How to Be a Twenty-First Century Teacher

When we look back, we often also look forward to the future.   I recently finished a course on the history of American education, and looking back helped me clarify my concept of “A Twenty-First-Century Teacher.”  Perhaps oddly, the ideas connected in my mind in the format of the artist Sark’s posters that were popular from the late 80’s-early 90’s, like her “How to be an Artist” poster.  So I created my own version of that style of poster, called, “How to be a Twenty-First-Century Teacher.”  Since integrating movement in the classroom is also a journey of continuous growth and change, I thought it might contribute to our thoughts here.

21st Century Teacher

Eric Jensen writes about Movement and Learning

In this excerpt from his book, Teaching with the Brain in Mind, Eric Jensen encourages schools see how movement and learning are inseparable.  He also offers some concrete and practical suggestions for helping students get the benefits of movement.

McCaslin-Inspired Movement with Poetry

Movements for Valerie Worth's Poem, Grass 0 01 42-33

When I shared this short video with some colleagues in a class I’m taking, one kind teacher said that this reminded her of the approach advocated by Nellie McCaslin.  Here is a link to an article about McCaslin and her work.  My favorite paragraph reads, “Though drama by and for children is considered a ghetto by many theater professionals, to Dr. McCaslin it was a serious artistic enterprise. Theater, she wrote in a 1990 article, ‘is finding recognition as an art that contributes to the emotional, intellectual and social development of the child.”

The video is of some students working on movements to go with the poem, Grass by Valerie Worth.  Only part of the class was able to participate, and the next day the students wrote open-ended reading responses to the poem.  While I have not yet scored each student’s work on a rubric and compared results between the students who moved and who did not, it was my observation that students who participated in the movement seemed to write more energetically, filling the page easily with questions, connections and wonderings.

Dr. Nellie McCaslin, pioneer of drama by and for children

Building Resiliency with Somatic Experiencing: Implications for the Classroom?

Peter Levine’s groundbreaking work in the field of trauma healing has appealed to many therapists and others in the mental health profession.  It wasn’t, however, until I experienced the effects of  some of his work, personally, that I began to wonder how a body-based approach to healing trauma and building resiliency could inform my work as a classroom teacher.

TTACE You can learn more about Peter Levine and his work here:  He has worked with with Maggie Kline to offer books and presentations about trauma and children.  Here is a link to learn more about Maggie Kline:

Eight educators from my school community agreed to join me for five study group meetings to learn more about Levine’s and Kline’s approach.  This post reflects the thinking of this study group.  As a way to explore body-based ways to respond to trauma, we watched the DVDs, Trauma Through a Child’s Eyes, a recording of a presentation Levine and Kline gave at the Front Range Community College in Colorado in 2008.  We found it helpful to have a PowerPoint presentation along with the video, which I created and share here:

The slides helped organize and connect some of the ideas that Peter Levine and Maggie Kline talked about in the recording of their live presentation.  We also read some of the chapter for educators in the book of the same title, but our response is primarily to the DVDs.  We met five times, and many of the group members wanted to continue a book study together over the next school year. Also, while this post reflects my best effort to communicate the thinking of the whole group, my own perspectives and biases naturally influence my thinking and writing here.

A little about who we are:

We are a group of nine educators who teach grades k-3 at an urban public school.  When I first stepped into our school building, I noticed the warm, child-centered atmosphere, and I have taught at this school for almost ten years.  Teachers are encouraged to investigate areas of education that we are interested in and then share our findings with the school.

Over 80% of our students receive free or reduced lunch, and many families in our city face stresses such as difficulties with substance abuse, unemployment, transience, domestic violence, homelessness, legal troubles, mental health issues and bereavement…. At times we feel overwhelmed by the challenges that many of our students bring to school each day.  We also are very data-driven and focused on our students’ academic achievement, particularly in areas of reading, writing and math.  In the past few years, we have done extensive curriculum work, aligning our curriculum to standards and across grade levels.

This curriculum work has been a wonderful, powerful process to clarify and develop our thinking about what each student needs to learn.  However, at times we can feel overwhelmed by the number of standards we are charged with teaching, working so each child reaches each standard.  So we are very focused, as a staff, to “keep our eyes on the (academic) ball,” and we are cautious about adopting anything that might take away from the limited time we have to help our students achieve their academic standards.  Since our challenges and perspective are not unique among schools, we hoped that we might be able to identify some concrete ways that the ideas in the DVD, Trauma Through a Child’s Eyes might inform our daily work as educators.

We asked ourselves these questions:  How does the work of Peter Levine and Maggie Kline apply to our day-to-day work with students, in our academically-focused classrooms (and in a No Child Left Behind world?)  What is valuable and meaningful to us as educators?  What is actually reproducible, helpful and do-able, given the many constraints, needs and responsibilities that we need to balance each day as educators?

Guiding Principles:

What is trauma?  Which students may need help with trauma?

Trauma is anything that happens to us that is so overwhelming that we are unable to bounce back.  Being traumatized means that our nervous system is “stuck” somewhere in the activation-deactivation cycle of the fight-flight-freeze response.   This results in our nervous system becoming dysregulated, unable to come back into a balanced state where we can socially engage and learn. (This is probably over-simplified, but we’re going for pith here).

Some students show their trauma outwardly.  Other children may not show obvious symptoms and may not have a history of what we would ordinarily think of as “trauma” (such as severe abuse, violence or bereavement), but may have become overwhelmed by something in their lives that has created symptoms of trauma.  These symptoms may interfere with their social, emotional or academic functioning.

Why would educators focus on responding to trauma in classroom and school settings?

Local radio recently broadcast a story about hair stylists going for training in detecting signs of melanoma on their clients’ scalps.  Why? It’s not what we usually think of as a hair stylist’s job.  They do it because they can, and because they are in a uniquely effective position to offer this service – they see a part of clients’ bodies that the clients cannot see themselves, and they see them on a regular basis, so they can notice any changes more accurately than a doctor might at an annual exam.

Similarly, I argue that teachers are in a uniquely effective position to help students with trauma, and to help all students build resilience to future traumatic experiences.   We spend a good deal of time with the same students each day, and we get to observe them closely in a variety of individual, work and social settings.  We can observe students who may lose functioning of thinking, feeling or body sensing in a moment of being triggered, and we can put many structures in place to intervene when we notice they are getting stuck in their functioning.

What does Trauma have to do with our bodies?

Trauma occurs in the nervous system.  In trauma, one or more of our systems (thinking, feeling, body sensation) shuts down, and when we are reminded in some way of that trauma, one or more of our systems can shut down again.  This prevents full functioning – cognitively, emotionally and/or physically. This is problematic — the structure of our brains and nervous systems tells us that we are meant to integrate sensation, emotion and feeling with thinking in a holistic function in the classroom/school throughout the day.

Why is it important for humans to be connected to our body sensations?

Our nervous systems’ connections among our brains and our bodies tell us that feelings do come from the gut and the heart.  These nerves connect our heart and gut with the regions of the brain that have to do with our highest levels of functioning, including positive human connections and making meaning of how we feel.  The part of our brains that help us to be aware of our body sensations is also the part that allows us to have empathy and make meaning of our experiences.  It is an important and valuable part of our brains to strengthen and further develop.


“WE ARE ALL BORN TO PARTICIPATE IN EACH OTHER’S NERVOUS SYSTEM.”  “We are capable of “reading” other people’s intentions and feel within our bodies what they are feeling.” (Peter Levine offers these quotes drawn from the work of Daniel Stern, The Present Moment)

 Our nervous systems continue to be formed in a social context.  This means that through social interactions, we are still changing and developing our nervous systems.  Everything we do as teachers affects students’ nervous systems.

“Who is in Front of the Classroom”:

We teachers also have our own histories of trauma, to varying degrees.  We can become dysregulated/upset when we work with students who are having a hard time.  The degree to which we are able to tune in to our own body sensations (somatic experiences) allows us to continually bring ourselves back into a regulated state.  This has multiple benefits for us and our students:

  • We are more able to step back and stay calm and effective when students become dysregulated (such as with defiance, shutting down, and passive-aggressive behaviors).
  • We feel more calm, effective and less vulnerable to taking student behavior personally, so we feel more at ease in our work.
  • Students’ nervous systems can be helped back into balance simply by being in the presence of a calm, regulated adult.
  • We can avoid triggering or increasing symptoms of fight, flight or freeze in our students by not engaging in power struggles, or becoming out-of-control angry or anxious.  Instead we can help them move through a stuck state by stepping back, being clear, firm and neutral.  We can also show empathy or repair shame, if and when that is appropriate.

The most powerful tools we have for communicating with our students’ nervous systems are our bodies, faces and voices.  The way we use our body, face and voice tone to communicate with students is often more important than what we say.

 Good Ideas:

Teachers can learn to tune into their own body sensations throughout the day, as a way to stay calm and regulated. There are a variety of ways we can practice this.



 Again, the most powerful tools we have for communicating with our students’ nervous systems are our bodies, faces and voices.  The way we use our body, face and voice tone to communicate with students is often more important than what we say.  Our own regulated presence is an important way we can help our students become regulated.  (On a personal note, I used to try to “fake it,” keeping my voice calm even when I didn’t feel calm inside… which felt a little false, was tiring and not so effective in helping my students…. After learning to tune into my own sensations by exploring some of the work for adults that Peter Levine offers – I am better able to  notice body sensations that directly relate to the truth of the moment I am in when with my students.)



For example, when I noticed the wave of heat that rose up my torso when a child answered me in a rude way last week, I took a breath and then chose how to respond.  In doing this, I was more effective and felt less personally upset by his behavior. I’ve also noticed that the hair on my arms sometimes stands on end when I witness a student synthesizing new learning or when I’m reading aloud a part of a story where the story’s themes come together. Another teacher in our group told of a moment when a student, whom she knows has history of trauma, was being very defiant and refusing to leave the room when the class was going to a special.  She described how she could feel her “heart and feet pounding” as she walked to a phone to call for coverage for that child…. I suspect she could also feel the process of her body returning to regulation, as a little time went by.  We can feel calmed and empowered by the ability to let these sensations rise and pass.

It is essential that we build rapport with our students, and among our students, early in the year and all year long.* The sense of social engagement, face-to-face interaction and enjoying each others’ company facilitates cognitive growth and engagement for all children, and can be transformative in repairing attachment in the nervous systems of children who have had trauma.

All students need daily (and regular) doses of belonging, significance and fun.*  One great way to do this is a Morning Meeting, which can be brisk, focused and academically productive.  (You can see a playlist of videos about morning meeting here:   There are also many other ways to include experiences of belonging, significance and fun in students’ days.

Beneficial activities include those that include some of the following elements:

  • Social engagement, face-to-face, enjoyment of others
  • Turn-taking
  • Bringing more energy into the body through fun, play or movement
  • Calming or resting, especially as a return to regulation after excitement
  • Activating energy and excitement and then calming, as a way of  practicing the activation-deactivation cycle
  • Self-observation/tracking sensations

These elements would ideally be woven into activities that also support academic goals.

When talking about an anti-violence curriculum, Maggie Kline asserts that she knows of “nothing better” than noticing about how one’s body feels and how it can change.

All students benefit from daily and/or regular practice in becoming aware of their somatic experiences (body sensations).  Such self-observation and tracking sensations can be a calming practice, and it also supports the development of integration and empathy in our brains and nervous systems. (wow!)

Image from:

Image from:

Ways to do this include:

– Finding on-the-spot moments for students to briefly  notice their own body sensations change, and then come back into regulation, such as  after recess, when there’s a loud noise, or when something startling or exciting happens.

– Maggie Kline does a brief practice with students:  They spend 1-2 minutes observing their breath.  She gives them sticky notes ahead of time, and tells them them 3 questions she’ll ask them at the end: “What did you notice about your breath at the beginning?  How did it change?  What did you notice about your breath at the end? ”  Then after 1-2 minutes, student jot their noticings on the sticky notes.  The questions and notes, Kline adds, create just enough anxiety to help students focus.

— Another idea Kline offers is to use what she calls “gingerbread man” outlines of students’ bodies.  Students can fill in the outlines using colors and textures to show different sensations.  Then they can also create a key to the diagram, explaining what each kind of mark stands for ( hot, cold, tingly, itchy, sore, peaceful….)

We can also model self-awareness of our own “experiencing,” for example verbalizing a think-aloud: “I notice that when that door slammed, my body changed – my throat got tighter, my breathing changed, and my shoulders tensed.  You might also notice changes in your bodies.  Just notice whatever you’re experiencing – where you might feel tense or loose or strong, or warm or cool, or what you feel in your breathing or throat….  and then see what happens next.  You could ask yourself, what’s happening now?”  (I don’t usually have students share or answer verbally, it’s just a way to calm down when something exciting or startling happens, to learn to tune into our sensations, and to come to trust that our sensations change — we do naturally come back into regulation, given a little time.   I also have found that some classes benefit from doing one minute of this after recess before coming back to learning).

Image from:

Image from:

Another simple and beautiful technique for helping students bring themselves back into regulation is what I call the “break chair.” This is an approach skillfully modeled on a DVD by the remarkable teacher Caltha Crowe.  (You can see a preview of this DVD here: The chair is a non-punitive place that anyone can go to when they need a few minutes to regain self-control. When this structure is in place, we can calmly redirect students when we see any signs that their behavior or their regulation is starting to go off-track.  Students can use the chair whenever they feel they need to.  In addition to allowing learning to go on for all students when one student needs a minute to come back into regulation, this technique supports students in noticing changes in their body when they start to get upset, and noticing when those sensations have calmed down, as they return to regulation.  Teachers could choose to highlight the awareness of body sensations in the ways they set up and reinforce the practice of a break chair throughout the year.  (Here is an article about “Positive Time-Out:”

Other Questions and Some Answers:

Do these practices help build resiliency in all students, to help them deal with overwhelming experiences in the future? (In other words, do these practices benefit all students, or are they just beneficial for students who have had obvious trauma?):

There are some practices that teachers can do daily and/or regularly which benefit the learning of all students, and provide special added benefits to students who have experienced trauma.  Teachers can integrate these practices into the academic work we already do to bring benefits to all of our students.   (This is tier 1 support for all students – some students may also need tier 2 or 3 support outside the classroom).  In addition, all students need belonging, significance and fun, all students benefit from the cognitive gains that come from body movement and social interaction, and  all students  are well-served by learning that our body sensations can help us know – or become aware of – how we feel.

Peter Levine describes how, when infants are upset, they need adults to help them return to a regulated state.  This helps the young person learn two things, he explains:  1. that life is good and 2. no matter how bad things get, things will be okay… we’ll be able to come back into regulation.  When students learn – through their own felt experience – that they can come back into regulation when they are upset, they are building resilience for future life experiences.  Thank goodness our nervous system continues to be formed by our social experiences, because we can help all students continue learn this more and more deeply, no matter what age they are.

 Can a classroom really create a field in which unmet developmental needs can arise and be re-negotiated, and still focus on the academic learning for all students?

Our group generally felt hopeful that there are ways to integrate some of the “good ideas” we gathered from our discussions and the DVDs into our daily work.  We also reflected that there may be ways teachers can support each other, as we look for more and more ways to integrate such practices and principles into our busy days.  Some of us may find connections that others have not yet seen.

Also, many of the ideas that we gathered were not especially new to us, but they gained a new level of importance as we thought about how our choices can help or hinder students in dealing with life’s challenges.  For example, many teachers went through trainings in Fred Jones’ approach to Positive Discipline, which also encourages teachers to stay calm, clear and consistent in responding to students’ behaviors. (You can learn more about Fred Jones’ approach at   Other teachers have received training in the Responsive Classroom approach, and have found ways to integrate social and emotional learning into the school day through RC’s principles and practices.  For teachers who might choose to take the path of becoming more aware of trauma and the resilience gained through awareness of our body sensations, we can discover many connections to good academic and management practices we already do or know.



If the Cerebellum is so very important, coordinating everything, including emotional states, and is essential for learning – how do we access this in our students?  How do we support their development of this part of their brains? What primary or secondary research has been done about these questions? We don’t have an answer to this one – we’d love to hear if you have any ideas or connections!  


I wish to offer a huge thank you to all the caring and thoughtful people who have come together to help think through this material and these questions, and sincere thanks to Peter Levine and Maggie Kline for sharing their research and urging educators to integrate these insights into their work with children.

* This idea or practice is aligned with the Responsive Classroom® approach, which offers many excellent ways to integrate social, emotional, cognitive and kinesthetic learning throughout the day.  You can learn more about this approach at:   You can also see many helpful videos on the Responsive Classroom YouTube Channel at:

Minds in Motion: A Kinesthetic Approach to Teaching the Elementary Curriculum: Part 2

Thinking about Kinesthetic Learning so We Can Use It for Our Students

This is the second part of my reflecting on Susan Griss’ book, Minds in Motion: A Kinesthetic Approach to Teaching the Elementary Curriculum.   Griss writes about teachers often responding to her ideas about kinesthetic learning with two reactions – first, that it’s an exciting and great idea, and then “How in the world do you do that?” Griss makes great strides in finding ways to explain some practical ways teachers can make kinesthetic learning work, and ways to think about kinesthetic learning so that teachers can create their own kinesthetic lessons to meet the needs of their particular students and curriculum. This post will reflect on points from the rest of her book that I found especially significant, from my perspective as a grade three classroom teacher who is both very interested in integrating kinesthetic learning in my classroom, and yet, also cautious about wisely using the limited time and resources I have to help my students reach all their required curriculum goals… I’m hoping to find some middle ground that will bring good learning to my students!

3 pathways cut

“Muscles to Brain: 3 Pathways”—Building our Teacher Imaginations for Kinesthetic Learning!

The two responses Griss describes teachers having to her ideas of kinesthetic learning – both positive interest and the sense that we have no idea how to even start teaching this way – are understandable, I think, as it can be difficult for us to imagine what resources kinesthetic learning offers to our lessons, and how to start thinking about using them.  I myself have experienced this same “frozen interest” in kinesthetic learning for years… and even though reading some of her descriptions of kinesthetic elements like time and space feels like remembering old friends from my time as a dance major in college, Griss’ work has helped me finally start to think with clarity about finding connections to the curriculum for my own students… to start to develop my imagination for kinesthetic learning and see the possibilities that are available to help students learn.

As a response to the question, “how do you do it?” Griss points to three “points of access,” to help us develop our imagination for kinesthetic ways to teach our curriculum: “(1) the possibility for creative interpretation; (2) kinesthetic elements, for instance, motion, time, space, shape; (3) authentic dance forms” (p.15).  She uses a metaphor of “three pathways” from muscles to brain.  The clarity she brings to this chapter can give us a toe-hold in starting to imagine how a kinesthetic lesson could actually be a pathway to our curriculum.  Griss gives detailed descriptions and lots of ideas for how each element can help us access learning through kinesthetic lessons.

One Pathway: Creative Interpretation

Offering an easy-to-imagine idea for an activity, Griss describes how teachers can tell or read students a story, as the students move, interpreting the story through movement. How to choose a story?  She recommends stories that include some emotion or drama, and she encourages us, “Trust your intuition.  If you can imagine your students acting out a situation without having to use words, you probably have an appropriate lesson” (p. 15). She encourages us to “have everyone do everything,” rather than choose different children for different parts, and points out that activities like this can make ideas like “cause and effect” or “main idea” easier to understand.

Creative Interpretation

I imagine this as a creative movement activity, one that is very focused on a particular lesson objective.  It encourages students to move as they listen, as a way of making sense and internalizing what they hear.

It also makes me wonder about a kinesthetic version of “visual notetaking,” in which images work with words to help the note-taker to digest and synthesize information as they listen.  (The YouTube video which introduced me to visual note taking can be found at  Possible applications include stories (Griss mentions Swimmy), historical situations and poetry, to name a few.

 Another Pathway: Kinesthetic Elements: Motion, Time, Shape and Space

Kinesthetic Elements


One pathway uses what Griss calls “kinesthetic elements” to correlate to lesson concepts.  Kinesthetic elements are Motion, Time, Shape and Space.  To access the pathway of kinesthetic elements, we need to think about how these elements can reflect curriculum concepts.  For example, are there motion words in a lesson concept?  Science ideas such as “attract” and “repel” are motion words, as is the idea of traveling in a story, a history lesson, or food traveling through the body’s digestive system.  These connections can help us think of ways for students to experience and show with their bodies how these forces and movements function, interact or change.   Griss uses an example of a line of students “bumping shoulders [to] create the rarefaction and compression of a sound wave” (p. 5).


Griss elaborates on the idea of “time;” she writes, “Time not only involves the speed at which something happens, it can also involve duration (lasting through time), transformation (changing through time) or sequence (ordering in time).”  She continues, “The cycle of plant growth from seed to seed, the water cycle, the metamorphosis of a butterfly, the cycle of seasons, or math patterns can all be taught kinesthetically” (p. 23).   I would add that the changes in a character from the beginning to the end of a story could be taught this way.  Griss makes an exciting connection, pointing to rhythm as another view of time.  She describes how students could experience fractions as movements that take half as long, or one-fourth as long, as another movement.  She suggests that “”8 runs (8 eighths) take the same time as 4 skips (4 quarters) or 2 body swings (2 halves)” (p. 23).  Griss offers a lesson plan for Multiplying Through Movement.

Space and Shape

Many teachers start out by discovering connections between curriculum and the kinesthetic elements of space and shape.  Such connections are similar to those made by Jean Blaydes in the DVD, Making Learning a Moving Experience.   “Space refers to three-dimensional space (height-width-depth), to paths created traveling through space, and to the space between objects” (p.25).  By having our children move in space, we can help them experience physical and directional concepts, such as “large, small, front, back, under, over, through, spiral” (p. 25).  Griss also suggests kinesthetic learning to help students understand the different between rotation and revolution, relationships of planets in the solar system, the density of gradations of rock (she points to sand, silt, clay and gravel), as well as arrays for understanding multiplication and division.

While connecting shape to art and design, such as with concepts of symmetry, Griss also notes many other academic connections to body shapes. Students can use their whole bodies to “walk through sentences” and make appropriate punctuations marks with different shapes. (You can see an example of this in Blaydes’ video).  It can be a way to drill long and short vowel sounds (“make a long/tall shape when you hear a long vowel sound, and make a short/low shape when you hear a short vowel”) (p. 25).  Griss describes more ways to use shapes in lessons, including directing students’ focus at the beginning of lessons, or creating shape “tableaux” – a sculpture of “still, posed bodies,” to communicate characters’ feelings or changes in a story, or “in a series to show states of transition within a cycle.” Griss offers a plan for a Conflict Resolution lesson using shape tableaux to represent various conflict scenarios, and then discussing ways people involved might solve the conflicts.

Authentic Dance Forms:

Griss also mentions authentic dance forms, which usually involve inviting a guest artist to come teach a dance form that relates to the curriculum.  Our school’s grade 3 curriculum, for example,  involves a unit on “Now and Then,” which involves looking at the history of our city and our area over time.  Meaningful connections might be learning a colonial dance, such as the Virginia Reel, as well as a Wabanaki dance, as the students are in the second photo below.

Management: Making it Work:

Susan Griss’ Minds in Motion is a rich and well-developed resource, and, despite my enthusiasm, there is much more in her book than I’m able to summarize here.  Among the other important tools Griss offers in her chapters, she helps teachers see the structures we can put in place to make kinesthetic lessons work: clearly defining the space for the lesson, using our classroom management skills to keep control of the lesson, and clearly structuring the time and format of the lesson.  She also touches on ways we can use movement for classroom management, which might sound as simple as, “Everyone with laces on their shoes, tiptoe to the rug.”

 Structuring the Lesson

Using Movement for Assessment 

            Griss offers fascinating possibilities in her chapter on using movement for assessment.  She uses Bloom’s Taxonomy to describe how student can demonstrate knowledge, comprehension, analysis, application or synthesis through various movement tasks.  Griss also makes a particularly important point: for an assessment to be valid, students need to be familiar and fluent with language of the assessment.  If my students aren’t familiar and fluent with movement as a medium for communication, I can’t just walk into the classroom tomorrow and ask them to “use body movement to demonstrate three encounters that a character had in a story.” They wouldn’t be successful, and it wouldn’t be an accurate representation of what they comprehend. To create this familiarity and fluency, teachers can start finding ways to integrate movement through the school day.  In my own classroom, I’m finding this integration surprisingly easy and beneficial.


What if I’m not a dancer or I don’t want to move?

            Susan Griss’ chapter for teachers who may not want to move holds resources for all teachers – including teachers who already move a lot.  She reminds us about maintaining control of the space and time used by the lesson.  This seems an important point to repeat, as perhaps some people might have the misconception that creative movement is more of an out-of-control free-for-all, when in reality it can be as structured, controlled and focused as you choose to make it, using your classroom management skills.  There are different elements to define and expectations to clarify (such as whether or not they move around the space, when to freeze), but as we try out lessons, we’ll become more and more confident in our already-present abilities to manage them.

Movement Research Cover

            One of the most profound teachers in my life, Robert Ellis Dunn, taught movement classes partly from a chair, in the years shortly before his death.  He used his words, his voice and his gestures to communicate ideas to us.  He had students demonstrate examples, and his insightful and specific observations of what he saw us doing encouraged us and gave words to our movement experiences.  Griss encourages teachers to use options for demonstrating, including having students demonstrate.  She urges teachers to use our own resources, including our voices, instruments (as simple as a drum, wooden sticks or hand clapping will work), our words, our observations and our gestures to help students understand what we want them to do and to learn.   She also points to the value of viewing dance – both through video and live performance.  And, as with any innovation in our teaching, she reminds us that the more we try kinesthetic learning with our students, the more comfortable we become, and the more success we find.

Not Every Teacher Wants

With her wise reminders to think carefully about our curriculum and learning goals for our students, her detailed descriptions of possibilities and multiple sample lesson plans, Griss offers a inspired and comprehensive guide for developing and using kinesthetic lessons with our students.

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Susan Griss’Minds in Motion: A Kinesthetic Approach to Teaching the Elementary Curriculum: Part 1

Minds in Motion: A Kinesthetic Approach to Teaching the Elementary Curriculum: Part 1

Susan Griss has an extensive background as a dancer, choreographer, artist-in-residence, educational consultant and facilitator for professional development. A teacher after my own heart, she draws on this range of experience to develop clear and thoughtful methods for teaching the elementary curriculum through a kinesthetic approach.

Griss offers both a book and website to share her methods and insights.  Her website includes a biography, sample lessons, articles and a thorough summary of her thinking about kinesthetic learning.  You can visit her site at:  In addition, her articles on kinesthetic teaching have appeared in Educational Leadership, the Smith College Alumnae Quarterly, and Teaching Artist Journal.

If you see her website and want more, I highly recommend her book, Minds in Motion: A Kinesthetic Approach to Teaching the Elementary Curriculum, published by Heinemann in 1998.  Griss offers many strategies to connecting mind and body to teach the whole child. Reading her book moved me from a theoretical appreciation for kinesthetic learning to having clear, manageable and meaningful ideas I can actually try in my classroom right away, as well as deeper understanding for developing kinesthetic lessons of my own in the future.

I won’t try to summarize her whole book, especially as she explains herself so well on her website, but I’ll share what stood out most to me, and how Griss’ book helped me develop my thinking about kinesthetic learning in my classroom. This post focuses on her book’s first chapter.

Why a Kinesthetic Approach?

Cognitive Development

Griss’ first chapter, “All Children Want to Move,” points to appealing benefits of kinesthetic learning.  She explains that kinesthetic learning is experiential learning, and she also draws on the work of Karla Hannaford, who believes that our bodies can anchor our learning (“Movement anchors thought”).  As an example, she describes a lesson based on a kinesthetic demonstration of a scientific principle – a line of students demonstrating the way a sound wave moves.

Griss reminds us of Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, particularly the way developmental stages build upon previous stages; sensory-motor development is connected to cognitive development.  Griss points to Piaget’s “preoperational period” between ages two and seven, during which “concrete and motor examination of many dimensions of the external world” support the development of “higher-order, abstract thought processes” (p. 3).  She also notes that in the following stage, the “concrete operations” period, even though the power of thought is becoming more developed, children still have an active and concrete relationship to the world.  In short, sensory-motor development is foundational for, and intertwined with, cognitive development.

Griss’ chapter brings a new level of importance to kinesthetic learning – as a way to support cognitive development for all students.  We want our classrooms to help all students succeed.  If we know that students are at varied levels of development in different areas (and that each student can operate from different levels of development in different situations), then it seems reasonable that many learners would often need to ground their learning in concrete and experiential ways.  In addition, I wonder if children (and some adults?) never totally outgrow the need to anchor learning in a sensory-motor way.  For people who may have experienced trauma and/or poverty, or other challenges, kinesthetic experiences may be helpful – even necessary – to “fill in the gaps” from limited exploration or integration at certain levels of development.

Affective Benefits

Griss also points to affective benefits; she explains how in addition to academics, “Children are also learning how to interact with others; how they fit into the world around them; who they are; how to pursue and complete projects…. Whether or not they think they deserve respect; whether or not they should trust themselves; whether or not they have the ability to succeed” (p. 6).  Kinesthetic learning can support these outcomes, both as a body-based innovation and because it can offer the benefits of an integrated arts experience.

Griss develops this connection between kinesthetic learning and the arts as she writes, “Kinesthetic learning shares the power of all the arts to provide a deep, personal space for exploration of the self and the world – a private space that can nonetheless be shared” (p. 7).  Her observation highlights a layer beyond the content-focused physical learning demonstrated in Jean Blaydes’ DVD, How to Make Learning a Moving Experience, to include social-emotional benefits through exploring students’ inner and outer worlds through a kinesthetic language.

Finding Success

Griss explains with conviction that kinesthetic learning offers students alternative pathways to grasping the subject matter – she calls it “Saving Students from Failure.” Griss describes how kinesthetic learning can help students find success.  She brings this idea to life in the following passage:

“Rodney is a good example.  Stumbling through a paragraph that is two years beneath his grade level, his eyes wander out the window to let him escape his frustration and embarrassment.  But thirty minutes later, he demonstrates – with confidence and professionalism – the choreography he was taught a week before.  Interpreting the nature of the main character in a Dr. Seuss story, he weaves his way from upstage to downstage at the appropriate cue.  Adept at this kinetic vocabulary, he helps other slower learners remember their parts.  Rodney is developing reading comprehension skills through a kinesthetic retelling of the story” (p. 9).

She describes how this engagement helps him to focus during his regular reading lessons.  While some might argue that struggling readers need to spend their time reading, not dancing, Griss talks about how “kinesthetic learning can save some children from the spiral of academic failure,” offering a source of motivation, an avenue to find “focused energy and strong intent,” opening up learning channels and reducing resistance.

The Creative Process

I found especially profound Griss’ connection to dance and the creative process.  Choreography consists of “making formal and aesthetic decisions to create a dance that can be repeated.”  Griss acknowledges that “not all teachers are able to guide students through the creative process through the medium of movement,” rather she advocates for a “team approach” that brings out the best that artists and teachers have to offer students – the artist-in-residence or the arts-in-education institute.

Griss beautifully describes the choreographic process:  students “develop the germ of an idea through many stages of brainstorming and exploration, analysis and synthesis, refinement and editing.”  She shows how the cognitive skills of Bloom’s taxonomy parallel the choreographic process, Griss demonstrates that, “By providing children with a physical language to experience the creative process – a process which some cannot [yet] access through the written word – we can deepen their cognitive development” (p. 13).  This is a much deeper process than simply demonstrating a concept or anchoring key words through gestures.

I personally appreciate the distinction between teacher and artist that Griss makes.  She reminds us, “Dance is an art form in its own right and should be presented with integrity by an experienced artist” (p. 13).  I forget that, as I have played both roles in my life and I sometimes don’t notice how the lines can blur for me.  So this section of the book holds gems for both my teacher and my artist selves:  Griss’ detailed and deep description of the creative process will enrich and clarify the work I do in the summers as an artist-in-residence, and I’d like to explore the whole-group lesson, “Choreographing a Book Report” as an enrichment for my class at least one time this spring, before the school year ends.   After that, I can better make decisions about its value in teaching our curriculum goals.

Another, maybe simpler, way to try out kinesthetic learning in reading would be to read a poem as a class and come up with movements for the lines/stanzas of the poems.  On last year’s standardized testing, some students struggled with understanding and responding to poetry.  It would be very helpful to find out if kinesthetic learning would help deepen students’ understanding of poetry.  I’ll let you know what we find out, and I’d love to hear what others are trying, or have tried, or are thinking about trying, in their own work with learners and learning!



What do learners’ bodies have to do with their learning?  What are current body-focused innovations in education? How effective are body-focused approaches in a real-world third-grade classroom?

Guided by these key questions, I’ve set a challenge for myself and my classroom.  Over the next months, I’ll learn about different body-focused approaches, such as:

  • Instructional methods that integrate kinesthetic arts (dance/movement, drama and/or sculpture)
  • Integrating students’ somatic experience in learning, in an effort to build resiliency and enhance perception
  • Experiences with movement disciplines (such as yoga, qigong, ballet, or creative movement) as an integrated “bonus” in students’ school-day experience

My students and I will look for ways to try them in my classroom, and I’ll report back to you our results.  Check back soon for reviews and reflections on books and DVDs related to the key questions above, as well as reports on some real-world applications.

If you have explored any of these approaches, or have ideas or comments, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Below you can find a detailed account of the resources (books, DVDs) I’m exploring to learn more about body-focused innovations in elementary education.  Visit the “Welcome!” and “About Me” pages to learn more about this blog and its purpose.

  • Perhaps this record may help you find an avenue you may wish to pursue further for your own and your students’ learning.
  • I’m hopeful that this journey will  also help me develop a list of guiding principles that apply to many body-focused approaches to teaching and learning.  
  • For a more concise list of guiding principles I’ve discovered so far, visit the “Guiding Principles and Good Ideas” page.