Crossroads News

Fourth-Graders Take on the Human Brain

Annual “Deep Dive” gives students an opportunity for extended study of a complex topic.
In 2015, the year before I started working at Crossroads, the fourth grade teachers overheard some students talking about Muslim people in a way that expressed curiosity, but also fear and stereotyped ideas. There was a lot going on in the news media at that time about Muslim people and their culture and faith, along with some negative and harmful depictions. The fourth grade teachers decided to embark on a "deep dive study" with their students to learn more about Islam, and to work toward the goal of dispelling stereotypes. 

Since then, the Deep Dive has become a pivotal part of the fourth grade curriculum, one that brings the two fourth grade classes together. Past topics have included the life of a soldier; homelessness; the American criminal justice system; addiction; explorers of the unknown; dreams and sleep; and technology and screens. This year, we explored the human brain. 
A Deep Dive project begins by gathering ideas from the students through the practice of Council. Teachers prompt their thinking by asking questions like, 

  • What is something in the world you'd like to learn more about?
  • What is something you hear adults talking about, or see in the media, that you want to learn more about?
  • What is a real-world problem that you'd like to help with?
  • Is there a group of people you're interested in learning about? 

After several weeks of questions and conversations, we identify the topic that garnered the most interest from students. Teachers meet to map out the unit based on student questions and invite speakers to talk to our students about their areas of expertise.

This year, the students were interested in learning more about the human brain, what happens in our brain when we think, feel and do day-to-day basic tasks. They were also interested in related topics including addiction, sleep and dreams. 

To help facilitate study, students talked to psychiatrists, therapists, a radiologist, neuroscientists, a psychic, an Eastern medicine specialist, professional musicians, an addiction specialist, a brain tumor survivor, professional athletes and a mindfulness teacher. After engaging with experts and conducting their own research, students prepared presentations to show what they’ve learned with the community.
The students gain a wide range of skills from the Deep Dive projects including how to pursue a project based on their curiosity; list and organize questions; and research and take notes. They practice teamwork and collaboration; problem solving; and critical thinking and questioning. They also go through the process of deciding how they as an individual feel about a topic and learn how to reflect on their learning once the project is over. 

As we concluded this year’s study, students considered what they found most interesting about the brain as well as what surprised them. Here are a few of their thoughts:
What topic related to the brain did you find most interesting and why? 
From Marlowe: "What stood out to me the most was the optical illusions lesson, because I told myself before that I would not get tricked by those pictures, but I did, and I was like, ‘Whaaaa?!’" 
From Jack: "What stood out to me the most was how addiction is so dangerous because of the growing numbers of people dying because of alcohol and drug abuse." 
From Daisy: "The lesson on choices that affect the brain stood out to me, mainly because it empowered me to ask myself before I do something, ‘How might this affect my brain?’" 
From Randy: "What stood out to me the most was how, when you're dreaming, the brain is still active and it thinks it's real life."

Did you learn anything that really surprised you? 
From Charlotte: "I used to think that everyone who had brain illnesses were scary and dangerous, but now I realize that sometimes you can't even tell when someone even has an illness." 
From Jag:  "I used to think that [the brain] does not really matter and it's important but not so important, but now I realize that it controls everything!" 
From Miya: "I used to think that having a growth mindset did not help, but now I realize having a growth mindset can help you win physically and mentally." 
From Sienna: "I used to think that people with disabilities were crazy and scary and I didn't like it, but now I realize that they are normal people, just their brain developed in a strange way and it's not their fault."