Infusing Curriculum And School Structure With Mind-Body Wellness

Eagle Rock School’s fundamental philosophy is “eight plus five equals 10,” our school value system that we use to inform all community and school decisions. The equation represents our eight themes, five expectations, and 10 commitments. One of the eight themes is physical fitness, and one of the 10 commitments is “Develop Mind, Body, and Spirit.” While we incorporate opportunities for our students to do this outside of class time through exercise, recreation, and healthy eating, we have been working to diversify our perspectives on wellness and to incorporate wellness into our academic curriculum more effectively.

We use Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe’s Understanding by Design approach to work on our class designs. We value integrated curriculum, and work to create classes that are centralized on concepts that are transferable across time, space, and subject area. This concept-based curriculum allows us to integrate different academic subjects in areas where there is commonality and/or the ability to look at the same topic through different perspectives. Using a backwards-planning design allows us to isolate the enduring understandings with which we want students to walk away from the class, and develop essential questions that capture our students’ attention and interests in a variety of ways. Bringing the concept of wellness into a variety of classes has helped our students gain a better understanding of how their wellness affects their own health and the world around them. A major learning experience for many of our students has revolved around the realization that their physical well-being greatly affects their academic learning, both in the moment and in the long term.

In our societys, we often fall into the mindset that we exercise to keep our bodies healthy, and we study to keep our minds strong. At Eagle Rock, we are trying to challenge that idea and get our students to think about how their mind and body are related. For example, in Eagle Rock’s “Exercise Around the World” class, students examine approaches to health and wellness around the world, while simultaneously learning about the science of their brains. Students work to uncover how their activity levels and the food they put into their bodies affect their brains, their energy levels, the neurotransmitters released at various times, and how their bodies individually react to different stimuli. By keeping a food and activity journal over 10 weeks, students begin to look for connections between what they eat and do, and how they feel throughout a day and week. Patterns in emotions and health begin to correspond with their scientific research on how and why their brain and body are reacting. Creating time for students to experiment with yoga, meditation, belly dancing, fencing, and tai chi allows them to reflect on the similarities and differences in the ways activities from around the world affect them in contrast to their normal weight lifting routine or basketball game. Studying nutritional concepts and then comparing food pyramids from various areas of the world allows them to comprehend our North American eating habits, and really question how what they eat affects their mood, energy, learning, and daily life. This class is a very explicit way that Eagle Rock attempts to help students develop their mind, body and spirit, and look at the mind-body connection in their learning.

There are also many other approaches we use to incorporate the mind-body connection for our students outside of health and science classes. Teachers across the curriculum have been very open to experimenting with more active classes. We have worked with our math and science teachers to offer a class called “The Physics of Mountain Biking,” in which students explore the physics of motion and the conservation of energy through biking. While we do not explicitly teach about the mind-body connection in their learning, it is incredible to see their increased engagement in a subject area that previously intimidated them. Saul Flores, a senior student who has taken the class and is now planning to help teach the class this summer, states that he likes the way he “gets to see the content in a different way, and really get to see how gears and ratios really work in real life, not like in a book.” Chase Orton, a math instructor who initially created the course at Eagle Rock, wanted to get students excited about physics in a way that applied to their daily lives and interests, and felt that when he could get them up and moving physically, their minds were much more engaged. Saul likes that he gets up in the morning and is moving; when he’s active, he feels like he’s able to think more clearly and be more engaged in class. Robert Miranda, another student who has taken the class, likes to take what he has learned and “put it to the test” when he gets out on his bike.

In education, if we truly value different learning styles and want to embrace our kinesthetic learners, it’s incredibly important for us to create learning opportunities where students can touch, feel, and experience the learning that is being discussed. In Wiggins and McTighe ’s work, we are reminded that helping students truly understand includes increasing their ability to use and demonstrate the new knowledge in context. “To understand a topic or subject is to use knowledge and skill in sophisticated, flexible ways,” they write. I believe that as educators, it is our responsibility to create a variety of learning experiences in which our students have the opportunity to learn through both their mind and body the concepts we are seeking to understand.

A major lesson for our instructional staff has been the necessity to look deeply at the connections we create in our mind-body learning experiences. Even though we value kinesthetic experiences, it is important that there are intentionality and real connections in what we do, and we want to push this deeper than we have before. Guided by the work of H. Lynn Erickson, we have been striving to take our curriculum beyond the traditional idea of experiential education and really dive deeper into integrating our curriculum through core concepts. An example of this curricular progress can be seen in an Eagle Rock class called “Colorado Rocks,” which integrates geology and the study of landscapes with rock climbing and personal growth for students. Seven years ago, there was a similar place-based education class here called “Rock’n’Road,” which used the desert climbing setting as a central environment to study the geology of the rock, the ecology of the rivers, related math topics, and literature about the environment. These topics all related to the climbing environment, and used rock climbing as a physical activity that gave a central draw to why students were there, and got them actively involved in that environment. For reasons already mentioned, this class still had great student engagement and success. When a new instructional team took on the curriculum around the time Eagle Rock was beginning to work with Erickson’s ideas, the team really wanted to push the integration of mind and body learning to a deeper level. Rather than simply having a central topic to look at, the new curriculum now uses the lens of “change over time” as the core concept that ties together everything the students are doing.

Through this conceptual lens, students are truly engaging their minds and their bodies as they study both the change in the external landscapes (geology, environmental issues) as well as their internal landscapes (personal growth and self-awareness). Director of Curriculum Jeff Liddle believes that students are seeing a more direct connection in that the better they understand the geology of the landscape around them, the more they are able to compare that landscape to reflections on their own personal growth in their climbing challenges and throughout their daily lives. The increased focus on a central concept that ties together students’ learning really allows students to see the universal connections in their own experiences and the academic curriculum. The Colorado Rocks curriculum takes the mind-body connection to a deeper level than we’ve been able to achieve in other classes so far.

While being active can increase learning strictly through a physical experience that stimulates the brain in new ways, it is also powerful to see the connections that can be made in mind-body learning when an academic class moves outside to physically experience the content being studied. One great example of this at Eagle Rock is a class called “Riverwatch,” developed by our outdoor education teacher Jon Anderson, and our science teacher, Janet Johnson. Riverwatch creates a learning opportunity in which students explore river ecology and the environmental impacts of change on our water ecosystems. While most students have been around water and rivers and can imagine what is being discussed in class, Jon believes that the physical involvement—getting to the river, collecting water samples for the Colorado Division of Wildlife, learning how to fly fish, and seeing the river in action—really helps students put all the pieces together and experience the interconnectedness of it all. Jon states that “using a project-based reality and having students engage in citizen science really helps students feel a responsibility that is bigger than themselves.” Being in the river really helps the students touch, feel, and see things they have been talking about in the classroom, and create their own learning reality. Cynthia Alonzo, a student from the class, says that she got a lot out of the class because, “I learn more when I do things with my hands, and I really saw a result.” All of a sudden the fish and the food web of the river were much more real for her when she was tying flies and studying the health of the river. The tactile experience of being in and on the river helped ingrain learnings for Cynthia that will last much longer than sitting in a classroom. An additional benefit is the increased awareness and attentiveness that comes with increased fresh air, improved circulation and relaxation, and they ways that the physical movements associated with fishing, hiking, and being outside increase learning experiences in the brain.

Mind-body awareness at Eagle Rock also comes with the deeper lesson that what we do with and to our bodies not only affects ourselves, but also the world around us. In reflecting on the state of our wellness curriculum two years ago, Jon and I realized that perhaps our health curriculum wasn’t really diving deeply enough into wellness topics that really mattered to teenagers. After studying health curriculum from around the country, engaging in critical conversations with teens in various settings, and reflecting on the reality of our society right now, we created a course curriculum called “Body Politics.” This class gives students the opportunity to learn about the science of five major body systems (cardiac, respiratory, muscular, neurological, and reproductive), examine the anatomy and physiology of those systems in a healthy state, and then dive into what often catches teen attention: sex, drugs, and alcohol. By engaging in critical research, discussions, and reflection on these actions and substances, the students have the opportunity to uncover what happens to their bodies if different drugs are taken, the impacts of various sexually transmitted infections, and what alcohol does to their brains and their bodies. The curriculum then transitions into the impact of these actions on the world around them, and specifically the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Their explorations help them uncover how countries around the world are reacting to these health issues, and what effect different opinions and actions around mind and body have on world issues. Helping students step out of their individualistic reality and examine how their personal decisions can affect their own bodies and the world around them broadens perspectives for many of them.

Founder of All Kinds of Minds Mel Levine’s work helps us remember that all students have different areas of strengths around their neurodevelopmental functions. Sitting in the same classroom day after day may engage parts of the minds of our students, but ongoing work at Eagle Rock has helped us realize that the more we can engage our students minds and bodies in a learning experience, the more deeply the learning experience may resonate with different learners. Not only do the physiological effects of activity improve brain functioning and awareness, but our kinesthetic learners can benefit so much more from touching, feeling, and trying out new ideas and experiences. If we can focus more on including the body in the work of our minds, I strongly believe our students will be much more engaged on many levels in their learning.

Incorporating mind-body awareness for our students is an ongoing quest for us at Eagle Rock School. We have found ways to do this across our curriculum and in the daily lives of our students. It helps us to realize that there are many ways to do it both explicitly and implicitly through our community values and our daily classes. One of the CES common principles looks at students learning to use one’s mind well, and we have found that by increasing physical interaction in academic learning, our students are having greater success in classes and their learning experiences seem to be having a deeper, lasting impression. As we work to create opportunities that engage our students in meaningful learning, we continue to look for better ways to engage the mind and the body in each experience.

CES Mentor School Eagle Rock is a year-round, residential, and full-scholarship school that enrolls 96 young people from 15 to 17 years of age from around the United States in an innovative learning program with national recognition. Located in Estes Park, Colorado, Eagle Rock is also a professional development center focused on national school renewal and reform initiatives, and a CES Affiliate Center.

H. Lynn Erickson is an independent consultant with extensive experience in curriculum design and implementation. Her focus on concept-based curriculum helps schools take a deeper look at what is really important for students to be learning and how teachers can help prepare them to solve problems in today’s complex world.

Recommended by H. Lynn Erickson:
Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction, 2002, Corwin Press

Stirring the Head, Heart, and Soul, 3rd edition, 2007, Corwin Press

Mel Levine is a pediatrician and founder of All Kinds of Minds, a non-profit institute designed to help educators, parents, and students better understand and manage learning issues. Levine’s work helps teachers learn how the mind’s eight different neurodevelopmental functions work together to help each student achieve success. Specific processes help teachers identify recurring themes for different students in their learning and performance, and then support teachers in creating individual success plans with students. More information on Mel Levine and the All Kinds of Minds Institute can be found at:

Recommended books by Mel Levine:
A Mind at a Time, 2002, Simon & Schuster

Ready or Not, Here Life Comes, 2006, Simon & Schuster

Jennifer Morine is an Instructional Specialist and houseparent at Eagle Rock School and Professional Development Center. She has her M.S. in Educational Leadership and has been teaching for eight years.