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Dance of the Trapezoid

Educators use the power of the arts to teach math and science.

By Alain Jehlen

For Charlene Ellingson, the eye-opener was a painting by a Hmong girl with very limited English.

Ellingson, a biology teacher in Minneapolis, had taught her students about neurotransmitters and synapses and asked them to come in the next day with an illustration. She expected them to copy a diagram. Instead, this girl drew a metaphor: a soda machine with different types of soda pouring through tubes into cups, the way neurotransmitters pass through synapses.

"She really understood how [a synapse] works," says Ellingson. "She had constructed her own way of thinking about it. And I could see inside her thinking process. But I could never have gotten that from her in words."

These days, many schools are cutting arts to focus on the math and reading tested under the No Child Left Behind law, but some teachers are using the arts to help their students master academics. They say integrating arts into academic lessons helps students learn more deeply because they use more senses and different ways of thinking.

The arts can engage students' emotions, too. Unfortunately, the sharpest arts cutbacks have been in low-income schools where winning students over to the learning enterprise is often the most difficult.

Mary Szentesi's students use dance to show what happens when geometric shapes are flipped or moved. Photo: Ellen Banner

Charlene Ellingson now regularly asks students to draw pictures that show analogies between biological phenomena and the world they're familiar with. Using this approach, she finds, students can't just regurgitate what they've heard in class. They make science concepts their own.

Her school, Patrick Henry High in North Minneapolis, has mostly Black and Hmong students, with a 75 percent low-income population.

"Some show up on the first day saying, 'I don't like science,'" says Ellingson. But when they draw, they get involved, learn observation skills, and think harder. Drawing also helps her involve students who would otherwise be wallflowers. "I want to hear the voices of all my kids, not just those who talk quickest," says Ellingson. "Some think out loud, but other kids want to process their thoughts before they're willing to talk about it. Drawing gives them the time they need."

Minneapolis has secured a grant to bring artists into schools to work with teachers, and Ellingson has used some of that money for an artist who taught her students drawing techniques.

Now she wants to branch out and use other arts: "I'm thinking of using dance and having my students physically act out the processes of cellular respiration."

Move like a polygon

Many teachers across the country are already using dance to teach academics, some in conjunction with professional dancers. In Tacoma, Washington, an art education group called Arts Impact has started an experiment to see whether dance and visual arts can help students get higher geometry scores on the state math test. The experiment involves nine low-income schools of which three, chosen randomly, are controls.

One of Charlene Ellingson's science students saw an analogy between nerve signals passing across a synapse and how people catch colds. Photo: Marc Wanvig

The other six include Wainwright Elementary, where Mary Szentesi's fourth-graders use their

whole bodies and giant rubber bands to make polygons that slide and flip. They're learning what geometric transformations might feel like to a pentagon—if a pentagon could feel. "When they take tests, I can see them moving their arms the way we do when we dance, as they work on problems," Szentesi says.

At Birney Elementary School, third-grade teacher Bertina Kelley has found success with a similar movement approach to geometry. "You can ask them about all the attributes of a parallelogram and they've got it now," says Kelley. "For a third-grader, that's a lot."

"At first, I was really skeptical," she says. "Some of my kids have behavior problems. They're a tough group. They need stability and structure. I thought they might start running around and not be manageable. But I've completely changed my mind. It's the best thing for them, it's so engaging."

Artist-educator Debbie Gilbert worked with Szentesi and Kelley. But the plan is for teachers to use these dance techniques on their own after the experiment is over. So in the first lesson, Gilbert taught while the regular teacher mostly watched. The next lesson, Gilbert and the teacher co-taught. And the third time, the teacher took the lead with Gilbert supporting.

Posters and powers of 10

Like Kelley, math teacher Alykhan Boolani has picked a challenging place to work. Boolani teaches at the East Oakland (California) School of the Arts, which is

99 percent minority, 67 percent low-income. This small school is one of several created by carving up a much bigger high school. Despite the name, says Boolani, many School of the Arts students have no special interest in art; they're just kids who live nearby.

They're not much into math, either, he says. And on top of that, Boolani is a first-year teacher. You might think he'd focus on just getting the basics right. But with help from the school's art integration coach, Liz Harvey, Boolani has found that art can be the key to connecting his students with academics.

Alykhan Boolani had his students paint posters about Iraq War spending as part of his teaching about big numbers and exponents. Photo: Cameron Scott

One example: The state test requires students to understand big numbers—millions, billions—and how powers of 10 can be used to describe these numbers: 109 is a billion. Boolani decided to talk about real-world examples of giant numbers, like federal spending on Iraq versus spending on schools. Then his students made posters comparing the numbers they found in their research and hung them around the school to educate other students.

"I've noticed that when I teach something using direct instruction, my kids learn it, spit it back on the test, and get it out of their minds," he says. "But what they learn with art, they remember."

To teach the various types of triangles, he staged an architectural design competition for a hall of fame for women athletes. Competing student teams drew up plans for buildings that had to express motion and agility and use several types of triangles. "Now these kids know what an isosceles triangle is, and they won't forget it," he says.

Sines and seasons

His colleague Laravian Battle uses art to teach the traditionally dry subject of trigonometry. For example, sines and cosines (as everyone would remember if they had Battle for a teacher) are cyclical. She has her students think of other cycles and draw them—the seasons, the moon's phases, the cycle of violence.

Battle wants to learn to read music and play an instrument so she can bring music study into her classroom—"Music is all fractions. I could do great work with my pre-algebra students."

So is this the future of art education—as a tool for teaching the "core subjects"?

Public opinion polls show Americans value imagination and creativity, not just the more easily measured skills assessed on standardized tests. A recent poll (funded in part by NEA) found that most voters believe arts education is "essential" for developing the imagination and should be considered part of the basics.

But imagination is difficult to measure with multiple-choice questions or rubric-scored essays like those on state tests, so it's hard for arts educators to prove their worth.

"I love art. My students love art," says Bertina Kelley, the Tacoma third-grade teacher who uses dance to help teach geometry. "We shouldn't have to find an excuse for art. It's a shame, but that's reality right now."

But Debbie Gilbert, the dancer who works with Kelley, is grateful for any opening. "Any reason people will dance is good!" she says.

At the East Oakland School of the Arts, Liz Harvey says they're not just using art as a tool for teaching the "basics." They're integrating the arts throughout the curriculum, and that doesn't belittle their importance.

Aesthetic expression in the real world, she notes, is often part of a broader purpose, for example in architecture or poster design. The artistic dimension contributes emotional engagement, new perspectives, and enjoyment—just as it can in school.


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An Internet search for “arts integration” turns up a wealth of resources including specific lesson plans, lesson videos, and professional development programs to help teachers connect the arts with the rest of their curriculum. Here are just a few of the many useful sites.




Perpich Center for Arts Educaiton Artful Online Arts for Academic Achievement

New York City


Washington state

Southeast region

Sample units:
Connecting with the Arts

Other sites:

More on the recent poll on public attitudes toward arts education.

Contact some of the teachers and educators in the story:




Read how other NEA members are integrating the arts into their academic lessons (not just math and science) and share your own ideas andexperiences

on our discussion board.