Brain Unbreaks (Express Fluency reflection 3)

This is the third in a series of reflections and elaborations on Express Fluency 2017. If you haven’t yet, check out installment 1, on the skills of slowness and silence, and installment 2, on making lemonade, i.e., capitalizing on would-be problems in class.

I usually use brain breaks just to get the blood pumping if it’s been a little while or to help students unfill. But sometimes I like to extend them in order to recap recent info or sneak in some extra language that I know students can handle because of the change of setting or pace. I just decided to call these times Brain Unbreaks. Here are two recent examples from Express Fluency 2017.

Paper Drop Plus

I first participated in paper drop at iFLT 2016 with Faith Laux, who, I think, said she got it from Diana Noonan. The teacher lets a piece of paper fall from way up high (I usually stand on a chair); students stand and clap as many times as they can before the paper touches the floor. You can use L1 or TL to quickly find out who clapped the most times. Then applaud the winner with that number of claps!

When I teach Latin, I often Unbreak this brain break and spend a decent amount of time figuring out and going over the results. This is partly because, instead of a verbatim equivalent of four times, five times, six times, etc., Latin uses a whole different word for the number itself–kind of like once and twice in English, but for every number. Learners get a ton of encounters with these numerals, as well as other phrases, such as ____ or more and sit down unless ____, while we compare clappy results.

Sometimes we also discuss people’s predictions and reactions about their own and their classmates’ clappy performance: [before] Who do you think will clap the most times? How sure are you? Inna thinks she can clap faster than you–how does that make you feel? [after] Are you surprised to see these three finalists? Who did you think was going to clap the most times? If you could win a major prize for speed clapping, what would you want it to be? Similar questions work for most competitive brain breaks, such as the many variations of Rock, Paper, Scissors.

One time I knew students were about to read a story whose major theme was whether people got what they deserved. We happened to do the paper drop brain break, so I asked them a bunch of questions about whether they thought the winner deserved a prize, what kind of prize it should be, and whether X, Y, and Z were suitable prizes, setting them up to understand the relevant language in the story about just rewards and being worthy of honor or punishment.

This is a simple and specific example, but I hope it illustrates some ways in which unbreaking a brain break with a few extra questions can get you a lot of mileage!

To become a Master Questioner equipped with even more ways to form and use questions to sustain compelling interactions, check out my recorded webinar It’s All about the Questions!


Continuum is a tried and true brain break in which students spread out along an imaginary line that runs the full length or diagonal of the classroom, according to their opinion or preference on some question. For instance, people who LOOOOVE kale would go to one end, people who HAAAATE kale would go to the other, and the rest would spread out in between according to their preference or indifference (although I’m told it’s usually all or nothing with kale). Continuum gets students moving and gives students and teacher an overview of people’s opinions, and it’s always to interesting to see how the class is distributed.

You can continue Continuum by discussing the results right there while students are spread out. I’ve noticed that Continuum extends students’ eagerness to keep talking about basically the same thing, partly because of the new physical layout and partly because it often reveals interesting nuances about what might otherwise be treated as a binary question. At Express Fluency, two different classes spread out according to how much they liked to dance and how badly they wanted to visit Greece, respectively. In each case, we had already spent a few hours on interactions about what students were good at and what places students wanted to visit, and I meant for Continuum to double as a brain break and a bookend for those conversations. But the distribution of participants in each class (a) revealed things about students we hadn’t talked about as much and (b) made for interesting conversation because of the way some students were clustered. Among other things, this gave us a natural way to compare the degrees to which different people were into or averse to dancing and Greece.

You can do the same thing to unbreak Six Spots (#3 here) and the classic Four Corners.

Unbreaking it down

Keep using brain breaks for their main and crucial purpose of relaxing students’ minds and bodies. But, when your students seem up for it, look for ways to get a little extra TL interaction–sometimes even substantial interaction–out of the activities you normally use as brain breaks, especially by asking questions.

Some of my amazing new teacher-student-friends from Spain!
(photo by Toni Ramis)

A little bonus brain break

I’m typing this in Madrid, where I just wrapped up seven days of teaching a series of (24!) classes and workshops for teachers, mostly from Europe. In one of the sessions we learned that a student was an experienced ocean swimmer, while another was a surfer, another was interested in swimming just below the surface, and one wanted to try going for a walk on top of the waves. When brain break time came, I had the students move around the classroom first air-swimming like A, then swimming as though below the surface like B, then walking as though on waves like C, then surfing like D, switching when I hollered out instructions in the TL. This was even merrier than I had expected. Assuming you spend at least some time talking about what students like to do, you might try this kind of roaming TPR in which students imitate actions they’ve just learned others like or are good at.

Have fun!
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  1. I need to create a list in the back of the room so I remember all the brain breaks I learned this summer. Otherwise it’s going to be the same old 3 I did last year. And remember to Unbreak.

    • Good idea! Something I’ve done to avoid getting stuck in a rut is make a stack of index cards with the titles of brain breaks written on them. When it’s time for a brain break, I can just grab a card from the stack, which I keep at the front of the room. Sometimes I’ve had a student pick a random card and we do that brain break.

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