“The greater the duration of time in the chair, the greater the depth of student despair.”
Teachers always need to be courageous, but never more so than in these days of transition and conflict in education. Many of us feel that our students are being victimized by a pressurized system that squashes their natural love of learning and mutes their capacity to find their voices. What I suggest — and have been exploring with teachers and students for nearly three decades — is that STANDING UP, literally, can be a first step toward restoring vitality to classrooms.
As an artist-in-residence, working in collaboration with classroom teachers, I specialize in kinesthetic teaching, the use of creative movement in the classroom to teach across the curriculum. My techniques release students from a passive learning posture — glued to their seats, with decreased oxygen in their brains — and engage them physically with what they are learning. Simply by getting students out of their seats, we begin to break the mold of I-don’t-really-want-to-be-here education. By asking students to respond to material nonverbally and experience the curriculum through their bodies, we encourage new levels of self-discovery and self-expression.
Movement and the Brain
According to researcher and Harvard Medical School professor Dr. John Ratey (2008, p. 10), physical exercise "provides an unparalleled stimulus, creating an environment in which the brain is ready, willing, and able to learn." Exercise stimulates the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain that affects our ability to learn (Ratey; Jensen). Recent research about standardized testing at a school near Chicago linked increases in learning to how closely scheduled reading or math classes were to a rigorous morning exercise program; students who had no exercise program scored the lowest (Viadero, 2008). By bringing such exercise into the classroom and connecting it directly to the content of the curriculum, we can increase the success rate of our students.
Imagine a student sitting at a desk and listening to a teacher expound on a topic with a certain amount of dialogue, questions, and answers. Think about how much brain activity is being generated by this classic teaching scenario. Now imagine that student problem solving with classmates to construct an interpretation of the same material through whole body shapes, or to enact a journey through a moment in history, or to portray in dance a cycle in nature. Think about how many emotional, expressive, spatial, interpersonal, and kinesthetic connections are now linked to that topic. This kind of experiential learning in a rich contextual environment connects memory to time, place, and feelings (“episodic encoding”). Students are activating and integrating physical, emotional, and cognitive responses to the curriculum.
The Crucial Role of Play in Learning
Before computers or even books existed, children learned mostly through movement. They watched and imitated, explored and experimented, played games that sharpened their social and physical skills, and role-played what they saw adults doing. Somewhere along the line, however, play was separated from the process of learning in our culture — as if play weren’t challenging, instructional, and important for brain development.
Today, physical play is being supplanted in many childhoods by electronic screens and keyboards, and physical movement is disappearing even in kindergarten. Kinesthetic teaching, especially when it involves the whole body, restores elements of imaginative and interpretive play, and thereby mixes education with healthy doses of pleasure, joy, social connection, and enthusiasm — with no loss of “seriousness” or academic achievement.
To the contrary: Javier, a second-grader with whom I recently worked, could decode words on grade level, but his reading fluency was way behind. He read every word with the same slow, monotone voice. With nothing else working, his reading teacher asked if, as artist-in-residence, I could come up with a kinesthetic strategy for him. First, we associated new vocabulary words with full-body gestures (within our "magic circle” of string lights on the floor): I would hold up a new word, and Javier would read it aloud and create a gesture to show its meaning. After we did this for several words, I would read a page or two from the text, with Javier following along. Whenever we came to one of the new vocabulary words, he would read it aloud and gesture it. I would then reread the passage while Javier acted out its meaning with action and emotion, with colored scarves serving as his props. Finally, Javier would read the passage aloud by himself.
Each week, with us and back in his classroom, Javier read more smoothly, quickly, and expressively. His fluency kept increasing, with both familiar and new texts. According to his reading teacher, the experience of expressing the text through his body made all the difference!
Success for All
Teachers tell me about students who do not speak up in class and rarely raise their hands. These same teachers are amazed to see their shy, quiet students come alive with expression during our creative movement lessons. With everyone moving simultaneously, shy students feel less vulnerable than when they are the only voice speaking in front of an entire class. Creative movement enables them to express nuanced thoughts and feelings that may be difficult for them to put into words. They often find those missing words, after an experience of creative movement has given them the confidence to know what they want to say. One teacher from Hudson, NY described the phenomenon this way:
"In my last two first-grade classes, I have had two little boys who never raise their hand in class, who keep to themselves, who are very shy, but who turn into sunflowers when they enter the dance room. They smile, stay glued to the story, and interpret the character's feelings and actions with grace and creativity. They even volunteer to verbally respond to questions about the story. I think it is because they feel so grounded in their physical experience of listening through their bodies that they have a new confidence.”
Then there are students who can barely contain their physical energy, who are always out of their seats and find it hard to concentrate. Kinesthetic teaching helps them transform their “disruptive energy” into focused creative movement. It’s quite common for teachers to tell me that the very students whom they fear will be "bouncing off the walls" have not only engaged and found their focus with kinesthetic lessons, but show increased concentration and attention span when back in their seats.
Building a Learning Community through Movement
When students are moving together, they feel the energy and support of the group, and a sense of community is built. Those who are challenged by certain vocabulary or academic concepts are able to watch and learn from the actions of other students, so rather than being discouraged, easily distracted, or altogether lost, these children remain engaged with the lesson. In one instance, a teacher arrived in my movement room with three non-English-speaking children. She apologized for not having warned me in advance, and was worried that the children would have a difficult time. Rather than feeling lost, however, these children finally had new clues to give them information! They watched and imitated the motions of their classmates — and for the first time in their teacher’s experience, smiles came over their faces as they skipped and galloped in a circle. Acting out a story through movement gave them clues to the actions and feelings of the characters, helping to lay the groundwork for language acquisition.
When students work together creatively on a more complex level — constructing a tableau (a group body sculpture or frozen scene) or a piece of choreography, for example — they are acquiring many skills they will need to be successful adults. They are learning about communication and teamwork, active citizenship, leading and following, taking risks, being accountable, and giving and receiving affirmation. They are learning about their individual responsibility for a successful group effort, and the role the group must play in supporting the needs of individuals. This type of experience also helps to build a genuine learning community, as students become invested in the process and the product. Fundamentally, people who create and perform together simply feel a stronger bond than individuals who sit in separate seats facing a teacher.
“Show Me” Instead of “Tell Me”
In a traditional classroom, when a teacher asks a question, "Who can tell me . . .?" usually four or five hands go up. The teacher will call on one student, then perhaps on another few to see if their answers agree with the first — but the teacher will have no way of knowing what is going on in the heads of the other 20 students, many of whom may not even be thinking about the question.
The kinesthetic teacher has a different approach: "Show me…." Twenty-five students are then called upon to respond physically to the question: Show me what comes first, the comma or the closed quotation mark; show me if this is a series or parallel circuit; show me an animal that lives in the rainforest; show me how the character feels. Immediately, all of the students respond. They are all asked to make a commitment to an answer. They are all engaged in the process of their learning, and their learning is made visible. Sometimes a shape or movement is all that is needed. Other times, a word or phrase may be added to the physical response. Again, much as your hands move in the air when you're searching for a word, the physicalization helps the verbalization.
Movement-based lessons can also offer insight into students’ thinking — as when one of my classes was asked to infer and show how a character felt at the end of Gerald McDermott's Arrow to the Sun. Roberto made a shape that was rigid and tense, accompanied by the word "distrustful," while most of the other students looked joyful and proud. When I asked him about his response, he explained that the character felt uneasy about the celebratory welcome he had received from the village upon his return, since they had shunned him before his journey. This revealed an insightful thought from a seven-year-old, which surprised his teacher, since Roberto, she said, rarely raised his hand in class.
When the assignment is “Show me,” many levels of feedback become available to both teacher and students. First, the teacher is instantly aware of her/his own clarity and effectiveness: If you expect to see certain responses and instead see confusion, nonsensical, or incorrect responses, you know right away that you have to do some explaining. Second, the teacher can give immediate feedback to students.
There is a third benefit when students respond kinesthetically: they get immediate feedback by observing their peers. From one perspective, this might be called cheating, but within a community of learners, it is an acceptable, even honorable way of being oriented and helped. Rather than having a correction/explanation come from someone higher on the hierarchy (the teacher), a student is given the opportunity to learn from other classmates, the way scientists and artists learn from their peers as they are working on a project. This is a democratization of learning: students get to think about their response in comparison with others’ and to decide whether or not to change it.
There is great social value in encouraging students to respond physically to a question. It encourages children to make a commitment to an answer and not leave it "to the other guy." Students have to think about what they are going to do, and literally take a stand. If they want to change their answer, they don't have to erase anything — they just change their pose. Rather than calling attention to the "mis-take," the focus is on the "re-take," which lessens the fear of failure that is so prevalent among students today.
Kinesthetic teaching holds students accountable for being involved in their own education. They become active participants in this process, and a visible part of a learning community. They are all asked to have an opinion, and they are all learning how to express themselves publicly.
Movement can also make a profound difference in helping students grasp non-narrative learning. Something as technical as punctuation, for example, begins to make much greater sense when students create movements, body shapes, and sounds to represent three attributes of each punctuation mark: what it means, what it looks like (design), and where it is written in relation to the line of writing (low, middle or high). When students think of an upper-case letter as something that calls attention to the beginning of a sentence or the importance of a proper noun, they can create a large "Ta Da!" shape. When they think of the pause demanded by the comma, they can sink low and curve their bodies as they sigh. A period should have a low movement that represents "stop," while an exclamation mark will probably include a jump. Quotation marks should indicate something about words being said, which often looks like raised hands opening and closing like talking heads saying "blah blah blah."
Students will enjoy physically punctuating a nonpunctuated sentence that is written on the board. Not only is this fun, it allows students to think about the actual meaning of the punctuation mark and to express that meaning in relation to the sentence. Of course, this lesson, should be completed with actual pen-to-paper transference, but it makes a significant difference in students' understanding and use of punctuation to engage with the marks physically. After I taught this lesson to a fourth-grade class, their teacher told me that certain students were now using punctuation in their journals for the first time (and correctly). These were the kinesthetic learners.
The same can be achieved with concepts from other subjects. By physically enacting scientific processes — chemical bonding, mitosis, how sound waves travel, how axons carry messages to the brain — students gain a deeper, less abstract understanding of the technical words and diagrams they are asked to memorize. Students can create group movements or tableaux to better understand the balance of powers in the Constitution, or show the difference between democracy, oligarchy, and monarchy. In math, young students can act out addition and subtraction, and older ones can show rotation and reflection (graphs), to clarify and reinforce the meanings of these terms.
Movement as a Fundamental Teaching Tool
Unfortunately, for some educational decision makers, the fact that kinesthetic lessons are more fun and engaging than sitting at a desk for hours at a time somehow adds to the impression that creative movement is not a vital part of a “serious” learning environment. In actuality, kinesthetic learning can be challenging to students on many levels. A choreographic interpretation of a poem or story demands that students plumb a text deeply; a short dance showing a scientific process requires research and understanding; the creation of a movement timeline about an historical event requires students to wrestle with cause and effect and the countervailing forces of history. As neurophysiologist Carla Hannaford (1995) says in her book, Smart Moves: Why Learning is Not All in Your Head, "Movement anchors thought." Movement in the classroom is not a form of “recess” or relief from “serious” learning — it is a tool of serious learning that awakens and engages students and helps to inspire their teachers.
Movement-based lessons do, however, offer flexible rather than standardized levels of challenge, which enables teachers to accommodate a wide range of students and to differentiate instruction within the same lesson. Each student can work on her/his own level, and everyone can achieve success. When a first-grade inclusion class presented my movement lesson on the properties of water for their board of education, no one watching could tell which ones were the children with special needs. All of the children were grounded in their understanding of the material, because they learned it through their bodies. They were able to show, through movement, how a water bubble implodes, why soap bubbles last longer, and why a pin can float on water. Needless to say, the board was impressed!
By teaching through the universal language of movement, we can offer a chance for real success to children who may be caught in a spiral of academic failure. At the very least, kinesthetic teaching may be throwing a lifeline to kinesthetic learners, who often can’t sit still and are seen as disruptive or afflicted with ADD. In many cases, allowing these students to shine and become leaders can strengthen the learning community of the whole class.
Professor Priscilla Harmel of Lesley University argues that with "all the research and documentation of the critical and effective use of kinesthetic learning in the curriculum, it is imperative that we change the paradigm of how this essential learning strategy is viewed" (personal correspondence, 2012). In fact, kinesthetic teaching should be a fundamental part of teacher-training, and its varied techniques should be incorporated in the teaching toolbox, particularly at the elementary school level. In today’s stressful educational climate, teachers who embrace kinesthetic teaching often find their own creativity stirred anew, and deepen their own appreciation of subject matter as they look for those aspects of a topic that lend themselves to movement-based lessons. Teachers need not be dancers or even comfortable with their bodies to have such insights and to use kinesthetic techniques effectively. They need only take a risk by asking their students to STAND UP.
Susan Griss, author of Minds in Motion: A Kinesthetic Approach to Teaching Elementary Curriculum (Heinemann) teaches courses for teachers at Lesley University and Bank Street College of Education. She has worked with students and teachers in schools for over 25 years.
Carla Hannaford, Smart Moves: Why learning is not all in your head, (Arlington, VA: Great Ocean Publishers, 1995).
Eric Jensen, Learning with the body in mind, (San Diego, CA: The Brain Store, Inc., 2000)
John Ratey, Spark: The revolutionary new science of exercise and the brain, (New York: Little Brown and Company, 2008).
Debra Viadero, “Exercise Seen as Priming Pump for Students’ Academic