Creativity and Learning

My first teaching position was at the Parkside School, which is a school for children with speech and language based disabilities. For so many of my students, it was plain to see that standard academic assessments would not be a fitting measure of their brilliance or potential. They were masters of topics that captured their curiosity, while it was a real challenge to engage them with material that didn’t speak to their strengths or interests. 

At the same time, as a New Yorker with a lot of creative friends, I was surrounded by adults who had struggled their way through school. Some had learning disabilities that made the task of being a “good student” incredibly difficulty no matter how hard they worked, while others struggled with ADHD and were labeled “trouble makers.” Plus, there were those who simply weren’t interested in or motivated by standard academic curriculum. School was a largely miserable and disheartening experience for all of them. 

I founded Smarten Up with these two groups of learners in mind. Our guiding principle is that learning should be fun. While school is not always easy, and understanding new material is often difficult, at Smarten Up we believe that every child is capable of learning. All it takes is creative instruction. That is why we strive to connect each student’s interests to classroom material. 

April’s blog posts are a celebration of creativity and the many ways in which the arts can enrich learning. Our increasingly structured, competitive, and engaged world leaves less and less time for the sort of sensitivity, flexibility, and self-exploration that comes with creative expression. Hopefully these posts will remind all of us to make a little more time for the arts in the lives of our children (and ourselves)!

Creative Writing for the Teenage Soul

A central part of the human experience is finding effective ways to express ourselves and be understood by others. As children we can work through complex feelings, emotions, and ideas, with our parents, teachers, or a trusted caregiver. As adults we have partners, siblings, and life long friends to hash out our thoughts with. Unfortunately, though, it’s during the tumultuous teenage years when it is often feels most difficult to find a good listener. For many students, creative writing can be a great outlet that leads not only to emotional catharsis, but also to improved writing skills!

Whether writing poems, stories, plays or lyrics, the process of putting thoughts down on paper is a great way to reflect and process without fear of judgement. Troubling thoughts that might otherwise fester and breed negativity, anger, and self-consciousness can be exorcised from the brain as teens acknowledge them and attempt to move on. There is no fear of confrontation and no need to be on the defensive or offensive; instead, creative writing offers students the opportunity to reflect and hopefully learn from experience.

Apart from being a therapeutic form of self-expression, creative writing is also good for communication and problem-solving. A writer must describe an experience or scenario in a way that will make the reader fully believe and even feel the things the writer is feeling. This requires an amazing vocabulary, heightened awareness, and empathy. When students translate abstract observations and feelings into well-formed sentences and paragraphs, they are engaging in the human experience: learning, listening, and decoding. After all, storytelling is the oldest form of human communication and exists in every culture and society; when a student is able to engage another person in their story, not only does it feel good, that child is also learning how to create a meaningful social bond.

Creative writing is beneficial to students on so many levels. It encourages emotional development and self-confidence, and improves teenagers’ ability to empathize and connect with others. At the same time, creative writing also leads to academic gains as students learn how to analyze the world around them and communicate their ideas about it with more clarity and sensitivity. We are all driven to reflect on and understand our environment, and to try and make things better both for ourselves and those around us. By encouraging independence, empathy, catharsis and expression, creative writing is one of the best ways to ensure a child becomes a conscientious and well-rounded adult!

The Play’s the Thing

Even before they begin school, kids rehearse behavior and learn about their place in the world by playing pretend. Later in their development, there is much that kids can continue to learn from a more institutionalized form of pretend: the theater. 

Whether in school or out, the particular embodied storytelling of drama is a ready-made training ground for empathy and imagination. Learning to identify with characters who are different from themselves can help students practice empathy for others, and make them more capable readers and writers as a result. A student’s ability to draw connections between their own experience and the experience of a character in a play, a figure in history, or even an animal on the food chain is strengthened by the creative empathy practice of the theater — and these connections make learning far more effective. Studies have shown that the more students can activate their imagination to identify with the narrative nature of what they’re learning in school, the better they’ll retain knowledge and reach a real understanding of the material. The brain likes to think in terms of stories — and a little imagination can help transform almost any kind of content into a story with its own, memorable characters. 

Many students have trouble adapting to the discussion format of a busy classroom, adjusting to the school social environment, or dealing with the nerves of public speaking. Drama games can help build confidence that students will flex in their presentations and everyday conversations. Although they can feel silly, these games push students out of their comfort zone in a safe environment. Watching their peers take risks in getting up onstage encourages students to express themselves confidently and creatively. And when the school play rolls around, students have the chance to take some share of ownership in a deeply collaborative project, developing a sense of community that becomes a home for many. 

There’s an educational case to be made for going out to the theater as well! In a world saturated with film and television, attending a live performance requires a different, more active kind of listening. This engagement trains a careful attention that is increasingly rare in the age of screens. If your student is struggling to digest a classic Shakespeare play in school, taking in a live version can be a game changer, bringing the playwright’s words from page to stage in a way that unlocks the story. 

More than anything, theater is a fun, liberating opportunity for students to tell stories and develop their confidence and emotional intelligence. It’s an ancient tradition whose importance for expressing the spirit of the times and exploring human connection isn’t going away, even in the age of technology, and it deserves a place in our education system.

Meet a Student: Maia, 7th grade

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What is your favorite book?

My favorite book is Misty Copeland’s autobiography, "Life in Motion." 

If you were a teacher, what subject would you teach?

I would teach math because I've come to appreciate the fact that there is only one right answer, but you can solve for it in ten different ways. I used to hate math, but I feel a lot better about it now thanks to great teachers and tutors. 

What have you learned about yourself as a student since you started with tutoring?

I have learned that I always need to check my writing for my most common mistakes - punctuation errors, missing words, and clear sentences. I have learned that I need to take my time when I am taking tests. I have also learned that I need to write out my study guides for tests by hand and make sure not to leave my work for the last minute!

Outside of school, what do you like to do for fun?

Outside of school I love to listen to music, dance and play guitar. 

How do you like to prepare for a test?

I like to prepare for test by looking back at my previous homework from that unit, and then I put all the answers into a study guide I make by hand. Then I like to have lots of time to review just in case I have additional questions.

What is your favorite word?

I don’t think I have a favorite word, but I have a most used word which is "seriously."

What is one goal, big or small, that you have for the next year?

My goal is to put 110% into everything I do!

Maia is also an incredible poet. Here is a piece of her work!

Butterflies, Bees and Flies...

Two distinguished groups, separating the once unified class, which makes each group its own whole. Sour bees and the salty flies create rifts in the seventh grade class. Cuddles or huddles. Awkward hi’s and shy goodbyes. The tension between the class is spreading like the flu, quietly and creepily.

There are the bees who feel the continuous pride when they are crowned champions. They speak their own language, when I try to chime in on the conversation, my efforts are met with silence. I only see a girl shaking her golden gumdrop ponytail side to side, signaling me to leave.  

The flies are always looking for trouble - getting in people’s business and gossiping to no end. This leads to slim french fry fights and never ending rumors of horribly humiliating fake stories. The more lies the flies tell, the more trouble they stir up in their goblet of alphabet soup. 

Butterflies fly wherever they wish and never have to change to fit in. That is me. The butterfly floating between groups, trying to find my place to settle. Butterflies like the peaceful quiet of a light marshmallow fluff breeze on a sunny day, and yet, it is stormy all around me. 

 

Meet a Tutor: Ben

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Tell us a bit about yourself! Where are you from originally, and what brings you to New York?

I’m from the green Pacific Northwest, originally, but I came east to Boston for college, and then, after a year in England, to New York. In addition to teaching, I work as an actor and writer in the city.

What was your favorite subject in school? 

English, probably, or history, and then foreign languages when those began—I had the chance to study abroad in France in high school, and my favorite teacher at home was in German. My parents are both math teachers, though, so I ran the gamut. I wound up majoring in Comparative Literature, with a minor in Environmental Science and Public Policy.

Is there a particular lesson or concept that you remember learning very clearly, either because of the way that it was taught, the way you came to understand it, or the way it changed the way you look at the world? Tell us about that experience. 

I’ll swing over to my inner biology nerd for this one, because I have a very clear memory of learning about the concept of the planet’s albedo in high school—the ratio of sunlight that is reflected off the earth’s surface and how it influences climate—and understanding for the first time some part of how the Earth works almost as an organism on a macro-level, a complex web of interdependent living and non-living actors and environments. That technical lesson helped me zoom out on the globe and see myself as one small piece in the wider puzzle of life on Earth.  

What is your favorite book?

I’ve never been good at favorites, so I’ll just say that right now I’m reading The Quiet American, by Graham Greene, and enjoying it.

What’s one piece of advice you’d like to give to every student reading this?

Curiosity is your most important tool; find a way to make whatever you’re learning interesting for you, personally, and don’t expect that it will always happen automatically. 

What’s your favorite word? 

Still not a fan of favorites, but how about ‘tintinnabulation’? It means ‘a ringing or tinkling sound,’ and I’ve always enjoyed that kind of onomatopoeia, when the sound of a word conjures up its definition. 

How do you spend your free time?

I like to escape into the great outdoors, when it’s possible to get away from the city for a bit — and I also find fresh air playing pick up soccer on the weekends. 

What does learning mean in your life?

I try always to be learning, and to pass on my love of learning to others; I’ve seen how learning can transform the way I see the world, and I never want to stop. My dad recently retired after thirty years as a public schoolteacher, and this year’s he’s been learning Dutch (in preparation for a trip abroad) and how to build a wooden kayak. That’s a model I can aspire to!

Notes on the Page: Music in Education

Although state education budgets do not always reflect it, the value of music in education has been well documented in the scientific literature. Studies have shown that music training has beneficial effects for spatial reasoning, literacy, and verbal memory; recently, researchers have even developed a line of data in support of music education as a “creative and cost-effective” form of treatment for language-based learning disorders. The developing brains of young musicians benefit from the multi-modal nature of music: it involves precise physical coordination, emotional expression, and careful looking and listening, all at the same time. But it’s important to remember that there is plenty to value in music education that goes beyond these technical, cognitive gains.

One of the most important lessons in any student’s education, and one that is not explicitly taught in many school curricula, is how to be a smart and effective learner. For most students, learning to learn is something that happens over several years, in a relatively undirected, inefficient, and often frustrating process of trial and error. Taking on the challenge of a new instrument can provide a perfect learning laboratory for instilling the habits of great students that don’t come naturally to many: the discipline of daily practice, pride in easy to measure improvements (and those that are harder to quantify), knowing when and how to ask for help when encountering the unknown, struggling to get it right (and knowing that’s okay), and celebrating commitment and hard work, all in a fun and expressive environment. Much more than his or her new skill on the cello, these learning lessons will transfer over to the invaluable student skills that kids need to make the most of their education.

When students have the chance to play their new instrument as part of a young ensemble of musicians, they also develop an understanding of teamwork and collaboration that is not always on offer in the classroom. Many students dread group projects in school, and with good reason; coordinating the efforts of individuals in a group can be a social and academic nightmare. In the context of a school orchestra or band, however, collaboration and teamwork are the norm. Any ensemble experience involves learning to listen carefully and play in unison, balance different parts from the different sections, and achieve a group vision of how the piece should work, both technically and emotionally. There’s an opportunity here for students to develop leadership skills, and to support one another’s growth as members of the same section work to perfect their parts in small groups. 

Even apart from the cognitive benefits scientists have attributed to music education, trying out a new instrument provides invaluable learning experiences to young students. As a testing ground where they can learn to learn, and an inherently collaborative activity, music deserves a place in any child’s education. It’s also, importantly, a chance for kids to express themselves in a new and vital way, and to appreciate a human tradition of music that they will encounter every day for the rest of their lives. 

Learning to Learn

Our primary goal at Smarten Up is to help students become learners. We want them to learn how to read and do math, to learn about the history of our world and the science behind it, and to learn about themselves. To do this, we empower them with a robust set of tools and strategies that they can use to tackle the wide range of challenges they are likely to face in their academic careers and beyond. The key to making this happen is teaching students the difference between “knowing” and “understanding.”

Tests, quizzes, writing assignments, and classroom discussions are tools that teachers use to evaluate how effectively students have learned the material. As we know, assessments range from multiple choice and short answer questions to word problems and essays. The former evaluate a student’s rote knowledge—how well she can recall a definition or perform arithmetic; the latter gauge children’s ability to use information in order to answer a question or solve a problem. 

Genuine learning occurs when students can build their understanding of a given concept from the ground up, from knowledge through evaluation. It is the difference between cramming for an assessment by memorizing a collection of vocabulary terms, and learning those words in context, with the support of graphic organizers, outlines, mnemonic devices, and other memory aids. While the latter may take more time and effort before the test, that energy will pay off when it’s time to study for a midterm or final exam. Even if a child doesn’t remember everything, she will have an efficient set of familiar, useful resources to fill in the gaps. By taking the time to learn and understand the information the first time around, students can avoid the chaos and anxiety that comes with last-minute scrambles or disorganized efforts (or both).

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This is where it becomes most important for us to teach our students about themselves as learners. We need students to understand the difference between working smart and working hard (or not so hard in some cases).  They’ve been told to create outlines before they begin writing an essay, though they often don’t do it. Teachers ask them to annotate as they read, but their books often show either pristinely clean pages or ones that are so filled with highlighted text and underlined sections that they are impossible to navigate. They have to study for a test or quiz, and often they simply reread the relevant information and declare themselves “prepared.” They are told to create a plan of attack for short-term and long-term assignments, and they simply open up their portal to look at what is due the next day. 

A large part of this disconnect is due to a lack of understanding. Students know what they should do, but they don’t always understand why or how to make those extra steps meaningful. The goal of Smarten Up’s March blog posts will be to share our favorite tips, tricks, and strategies for helping students learn how to become learners. 

Reading for Meaning

By the time we reach middle and high school, what we learn is increasingly built on what we’ve learned before, reliant on the scaffolding of connections our brains have been constructing for us since we were crawling across colorful living-room carpets. But these connections, clusters of experience and information that help us make sense of the world, are still developing all the time — and the more that students can consciously access these categories of information and experience as they absorb new knowledge and master new tasks, the more confident and creative they will become. One of Smarten Up’s core messages to students is that learning itself is a learnable process: that the skill of being a student can be developed through a set of reflective habits and creative practices. 

Let’s consider the best habits for reading, a skill whose importance in the life of a student is hard to overstate. All of the work that students have done in elementary school to master the technical building blocks of reading fluency pays off as reading becomes a critical skill across disciplines, from biology to history, and from foreign languages to English literature. By this time, the decoding process has become more automatic, and students can put a larger share of their brainpower toward constructing meaning, analyzing connections, and processing information. While many of us remember ‘learning to read’ as young children, it is at this stage in our academic careers that we learn to read critically and deeply

There are concrete steps that will improve students’ ability to go past knowledge into understanding — this active reading checklist is a good place to start, with habits for before, during, and after reading. This is also where reflecting on the way we read different types of texts can be useful.  There is a clear difference between reading and writing poetry, and reading biographies of historical figures. Students should be able to approach each task with a strategy that fits its specific needs, while also recognizing the connections between distinct tasks and subject areas so that they’re not reinventing the wheel every time they approach a reading or writing assignment. One starting place is to ask: How does this content relate to what I already know? Or: how does this assignment resemble other tasks I’ve tackled in the past?

When students consider these questions, they activate prior knowledge that will shape how they understand the new content. Students should also consider, as they read, other connections they can activate to enrich the perspective they’re bringing to the text, and make the information stickier in their memory. Consider text-to-text, text-to-self, and text-to-world connections. How does Hamlet’s relationship with his uncle compare to the bonds in your own extended family? Hopefully, not too closely! Can you think of any links to the often melodramatic history of royal households in medieval Europe, or the family politics in your favorite television series? What songs would you put on a moody Hamlet playlist? Ultimately, the takeaway is simple: the more that we bring with us to the reading process, the more we get out of it.

Studying to Understand

For many students, quizzes and exams are a source of anxiety and, sometimes, disappointment. But with care, planning, and sustained effort, it is possible to prepare with confidence. What is the best way to study for a test? 

1. Treat every assignment and reading as a part of your preparation

The most important element of test preparation comes in the weeks (and sometimes months) before a test, as a student remains actively engaged with lectures and homework assignments, moving from knowing to understanding as they learn so that, when it comes time to study, they are already beginning from a place of confidence, rather than starting from scratch.  The test is not a separate, stress-charged event in this model, but the natural culmination of weeks of learning. In concrete terms, this means that students should be taking clear notes and creating study materials as they learn the content, keeping up with readings and assignments, and independently reviewing at the end of every shorter unit.

2. Distributed Practice: spread out your studying

Studies have shown that if you believe a test will require four hours of studying in the week of the exam, it is much more effective to split up this time into smaller chunks, spread out over multiple days, than to cram all four hours on the night before the exam. So…

3. Make a study plan

It isn’t always easy for students to manage the many tasks that are thrust upon them - to use time wisely, set up a study plan well in advance of the test, with a schedule for studying that splits up the content over multiple days and a specific plan for which study strategies to employ. 

4. Mix it up: use a variety of strategies

Different types of content (and different types of tests) will require different strategies - and students should also consider what strategies work best for their specific learning strengths. The more that you can approach a subject from different angles — with flashcards written in your own words, illustrated histories, timelines, online video resources, practice problems, poetic adaptations, mnemonics and memory aides, etc — the more you’ll move from knowing to understanding. Your goal should be to absorb new information with context, thinking about it as a story, rather than memorizing in isolation, by rote. Use a timer to focus for specific periods, and switch between strategies. Take active breaks, drink water, and eat healthy snacks!

5. Get a good night’s sleep

It is tempting to believe that staying up late to cram will help you conquer the test - but the truth is, giving your brain the rest it needs is more important. This is another reason why it’s important to distribute your studying across multiple days!

6. After the test, reflect!

Your job isn’t over when the test is done - take a well-deserved break, of course, but then take time to reflect on the study process and the test itself. Think about what worked, so that you can use it again next time. What areas can you identify for improvement next time?

This Smarten Up study strategies planning sheet is a great resource to create this sort of structure for students!

Learning to Read

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As children learn to read, the world around them takes on a whole new dimension; signs become meaningful, directions become more clear, and stories and books offer an entirely new world of fantasy, adventure, and discovery. While your child will certainly receive great instruction in school, there are tons of fun and simple ways to reinforce those lessons at home and on the go. Below you will find an overview of how great reading skills develop, and our favorite tools for supporting literacy growth.

The first building block of reading is phonemic awareness, which is a child's ability to hear and identify the sounds in spoken words.  This is a skill that can easily be developed on-the-go as you shuffle your child around the city by challenging her to think of rhyming words, or by playing I Spy with beginning or ending sounds (I spy with my little eye something that begins with a /d/ sound). 

Once your child is able to hear these individual phonemes (which is just a fancy word for sounds), she can begin to learn learn the letters that go with each one. This predictable sound-symbol association is called phonics. While this word is often synonymous with dull and repetitive exercises, it doesn't have to be. With hands-on games such as Alphabet Go Fish and Alphabet Bingo, you can spend quality time with your child and help her learn letter names and sounds. Digital resources also offer the opportunity for engaging independent practice, and the best of them allow you to monitor your child's progress as well. Some of our favorite phonics apps include Learn with Homer, Phonics Island, and Letter School, which also targets handwriting skills.

After these foundations have been laid, it will be time for your child to work on developing her fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension skills. The first is a question of practice makes perfect. The more your child reads, the better she will be able to quickly identify words; and the more your child hears a fluent reader model how to read with expression (pausing at punctuation, showing excitement at exclamation marks, etc.) the better she will learn to do this herself. The last two building blocks of literacy will develop as a result of talking with your child about books. It is important to not only ask about who, where and what is involved in a chapter or story, but to also think about bigger picture concepts and connections that can be made. What motivates a character? What are some of the problems or challenges she faced? How did she overcome them? How was the book similar or different to your child's real-life experiences? 

Most importantly, though, reading should be fun. The more you, as a parent, are able to express and share excitement and enthusiasm for stories and books, the more likely your child is to embrace the exciting possibilities of written language!