EduSpeak: Nonlinguistic Processing

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Students choreograph their concepts of the immune system into a dance study.

Robert Marzano, the “Art and Science of Teaching” education guru, has a short article hidden in the back of the May, 2010 issue of Educational Leadership, the ASCD monthly journal. The title of the article is, “Representing Knowledge Nonlinguistically,” and the main thrust of the piece is that this type of processing “can have a positive effect on student achievement and provide diversity in the way that students process new information.”

He goes on to list “Five Points to Keep in Mind:”

  1. Nonlinguistic representations come in many forms.
  2. Nonlinguistic representations must identify crucial information.
  3. Students should explain their nonlinguistic interpretations.
  4. Nonlinguistic representations can take a lot of time.
  5. Students should revise their representations when necessary.

As my fellow teaching artists might say at this point, “Duh!” This is how arts integration works, all the time. Hellooooo?!?

Boiled down, “nonlinguistic representations,” as Marzano uses the term, means creating some vehicle other than written text to contain and express knowledge. His examples are “graphic organizers, sketches, pictographs…, concept maps, dramatizations, flow charts, and computerized simulations, to name a few.” Why he doesn’t name dances, paintings, scripts, and musical compositions is a mystery. It would have helped lead him to the central idea he seems to be missing: it is the creative process, resulting in some sort of creative product, that allows students to order and make sense of their learning and to communicate their understanding to others.

Marzano, as perceptive and influential as he may be, is wearing the same blinders that most educators must put on in today’s climate of focus on “student achievement” (read: test scores). He cites one of his own studies to show a 17 percentile-point gain in test scores for students whose teachers use “nonlinguistic strategies” over those whose teachers rely on more “traditional” methods. This in itself is an impressive bit of evidence that current accepted, “traditional” teaching strategies miss the boat more often than not.

But this discussion will continue to be relegated to the back pages of professional journals until we start thinking of teaching and learning in new ways. That entire issue of Educational Leadership is devoted to a discussion of “The Key to Changing the Teaching Profession.” The journal looks at teacher preparation (college-level education curricula), merit pay, and other suggestions for supporting good teaching while rooting out ineffective or counterproductive practice.

However, the measures for evaluation of teacher effectiveness continue to revolve around “student achievement,” which means that we are focusing on once-a-year test scores to make judgments about a year-long process of teaching and learning. It is wrong and harmful to reward or punish teachers for something that is fundamentally out of their control, and it distracts us from instituting new and meaningful ways of evaluating teacher success.

The main difficulty is our American longing for the quick and the easy. We’d love to have some kind of national yardstick that we could apply to any school and any classroom to see how “good” they are. But, just as with assessing student understanding, there is no such fair and accurate system of measurement. Evaluating teacher effectiveness requires actual humans in the actual classrooms, using checklists and rubrics to assess the teaching and learning environment. Those same humans also have to look at the methods the teacher is using to assess student learning, and they need to compare and contrast the achievements of the teacher’s current students with those of past years, to look for patterns that will indicate the strengths and weaknesses of the individual teacher.

Typically, this is the domain of the building principal, who is charged with the responsibility of evaluating staff on an ongoing and annual basis. Collecting standardized information about teaching practice from principals, we can then employ our critical thinking skills to evaluate schools, districts, and larger systems based on a wider and deeper set of information.

This, of course, means we would have to abolish the current system of “grading” schools based on their once-a-year high-stakes test scores. We have already seen how that system punishes success by applying a “one size fits none” standard to individual schools without regard for context, parent and student satisfaction, and a host of other relevant but ignored information.

Marzano does arts integration and the field of education a disservice when he says, “Nonlinguistic representations are one of many powerful techniques available to classroom teachers,” effectively burying this incredibly important strategy among the myriad teaching and learning strategies jostling for overburdened teachers’ attention. You’d think that any strategy that brought a 17 percent gain in test scores would earn more attention, especially from someone so well-respected in the field.

When you add in the power of aesthetic choices and the response to and discussion of artistic products that demonstrate student understanding, the real question becomes, “Why is it taking so long for educators to see what is right in front of their eyes?”

A Quiet Month…

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Well, not really. That is, I’ve been quiet in the blogosphere but life has been anything but. A flurry of summer teacher institutes and, now, a summer kids’ camp on “The Art of Physics” has occupied me more than fully, but it’s also gifted me with a wealth of new experiences to challenge my thinking.

Here are a few of the thoughts, not yet fully developed, that have flitted across my screens while I’ve been doing my Randy Appleseed thang:


At the outset of this week’s 2-day institute experience with teachers, I led my usual “Human Bar Graph” activity to learn more about the attendees. The last question in the sequence is, “What is your level of comfort as a dance or creative movement participant?” The context for the question is that there are only trained and untrained dancers, and that we are all capable of moving expressively.

The four choices (these are multiple choice questions that sort the teachers into visible groups as they form the “bars” on the bar graph), are:

  • Put Me On Stage!
  • I Enjoy Moving Expressively
  • Nervous, But Willing to Try
  • {closeup of the face from Munch’s “The Scream”} – Terrified!

There was only one teacher in the “Terrified” line, so I went to visit with her as the others talked in their lines about why they had chosen that response. She was tiny and alert and eager to explain. It turned out that she is a teacher of Chinese in a local high school (and is obviously, from her appearance and accent, of Asian origin), and that she had tried to use some creative movement in a class at the request of her students. Some of her high-school-age teens, being rude and callous as only they can be, laughed at and made fun of her for her attempt, and she vowed never to expose her inner self in that way again.

Over the course of the two days, I watched as this extraordinary soul not only ventured back outside her comfort zone, but became an enthusiastic cheerleader for all the teachers to do likewise. Her post-activity reflections consistently showed that she was growing in confidence and in her understanding of how untrained dancers can still lead effective and valuable creative dance lessons in their own classrooms. And by the end of Day 2, she was ready to change her response in the bar graph to “Enjoy.” I teased her that she was really ready to move into the “Put Me on Stage” line, and even though she demurred, I could see an eye-gleam that hinted she might like that idea.

That kind of willingness to put the whole self, psychically almost naked, so far out of the comfort zone, is incredibly admirable. I see many teachers willing to follow that lead, if they can only be reassured that they have support and resources to help them. To me, that is the definition of courage.


Here in “heaven” (Iowa), the teachers at this summer science and arts camp for kids have done an incredible job, in just three days, of igniting the children’s innate curiosity and passion for play in the pursuit of science learning. These children are not only able to describe what they’ve been doing in their classroom and field work sessions, but to explain why and to invent complications and variations on the themes. When I came in, mid-stream, to introduce the kinesthetic / creative dance component, they were already jamming on bubbles, ramps, and simple machines. I can’t wait to see what the older kids know about hydraulics as a result of their behind-the scenes trip to a water park.

2nd and 3rd graders showing force in motion

The almost tender, obviously caring relationship that the teachers have established with these kids in such a short time has to come from the deep and abiding love shown by these extraordinary adults for their young charges. I see lots of affectionate attitudes between teachers and students in my travels, but this genuine, heartfelt connection between a group of white women (I’m one of two male teachers for the camp) and a group of mixed-age, mixed-race, mixed-socioeconomic-status children is extraordinary. I can’t wait to see what the rest of the week brings.

Factory Education’s Toxic Leavings

The behavioristic, cynical, and impersonal approach championed by the proponents of “traditional” (read: factory) teaching and learning has taken hold deeply in our culture. It is as hard to root out as the kudzu that chokes Southeastern US landscapes or the Asian beetles that are eating all our ladybugs or the tamarisk trees that suck the scarce water from the ground in the Southwest, leaving none for indigenous species. And it takes a daily, or hourly, toll on every child enrolled in public education.

In schools where there are teachers willing to band together and work beyond contracted times in order to incorporate constructivist or arts-integrated methods of teaching, there are still principals and other administrators and old-guard teachers who are determined to maintain “the basics” at the expense of proven, effective strategies. Yet again this week I have heard about schools that have decided to eliminate science, social studies, and recess, in favor of having students spend yet more time seated in rows,  silently and solitarily attempting to memorize facts divorced from their context or meaning. I have already described this as a model for the classic definition of insanity: repeating past behavior in the vain hope of getting different results.

The truths about arts integration’s ability to create conditions that are ideal for learning are spreading like wildfires through the education infrastructure. With any luck, soon the stodgy, blindered old guard will find themselves on the outside looking in at incomprehensible (to them) teaching and learning environments that feed, satisfy, and challenge the whole person in each child. In this vision, these obstructionists would become so marginalized that they no longer have any negative influence on the ability of teachers to use whatever teaching approaches work best for their students.

Of course, this would mean also taking major decisions about the course of public education away from know-nothing state and federal legislators and returning them to the state and local districts where they are most properly made. We need to stop rewarding idiotic legislative attempts to codify what “achievement” means for 50 diverse states, and to reward instead the teachers who are willing to make the leap into effective practice.

The road is long, bumpy, and badly lit. But more and more educators are setting out along it. And with luck, they are bringing snacks and flashlights!

Where’s the Joy?

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Teachers have big hearts

There is little doubt that American public school teachers are, as a whole, underpaid, under-appreciated, over-stressed, and above all prevented from using their own good judgment in the pursuit of effective teaching and learning. They persevere through a stubborn refusal to give up that I believe in most cases is born of a true passion for helping children.

But sometimes I wonder if teachers, as a group, really hold themselves to the standard of being lifelong learners. We are all, teachers included, products of a system that declares us to be “done” with varying “degrees” of doneness after we pop out of the factory school oven. So I suppose a certain amount of resting on one’s laurels goes with the territory. But, when I recently heard some teachers  complain of having to use their planning time to “babysit” a class because their “specials” teacher was out, I started to get a little worked up.

For those of you who don’t speak public educationese, “planning time” is usually a teacher’s only break during a long and jam-packed day at school. Nominally, the teacher is to use that time to tend to assessing students and to prepare lessons, and many do use it for that purpose. Human nature being what it is, however, this also tends to be a time to return voice mails, set up appointments, update the Facebook page…

Where are the students while this is going on? Why, with another teacher, often a “specials” teacher in art, music, physical education, or media skills (library and computers). When a regular classroom teacher is absent due to illness or personal leave, someone from the school’s list of substitute teachers usually fills in, with the cost taken from the substitute teaching budget. When a “specials” teacher is gone, there is usually no qualified substitute to take their place, so the classroom teacher must keep the students during that period.

If you sat in on lunchroom gab sessions and staff meetings during the year, you would think the single biggest obstacle standing in the way of greater student achievement was the lack of time during the day to “cover” all the material. The early spring deadline to administer the state’s standardized tests looms large even as school begins in late summer.

The Almighty Standardiized Test

Once testing is over for the year, though, everyone seems to shift into “coasting” gear. Suddenly, having an extra 40 or so minutes with the students seems like a chore. And so you hear talk about “babysitting” classes. As if any serious attempt at discovery or invention is now over for the year. This “rebound” from the testing is almost worse than the frantic attempts to prepare for the tests in the first place.

The true teaching professionals, the ones who treat every day and every moment as a precious and potentially joyful learning opportunity, never take part in that talk. They quietly go about the business of teaching and learning without engaging in workroom sniping at their less rigorous colleagues. They spend hours of time at home doing the planning for the next day, turning out assessment reports, and thinking about how to reach each and every student in their classrooms.

Some teachers, though, treat the profession like the factory “job” that politicians have tried to make it be, and when the day is over they punch out without another thought, until they punch back in the following day.

Testing is Fun.

So it seems to me that when I hear teachers complain of being “burned out,” they need to think long and hard about which causes of burnout are generated by the school environment, and which are their personal and professional responsibility.

One responsibility that teachers have is to, in Stephen Covey’s terms, “sharpen the saw.” They need to seek refreshment and renewal outside the school. If they are so consumed by public education and the needs of their students that they don’t take time for literal recreation, then they are ultimately doing themselves and those same students a disservice. Teachers need to be whole people, both for their own sake as well as to model that for children. But on the other hand, if teaching is just an interruption in their lives, then maybe for those folks another job would be just as lucrative and a lot less damaging to children.

Another personal responsibility that those who would be teachers have is to seek out the very best teachers of all kinds, and to learn from them. That means not being content with talking-head “professional development” sessions put on by their schools and districts. It means reading widely among current educational thinkers, attending professional conferences in distant cities, and joining online groups that can help stimulate and support professional growth.

Success breeds confidence, which breeds wider success. That is true for children, and it is equally true for adults. We are all learners who want to do well, but those of us who treat “failure” as simply a step toward eventual success find much more pleasure in the act of learning than those who have been taught to feel shame, fear, and anger in our traditional, factory education schools.

Team thinking

One hallmark of using creative dance in the classroom is that anyone stepping into the room can sense that this is a risk-taking learning environment. That can only happen with a teacher who models that behavior and who helps create a culture in which children feel safe enough to take risks.

Children who are creating something that has meaning and value to them, and who can each contribute according to her or his own talents, skills, and preferences, are engaged and happy children. And a classroom of children who are all pulling in the same direction, pooling and amplifying their abilities as a team, is one of the most joyful places to be on the planet.

Who could be burned out in such a place? So, c’mon, teachers, step back into your rightful place at the center of the discussion about how we approach teaching and learning at the most basic level: one child at a time, in caring and stimulating learning communities called classrooms. Take a chance on allowing students to create their own learning opportunities, stop worrying about how they will do on meaningless tests, and start having fun.

Or, just do more of what hasn’t worked yet in all these years. Your choice.

Safety and Risk

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Earlier this week, in Washington, DC, I had the privilege of teaching one of my dance integration workshops (Scientific Thought in Motion) at the Kennedy Center. The audience was a mixed group of arts and education administrators, classroom teachers, teaching artists, and Kennedy Center Education Department staff. It was the largest group (65) of adults I had ever tried to guide through a 3-hour workshop, but the challenge turned into a wonderful opportunity to experience the power and flexibility of classroom choreography.

One of the gratifying compliments I received in the debriefing the morning afterward was how safe everyone felt when it came to not only creating but sharing their dance products in such a diverse and large group. I hear that in one form or another a lot, and it not only makes me feel good, it lets me know that my central approach to teaching works with every audience. Simply put, my attitude is, “Anyone can do this, and have fun doing it.” After all, we all are dancers, we just tend to forget that.

Teachers, students, and just about everyone else usually enter my workshops with varying degrees of trepidation. They know they will be engaged in something relating to dance but they are not sure exactly what, and they are understandably anxious. After all, how many of the 300-plus million US citizens know anything more about dance than what they see on television, or at their daughter’s dance recital? American culture only values dance as a spectator sport, roughly equivalent to figure skating or gymnastics in its importance in the daily life of the average Josephine or Harry. Women, I think, value dance more highly than men, to baldly generalize, but not to the point of demanding its inclusion in education.

But I digress.

The point of this post is that in my approach to teaching, we intentionally do things that move us outside our comfort zones, into what some psychologists have called the “performance zone.” Robert Yerkes, an American clinical psychologist, reported (1907) finding that, ” Anxiety improves performance until a certain optimum level of arousal has been reached. Beyond that point, performance deteriorates as higher levels of anxiety are attained.” (1) We can call that third area the “danger zone.” That’s where our involuntary nervous system kicks us into “fight or flight” mode and all possibility of learning is shut down.So my job as facilitator is to encourage the learner to stretch outside the comfort zone into the performance zone, while staying well away from the danger zone. I try to create a non-judgmental space in which invention and discovery are the goals, and respect for each other’s risk-taking is the norm. And of course, at the outset, I take a risk myself by demonstrating a dance that I do not explain in advance, and that looks very different from what most of them have ever seen as dance. I also take a risk every time I set a group into motion, because I have to be present for that particular group and not just following a rote sequence. That means I never know for sure exactly what will happen. But I make it a playful experience for all of us, because play is an important way we all learn.

During guided practice, all of my feedback, if participants are making a sincere effort, is positive, ongoing, and focused on what I am seeing that connects to both dance and the integrated subject matter. “I like the way you are using different levels and moving in curving pathways to show me liquid water.” “Great job not using your voices to make sound effects.” “Beautiful melting energy as you go from solid to liquid.” “I love how you are making your movements so quick but so light as water vapor.”

When we watch each others’ dances, either in two large groups for the guided practice experiences, or the initial drafts from our small group choreography process, we make positive comments and ask respectful questions. Every single person has had to grapple with inventing movement to mean something important about their learning, and everyone has had to work as part of a team to achieve something that no one of them could do alone. So as audiences, these learners are sympathetic to their peers, while remaining able to think critically about each of the dances, based on our rubrics for dance content, subject matter content, and focus in performance.

What this means is that students who work in this way, as well as the teacher / facilitator, all experience success at every step of the way. One success leads to the next challenge, which everyone successfully meets, and so on. In an astonishingly short period of time, this chain of success invites students to craft and polish their products into the best possible vessels for the meaning they have put into them. They begin to invite questions and critique, because the focus has shifted from them to their work, and the freedom from fear that that provides is priceless.

What happens next is that our comfort zones get larger. Now we are more confident about moving freely with and in front of others, and that lets us expand into a new learning zone, setting ourselves new challenges. We know from experience that “failure” just means something didn’t go as expected. But unless we didn’t get any information from the experience, it’s only a step toward eventual success and nothing to get upset about. And we certainly don’t point fingers at one another with derision, because we know our own efforts are equally chancy but ultimately rewarding.

To move outside our comfort zones as teachers, we have to make success about the children, not about any external measure of their achievement, and not about any need we have to remain the Fount of All Knowledge. To “educate” means, from the Latin, to “lead out,” to elicit from each child her or his talents and abilities. That in turn means meeting each child where she or he is and creating a safe environment for all children to stretch, learn, and grow into our birthright: healthy, playful, productive, and happy adulthood.

(1) Yerkes, R & Dodson, J. – “The Dancing Mouse, A Study in Animal Behavior” 1907 “Journal of Comparative Neurology & Psychology”, Number 18

Update: I just read up a bit more on Mr. Yerkes, and it seems he was a bit of a racist. I think his quote still makes sense, though, so I hope you will pardon my introducing him.

Mind Good, Body Bad

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[manuscript excerpt]

Back in the Renaissance, some pretty smart people did some pretty deep thinking, and mostly we have a lot to thank them for. Of course, they based their theories on Greek philosophy, which didn’t always lead them in productive directions. For instance, Plato was convinced that the body was a  material, experiential, and eventually disposable thing, while the mind (or “soul”) was incorporeal, of the “shadow realm.”

By the time of the Renaissance, this had already taken root in such practices as the “mortification of the flesh” in the Catholic Church, leading to such extremes as self-flagellation and other self-mutilation in an effort to purge the soul of sin by debasing the body. Philosophers took this line of thought into sublime flights of fancy, and while those thought experiments contributed some new ideas, for the most part they simply justified or rationalized much older ways of thinking.  In particular, we can thank ol’ René Descartes for such gems as, “I think, therefore I am.” Whatever that really means.

René Descartes drew his theory of mind vs. body

One thing it meant to René that our minds (what we think with) are separate  from our bodies (where we house the thinking bits). Of course, this was not a new idea, really, inasmuch as the Church had been on for centuries about immortal “souls” that were separate from the body. This seemed to dovetail nicely with doctrine (not a good idea to ignore dogma; look at poor Copernicus and Signore Galileo), and Descartes was not excommunicated.

The problem is, this pernicious view of two things that are so inextricably linked that they are probably not two things at all [citation, if such exists] has colored our entire Western society’s way of looking at, and thinking about, the human body.

The religious, or “moral,” part goes like this: My, isn’t that a gorgeous human being. In fact, being as he’s a boy and I’m a girl, his appeal goes beyond the aesthetic. I’d like to mate with him. Those movements he is doing in those tights make me uncontrollably mad with lust. I must become impregnated by him even without benefit of matrimony. Ow! Ma! Stop pulling my hair, Ma! I’m coming home, Jeez!

Okay, maybe not quite like that, but close. The main message is the body is a vehicle of sin, and we should cover it up and ignore it as much as possible, or trouble will result.

Now, my purpose is not to debate theology here. It’s a simple matter of perspective. Is raising your hand to answer a question (or ask one) a sin? The kind of movement that kids do when engaged in constructive dance is not sexual or vulgar in any way. It is purposeful movement that the students design to contain and to communicate information about important concepts they are learning.

So we have two misconceptions to dispel: That dance is “dirty” (we miss you, Patrick Swayze), and that we can train the mind while keeping the body immobile. The evidence of student achievement and understanding, without any hint of carnality, should convince even the most ardent zealot that this kind of dance is not about sex in the way that social dance is.

And the flood, the tsunami of recent research on the interaction of human movement and human cognition must melt even the iciest anti-dance heart because it not only suggests but SHOUTS that to keep a human immobile is to disable that person in the worst and most damaging way.

If, as we are hearing from neurobiologists, the main mission of the brain is to put the body into motion, then we run the risk of almost literally short-circuiting children’s brains when we refuse to engage them in purposeful, attentive movement experiences as part of their learning every day. The brain sends the body into motion, and the act of moving provides feedback and stimulation for the brain, whose capacity to learn is thereby increased, and the cycle begins again, deeper and wider.

You know those kids who are always tipping back in their chairs in the classroom? They need the vestibular system stimulation that comes with full-body movement. The children who are tapping their feet, busy with their hands all the time? They need kinesthetic and tactile stimulation to generate new neural pathways.

For too long the unspoken model has been that the bodies of children are just vessels to carry around their brains. But if it is true that humans are built to run 20 miles [citation], to outlast and outwit their larger and faster prey by staying on their feet and on the move all day, then to keep children indoors and sitting down all day is to frustrate a genetically programmed need to move.

Humans have always learned by doing. Interacting with a wide variety of environments (accent on the acting part) has stimulated great creativity and adaptability in the human species. Now, just when we need those traits the most, when we are facing some of the toughest problems humanity has ever encountered, we are handicapping ourselves and our children by clinging to methods that do not work.

Author Rae Pica says, “It is a huge mistake to think the mind and body are separate entities.  The truth is that the domains of child development – physical, social, emotional, and cognitive – simply do not mature separately from one another.”(

But this false dichotomy has already cost us dearly, in society and in education. Dance, as a possibly sexual and profane activity, has been marginalized to the point where most Americans simply do not engage in it, and very few know anything more about it than what they can see on television. And our school buildings have been constructed without any provision for dance, and with scant allocation of space for physical activity at all. Now that “drill and kill” test-taking strategies have swallowed the curriculum whole, even those spaces that schools did have available are being converted to “reading” rooms and places to store all the textbooks and materials that companies are selling to schools to help with test scores.

Business leaders must join with parents, teachers, students, and community advocates to send a different message to those pulling the levers, from legislators to superintendents: Movement is essential to learning, and creative movement and classroom choreography are the most powerful methods we know for integrating learning and the whole person. Make space and time for them, and we can transform the world.


Making Choices is the Key

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What frustrates me about much of what I read about integrating movement / dance into the curriculum is that many practitioners fail to grasp or convey an essential understanding: in order for students to gain understanding (a higher order of thinking than simple knowledge of facts), they must be the ones who construct their own understanding.

Group Decisions Can be Hard

The way they do this is to create something that has meaning. In arts integration, the creative process results in an art work that contains meaning about something students are trying to master in their curriculum. For instance, my students in a Water Cycle unit create their own individual phrases to demonstrate their understanding of the cycle in movement. They also work in teams to collaboratively choreograph short dances about important aspects of how the water cycle affects the Earth and its life forms.

At the end of those experiences, they have a kinesthetic understanding of changes in state of matter, weather, erosion, and many other “big ideas” contained in the water cycle. They have no problem with regurgitating the facts on a standardized test, because they understand the facts in a context that is experiential.

The point is, the act of decision-making in the process of creating their dances is at the intersection of dance and science: that is the exact, alchemical point at which learners imbue their creations with meaning and true understanding begins. This is the magic place where higher-order thinking skills like problem-solving, communicating, working in teams, evaluating, analyzing, and synthesizing begin to get stronger.

What students learn from one act of creation like this is then transferable to new situations, leading them to enlarge their zone of comfort and to stretch beyond, to take risks within the safe environment of the arts-integrated classroom.

Many books I have read, and movement specialists I have talked with, have seemed to imply that coming to a classroom with prepared material and teaching that to the students works equally well. This is the equivalent of learning “The ABCs” or “Nifty Fifty States” as mnemonic devices in its simplest form, and more like being in your high school play in its more complex forms.

In this linking of the arts to curriculum, students learn dances made by someone else about the subject at hand. Many of them will have their recall of the factual information much improved, and some of them will find they understand the material in a new or more complete way. It’s not a bad thing.

But when all students are challenged to be choreographers, every single one of them learns, each at her or his own pace and ability. This is truly “differentiated instruction,” because it allows children to come to meet the challenge with whatever tools they have on hand. In the process, they will learn new tools and strengthen the skills they have, and they are motivated to do it because the result is satisfying, engaging, and fun.

To put it another way, play is essential to learning and growth. And creation is a playful event. When you are learning someone else’s dance, it’s mostly about work. Difficult work, that involves getting your body to move in unfamiliar ways. You may lose the trail of understanding in the effort to stay on the correct foot.

When you begin to create your own dance about something you are trying to say, you use the vocabulary your body already knows. As you work to connect movement choices to ideas, you begin to challenge yourself to be able to balance better, become more flexible or stronger, or be able to coordinate different parts of your body. The language you develop is your own personal dance vocabulary, which you put into the service of your Big Idea. Then, you have to explain and defend (in an objective way) your choices to an audience of your peers. This is true whether you are making dances alone or with others. Then you take the feedback you have gotten and your own thoughts about your dance to revise and improve it before showing it again.

This is a totally different kind of learning experience from being taught a dance, and it is one that hardly any children are having today. It incorporates all of the benefits of movement for brain development and growth, plus it challenges students to use and enlarge multiple intelligences. Dance-making in the classroom brings the entire being into the learning process: physical, intellectual, emotional, and even spiritual. And it is best at this when students are the ones doing the work.

Only Two Kinds of Dancers


[Excerpt from manuscript.]

We, as a society (that is, Americans of various stripes), have a rather narrow definition of what we mean when we say “dance.” Here’s what I’ve heard from students and teachers:

  • Dance is a guy and a girl doing partner stuff
  • People in tights doing things on tiptoe
  • All that stuff they do on “So You Think You Can Dance”
  • It’s people in tight costumes doing something no one understand
  • Dance is just like mime with more people

We have so many encounters that we don’t even recognize as dance. I remember the late Hunter S. Thompson’s description of the circular patterns that reporters traced in hotel lobbies while phoning in their stories from their mobile phones. He called it The Cellular Waltz, and I’ll never forget that image.

There is an aesthetic thrill to carving the smoothest line down the mountain on skis, to riding the waves on a surfboard, to feeling the rhythm and flow of a soccer game at field level. When we boil down the essence of something to its motion, we enter the world of dance.

The human body is the Swiss Army Knife of evolution. We don’t do any one thing all that well (except perhaps for mucking up the environment, but that’s another book), but we can do many, many things, and we keep learning new things we can do. One thing we do extremely well is to move expressively. And with endurance.

Have you ever wondered how the Native American dancers from the Southwest can keep going for hours and hours, seemingly tireless through a night-long dance of great complexity and significance? Why are there no horse or dog races for 26 miles, 385 yards? How many non-human mammals have been to the summit of K2?

The human body is built from time immemorial to be in motion, and the human brain is to a very great extent developed and shaped by the body’s movement. Anne Green Gilbert, the great dance teacher and Brain Dance originator, says, “Movement is the architect of the brain.” (

One tasty bit of research shows that learning to juggle helps you build more white matter (axons, or connecting tissue) in your brain, as well as adding to your supply of gray matter (the “thinking” cells). You not only now know how to juggle, you also have the ability to learn more things than you did before. [Research citation to follow.]

Be that as it may, up until this moment in human history, we have had three types of dance. The first pre-dates language, possibly, the second is ancient, and the third is relatively recent:

Ritual dance: Most often either rituals of tension (asking, needing, supplication, such as the stereotypical “rain dance”) or rituals of release (celebration, thanksgiving, memorials to past events). The movement of this kind of dance is closely drawn from observations of nature, in the sense that imitating something can draw it to you (harvest, animals, rain, etc.) and from a sort of ecstatic, intuitive connection to the world both seen and unseen.

Social dance: Partially an avenue for members of the opposite sex to find one another and begin the mating process. Partially a “night out” activity in which couples can be together and yet interact with others in a structured, public way. Unattached singles can find one another and blend into the social whole. There is a “high” to dancing in unison or concert with other members of your social group that is hard to equal.

Theatrical dance: Gradually, various social dancers became so skilled at their craft, and they and their choreographers so adept at devising complicated rules, steps, and sequences for them to do, that a new sort of dancer emerged: the entertainer. Regardless of whether we are applauding for the virtuosity of technically perfect dancers or the depth of an artistic experience beyond words, we are in fact being entertained.

Now, we are evolving a kind of dance that is both new and old at once.

Like ritual dance, it contains iconic patterns and knowledge that govern the universe and can be passed down through time.

Like social dance, it helps integrate all members into an active and cohesive unit that shares common values but also encourages individual expression and success.

Like theatrical dance, it engages the observer in an aesthetic experience that can transcend any simple verbal description and can connect disparate facts and ideas into a coherent and transformative whole.

Yet it is none of these things, or it is all of them. It is constructive dance, and it is the key to solving the education dilemmas of the present, and to preparing our whole society for the future. At least, that’s my argument.

Oh, and… the two kinds of dancers?




Both trained and untrained dancers can participate in constructive or creative dance equally well, as long as they share some common vocabulary to use as they construct, discuss, and revise their dances. I’m going to call this vocabulary the elements of dance, and we’ll look at each of the elements in detail in another chapter. [end of excerpt]

Ancient Becomes Modern

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Excerpt from the opening chapter of the manuscript.

Light is blocked out of the ceremonial chamber. Shadowy figures enter from a hidden opening. They take up places in the open area, in front of those already assembled. They settle into active stillness, shapes that are motionless yet shout action to the observer. For the duration of  four slow, deep breaths, no one moves.

The near-silence is interrupted and organized by a steady drumbeat. Voices join in, intertwined with more musical instruments, including rattles and cymbals carried by the dancers, who have leapt into age-old movement patterns and who tell of tales and truths and teachings passed down across generations.

Quiz: Which of the following does the preceding text describe?

  1. An ancient Puebloan ceremony, taking place in a kiva
  2. A Japanese Butoh dance/theater event, held in a covered outdoor arena
  3. A classical ballet performance in an opera hall
  4. A choreography showing in an American elementary school classroom

Okay, you get it — It could be ANY of the above. Let’s try another one:

Q: How are the arts viewed in US schools today?

  1. As invaluable preparation for the challenges of the 21st century
  2. As important ways to focus student attention on what they need to learn
  3. As essential parts of the school day, with plenty of opportunity to move
  4. As a waste of time, money, and space that could be better spent on more books and more prepackaged curriculum

All of you who chose “4,” please pat yourself on the back, with mixed emotions. Those of you who chose otherwise: You must have an extraordinary school in mind. Please cherish it!

But the question is, what does this really look like in practice? How can it be worth the time it takes to go through all this when we should be “covering” the mile-wide, inch-deep curriculum? Let’s take a sample peek…


It is a sultry day by noon already, one of those late-October heat waves that used to be called Indian summer. The Waterloo, Iowa fifth-grade classroom seems to swell with the humidity in spite of the recently refurbished air conditioners’ best efforts. But the students seem barely to notice. They are intent on finishing up their final drafts of the dances they have choreographed to demonstrate various systems of the human body.

At this point in their unit on human physiology and the needs of creatures, the students are demonstrating their understanding of the complex systems that keep us alive by showing (and being able to explain) their science-based works of dance art.

Working in small groups of four to five, the students drew their system at random from a deck of assignment cards, and had a short working period — about seven minutes! — to create a choreographic interpretation of their assignment. For a sample of what these cards look like, see the Appendix at the end of this volume.

Despite the amazingly good quality of the first drafts, given the short deadline, each group had ideas for revision after exchanging ideas with their audience (the rest of the class) after their first showing. These ideas resulted in a dramatically improved set of second-draft studies. Now the students are polishing their work for a final showing and video-recording.

“One minute remaining!” proclaims the teacher, her voice penetrating over the excited conversations and stage directions of the rehearsing groups. “One minute to curtain, Dancers!” There is only a slight increase in the hubbub as the deadline approaches. These are experienced choreographer/performers, as we are about to see.

”Who would say, ‘It’s not perfect, but we think we’re ready to put it on stage?” The teacher pauses, notes that everyone’s hand is raised, and smiles as she says, “All right, then — Showtime! Who wants to go first?” Since all the hands are still raised, she chooses a group at random; they make a bee-line for the “stage” while the other students move into the “house.”

The students can all identify the limits of the “stage,” which is the section of the classroom they have chosen for most of their formal choreography showings. It has the least distracting background of all the walls, and has the most usable space in the room. The students chose it as the best space to present a visual art such as dance.

The place in the theater building where the audience sits to view the happenings on the stage is called the “house,” and the students love knowing this. When the teacher says, “Quiet in the house, please!” all the chatter stops and the audience focuses on the stage area as the first group goes to “places.”

The teacher acts as the stage technician, bringing up the classroom lights and pressing “play” on the classroom iPod simultaneously. The iPod is connected to a high-fidelity speaker unit that is capable of filling a much larger room with sound, so she keeps the volume reasonable for the sake of both her students and those in the neighboring classrooms, but the sound is solid and hefty as the Circulatory System group performs a dance that shows how the blood moves through two valves and two chambers in the right side of the heart, and how it is oxygenated in the lungs before passing through two more valves and chambers on the left and into the aorta.

The dance they have created has its own characteristic “lub-dub” rhythm, so the background music simply supports the dancers’ movements without dictating them. The audience has seen the prior versions of this dance, and they applaud the spin move Jamaal does to demonstrate the re-energized (with oxygen) blood coming from the lungs back to the heart. This group has made only cosmetic changes to their choreography, but their performance is honed to near-perfection, and they are clearly pleased by their own efforts, not to mention the enthusiastic response of the audience.

Group by group, the class shows their final draft studies to the audience and the camera. “I can’t believe I’m having an aesthetic experience,” the teacher mutters to herself as she watches the last of the beautifully thoughtful and imaginative interpretations of what had been prosaic science topics only a week before.

How did this class arrive at this point? What is the value, if any, of this approach to learning? We are blending a subject area with an artistic process, and that act of creation is where the true alchemy occurs. Is it truly worth doing?

That, esteemed reader, is the subject of this book. [excerpt concludes]

Classroom Choreography (SM) blog launched!

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This blog is dedicated to discussions of dance integration in the classroom: in other words, exploring the tools and techniques of dance-making to drive learning in classrooms.

The posts in this blog, and the comments, will be used in the development of a mass-market book I am writing about the importance of movement for brain development and the power of creating art (in this case, dance) about what we are learning in school, to make it experiential, relevant, motivating, and memorable.

Posts will include excerpts from the manuscript of the book, related thoughts that seem worth putting out into the ether, and anything else that may help raise the consciousness of Americans about this transformational issue.

Randy Barron, Teaching Artist

For more information about me or my work, please visit:

Comments are always welcome, but please use thoughtful and polite language, or risk having your posts deleted. Thanks for reading!


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