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The Social and Emotional Benefits of Being Weirdly Creative

| David Markus
By focusing on the shapes and sounds of Balinese musical instruments (above), Bates Middle School students learn about radius and diameter. Test scores show knowledge retention improving; students say they enjoy learning and feel connected socially. Credit: Zachary Fink

The boy is small in stature, bespectacled, and unnaturally articulate for a sixth grader. I have heard from his teachers and principal at Annapolis, Maryland's Wiley H. Bates Middle School about the academic benefits of arts integration, how various forms of artistic expression (PDF) are employed to learn math and science as well as language arts. I have also learned about the virtues of a critical-thinking technique known as Artful Thinking, developed by Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, that deepens students' intellectual understanding generally by deepening their understanding of the multiple layers of artistic expression.

Now I am keen to discover more about the social and emotional aspects of this learning strategy. Are relationships between students positively affected by arts integration? What about the rapport between kids and teachers? My young source holds forth with disarming confidence, especially about some of the toughest social and emotional issues middle school students face: fitting in with your peers, being different without becoming isolated, how to navigate the gauntlet of critics, teasers, and bullies that line the rocky path to high school.

I probe for more details. (Full disclosure: I, too, was a little guy, often defending myself against the big boys whenever they set out to prove their physical dominance. So I find my source's calm, rational discourse a bit too good to be true.) What I learn from him starts to soften me up.

I'll paraphrase his remarks: Expressing yourself creatively in front of an entire class, especially when you are not good at art, is the great equalizer. At first you feel pretty weird, especially singing and dancing. Because you've never done anything like this before, and you're not sure you want to work with other students this way. You think maybe someone will make fun of you. But because everybody has to sing and dance and do the art, everyone is in the same boat. It's harder to put someone down if you're the same as him.

(My source seems to relish this next part of his description.)

So you have to keep doing the art day after day. You have to dance the motions of the planets or sing their name in a song or take a photo of a jungle gym exhibiting the properties of an isosceles triangle. And somehow, through all these awkward displays of creativity, the social playing field levels, and you actually start to have fun, and you begin to make friends with kids you might never have even spoken to, because they're having fun, too.

(See our Resources and Downloads and our Pinterest board for arts-integration PD presentations and arts-integrated lesson plans)

Even Too-Cool-for-School Kids Can't Resist

I get the point, and I am impressed with his how-a-negative-becomes-a-positive analysis. Still, I want to see this contagious classroom creativity in the flesh. I am escorted to Mrs. Dunn's seventh-grade math class. Here students are investigating the geometric properties of circular shapes, in this case, the circular shapes of traditional Balinese percussion instruments. As round cymbals and drums of various sizes are distributed to the students, I size up the class. A not untypical cast of characters, all shapes, sizes, and colors. One group catches my eye: three boys wearing similar athletic-style jerseys. Tallish, physically fit, and chuckling with each other, they are clearly content with themselves. Asked by the teacher to observe something about the circular instruments, each obliges haltingly. Two of the three are only moderately helpful in group efforts to choreograph a dance to illustrate the circle properties. But when the entire class commences to play the instruments and dance around in concentric circles, I am astonished.

First of all, it's true: Everyone looks pretty weird, especially my boys in the jerseys. And it only gets weirder as the tempo picks up. Unexpectedly, I actually find myself choking up. Virtually every kid is smiling, if not laughing out loud. Heads, tails, and torsos are wagging in all directions. A blissful oneness seems to reign across all the social divides, and even the three musketeers seem dead ringers for the goofy, upbeat little preschoolers I am sure they once were. When asked after the dance about circular geometry, the quick, animated responses from every corner of the classroom leave no doubt that learning is happening.

Almost without exception, teachers at Bates are enthused about arts integration as a method for making learning a deeper experience for students and faculty. They are quick to add that the program has not brought an end to classroom disruptions, the need to keep kids on task, or the occasional disciplinary referral or suspension. But it has rolled back the need to police kids. And it has opened up new vistas of social and emotional connection between students and adults. As one science teacher reports, "With the vast majority of my students, I am truly facilitating big chunks of their learning by focusing them on diverse artistic expressions of their knowledge. They do the expressing, not me. And because I am not commanding them, I think they like me better. I know I like me better."

(Click here and see if you like it.)

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Content writer and adjunct professor at Marygrove College in Detroit, MI

An excellent and inspiring

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An excellent and inspiring article, David. Thank you for posting. I liked it so much that I thought I'd share a multi-sensory activity I've used with my beginning writers.

http://info.marygrove.edu/MATblog/bid/87182/A-multisensory-learning-acti...

Teacher, Writer, and Artist

THE WEIRDER YOU ARE THE MORE I LIKE YOU

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On the last day of the week of the first week of school we come to the undeniable case of Spike, the former seventh grader who is now an eighth grader who is an elf.

Spike was an elf in seventh grade and he is still an elf and he is ageless and changeless and brings fun and humor and mischief to the dreary world of the rest of us boring people. I have that certain funny feeling that we’ll come to the undeniable case of Spike every day this year.

This year, Spike has no more—or less—freckles. He still has a million of them. His head hairs still shoot straight up. Like a mood ring, the color of his eyes still change from blue to green when he gets worked up. His voice is still squeaky. Spike has grown to a height of ten inches.

He is constantly moving, thinking, pondering, brooding, calculating, prognosticating, anticipating, commenting. His eyes are always open and watching for opportunities to please. His manners are natural and wonderful and instantly make me feel better.

Outside, during breaks, he’ll have in his hands a string. Then the string will end up with two knots, one on each end. Then Spike will come show you how the string he’s been playing with might be used to save civilization from evil. In several different and believable ways. Just him and a string with knots. I don’t have a reason not to believe him.

This week, preparing the fall semester Georgia history syllabus, which the students sign, then becoming a contract, I’m asking them what three or four things can I do in the classroom as your Georgia history teacher this year to help you help me help you. I came to Spike.

Spike said he appreciated having study guides prior to tests; that he enjoys projects; he is delighted thoroughly and educated by going on lots of field trips; and he loves watching documentaries on the flat screen TV in the corner.

I can do that.

Twice this week in morning homeroom, Spike, out of the blue, dropped to the floor, pulled both ankles behind his head, locked them together, poked his arms out to the side like airplane wings, and then rocked back and forth on the bony knobs of his spine while he smiled and gladly answered our questions.

Spike is a one in a million billion 8th grader elf, who coats then soaks me with his personality every day, but he’s right in line with the rest of my historians on what I can do, seriously and syllabus-wise, to help him help me help him … God help us.

Before we went home today, in the last home room of the day, as they pack up and see me melt into an end-of-the-week giddiness they seem to like, I ask Spike what else I could do to help him succeed in school and in life and help me help him help me.

It’s as if Spike had been waiting for the question all of his life.

Spike immediately says he’d like to have spider legs that could pop out of his back and help him crawl across the ceiling.

I ask him, giggling, actually trying to keep the giddiness going … And anything else?

And he’d like to have the power of invisibility. In his elf voice, Spike says, he’d like to have the power of tele-por-tation. Spike says he’d like to have a long monkey tail grow out of the end of his spine that he can whip around.

Since the beginning of the week Spike has been pestering me about selling his soul. Not to the devil. To me. I’ve been pushing him off. That’s an important decision in a kid’s life. I’ve been telling him to sell his soul to his parents. I said I bet they’d appreciate having you in their grips even tighter, but that suggestion didn’t deter him. Spike became even more glued to his belief that if he sold his soul to me that that would make him a better student and human being. I was deeply flattered.

You cannot deny this child. No one, of any age, can deny Spike his time in their face and life. So we burst out laughing and point at Spike and pat him on the back.

He sort of understands. Spike thinks the way he acts and thinks is no big deal and wonders why we find him so sensational.

It’s 3:15. Lurlene the principal screams from down the hall … LET’S GO!

Before Spike leaves for home and the first weekend of the school year, he out-of-the blue says to me with bright elf eyes and a smile … Do no da go hv i … pronounced, doh noh dah goh huh ee. Cherokee for, Until we meet again. Something Spike learned as a seventh grader last year ... three months ago ... in my mid-afternoon study hall, “Lunch and Learn,” and remembered across the span of a summer.

Until Spike and me meet again. That would be early Monday morning.

I can’t wait.

www.adixiediary.com

Former Editorial Director of Edutopia; dad of 4 (3 kids in public school)

Great Point (below) from Lauren1955

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I saw at Bates Middle School in Annapolis, MD, just what Lauren1955 is talking about: teachers energized and happy with what infusing arts into curricula had done for them personally and professionally. Thanks for making the point!

Forty some years ago, I was

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Forty some years ago, I was in 8th grade in a Catholic school. The sisters wanted us to have exposure to public speaking. The school sponsored an 8th grade speech contest. I memorized and acted out "Casey at the Bat". I was one of the "nerdy" girl, with an older brother who threatened any boy who looked at me. I can still remember acting out that poem, and my classmates response. I was picked to represent the class and came in second in the contest. I acted throughout high school and received a BFA in theatre, before becoming a teacher. I was a teacher of the Deaf, now I teach special ed students on the lower end of the scale. Each year my student perform 2 plays for family and students in the school. The response from the regular ed middle school students is heartening and after the fall production the regular students have greater respect for my students. Being weirdly creative makes for being a great teacher also.

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David Markus Former Editorial Director of Edutopia; dad of 4 (3 kids in public school)

Bates Middle School

  • Featured strategy:
    • Arts Integration
  • Location:
    • Annapolis, MD
  • Setting:
    • Suburban
  • Grades:
    • 6-8
  • Enrollment:
    • (2011-12)
      715
  • Student population:
    • 46% qualify for free or reduced-price lunch
      39% Caucasian
      34% African American
      20% Latino
      2% Asian
      10% individualized education programs
      7% English-language learners
  • Average Per-pupil Operating Expenditures:
    • (Most recent data available: 2010-11)
      School: n/a
      District (county): $7,451
      State (MD): $4,694
  • Student Achievement:
    • Since Bates Middle School first implemented arts integration in 2009, their student achievement has grown 12 times faster than the state of Maryland in reading and 4 times faster in math.
      Average referrals and suspensions per student have also declined by 23%.