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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Building a Better School with Brain-Based Learning

Technology use, strategies based on brain research, and unique classroom environments for different learning styles give students an edge at Key Largo School in Florida. Read the article.
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Frankie: Good evening. I'd like to welcome you to our Fifth Annual Technology Fair. We're so happy--

Narrator: There's a packed house tonight at this K through eighth grade school, 60 miles south of Miami.

Frankie: It's going to be a very exciting night for us. We're doing something a little different with our technology fair.

Narrator: Key Largo students and their teachers are eager to show off the technology they've been learning to master over the past few months.

Teacher: Five, four, three, two, one.

Narrator: There's everything from handcrafted racing cars to handheld global positioning devices.

Student: Mr. Tagarini went out on the nature trail with his GPS, and he marked spots and took pictures. And if you click on each of these dots where he put on the GPS, if you click on one, it shows the picture of where he was, so this is latitude and longitude, and basically descriptions of what each picture is. So that's what--

Frankie: Our kids that are in kindergarten, most of the jobs that they're going to do when they graduate from high school, haven't even been invented. So if we're going to do what we need to do in education for our kids, we need to be pursuing technology.

Narrator: The pursuit of technology here has been facilitated by several grants and a half cent county sales tax increase, reflecting the community's commitment to technology and student centered learning.

Michele: All right, so you're sure you don't want that in there.

Student: Yeah. I'm fine with that.

Michele: With this kind of technology, it's the kind of thing that you just have to trial and error. You've got to get on and play and play and play until you figure it out.

Student: So, Victoria, move out of the way for a minute, so I can focus the camera. Thanks.

Michele: This class brings the kids together. They have to learn to work socially with other kids, so that's a big part of it is just motivation and initiative, and working together in a group, and that's going to help them out in life always.

Narrator: While technology plays a major role at the school, it is just part of Key Largo's curriculum, which is based on an understanding of how people learn.

Frankie: If you know how people learn, then you can be a better and more effective teacher. So we are taking those principles and trying to incorporate them into our teaching styles.

Teacher: You're going to want a little generator that has a gas chamber.

Frankie: Things like prior knowledge, when you're teaching a lesson, are you really seeing what the kids' prior knowledge is, so all the kids are on the same page, so if they have any false beliefs, you can take care of that up front.

Student: So they're going to need, like an air conditioner to let all the gases out?

Teacher: Yeah, a lot like that.

Teacher: First set of directions is, draw a bird in the center of your card, your favorite bird.

Frankie: It's also based on teaching, so there's learning with understanding, and that means that you create some kind of a mental model for a child to help them learn. They are able to learn so well that they can transfer what they learn to other core subject areas, to other things they're doing in life. And so the-- you have to be sure that kids really understand what they're learning.

Teacher: Take your pencil and go like this real fast, and tell me what you see. What do you see, anybody? A bird in a cage, does anybody else--

Narrator: In this English class, a simple exercise in following directions becomes a firsthand encounter with the concept of cause and effect.

Teacher: So there's a cause, the cause is following the directions just right, and then there's an effect, which was whatever happened to the bird. And if you did it correctly, the bird is in the cage, if you didn't, do it so correct-- do it right, then the bird is somewhere outside the cage, right? Right. Now what is it that we do in this class?

Student: Read.

Teacher: We read. So we're going to learn how cause and effect is important for reading, because that's a way that an author organizes information.

Student: What else could it be?

Student: Hair gel.

Student: Hair gel.

Frankie: Kids should be comfortable in the classroom, they should be able to work together, problem solve, those kinds of things, and it fits so well with what we believe at Key Largo school, because we believe education is much more than test score accountability.

Student: Is it about even?

Student: It's perfect, it's done.

Narrator: To help each child achieve their full potential, Key Largo tailors instruction methods and the physical environment to a student's individual learning style.

Frankie: Part of the brain research tells us that children have different learning styles. And that if we want them to do the very best they can, in life, in school, then we, as educators, need to tend to what their learning styles are.

Jo Ann: What are you researching?

Student: Pottery.

Jo Ann: Pottery, okay, all right, so you want to put Pottery as your title.

Frankie: There are 21 elements that we're looking at, from whether or not they need the light to be bright or dim, whether they need lots of sound, or they need no sound, whether they need it to be warm, or whether they need to be cool. If we, then, in our teaching styles, attend to those, research shows that the students are going to do better in school.

Jo Ann: The lighting in here is a little different, because a lot of the children that I have are a little hyperactive. And I felt we needed something that was a little more subdued, a little bit quieter and calmer, and I do find that the children seem to work a little bit better with the dimmed lighting.

Frankie: One of the things I love about Key Largo School, is that the teachers are real risk takers. I encourage that. I'm a risk taker, I want them to be a risk taker. You can't have educational reform unless you're willing to try new things.

Jeanne: Lessons.

Narrator: Jeannie Kurth has been trying new things in her eighth grade classroom for more than a decade, and this alternative ed class, students warm up with a series of brain gym exercises.

Jeanne: Tree.

Narrator: They sit in bean bags, or on couches, under subdued light, listening to a water sound machine. Kurth insists that this unique environment is a big part of why these at risk students become better than average learners.

Jeanne: When they come into this room, and they sit down for the first day, and I look around the room, eyes are here, they're there, the slouching, the carrying on, I know, okay, I've got my work cut out for me. I've got 180 days to change their lives. And I do it, number one, through brain gym, number two, through classroom environment, number three, through the way I go through my five subject areas.

Now notice we've got ourselves a title.

And for kids who have a problem seeing, I have two large overheads here, so that I can blow the information up real large, it's a very good eye catcher for your visual learner.

Now, if you're doing a double line graph, your lines can't both be straight.

What keeps me coming to work every day and keeps me enthusiastic that I'm on the right track, is the fact that I get children in here, say, functioning on a 30 percentile who jump to 60, or I have a kid who's at 90 percentile and jumps to 96.

Bye, have a good weekend, my dear friends. You did marvelous, I'm proud of you.

And I know they're going to knock the socks off of the SATs and the FCATs.


Frankie: And I think that people that come in from the outside, they see this family feeling that we have, it's a very nurturing kind of campus, but they also see that there are a lot of unique things going on here, and that does take risk on the part of the leaders, on the part of the teachers, and on the part of the kids.

Student: Stick it in there. Cover it, and count to three.

Frankie: We have younger kids and older kids working together on lots of projects. We have alternative programs that are theme based, for kids who are having difficulty with academics, that will excite them and get them to come to school.

Teacher: Where's Oscar?

Oscar: One half teaspoon Worcet-- Worcestershire Sauce.

Teacher: Worcestershire, shire-- sauce.

Frankie: We have a fourth and fifth combination program, and in that program, the kids make healthy foods that they sell to the teachers in the school.

Student: We learn how to cook, and a lot of us want to be chefs when we grow up, and we learn how to do science stuff. We do a lot of projects.

Frankie: In sixth grade, it is horticulture. We have our own greenhouse, and so the children learn how to landscape, take care of plants, and they also learn something about nutrition.

Student: Every class time we come out here, we get the hose and water them, or we turn on the overhead sprinkler that we have built in. I think I'll try to start my own plant shop or something, and try to sell them, because I really like doing this.

Frankie: Seventh grade is WWKLS.

Teacher: You have two minutes to sign on, DJs. Two minutes, get to work, research right.

Frankie: They run their own little radio show here in the school every other day. That goes over our network, and then they also do local PSAs for our local radio stations.

Student: Good morning, you're tuned in to WWKLS Communications, coming to you live from Channel Five.

Student: How's everybody doing today?

Narrator: By taking risks and teaching students how to learn, rather than simply how to pass a test, Key Largo has managed to earn top marks on Florida's standardized tests. But for Principal Frankie St. James, the real reward is seeing her students experience the joy of learning.

Frankie: One of the reasons that I'm here is because I love kids. And I like to see that spark in the kids and to see the fruits of my labor. And I can see that through kids.

All right, let's look into world news, okay?

Narrator: For more information on, What Works in Public Education, go to

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Video Credits

Produced, Written, and Directed by

  • Ken Ellis

Associate Producers:

  • Sara Armstrong
  • Leigh Iacobucci


  • Karen Sutherland

Camera Crew:

  • Dale West
  • James C. Nickless

Production Assistant:

  • Miwa Yokoyama


  • Kris Welch

Comments (16)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Melanie Gentile's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think what they are doing at the Key Largo School is amazing. The students are engaged, enjoying what they are doing, and learning. I think it is great that the students are focused on, and their learning styles. It is quite ironic that even though they are not focusing on teaching to the test, that the students are getting top marks in the standardized tests. This should be used as an example for other schools, many students could benefit from this type of school setting.

Angie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have to agree that this school has so many wonderful ideas! All of the students seemed engaged in learning, and I am so impressed with their use of technology and student centered activities. I also agree that teachers should tend to the learning styles of their students. I liked the fact that young kids work with older kids and that both teachers and students are risk takers. The brain gym exercises and the sound machine were interesting to me. I would love to teach in a school like this.
The principal seems awesome!

ANGIE's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I wanted to add to my previuos post in order to say that my school participated in a program called the "family concept." This consisited of grades K-5 ( one class per grade level) who were placed on the same hall so they could do buddy activities and centers together. Siblings were placed in these classes also, and we even took field trips together. It was very beneficial for both the younger children and the older children. I think that it's a great concept. We alos incorporated brain gym exercises, snd I believe that it helped the teachers and students.

Jennifer's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As I read these comments I see people who are inspired to be risk takers and my initial inclination is to get really excited about taking risks. However, I teach at a school that has gone so far as to tell me exactly what and how I will teach. I only have 45 minutes each day to really teach. I think this has inspired me to find a school that will allow me the freedom of teaching.

Tammy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It is truly amazing that when a school shifts its focus back to students and away from test results, the school has little problems meeting its state standards. I loved that this school took into account the whole child and finds learning that is meaningful that can be taken out into life. The realization that students are not robots that learn the same way, but that they are each individuals is something that needs more attention in the media and with our politicians.

Donna's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Yes, it sure does sound amazing! I could only hope that my school was so committed to making the learning environment so encouraging and diverse. You are so right that we need the encouragement to be able to do these great lessons!

Donna's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I wonder if they are hiring? haha

Amanda Ross's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I enjoyed watching the video of the Key Largo School. That would be a wonderful place to do observations. In only a few minutes I saw several ideas that I would like to try in my own room. I liked the idea of having different levels of lighting. I teach first grade, and I have a classroom full of s rambunctious boys. I think that having a lower level of lighting would help with creating a more calming atmosphere. The eighth grade teacher was amazing! Her students seemed so engaged and ready to learn. They had no desks, and they seemed so much more comfortable. I also want to learn more about Brain Gym. It seems very cool! What a great way to start class! The technology was also fascinating. I thought their technology night was a great idea. I may have to share that with my own principal! Great job Key Largo School!

Barbara Young's picture

I feel that everyone in Clark County (NV) Unified School District needs to see this so that improvements such as these can be implemented so that when I get them, the post secondary learners will understand what creative and divergent thinking is all about..... Bravo! In Nevada the main concern is those "tests"..... they have forgotten the children some where.... I certainly am glad this is happening in this country--too bad it is not EVERYWHERE.

Robert Bonsasa's picture
Robert Bonsasa
Curriculum Director, Frontier Schools of Innovation

Here is a true example of a dynamic curriculum and student-centered learning. Great job, Key Largo!

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