Learning By Doing: Using the Arts to Enhance Reading and Stop Bullying

This is a guest post by Kathy Wade, CEO and co-founder of Learning Through Art. Her organization has developed five free resources to help caring parents, teachers, and community leaders bring the story of Chrysanthemum to their own learners.

Cincinnati Children's Representative Reading To South Avondale Class .png

At each mention of bullying, students folded their paper hearts until there was nothing left but a tiny, crumpled paper ball in their hands. They’d been instructed to fold in one section at a time, at each mention of bullying, during the read-aloud of Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes, a book in which the eponymous character is endlessly mocked by her peers for her unique name. At the end of the exercise they were asked to uncrumple the paper hearts and smooth them back out, but the evidence was clear: the damage remained. Students learned that the effects of bullying are lasting and irreversible. It’s hard to heal a broken heart.

This interactive exercise was a part of a 90-minute program designed to help kids recognize bullying, understand how their words and actions affect others, and coping strategies and resilience. We developed the program as part of a larger effort to bring performing arts literacy programs to under-resourced schools in Cincinnati to help students and their families learn and grow together.

As many as one in three students have been bullied at school according to StopBullying.gov. But research shows that caring adults and supportive school environments play a critical role in helping children identify, understand, and manage their emotions—an important first step in preventing bullying behaviors.

The Importance of Social-Emotional Learning

While bullying takes many shapes and forms, one identified cause stems from a lack of understanding of other people’s experiences. Social-emotional learning (SEL) can help equip students with the ability to manage their own emotions and experiences and learn from shared experiences with others.

Research supports incorporating social-emotional learning in schools through explicit instruction and across all academic subjects. One study investigated the long-term success of teaching SEL to all students, including those from low-income families, and concluded that effective SEL policies are key to reducing the education gap.

School leaders and educators are increasingly aware that providing a strong social-emotional learning program can foster students’ success. In fact, comprehensive SEL programs have been identified as the foundation for developing a positive school environment and helping to address some of the most challenging issues educators face today, including behavior issues and emotional distress.

Here are a few relevant articles that add helpful insights on these key topics:

Indeed, students begin to develop their foundational social-emotional competencies at a young age. There is no time to waste in helping each child develop healthy behaviors and learn to exercise empathy.

Intersection of SEL, Arts Education, and Academic Achievement

Leaders in SEL recommend that educators across all grades and academic subjects incorporate teaching social-emotional competencies—defined by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) as self-awareness, self-management, social responsibility, relationship skills, and responsible decision making—into their classroom strategies. This is equally evident in ASCD’s whole child approach, with the goals of ensuring each child is healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged. Addressing SEL and academics are not independent aims: they are each part of a comprehensive education. Studies have shown that students who establish core social-emotional skills experience significant gains in academic achievements.

Just as a whole-child education extends beyond mere academics, it includes much more than just “core” subjects on the academic side. The arts are a powerful vehicle for increasing students’ engagement with academic and SEL content. The creativity present in arts education unlocks learners’ personalities, makes them feel connected to their social-emotional competencies, and helps them develop important success skills for life.

To that end, my organization, Learning Through Art, teamed up with experts from Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and Medical Center and The Children’s Theater of Cincinnati to develop an anti-bullying program combining performing arts, reading, and drama to teach kids an important lesson about caring and resilience. Specifically, we knew that by integrating the arts into the lesson and giving kids the chance to create, perform and interact with one another, we could foster an active learning experience for children, so the lessons they learned would stick.

Here are three reasons to combine arts education with SEL:

  • Kids learn more by doing: When students are able to actively engage with learning materials and their peers, they are better equipped to take what they’ve learned at school and apply it to their experiences outside the classroom. Young children may have difficulty listening quietly and staying still throughout a read-aloud, but by tying experiential learning to curricular goals, students are able to make real-world connections at school.
  • Collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking: In practice, SEL combined with arts education fosters the 4Cs of 21st century learning. For example, after learning about the different types of bullying behavior, the students were asked to work together to re-enact Chrysanthemum’s experiences (creativity and collaboration) in order to identify examples of bullying and facilitate meaningful dialogue (communication and critical thinking) between children and caring adults.
  • Self-expression is amplified: Both SEL and arts education help equip students with the skill set to express their own thoughts, ideas, and emotions. Promoting avenues for self-expression is key to guiding students through a multitude of experiences in a healthy way. This is not only good for social-emotional development, but career development, as well: speaking skills, the very embodiment of effective self-expression, are desired by employers, but are not always taught in schools.

Final Thoughts

The growing emphases on SEL and the arts have come at a time when education is moving away from a traditional “one-size-fits-all” model or a focus only on academics, and embracing the need to support the whole child. By providing students with a platform to express themselves through a variety of arts-related activities and reflect on how their actions affect themselves and others, students are equipped with skills that will serve them well beyond the classroom.

About Kathy Wade


Kathy Wade is the CEO and co-founder of Learning Through Art, Inc. (LTA), the non-profit organization whose programs have impacted over one million participants by increasing opportunities for collaboration, arts education, artistic growth, community engagement, and economic development for the past 26 years. Kathy recently contributed a chapter to the book, Building People: Social-Emotional Learning for Kids, Families, Schools, and Communities. Follow Kathy and Learning Through Art on Twitter: @LTACincy 

Time to Read: Making Independent Reading a Priority

Regie Routman is a great champion of reading. The kind of reading that is guided by a person’s curiosity, joy, and desire to fall deep into story. Pleasure reading. Real reading.

As a long-time educator and a self-proclaimed book nerd, like Regie, I believe that educators must support and encourage real reading. That is is our job to help our students become lifelong connoisseurs of text. It’s a big deal.  I mean, the research is in, folks who read tend to be more empathetic and as teachers we know, maybe better than anyone else, that we need more empathy in the world.  

One of the many  topics in Literacy Essentials that resonated with me was called, “Make Independant Reading a First Priority” (p. 204). Here Regie shares a tweet she once wrote, “Make daily indep[endent] reading #1 priority & work backwards from there. Use think aloud, guided read, shared read to support that end” (p. 204).

Regie believes that independent reading in schools must be more than just an ad-hoc, when-you’re-finished-with-your-work, kind of thing. Truly, she cautions, it needs to be even more than just a dedicated time slot for independent reading. Regie explains, that for maximum impact, schools must value massive quantities of free reading and students must be taught to choose just-right books ( books they can and want to read) and to self-monitor for comprehension. Further, she advises, a teacher should be teaching during free reading time, working with students one-on-one to help them learn reading skills and strategies and to help choose, discuss, and enjoy texts.

I am the principal of St. Croix Falls and Dresser Elementary Schools in rural Wisconsin. We serve a wonderful community that includes increasing number of students who live in poverty. Despite that fact, we consistently are marked as “Exceeding Expectations” on the state report card and have literacy scores that place us in the top 5% of schools in the state. Perhaps, most important, there is no gap between our students of poverty and their more affluent peers. We are all good readers and writers.

Over the last several years I’ve had many schools reach out to ask how we are so successful. I always say the same thing, “We let kids read. A lot.”  

In our schools every student enjoys a minimum of 30 minutes of free reading time each day. Most days, students have closer to an hour. Right away, beginning in kindergarten, we offer students books, books, books and time to read them. We teach students to pick books that fit their interests and that are within a level that is accessible to them (yes, we level our books, no, it doesn’t limit our readers or kill their love of reading.)  

I believe our emphasis on helping students learn to and love to read in massive quantities is why my school is one of the happiest and most successful schools I have ever had the pleasure of working in. And, that’s what I tell folks who ask “how we do it.” But, guess what? They don’t always believe me. They are often incredulous and profess they don’t have enough time in the day to offer that much independent reading time. They need that time to “teach” kids to read.

If I had a magic wand, I would wave it over the hearts and minds of educators everywhere so they could see that there is a simple way to help their students to be better readers, to love reading, and to grow and learn academically and in their social-emotional lives. All they need to do is give kids time and let them read. Anthologies, lesson sets, interventions, strategy instruction, guided groups, phonics, word study, and all of the other best laid plans of reading teachers will not work if they are not grounded in opportunities for real reading.

Let. Students. Read.

My school is successful in large part because our students read. They read a lot. But that tends to drop off as kids enter middle and high school. Of course, that’s not just in my neck of the woods, it happens in school districts all over the nation. A recent Edutopia article cited the following statistic from a study on the reading lives of school-aged children, “53 percent of 9-year-olds were daily readers, but only 17 percent of 17-year-olds were.” “Why? In large part, I think, because as our children move through the grades they have less and less dedicated reading time scheduled into their day. They read in content classes and in a literature course or two, but they do not have time for choice-based pleasure reading. That’s a problem. Again, if we want kids to read, we have to give them time to read.

In the spirit of Regies plea for schools to make“Make daily indep[endent] reading #1 priority,” I offer the tried and true suggestions below.


  1. Create a vision statement or set of guiding beliefs about literacy in your school or classroom. Below is a graphic that shows the philosophies that underpin literacy instruction at my school. Note: The three mentioned documents are here (1), here (2), and here (3).


  1. Allow students time to read in school every day and in every grade. A good friend, who is a high school English teacher recently told me that for the first time this year, she allowed students to self-select a novel to read in class. She raved about a boy who told her, “This was the first book I finished since elementary school!” Imagine if her school could find a way to adjust the schedule so that every student had 20 minutes for independent reading every day!
  2. Let go of programs and buy books. In an article I wrote for Educational Leadership, I detail the path my school took to move from good to great. One thing we didn’t do was buy a new program. Instead, we used what we had to help us build a culture that celebrated reading with a focus on time for choice reading. To support this effort, we spent time and money developing quality classroom libraries. Building classroom libraries can be done on the cheap by requesting donations (I often remind parents and others that I welcome their gently used books and placed a tote in the school lobby for donations), thrift shopping and garage sales, and inexpensive booksellers  (First Book Marketplace and Scholastic Book Clubs are good starts.)  
  3. Teach students to set and meet their own literacy goals. Helping students see themselves as capable readers who have autonomy over their own reading lives is a gift. Readers at my school set quarterly goals, read about how, here. It has been truly amazing to watch students continually raise their own bars, meet loft goals, and enjoy the sense of pride and accomplishment that comes with it.
  4. Build a school culture that supports literacy as a natural part of daily life. Strategies we’ve used include encouraging volunteers to read with students and share their own reading lives (School Library Journal: Reading Friends), helping students to “Binge Read” (EdTech Digest: Next Read), getting free books into the community (School Library Journal: Free Bookstore Turbocharges Reading), using social media to create a community of readers (CUE Blog: I Saw it On Facebook, Focusing School Communities on Literacy with Social Media), hosting author visits (Edutopia: Virtual Author Visits), and harnessing the power of social learning to help students view reading as a normal life thing, not just a school thing (Edutopia: Building a Community of Passionate Readers Outside of School.)

I read Literacy Essentials soon after it was published and wrote a rave review of it for MiddleWeb. I truly think that all educators would benefit from reading parts of Regie’s book if not the whole thing.  My own copy is already dogeared and marked up and has a special place near my desk for quick reference. It is a part of my personal reading life to be sure.

Regie’s call for a focus on independent reading in schools fuels my passion for helping my students learn to and love to read. I hope that it does that for you too.

Guest Post: Why Literacy is Important for Math Success

Literacy is the foundation for all disciplines. Without the ability to read, write and think, other subject areas become a bigger challenge for students. Similarly, math, science, social studies, and all other disciplines are more accessible for kids who have experienced literacy-rich classrooms. In this post, Joy Lin shares how language skills are critical for success in mathematics.

I have taught math in elementary school, middle school, and high school settings.  Regardless of age or education level, one of the most challenging parts of math class is finding the solution to the word problems.  Most of the students I encounter are able to perform mathematic functions with enough practice as long as they are willing to try.  However, when it comes time to solve a problem based on a real-life scenario, these students often struggle with not knowing how to apply the skills that they have learned.

Sometimes it is due to previous teachers not realizing that these students do not fully comprehend the reasoning behind each operation because the class can produce correct answers from “naked problems” (math questions without words) by memorizing the steps or using tricks.  Another part of the problem is the language comprehension of these word problems.  By using “key words” to identify what operation to use, the students are performing a “search and execute” function without knowing the reason why.

The “search and execute” method only works on single-step questions.  When a sentence gives more than one piece of information, the students start getting confused.  As they age, and the word problems become even more complex, key words no longer apply since language is fluid and there are many ways to interpret a word based on context.  The students would not be able to solve the problems if they do not know both what information is given and what information they are being asked to retrieve.

Photo by Dawid Małecki on Unsplash

Teaching multiple choice question-answering techniques may be good for raising test scores, but creating open-ended math questions for assessing student knowledge is absolutely essential.  If we ask the students to report their answers by writing full sentences with the right unit in order to get the credit, it would keep them from rushing to the numeral answer by randomly jamming numbers together to find the easiest fit (like assuming the answer is 2 just because the question has 13 and 26 in it, which happens very frequently in the elementary level with students with good math sense but who cannot read English well).

I’ve observed students who can answer most one-step questions by using keywords and performing the math, but when I ask them what the numeral answer stands for, they cannot answer whether it’s 5 apples or 5 people.  These students’ math abilities allow them to skate by with a passing grade unnoticed until high school when they can no longer use tricks to get the right answer.  That is when we discover the lack of fundamental mathematics understanding and the learning gap is very difficult to bridge.

If we start at the base level and make sure all students understand why they are applying each math operation to each word problem by making sure they truly comprehend the situation they are presented with, and that they know what each operation means, we can avoid these learning gaps in upper level math.  With the pressure of testing and reviews, teachers find it difficult to stay away from using tricks to raise scores.  However, the best way to help these students in all aspects is to improve their language ability because they must first understand a problem before they can solve it.

Joy Lin attended the University of Texas in Austin at 15 and graduated with 3 degrees by the age of 21. She has been teaching in the Austin Independent School District ever since. In 2012, she was named one of the 18 most inspiring educators by TED.com, and TED funded a six-part animated series “If Superpowers Were Real.” The animated series premiered in 2013 on TED.Ed and received international media attention from BBC, FOX, KUT, Time Warner Cable News, and over 100 websites. The following year, Joy was named “Innovator of the Year” By Texas Classroom Teachers Association. Joy’s new book series “Superpower Science” is slated to release in 2018 from Hatchette Book Group. In addition to her role as a classroom teacher, she is currently an academic advisor to Sentence Analytics.