Creativity

Helping Your Child Discover a Passion

As children grow and mature, they slowly but surely discover those things that excite them and figure out the activities they do not enjoy. Little kids are generally up for anything, so they will participate in just about any activity their parents sign them up for. As they get older, however, children develop more specific tastes and interests, and learn more about who they are and what special skills or passions they might possess. With this in mind, it is important that students begin to explore a wide range of extracurricular activities at an early age, so they can discover the passions and interests that will enable them to thrive inside and outside of school.

There are many ways to encourage your child to get involved in extracurriculars; you might start by asking your student what he finds appealing or what she has always wanted to try. Because kids at this age don’t always know what appeals to them, you might ask a teacher or counselor if they have observed any special or specific aptitude your child might possess and then encourage him or her in that direction. The truth is, however, that at this age, your student might not yet show a passion or talent for any one activity as they simply have not yet been exposed to all the options. With that in mind, the more you can encourage them to try a wide spectrum of activities, the better. Below are many extracurricular options and the potential benefits they might provide your child:

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Arts: the arts are a great way for your child to develop and express those parts of themselves that they may not be able to find in an academic setting. These might include, visual arts (painting, drawing, photography), drama (acting, singing, set design), writing/reading (newspaper, yearbook, poetry, book club), music (chorus, band, voice), dance and design. Involvement in the arts, even if they do not end up loving the activity, instills the values of self-confidence, communication, intrinsic motivation, creative problem solving, self-expression and improved cognition. Even if your student ultimately decides that the arts is not where their passion lies, by exploring an artistic extracurricular early on, he/she will still develop a deeper self-understanding.

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Sports: taking part in a sports activity can provide a healthy outlet for young students who might feel constrained by academics. Most schools offer a wide variety of sports activities, whether intramural or clubs, competitive or not, and there is usually something for everyone. Encouraging your student to join a sports club can offer a nice counterbalance to the hours they spend sitting at a desk in school. Students at this age have a lot of physical energy, and there has been a great deal of research correlating participation in athletics with improved academic performance. Beyond the obvious physical benefits, taking part in a sports team teaches teamwork, perseverance, skill-building, commitment and time management and allows for important social bonding. 

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Volunteering: when young students take part in an organization or extracurricular that focuses on giving back, your developing child will gain insight into the lasting social and health benefits of volunteer work, both on their community and themselves. Many schools offer volunteer programs within the school, (National Honor Society, peer tutoring, community gardening, library work, etc.) and in the community at large, (tutoring at under-privileged schools, parks and museum work, Big Brother, Big Sister, YMCA, etc.). Volunteer programs for middle schoolers have been shown to have the greatest positive impact on the social and mental health of students; he/she will gain a sense of agency, learn about teamwork, develop a passion for community building and allow the child to feel that they are giving back and accomplishing something, which can often translate to accomplishment in academics. 

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Leadership: for those students who enjoy academic work but would like an outlet to display more agency and assertiveness, you might encourage them to join an academic extracurricular such as speech and debate or student council. Many schools have a Student Court, a Debate, Mock Trial/Mock Congress or Model United Nations club. This provides a great opportunity for kids to develop their public speaking, writing, and debate skills. Additionally, they will learn about diplomacy and problem solving, cooperation and leadership, while also developing self-confidence and grit. This provides long-lasting benefits to your child as they enter high school and transition into professional careers that will inevitably require strong writing and oratorical skills. 

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Science/Math: some students, even in middle school, find certain academic subjects so exciting that they would like to explore them outside of the rigid school requirements. If your child has an interest in science, technology, engineering, and math, you might consider encouraging them to join an extracurricular program, such as STEM, that allows them to experiment, play and explore those elements they might not get to tackle in class. Taking part in an academic extracurricular allows students to get messy, explore real-world situations and take part in alternative learning methods. These clubs can also be beneficial for those students who might struggle with the structure and presentation of material in their math and science classes. Ideally, they can discover the potential love of learning through risk-taking, hands-on work and creative problem solving. This positive reinforcement and increased confidence can, in turn, improve academic work within the classroom. 

Extracurricular activity has long been linked to academic and mental health and there is no more important time for extracurricular exploration than in middle school. Students at this age are often vulnerable and unsure of themselves as they navigate a new social setting; joining a team, an organization or a club can give these young students the chance to be a part of something, and begin developing valuable life skills such as teamwork, cooperation, leadership, and problem-solving. If your middle schooler begins to explore options early on, and tries activities at which they are afraid they might fail, they will begin to conquer the fear of failure that plagues all students. Ultimately, the way middle school students spend their free time can have a huge impact on their academic work and hopefully plant the seed that will blossom into a full-blown passion as they focus their interests in high school!

Passion and the Well-Rounded High Schooler

With the increasing demands of high school academics, it can sometimes feel difficult to find time for extracurriculars — but the danger of feeling overwhelmed by schoolwork is all the more reason to carve out a balanced schedule that includes time for development outside of the academic sphere. Of course you have continued license as a high school student to explore new interests, but by now you have hopefully also found an area or two in which you know you can thrive, whether playing a sport, learning an instrument or art form, or advocating in support of a particular cause. Pursuing these extracurricular interests with sincerity is more than just a signal to colleges that you are a well-rounded, passionate individual; it is the time-tested formula for becoming one. 

The first step toward extracurricular development is setting ambitious but appropriate goals for yourself. In your first year at a new school, seek out older students whose example you can follow. Next cast your net more widely — look online for students who have excelled at something that interests you, and absorb what you find about the steps they took to get where you want to go. You will find students your age who are conducting independent research projects to compete in national contests, forming their own bands, making short films, volunteering with the elderly—almost anything you can imagine. You can even research the biographies of established professionals you admire to give yourself something to aim towards; let yourself be inspired!

Next, take the initiative to start down the path you find most compelling. Does your school already have a jazz band you can audition for, or a speech and debate team? If not, consider starting one yourself, gathering a group of like-minded peers to form a community that might well become an important part of your high school experience. You can also look outside of your high school for opportunities. If you’re living in New York City, the possibilities are endless — aspiring veterinarians can nurse wounded birds back to health at the Wild Bird Fund, and budding journalists can apply to the New York Times’ Summer Academy. Often the hardest part is getting started, so avoid procrastination by setting a clear timeline for applications and find a friend who can help you stay on track. 

Finally, remember that the more sincerely you can pursue the thing that interests you—rather than the one you believe will look best on a resume—the better you will do. It’s not a bad thing to consider how your skills and experiences will be perceived by colleges, and to work strategically to present yourself in the best light. However, it is also important to trust your instincts, and go after the goals that excite you. The authenticity that this kind of activity will show to colleges is not something that can be easily replicated, and so long as you chase your own particular passion with a dedicated effort, your work will pay off in one way or another. 

Best Apps and Sites for Elementary Students

QuickMath

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QuickMath is a great tool for students in Grades 1-6 to build fluency with their addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division math facts. With three different levels for each operation, and the ability to track progress after each round of play, this app is an excellent alternative to standard flash cards. Plus, students love that they can write their answer directly on the screen! There are also more wonderful apps in the QuickMath family, including QuickMath Jr. for students in K - 2, and QuickMath Fractions for students in Grades 3-6.


Math Playground

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Math Playground is an incredible site with a wealth of math games, logic puzzles and a variety of 
problem solving activities. It is a great resource for arcade style math games, digital manipulatives for illustrating mathematical concepts and operations, and even coding practice. With over 500 different activities to choose from, it will be hard for any child to complain about being “bored” with the games.


Epic!

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Epic! is a digital library for children offering over 25,000 high-quality ebooks, audiobooks, learning videos, and quizzes for kids 12 and under. This app’s award-winning service includes a wide variety of high-quality books and learning videos from leading publishers like Scholastic, National Geographic, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Smithsonian and many more. The Epic! library contains everything from picture books to chapter books, early readers, audiobooks, graphic novels, non-fiction titles, educational books, videos and more, and it even offers books in Spanish and Chinese.


Homer

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Homer is an incredible literacy app for children age 2-8. With thousands of lessons and activities that target the development of phonics skills, sight word knowledge, the ABCs and more, this app is a great way to build confidence with the earliest of reading skills. In addition, the app also includes tons of digital books and interactive stories to promote independent reading from a young age. Homer Reading has been proven to increase early reading scores by 74% with just 15 minutes a day. And with stories and activities customized to each child’s interests, they’ll learn while having fun.


BrainPop Jr.

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BrainPop Jr. will help kids as young as 5 learn something about any topic they can dream of in a developmentally appropriate way. Ideal for kids in Kindergarten through grade 3, BrainPOP Jr. spans topics across Science, Social Studies, Reading, Writing, Math, Health, Arts, and Technology. The gentle, humorous, and relatable characters Annie and Moby serve as guides through each topic, empowering kids to form their own ideas. BrainPOP Jr. is designed to cultivate critical thinking skills and encourage children to ask questions and make connections.

Digital Tools for Middle School (and beyond)

Flashcards of the Future

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Quizlet is an online and app-based interactive flashcard system that is invaluable for digitally minded students who can progress with relatively little friction through flashcards sets they create in advance of tests or quizzes. Creating a basic account is free, and offers access to the platform’s quiz games and “learn” feature, which tracks performance and selects the cards that continue to give students trouble, effectively tailoring the test to what the student knows and doesn’t know. A recent update makes Quizlet especially easy to use with vocabulary lists — when you enter a word into the list, Quizlet will automatically generate definitions for you to choose between from its built-in dictionary. Another under-explored feature of Quizlet is the library of crowd-sourced lists — while usually students will want to make their own lists based on their specific material, study lists already exists for many common courses (such as AP US History, or Spanish II). These can be used as a way to check student work and preview or review a difficult textbook reading. 


Student News

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Newsela is a news aggregator focused on providing articles for students - this means that its staff gathers articles from news sources across the web, and then adjusts them to its audiences in schools. The articles are organized by topic area, and often published ‘adaptively,’ so that students can select their reading level and the article’s text will subtly change (in its vocabulary and syntax) according to their individual skill. 


The Digital Classroom

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Khan Academy is a fantastic resource for short video lessons, generally focused on math, science, and computer science at all grade levels. This is a great place to go for additional practice in a particular subject area — along with videos, there are short tests and practice questions that students can use to test their understanding. There are also diagnostic quizzes that will help place students along the spectrum of skill levels, and a point system that allows students to earn badges for mastering content. The core feature, though, is video content that can be paused, replayed, slowed down, so that students can review a challenging concept from class at their own pace while working through a difficult homework task. And heads up for the high school years — Khan Academy recently partnered with Collegeboard to offer a completely free SAT prep curriculum, including practice tests and problem breakdowns. 


Brainpop

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Brainpop is another resource for educational videos and games—but with an animated, cartoon look that is approachable and engaging, better for some students than the blackboard aesthetic of Khan Academy (and with a wider range of topics). 

High School Helpers

Online Reading Guides

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 Lit Charts is a competitor of SparkNotes, and offers a well-designed theme-tracking interface that makes it easy to ‘chart’ the development of a major theme from chapter to chapter, which can be very helpful when seeking out evidence for an analytical essay — there’s even a section on important quotes organized by theme. It’s also a source for very thorough summary and analysis breakdowns, chapter by chapter and page by page, so that students can preview difficult texts or review before an exam. Two more helpful features: the literary devices and terms reference guide, and a modern, line by line adaption of every play by William Shakespeare. 


Academic Writing Centers

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Academic writing centers can provide guidance as students begin to embark on more challenging essay assignments. The Harvard Writing Center site offers tips for each step of the writing process, from breaking down an assignment to developing a thesis, and from rough draft to final copy. The Purdue OWL (Online Writing Lab) is another great resource for academic writing — when we use Purdue OWL with students, though, it’s most often specifically to explore the comprehensive guide to citation practices. Whether your student’s teacher prefers MLA, APA, or Chicago Style citations, Purdue OWL is one of the web’s best references for the nuanced formatting requirements of a well-made bibliography. 


Citation Tools

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BibMe, or any of its comparable competitors (such as Easybib, Citationmachine, Citefast), is a quick and easy upgrade to the traditional approach to creating a bibliography. Students can enter the title of a book, journal article, or website, specify a style of citation, and then sit back while the site seeks out the relevant publication information and generates a complete citation. As with any time-saving digital shortcut, though, be sure to double check the site’s work, so that the occasional glitch does not slip by undetected.


The Google Toolbox

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Google Drive, Google Docs, Google Slides, Google Sheets — Students today will no doubt already have encountered the most common of these Google Apps before high school, but now is the time to master them. It’s worth taking the time to create an organizational system for docs and slides in Google Drive, broken down by school year and subject. Students should also play around with the different collaboration tools, learning how to make suggested edits and respond to comments. With the right adjustment in settings, Google Docs can also be edited and composed offline, which can be incredibly valuable when students are fighting to remain focused in the always-connected cybersphere. One under appreciated app in the Google toolbox is Google Keep, an intuitive checklist maker and digital bulletin board that can be a useful place to track assignments and gather notes - an easily installable extension in Google Chrome will allow students to pin any article from across the web on their Keep platform, and notes can then be tagged to a specific category and color coded for organization. Encourage students to explore how they can customize their experience with these apps to work more efficiently and increase their productivity.


Spellchecker 2.0

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Grammarly is an online grammar checking app that can effectively proofread both academic papers and everyday emails; if students submit an essay to the Grammarly platform, they can receive a detailed breakdown of grammatical errors with short explanations or suggested fixes, cleanly and clearly displayed. The app will also automatically detect plagiarism, using a web-scraping capability similar to that now used by many teachers to check over digitally submitted assignments. With this function, students can be alerted to any quotes or ideas in their work that haven’t been properly cited before they turn it in as a finished product. 

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.

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.