America’s best teachers use theater and rap to make kids like math

Get creative.
Get creative.
Image: AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin
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The typical image of math and science teachers is something of a boring, humorless bookworm. But as it turns out, the best American teachers in these fields use creative outlets to spice up their teaching.

Researchers at Michigan State University interviewed eight finalists and winners for the national US Teacher of the Year award, about how creativity informs their teaching style. The qualitative study (pdf), published in the journal Teachers College Record, found that these teachers shared a common interest in employing art to teach math and science and improve how children learn.

Math and science tend to be sore spot for American teachers, whose students on the whole fare worse in standardized tests on those subjects compared to other countries. Below are examples of creative approaches by specific teachers shared by the study’s author:

Rap about math 

Alex Kajitani is no professional rapper. His math rhymes are extremely cheesy, and his rhythm is questionable.  (“It’s the decimal point / yea now you’re getting hot. / When you add and subtract them / there must be a rule / so listen to my rhyme / and let it be a tool. / Just line up the dot / and give it all you got.”) The 2009 teacher of the year in California, and finalist for the national title that year, acknowledges this, and raps his middle school math lessons anyway.

“It was a complete disaster,” Kajitani said about “The Itty Bitty Dot,” the first song he rapped, during a TEDx talk. His students made fun of him, but in doing so they learned the lyrics, and their test scores went up.

Act out how things work

Kajitani also uses acting to lighten the burden of learning math and science. He has a series of characters he embodies—students can ask “Math Professor” about any topic unrelated to numbers, like language arts, and the “professor” will connect the dots to math.

Middle school science teacher and 2008 national teacher of the year Mike Geisen asks students to do the acting, for example by involving them in simulations of an atom, or encouraging them to make a game out of a scientific concept, like natural selection. “So they’re doing the creation based on something new they’ve learned. And that’s ultimately my goal… to inspire them to then get creative and demonstrate and process what they’ve learned.”

Advertise tough concepts

Geisen told the researchers he asked his students to make advertisements for specific concepts, like an advertisment for chloroplasts, to explain photosynthesis. The exercise also serves to bring arts education to a school that cut its art program, he said in the study.

“Our science scores have been steadily going up over the last several years, but what I’m more excited about is the fact that kids are actually coming out of our middle school excited about science and enjoying it…We met with our high school teachers last spring and they said it’s a huge difference, that eight or 10 years ago kids would come to the high school and walk into their science class and look at that science teacher and say, “I hate you. I hate science.” But now they come in and not only do they have some skills and knowledge to go with it, but they’re excited about learning stuff because it’s cool.”

Kajitani incorporates advertising into his math lessons, too, using the slogans in ads to teach lessons on percentage.

Use hobbies to brainstorm new teaching approaches

The teachers had a few ways of coming up with lesson plans that would connect with the students. One is to try to see the world through kids’ eyes, who don’t categorize their learning the way schools do.

The other is to get away from it all to encourage creative thinking. Kajitani said he surfs to clear his head, or to think about bigger picture classroom problems. Other teachers said they kickbox, or go running, or do yoga—all active pursuits that don’t involve teaching, but ultimately help create clarity in the classroom.