Tristan in a swim cap

You may look at this picture and wonder why Tristan is wearing a swim cap. No, we have not started a swim club. If you look closely, the students are starting to draw diagrams on the swim cap. Diagrams of what you ask? 

What students are working on is an activity as part of their work on a unit about famous Vermonter Phinneas Gage.  This brief summary comes from the Smithsonian Magazine

In 1848, Gage, 25, was the foreman of a crew cutting a railroad bed in Cavendish, Vermont. On September 13, as he was using a tamping iron to pack explosive powder into a hole, the powder detonated. The tamping iron—43 inches long, 1.25 inches in diameter and weighing 13.25 pounds—shot skyward, penetrated Gage’s left cheek, ripped into his brain and exited through his skull, landing several dozen feet away. Though blinded in his left eye, he might not even have lost consciousness, and he remained savvy enough to tell a doctor that day, “Here is business enough for you.”

In 8th Grade English Language Arts for the past several weeks, students have been studying the story of Phinneas Gage and how what we know about the brain has changed over time. Students have studied his story and been actively involved in discussions on the parts of the brain and their roles in how we learn and experience the world. 

What was so amazing about the swim-cap activity is that students worked together to diagram this amazing organ, that we all have, and all of its parts and functions.  Beyond the story of Phinneas Gage, students learned about the frontal lobe (planning and predicting), the amygdala (flight, fight, and caretaking), and where these and the many other parts and functions are in all of our skulls by diagramming each other’s brains). 

What was particularly exciting is that as I walked through classes in the days after the Phineas Gage unit was completed, students still had their diagrammed swim caps next to them.

As students As they showed off their caps, they were able to highlight what we used to think on one side and what we now know about the brain on the other side.  Even better, was that students were excited to show off and explain how our understanding of the brain has evolved from Phrenology (that was in vogue at the time of Phinneas Gage), to more scientific and nuanced contemporary understanding of the different parts and functions that we understand today.  

I am so grateful to work with amazing colleagues like Emily Wills, who designed this unit. I am also particularly grateful to the students who so actively participated in discussions, debates, and creative designs to show their thinking and learning.  This was just one of the many reminders each day of how wonderful a place BFA Fairfax is.

| Justin Brown is the Principal at BFA Fairfax Middle School. He is a regular contributor to THE FWSU STORY. You can follow him on Twitter @jbrownenator

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