. My student teacher and I had some deep discussions about what life is all about and the influence of OptimaLearning on what we were doing in chemistry class. Our theme has been "Life is a Miracle." We emphasize this theme all the time. Ginny completed her make-up work. She began smiling. We helped her feel important. She began dressing more neatly and taking better care of herself. Her attendance improved.

In the lab I loved to ask Ginny questions for which she didn't know the answer. As she thought out loud, I would give her clues and encouragement. She always thought out the answers clearly and reached the right answers. It was like a game the two of us played. She liked to ask me questions, too. Soon she was earning a "B" and finally moved to an "A." She had a brilliant mind, of which I reminded her often, and she surprised herself and me many times. Chemistry became her favorite subject.

At Christmas Ginny was selling carnations with messages. I bought three and asked her to write out messages for me. She said that she didn't know what to write. I told her to write what she thought I would say. She did, beautifully. When I gave the carnations to people I had bought them for, they told me that they were very impressed with the messages. I looked at Ginny and gave her a wink. During the last few moments of the class she wore a contented smile knowing she had done something special. When class ended she came up and we had an OptimaLearning hug, wishing each other Merry Christmas.

I never hugged students before OptimaLearning. Now it seems a natural thing to do. Without OptimaLearning, Ginny would have dropped or failed my chemistry class. This is pay that money never could buy.

Other stories from Mr. Wood's teaching are included in The Essence and Impact of OptimaLearning, 1995, published by Barzakov and Associates, Barzak Educational Institute, Novato, CA

Leo Wood was a masterful educator with more than 30 years as a public school teacher. He earned the "Distinguished Teaching Award" and "Diabolos Outstanding Teacher Award" in Tempe, Arizona. In December, 1990, Mr. Wood impressively demonstrated his teaching for the U.S. Energy Commissioner in Washington, D.C.. After retiring from teaching, he continued his creative and inspirational work with OptimaLearning and other accelerated learning techniques as a consultant and trainer. He will be remembered for the lives he touched and the gifts of creativity he shared.

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