Sunday, July 31, 2011

Ted Talk: Sebastian Seung "I am my Connectome"

Okay, so I may have gone "connectome crazy" here, but this Ted talk by Dr. Sebastian Seung is incredibly interesting and very accessible even for an English teacher like me. Give it a look-I'm sure you'll enjoy it and learn something important about the brain.

Here's more on Sebastian Seung, Ph.D on the MIT website.

Learned a new word: the "Connectome"

I always enjoy learning new words, and I came across one this morning connected to one of my latest interests-brain research-and it's called the connectome. Here's an excerpt from the article Brain's Connectome from Branch to Branch appearing on Neuroscience News:

"With some 70 billion neurons and hundreds of thousands of kilometres of circuits, the human brain is so complex that, for many years, it seemed impossible to reconstruct the network in detail. Each neuron is linked to about a thousand others by means of finely branched projections called dendrites and axons, and communicates with them using electrical signals. The connections between the cells are critical for brain function, so neuroscientists are keen to understand the structure of these circuits – the connectome – and to reconstruct it in a three-dimensional map."

According to a connectome is a "synapse-resolution mapping of connections between all neurons in a model organism's brain. In other words, a synapse-resolution circuit diagram of the brain."
You may wonder why I've included this information on this site, and that's a good question. The answer is that it's vital to understand how the brain works so that we can apply it to our educational practices and help our students learn better. Simple as that.
Thanks once again to Howard Eaton-brainchange on Twitter-for tweeting about this article. If you're on Twitter you should definitely follow him.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Matt Damon speaks out for teachers and creativity and against standardized testing at SOS Rally in DC

Matt Damon’s speech at the Save Our Schools rally, July 30, 2011

‘I think you’re awesome!” 

I flew overnight from Vancouver to be with you today. I landed in New York a few hours ago and caught a flight down here because I needed to tell you all in person that I think you’re awesome. 

I was raised by a teacher. My mother is a professor of early childhood education. And from the time I went to Kindergarten through my senior year in high school I went to Public Schools. I wouldn’t trade that education and experience for anything. 

I had incredible teachers. As I look at my life today, the things I value most about myself— my imagination, my love of acting, my passion for writing, my love of learning, my curiosity— all come from how I was parented and taught. 

And none of these qualities that I’ve just mentioned— none of these qualities that I prize so deeply, that have brought me so much joy, that have brought me so much professional success— none of these qualities that make me who I am… can be tested. 

I said before that I had incredible teachers. And that’s true. But it’s more than that. My teachers were EMPOWERED to teach me. Their time wasn’t taken up with a bunch of test prep— this silly drill and kill nonsense that any serious person knows doesn’t promote real learning. No, my teachers were free to approach me and every other kid in that classroom like an individual puzzle. They took so much care in figuring out who we were and how to best make the lessons resonate with each of us. They were empowered to unlock our potential. They were allowed to be teachers. 

Now, don’t get me wrong, I did have a brush with standardized tests at one point. I remember because my mom went to the principal’s office and said, “My kid ain’t taking that. It’s stupid, it won’t tell you anything and it’ll just make him nervous.” 

I shudder to think that these tests are being used today to control where funding goes.
I don’t know where I would be today if my teachers’ job security was based on how I performed on some standardized test. If their very survival as teachers was based not on whether I actually fell in love with the process of learning but rather if I could fill in the “right” bubble on a test. If they had to spend most of their time desperately drilling us and less time encouraging creativity and original ideas; less time knowing who we were, seeing our strengths and helping us realize our talents. 

I honestly don’t know where I’d be today if that was the type of education I had. I sure as hell wouldn’t be here, I do know that. 

This has been a horrible decade for teachers. I can’t imagine how demoralized you must feel. But I came here today to deliver an important message to you: as I get older, I appreciate more and more the teachers that I had growing up. And I’m not alone. There are millions of people just like me. 

So the next time you’re feeling down, or exhausted, or unappreciated, or at the end of your rope; the next time you turn on the TV and see yourself called “over-paid”; the next time you encounter some simple-minded, punitive policy that’s been driven into your life by some corporate reformer who has literally never taught anyone anything… 

Please know that there are millions of us behind you. You have an army of regular people standing right behind you and our appreciation for what you do is so deeply felt. We love you, we thank you, and we will always have your back. 

Deepak Chopra: "Video Game that aids in meditation and relaxation"

We have a Wii system in our house, and we have a great time playing the games, especially together, doing Wii Fit, playing Endless Oceans, Let's Dance II and Zumba to name a few. The thing I love about all of those games is that there is no killing, violence or destruction in any of them-they are all putting out positive messages while helping with personal health and well-being. This seems to be the case with Dr. Deepak Chopra's new game called Leela, "an ancient Sanskrit word meaning 'play,'" according to "Leela is described not as a game, but as a groundbreaking experience, combining ancient relaxation and meditation techniques with technology, to bring focus, energy and balance to one's life." I'm not into endorsing products, and this one doesn't come out until November, but I can get behind the idea of increasing relaxation and meditation techniques with students and parents, many of whom are stressed out beyond belief. And we know that if we can't make students feel safe with as little stress as possible, then we can't get them to learn-it's just how the brain works.

The article goes on to quote Chopra saying, “so much of our modern activity is connected to addictive behavior -- we are addicted to our smart phones, to the internet, to video games,” he postulates. “What I am interested in is, how do we use this addictive tendency to actually further brain development and allow people to grow in intelligence, awareness and consciousness? How can we use knowledge and experience from yoga and make it fun to accelerate brain evolution? I believe that this ‘Leela’, this ‘play’, can honestly help people raise their consciousness and rewire their brains. When Leela becomes available on November 8, players will enjoy using their own abilities to cultivate a healthier, harmonious and more balanced life.”

Looking forward to seeing Leela when it comes out this fall. Read the entire article here.

Thanks to Howard Eaton, Brainchange, on Twitter for posting about this.

Valedictorian Speaks Out Against Educational System

Dovetailing nicely with my last post about making school fun and making learning have meaning for students, I came across this speech by high school valedictorian Erica Goldson on the wonderful site The Innovative Educator. In less than ten minutes, Erica is able to eloquently point out the fallacies in our educational system and challenge educators to make a paradigm shift. It's worth a look.

You can read Erica's entire speech on her blog America via Erica.

Dare We Ask...Make School Fun? Make Learning Meaningful to Students? Ahhh....Yes Please!

I've often asked teachers in our classes "when does school cease to be fun?" Years ago the answer was grades six or seven,  but now it's usually more like second or third. Why is that? Why does school have to be drudgery? Thinking back on my own high school experience in the seventies it was the same-classes were boring and little if any meaning could be put to why we were studying this material. 

Today's brain-based research is clear, if students don't understand why they are learning something or if what is being learned has no meaning, then that information will be dumped within seconds and learning will not occur.

So it begs the question...why are our schools still doing this to students? Why are they attempting to cram knowledge down students throats with the thought that this will come in handy later on in life or they need this subject to pass a test or get into college when it is known that it doesn't work?

Certainly high-stakes testing plays into this. Teachers and administrators feeling the pressure and subjecting students to greater coverage of material-usually with little or no depth or meaning- and drilling the students to death. All of this, well-intentioned, only leading more students to dislike coming to school even more.

A few years ago I had a discussion with some high school administrators about boosting their attendance rates-they had fallen under the state level for certain sub-groups and were searching for answers on how to get those kids to come to school more regularly. Their plan was to amp up the penalties for being absent or late-in other words make things more punitive. I chimed in and said why don't they make the school a place where students wanted to be, so they would come. There was silence in the room, and they looked at me as if I had two heads. My sense was this idea was preposterous to them-never crossed their minds, and  that avenue was shut down immediately.

The time has come, actually long-overdue, for a complete paradigm shift in our educational system. As I've said many times in this space, we are no longer training our students to be productive workers in factories and on farms as we were when our public educational system was put in place generations ago. The factory system of education is outdated-yet it is still in wide use. Don't believe me? Take a walk around almost any high school today and see how many classrooms have the teacher-as the font of knowledge-standing in front of the room disseminating that knowledge in lecture form (5-10% retention at best) to students sitting in rows (dubbed the graveyard set-up by one of our students) in the hope that this knowledge (being taught because someone has deemed it important-not the students of course) is going into the students' heads (see Paulo Freire). Phew....long sentence-guess I had to get that out! (But all too true...unfortunately).

But I do have hope-that amazing human trait that keeps us going, that we can shift the paradigm to one that engages and energizes students, helps them to make meaning out of what they are learning so they can actually learn it, and makes them love coming to school (dare I say make school fun?). We can do this, and integrating the arts is one way coupled with creative use of technology (reading power point slides to students doesn't count folks),  safe classrooms where students feel physically and emotionally safe, a heightened sense of empathy on everyone's part, as well as a number of other brain-based, creative ways to help students learn better. 

Think about it when you are planning your lessons for the fall. How can you get your students engaged in what is happening in your classroom and energized and happy to be there? Flip things around and put yourself in the students' position: how does it feel to be a student sitting in your class? Take a positive risk and strike out on a new path that will forge new neural pathways in your students' brains and get those dendrites multiplying at a fantastic rate. The time is now!

Friday, July 29, 2011

Ted Talks: Julian Treasure "5 Ways to Listen Better"

How many of our relationships, not only as teacher and student, would be improved if we were able to listen better? In another wonderful Ted talk, Julian Treasure discusses listening and gives 5 ways we can become better listeners. Worth a look.

How the brain keeps track of what we're doing

Being informed on how the brain learns just makes sense if you are in the education world. The August issue of  Current Directions in Psychological Science gives a different view on "working memory" by neuroscientist Robert H. Logie. Read the entire article at How the brain keeps track of what we're doing

 An excerpt:
"We have a range of different capacities, each with its own function, and they operate at the same time" when we perform a task or think about something, says Logie. Within this "multiple-component framework," working memory capacity is "the sum of the capacities of all these different functions."

This "workspace" in the brain, as Logie calls it, allows us to do something while other functions operate in the background or to apply ourselves to a single task involving more than one function."

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Ways to Stay Connected with Teaching Through the Arts: Please Join Us!

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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Drama as a Teaching Tool

Drama is a performing art, an outlet for self-expression, and a way of learning.  Drama is an effective learning tool because it involves the student intellectually, physically, socially, and emotionally.  Activities in improvisation, pantomime, play-making, and scene reenactment serve to develop the creative potential in the participants and help to develop critical thinking skills. 

In answering the question, "Why teach drama?'", theater director and teaching artist Matt Buchanan has this to say: "Dramatic Arts education is an important means of stimulating creativity in problem solving. It can challenge students' perceptions about their world and about themselves. Dramatic exploration can provide students with an outlet for emotions, thoughts, and dreams that they might not otherwise have means to express. A student can, if only for a few moments, become another, explore a new role, try out and experiment with various personal choices and solutions to very real problems-problems from their own life, or problems faced by characters in literature or historical figures. This can happen in a safe atmosphere, where actions and consequences can be examined, discussed, and in a very real sense experienced without the dangers and pitfalls that such experimentation would obviously lead to in the "real" world. This is perhaps the most important reason for Dramatic Arts in schools."

Educational Objectives
The benefits of using creative play as a teaching methodology coincide with the
established goals of education.  These include:
§         developing the imagination and creativity
§         fostering critical thinking and problem-solving skills
§         exploring and evaluating ideas
                  §         discovering positive ways of dealing with conflict
§         expressing feelings and interpreting the feelings of others
§         enhancing communication skills
§         improving literacy skills

Participation in drama activities provides the teacher with another way to assess the student. Through dramatic play, students reveal how they organize ideas, solve problems, work in a group, deal with conflict, and use their imagination.   Observing how students dramatize an event offers valuable insight into how they perceive, interpret, understand, and analyze the material at the core of the lesson.

Classroom Applications
Drama has many practical classroom applications for teaching curricular material.   Important concepts, ideas, events, and people can be dramatized through improvisation, pantomime, and playwriting to stimulate interest, convey knowledge, gain comprehension, and improve retention.
Drama can be the vehicle for the following applications:

§                     Role play situations to model/observe
            new skills or behaviors.
§                     Develop scenarios to introduce new
§                     Dramatize a meeting between characters
            or historical figures.
§                     Reenact a real event.
§                     Dramatize a scene that might have happened in a story.
§                     Improvise a scene that expresses the topic or theme.
§                     Act out scenarios as a way to approach writing dialogue.
§                     Create literary sketches.
§                     Stimulate ideas for composing essays, poetry, or fiction.
§                     Portray famous people.

Drama is a teaching tool that allows students to participate, demonstrate, and observe in a "controlled," or non-threatening, environment.  In other words, it provides another "non-traditional" opportunity for students to learn and to demonstrate learning.  At the same time, drama helps students get in touch with their creativity and spontaneity as well as to develop confidence in the expression of their ideas.  Finally, it teaches self-discipline, acceptance of and positive response to criticism, and cooperation with others. 

Monday, July 25, 2011

Using Drama to Create Empathy in Medical Education

Using drama to help train future doctors? Sounds like a great idea to me. Our present educational system from kindergarten through graduate school needs a major paradigm shift. The day has long passed, if they were ever there, when lecture was an effective way to get students to learn. In fact most brain-based learning research puts lecture at a 5-10% retention rate! That is horrendous!

It's very heartening to hear that the University of California, Davis is integrating medical studies with literature in an attempt to "generate future physicians with both scientific acumen and cultural humility." The article "Drama and Empathy in Medical Education" by Matharu, Howell and Fitzgerald in Literature Compass (2011), discusses how medical humanities training is often "lecture-based, not allowing for much student input," so the use of drama is an effort to remedy that.

The following is from the article's abstract:
"Increasingly, undergraduate and graduate programs in medical humanities are exploring the ability of the arts to elucidate the human condition as it relates to patient care. At the University of California, Davis, students and faculty from both the Department of Medicine and English Literature have convened for informal readings  of scenes from dramatic works. This paper discusses the use of excerpts from Eugene O'Neill's Long Days Journey into Night and Berry Barta's Journey Into That Good Night in a medical education setting. Medical students participated in staged readings of these plays, which were filmed and then screened for a group of 30 medical students in order to elicit discussion."

Since empathy is something that we need to be teaching to students at all levels, it's interesting to see that higher education, long know for its penchance for lecture, is making a foray into integrating the arts into their curriculums. Instead of telling students about empathy, they are allowing them to find it on their own through drama which is not only more fun than listening to a lecture, but it allows students to relate the learning to their own lives and reflect on their own learning. Not to mention that the methodology provides novelty which brain-based research tells us is a pathway to increasing learning.

The article goes on to discuss the increased "engagement" and "enthusiasm" on the part of the students.Two concepts that have been discussed in this space many times. It was also great to read that the integration of the arts into the medical curriculum is being used in places all over the world.

Great news!

Kinesthetic Learning: We Learn Better on our Feet than in our Seat!

Kinesthetic learning or movement is a staple in our courses;  we use it all the time. We know it's effective with all ages from kindergarteners to graduate students, but do we have any brain-based research to back it up?

In his book How the Brain Learns David Sousa provides one explanation:

"When we sit for more than twenty minutes, our blood pools in our seat and in our feet. Within a minute [of getting up], there is about 15% more blood in our brain. We do think better on our feet than on our seat! Students sit too much in classrooms, especially in secondary schools. Look for ways to get students up and moving, especially when they are verbally rehearsing what they have learned" (34).

This also speaks to the fact that as arts-based educators we need to have the language to explain our methods to others. So next time you have the students up and moving and your principal comes into your room wondering what's going on, simply relay this information and then ask him or her to join you in movement.

Formative Assessment: Weekly Summaries

In our attempt to give concrete examples of formative assessment techniques, we go back to Debra Dirksen's 2011 article "Hitting the Reset Button: Using Formative Assessment to Guide Instruction" where she discusses weekly summaries.

She discusses having students "complete longer writing assignments in which I ask them to write a weekly summary reflecting on what they've learned from class discussion, activities, and reading during the week. To prompt reflection on personal learning, I ask students to respond to the question: What did you learn personally from class discussion, activities, and readings conducted this week? For evaluation, I ask, "How do you think what was taught this week, in class and through your readings, will work in the real world?" And finally, for transformation, I ask, "How will you personally use the information?" This is an opportunity for students to engage with the material and discover what resonates with them (Taylor 2008). I can also use this information as I design future instruction"

This gets the students to really think about what they have learned that week and allows them more processing time, while giving the teacher the necessary information to assess student learning. I highlighted the three aspects of this assessment to underscore their importance: reflection, evaluation and transformation. All of these factors feed into the students getting beyond mere recall of information and being able to use that information in a different way-a key to really learning.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Formative Assessment: Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down, Thumbs All-Around

Another formative assessment which is simple and quick--letting you know immediately how well the students are understanding the concepts is the thumbs up and thumbs down technique. Just ask them how well they "get it" by giving a thumbs up or thumbs down sign. I also allow them to show degrees of understanding by putting their thumb anywhere on the spectrum between up and down (hence the "all-around" in the title).

Other variations, that I've heard teachers use, are to put the sign right up against the chest, so that others in the classroom have a hard time seeing it or having students close their eyes when they do it. These may be necessary in the beginning of the year, in some cases, but should wain as trust builds in the room and students learn it's all right to admit they don't understand something or that they are wrong about something.

It's quick. It's simple.There's no reading involved. It's just an easy way to check for understanding and let the teacher know if she can go on or if she has to change tactics on the fly and take a different approach. And that's what formative assessment is all about-changing things up so that all the students get it in the end.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Formative Assessment: When the Cook Tastes the Soup....

Ever have a problem differentiating between the definitions of formative and summative assessments? Well thanks to Debra Dirksen in her article "Hitting the Reset Button: Using Formative Assessments to Guide Instruction," she offers the following image from the work of Robert Stake (Scriven 1991:169):

 "When the cook tastes the soup, that's formative: When the guests taste the soup, that's summative." 

"As the cook, or teacher, we need to stop and taste the soup before we move forward with instruction. We need to design instruction so students can press the reset button and go back to learn what they missed the first time. We can use many techniques to assess student achievement and understanding."

This is a powerful image that clearly delineates between the two concepts and helps to cement them into the mind. It's also reminds us of the power of using metaphors, similes, images and figurative language in our teaching practices.

Formative Assessment: I Know What it is, but How Do I Do it?

Many of us know the theory behind formative assessments, but the burning question may be how do we use them in our every day teaching practices? In her article "Hitting the Reset Button: Using Formative Assessment to Guide Instruction" published in the Phi Delta Kappan (2011) Debra J. Dirksen gives numerous practical applications on how to implement FAs in the classroom. Here's a couple using quick writes:

"We can also use short writing assignments to check for understanding. One example is called "3, 2, 1." Students write three things about concept A, two things about concept B, and one thing that connects concepts A and B. A similar activity is called "Circle, Square, Triangle." After giving a presentation or engaging students in a learning activity, I have students describe three metaphorical ideas by responding to the following questions:

1. What's still going around in your head? In other words, what do you still not quite understand?
2. What's squared away? What do you really understand?
3. And, finally, what three things could you use in your life, work, or studies?

In Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers (1993), Angelo and Cross identified a number of techniques for quick assessments to check for understanding as you conclude a lesson. Many of the assessments identified by Angelo and Cross take advantage of quick-write prompts, where students are given three to five minutes to write anything they want about a question or topic. This can be used to gather formative assessment data. The writing can be purely free writing with no parameters, or you can use probes like these: What was the muddiest point in today's lesson? What was the clearest point today and how could you use what you've learned? I've used these activities and other similar ones to provide quick feedback about the lesson. If this feedback is used to refine instruction, and if it allows students to press the reset button and learn material they missed the first time, it can be a good tool to help formulate future instruction."

The applications above also fit nicely in brain-based learning techniques as they use metacognition, the top of higher order thinking skills where students think about their own learning process and how they learn as well as applying the learning to their own real-life situations. This second piece is huge in light of brain-based research on getting information into long-term memory-- in order for this to take place students must be able to relate it to their own lives or prior knowledge. In other words, since the brain acts more like a sieve than a sponge, any information that is deemed unimportant or unrelatable will be strained out. So maybe students are being truthful when they say they don't remember learning something in class. Hmmmmmm.....

These examples also allow the students the much-needed and often overlooked processing time necessary to make sense of something and help it along the pathway to long-term memory and mastery of the material.

Formative Assessment: The Missing Piece?

In light of today's high-stakes testing atmosphere and the sense that there is so much content to cover that teachers just need to push on and hope the students "get it," many educators may be using formative assessments, but are they using them effectively?. Is there a missing piece? In the report "Understanding How Teachers Engage in Formative Assessment" from the Spring 2010 edition of Teaching and Learning, Sondergeld, Bell and Leusner discuss this and point out the cyclical nature of formative assessments.

"Formative assessment continues to receive increased attention in the field of education as being a cost-effective method of improving student learning (Black & Wiliam, 2007). However, defining formative assessment is problematic since it is often viewed as any use of assessment to support instruction. In fact, when teachers hear about formative assessment for the first time, they often say, "I do that already." We define formative assessment as a process a teacher uses to elicit evidence of student learning that is analyzed and used to adjust instruction to better meet student learning needs. This vision of formative assessment involves more than adding "extra" assessment events to existing teaching and learning. It also requires teachers to use the information they collect to modify instruction. In classrooms where formative assessment is used with the primary function of supporting learning, the divide between instruction and assessment becomes blurred. Thus, formative assessment is an ongoing, cyclical process woven into the life of the classroom (Thompson & Wiliam, 2007).

Formative assessment requires teachers to deliberately elicit evidence of student thinking, make decisions about what to do with that evidence, and then implement appropriate changes in instruction. This is not done every six or nine weeks. It is done every day for the entire school year"

So it may be a good practice to keep checking in with ourselves and ask the question: are we really using our formative assessments to modify instruction and meet the needs of our students, or are we just pushing on to make sure we cover what needs to be done for the summative evaluation at the end of the road? Maybe if we take the time to properly use formative assessments every day, we'll be able to spend less time remediating students who underperform on high-stakes summative assessments.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Is Abstract Art Really Best for Classroom Walls?

Evidently the answer is yes, at least according to this post at Give it a read and let us know what you think.

"We can greatly improve the physical environment of our learning spaces by adding colorful, visually appealing posters, pictures or other graphic images to the walls. Although we are living in a visual age, visual cues have been extremely important for survival for humans throughout the millennia.  In other words, responding to visual stimuli is hard-wired into our brains. A classroom that is visually appealing adds to the comfort level and can help to reduce stress and promote a sense of community.  According to Jensen (2000a), the brain is capable of registering 36,000 visual massages per hour.  Between 80-90% of information that the brain absorbs is visual.   Making use of color is very helpful in getting the brain's attention. Jensen cites a study by Vuontela in 1999 that indicates memory of verbal cues is enhanced by color.
Researchers "speculate that abstract art may be especially potent.  Because of its hidden meanings and atypical shapes and contours, abstract art, like abstract thinking, requires the viewer to 'step out of reality' and make use of more cognitive regions--a process that Rose (1991) calls 'tension and release.' The process calls for the viewer to take in the art as a whole, then visually and mentally dissect it, and finally put it back together to gain meaning.  This stimulates the brain's occipital lobe (which controls vision and spatial and geometric functions), the temporal lobe (non-verbal pattern recognition), and the cerebrum (sensory interpretation, thinking and memory).  Because more brain areas are stimulated and used than in routine observation, the brain gets a heightened mental workout which can enhance perception and learning, states Rose."  (Jensen & Dabney, 2000, p. 79).

If you were wondering what colors were best for classroom walls, the site offers the following thoughts:
"We have long known that color can affect our moods and emotions.  Most people are aroused by the warm colors (red, orange, and yellow), but feel more relaxed with the cooler colors.  In Brain-Based Learning (2000a), Jensen suggests that the optimal classroom colors are yellow, light orange, beige, or off-white, based on a study by Robert Gerard of the University of California done in 1991."

Hmmmmm....I'll have to think more on those colors....

Arts Courses Improve both Verbal and Math SAT Scores. Really?

For some people this statement may be unbelievable, after all can't we improve SAT scores (or any standardized, high-stakes test for that matter) only by drilling students to death? Not so. Those of us who teach through the arts understand the power it can have on student learning and how that learning can be transferred in many ways.

David Sousa in his book How the Brain Learns offers the following:on this topic as he cites the work of Vaughn and Winner from 2000 saying the study of the association between students taking arts courses and their SAT scores is one of the largest of its kind taking several years and involving over 10 million American high school students.

-Students who took arts classes had higher math, verbal and composite SAT scores than students who did not take arts classes.
-The more years of art classes, the higher the SAT scores
-Acting classes had the highest correlation with verbal SAT scores while Acting classes, music history, music theory or appreciation had the strongest relationship with math SAT scores.

Something to think about while trying to get those SAT scores up!

Integrating the Arts into the Core Curriculum and Cognition

Anyone who has been reading this blog for any length of time understands the power of integrating the arts into the core curriculum. After doing it for so many years, it is clear to us that it increases engagement, lifts the emotional climate in the classroom, makes students want to come to class, increases retention and much more. It's no surprise that David A. Sousa in his book How the Brain Learns, discusses how it also increases cognition saying that integrating the arts in the core curriculum "generates conditions that educational researchers and cognitive scientists say are ideal for learning." He goes on to discuss how they "develop essential thinking tools: pattern recognition and development; mental representations of what is observed or imagined; symbolic, allegorical and metaphorical representations; careful observations of the world; and abstraction from complexity" (217).

In our present climate of high-stakes testing, many schools are responding to lower than preferred scores by adding more "drill" and rote work; however, these efforts, although well-intentioned, are misguided at best. What students clearly need is to be educated in various ways that integrate the arts, engage them in the subject matter by hooking it in with previous knowledge or making it important to them in some way, and making that work interesting for them to study. Let's face it, the recent brain research tells us that the brain is more like a sieve than a sponge and will strain out anything it perceives as having little importance, relevance or connection. So if the brain is literally dumping this material out almost as quickly as it is going in, then what is the point? Integrating the arts increases cognition because students are able to see the value of what they are taking in, and the brain is not dumping the material out at such a high rate. Because students are having a good time while learning, their survival needs are taken care of and their emotional levels are satisfied-both blocks to learning if they "kick in" and cause anxiety or fight or flight response, and the way is clear for new learning to take place. And because they tend to "get it" the first time and strengthen their learning through rehearsal, less time is needed for remediation and reteaching. Some things to think about when your school is coming up with strategies to get those test scores up.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Emotionally Safe Classrooms

You may completely understand the importance of creating a safe classroom atmosphere, but if asked by an administrator or other stakeholder to explain, would you be able to put it into a language that they will understand? Let's face it, that language is one of data and research. So it follows that you'll need to have that data and research in your back pocket in order to make others see where you are operating from and convince them that your methods are sound.

I recently picked up The Kinesthetic Classroom: Teaching and Learning through Movement by Traci Lengel and Mike Kuczala (2010), and while I'm still working my way through it, I came across this interesting piece on emotional climate in the classroom and its effects on learning. It considers how the brain prioritizes information:

1. Survival: if this need is not met, the student will not be "in a position to work at optimal levels."

2. Emotional State/Stress: If a student feels stressed or has emotional distress he or she will be unable to learn effectively because the "parts of the brain that use higher-level thinking strategies and critical-thinking skills shut down when an individual's emotional state is compromised" (Souza as quoted in Lengel 9). This is a great piece of information to have at the ready when asked why emotional well-being in a classroom is so important-especially when many teachers are working in an atmosphere where the expectations are simply on cramming information into students' heads in order to pass  high-stakes tests.

3. Receiving Data for New Learning: it's simple and it's clear-if priorities 1 & 2 above are not met, then priority 3 is never going to be satisfied effectively.

Now we can probably agree that this is common sense in some ways, but when you can explain it to others in the way listed above, then you are speaking their "language" and are sure to get your point across.

Being able to put language, based on data and research, to what you are doing is a prime step in getting others-especially stakeholders-to buy into what you are trying to accomplish in your classroom.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Importance of Being a Teacher/Artist

Steve Ross, Jody O'Neil and Keith Caldwell in 'Art'
Keith and I both believe in the importance of being a teacher/artist. This allows the teacher to be grounded in his art on the one hand but remain vital and creative-to break new ground as an artist which will only enhance his teaching-on the other. To that end Keith and I remain committed to working in the theater and were honored to be able to work at the Provincetown Theater on Yasmina Reza's 'Art' in February. I was the director and Keith played the part of Mark. It was an incredible experience to put on a show in the birthplace of modern theater and paid huge dividends in terms of remaining vital in our craft as director and actor and translating that into the classroom. I am also honored to be the sound designer for the upcoming play The Weight of Water by Myra Slotnick and directed by David Drake this Fall. I am excited to be directing the classic comedy Mister Roberts at the Barnstable Comedy Club in March with Keith as a cast member.

Who We Are: Meet Jeffrey Billard

Jeffrey Billard, M.Ed. holds a Master's degree in Creative Arts in Learning from Lesley University and a B.A. in English and Journalism from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He teaches at Northeastern University in Boston and has also taught American Literature & History, writing, poetry, drama, film and television production for twenty-seven years at the high school, primarily at Barnstable High School, and middle school levels. As Assistant Director of the Barnstable High School Drama Club from 1994 to 2001, Jeff was involved in over thirty productions as a director, assistant director, singer, and actor. More recently Jeff directed the original play The Uncle Binky Show and Yasmina Reza's 'Art,' both at the Provincetown Theater. He will also be directing the classic play Mister Roberts at the Barnstable Comedy Club in March, 2012. Jeff also collaborated on writing three chapters for The Stage and the School, a performing arts textbook published by McGraw-Hill.

Owing to his strong belief in being a teacher/artist, Jeff went to Vietnam in 1997 to study at the University of Hue and has written, directed, and performed in his play Voices Across the Wall dealing with issues from the Vietnam War and has written and performed I, Vietnam a one-man theatrical piece as well. In the Spring of 2011 Jeff's play Once on the Tiger's Back was chosen as a winner in the Provincetown Theater's Spring Playwright's Festival. He has also co-authored and performed the play Waiting for Ingivelse with Keith Caldwell and has written a collection of poetry around the Vietnam War entitled Poetry of Conscience and a second called Circle Intact dealing primarily with the war in Iraq as well as PTSD. Jeff has also been a featured poet at the Provincetown Poetry and Literary Arts Festival and was awarded an NEH Fellowship to study at the Summer Teacher Institute-Teaching the Vietnam War at the William Joiner Center for the Study of War and Social Consequences at UMass Boston in 1996. Jeff is also a voice actor who has performed in numerous Audio Dramas including most recently playing Signor Gremio in William Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew.

Jeff  teaches Integrated Teaching Through the Arts, Drama and Poetry Across the Curriculum and Creative Drama with his colleague Keith Caldwell at Northeastern University in Boston. The two have also co-authored a text for use in the course and facilitate teacher training workshops as well. Jeff and Keith also taught an improv course at the Advanced Studies Leadership Program at Massachusetts Maritime Academy in the summer of 2011.

Jeff believes that integrating the arts into education engages and energizes students while allowing them to make connections with prior knowledge and relate it to their own lives. Allowing students to discover their own learning through the arts is a key to engaging them and promoting them to gain their own knowledge. Jeff firmly believes that each student, no matter what their age, has something unique to “add to the conversation” and that integrating the arts is the conduit to making that happen.

Photo credit: Marshall Photography, Diane Marshall photographer

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Who We Are: Meet Keith Caldwell

Keith Caldwell, M. Ed. holds a Masters degree in Creative Arts in Learning from Lesley University and a BA in English from Southeastern Massachusetts University. He currently teaches English Language Arts at Barnstable High School in Hyannis, MA and also teaches in the Graduate School for Professional Studies at Northeastern University. Keith has taught literature, writing, poetry, drama, and oral communication for the past 20 years. At Fontbonne Academy in Milton, MA from 1989-1994, Keith was the director of the drama department, directing and producing 15 plays and musicals. Keith's specialty is the dramatic arts; he wrote and developed the curriculum for the Drama and Theatre Arts course which he teaches at Barnstable High.

He has recently developed and taught a graduate course for teachers with fellow educator Jeffrey Billard on integrated teaching through the arts. The two have also co-authored a textbook for use in their course.

Keith believes that learning through, with, and about the arts inspires the creativity and imagination that is so essential to think critically, love deeply, and to live fully in a diverse and complex world.

Incredible Improv Resource

If you're not using improv as a teaching tool, you should re-think it. It frees up students to feel comfortable in the class and allows for a greater flexibility when doing things that are normally done with students firmly planted in their seats. One example is instead of reviewing a story, chapter, etc by asking questions and waiting for hands to be raised, improv can be used to do the same thing in a more lively, fun and engaging manner. Check out this excellent improv resource at and let the ideas flow. One word of caution, don't just jump into improv but use the many icebreakers, warm-ups and energizers included to get the students used to doing it before adding curricular connections. You won't be sorry.

Does the set-up of the desks in your classroom affect the climate in your room?

Since many people who read this blog are teachers, I wanted to pose this question regarding the set-up of the desks in your classroom and if it sends a message to students. The answer to me is a resounding yes. What do rows (called the graveyard setup by a recent student in one our graduate classes who went on to say and we all know that the graveyard setup is deadly) say about the feel of the classroom as opposed to a horseshoe or even a circle if you're lucky enough to have the room to make one? Somewhere along the line I came across the line that in a circle everyone sits in the front row, and I've always liked it. Keith and I set our classrooms up in a circle and feel that it's very important for us to be sitting in that circle-not standing up over someone in a position of superiority-we want to be part of the fabric of the class not set ourselves apart from it. Just something to think about.

Playback Theater

I first learned about Playback Theater while in an anti-bullying workshop given by Stan Davis and was intrigued from the start. Here is what says about it:

About Playback Theatre

Interactive and spontaneous, playback theatre bases its material on the stories of the community. In theatres, workshops, and a wide range of educational and organizational settings, Playback Theatre draws people together and allows fresh perspectives.

Performances are carried out by a team of actors, emcee (called the conductor), and musician. As the show begins, audience members respond to questions from the conductor, then watch as actors and musician create brief theatre pieces on the spot. Later, volunteers from the audience come to the stage to tell longer stories, choosing actors to play the main roles. Although performances often focus on a theme of interest or concern, the performers follow no narrative agenda, but bring their dramatic skills and their humanity to embodying on the stage the concerns and experiences of audience members.

Playback theatre is practiced in over 50 countries

It sounds like an interesting theater experience, but the best part is the way that it is used. Here is more from the website.

How It’s Used

Playback theatre, based on the stories of audience members enacted on the spot, promotes the right for any voice to be heard, brings group concerns to the surface, and stimulates a dialogue by making different perspectives visible. The method is extremely flexible, since there is no set play, and can adapt to the needs of many kinds of groups and organizations.

Playback theatre is used in schools, private sector organizations, nonprofit organizations,  prisons, hospice centres, day treatment centres, at conferences of all kinds, and colleges and universities.

Playback theatre has also been used in the following fields: transitional justice, human rights, refugees and immigrants, disaster recovery,  climate change, birthdays and weddings, and conferences.

For information on a specific application, contact the Centre  for Playback Theatre, or a playback theatre company near you.

The one sentence "promotes the right for any voice to be heard," sticks with me and really makes me want to learn more about this incredible sounding experience called Playback Theater.