The first thing that strikes you about Melisa Tennant's seventh-grade language arts class at Sunrise Park Middle School in White Bear Lake, even before walking into the room, is a low rumbling sound overlaid by a constant gentle patter. Once inside, more striking is the incessant bobbing of heads of most of the 32 students.

The kids are sitting at their desks atop balance balls and using their feet to rock up and down. All that background noise and movement may be disorienting to a casual observer, but for Tennant it's a perfect storm for learning and teaching.

Research shows that students have better memory and retention when they have movement, Tennant said.

"I'm seeing a lot of movement. I've seen rocking and bouncing during classes, and that is what I want. In addition to that, I am seeing attention." Tennant teaches five sections of language arts each day, 140 students in all, and they all sit on balance balls.

Elementary schools had positive results when using balance balls for children who have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Tennant said. Mayo Clinic researchers found balance balls enhanced attention spans of younger students. "But no one had been brave enough to try it on middle school kids," Tennant said.

That "no one" includes Eric Jensen, an international author and expert on how the brain learns. Jensen acknowledges that ADHD children often do better with balance balls and that it is unclear what will happen with normal children.

"The real proof is how the kids learn and behave over a period of weeks and months," after the novelty of the balance balls wears off, Jensen said.

A similar experiment is going on at Marine Elementary School in Washington County's Marine on St. Croix, where students have stand-up workstations instead of desks.

Always willing to try something new during her seven years of teaching, Tennant eased into experimenting with movement in her lessons first by having kids act out words and by moving from one side of the class to the other to meet up with a work partner. That worked, so Tennant decided to take it further by replacing chairs with balance balls.

Her first attempt at funding failed because a foundation said there wasn't a clear educational purpose to the project. Eventually the funding came from a classroom parent who got a matching grant from her employer, enabling Tennant to spend the $2,300 to purchase the balance balls.

Tennant installed the balls last April and simultaneously learned she had a sales job to do with the custodians who didn't know how to clean a room that's full of brightly colored, inflated balls. The solution: Put them on top of the desks, out of the way.

The school's administration is supportive of Tennant's experiment, said principal David Law. But he always peeks in when Tennant is gone and the class has a substitute teacher. "They're not used to a room full of bouncing heads," he said. But he heaps praise on Tennant for trying something new to improve teaching and learning. "She's the one you want to have 15 of in the building," he said.

It's still too soon to tell what real influence the balls will have on learning, but it seems clear that the students like them. "It's a lot more fun," said student Courtney Moore, looking up from a project she's working on. "The people who have other classes, they want to be in this class. Everybody's jealous."

Reaction from parents has been positive too, Tennant said, especially when many parents tried out the balance balls during a classroom open house.

"Parents with office jobs have seen it's becoming more popular to use the yoga ball, and they are interested in this, too," Tennant said. She plans to measure student progress with the balance balls mid-year and again at year end.

Gregory A. Patterson • 651-298-1546