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NMSU dance department shows students how to move to learn

When Debra Knapp, director of dance at New Mexico State University?s College of Education, walks into Fairacres Elementary School, students there treat her like a rock star.



Debra Knapp, professor and director of dance at NMSU, helps a kindergarten student with her alphabet writing at Fairacres Elementary School. Knapp helps teach students at the school as part of the Methods in Learning Kinesthetically, or MILK, program. (NMSU photo by Adriana M. Chavez)

Debra Knapp, professor and director of dance at NMSU, helps Jeannette Frietze?s kindergarten class learn how to write numbers and the alphabet at Fairacres Elementary School. Knapp helps teach students at the school as part of the Methods in Learning Kinesthetically, or MILK, program. (NMSU photo by Adriana M. Chavez)

Fairacres Elementary kindergarten students Landon Neeley, left, and Aiden Chavez learn how to write letters and numbers with the help of Debra Knapp, professor and director of dance with the NMSU College of Education?s Kinesiology and Dance Department. (NMSU photo by Adriana M. Chavez)

They run up to her to give her hugs and high-fives. Some of them hold up their fists with their pinkies, index fingers and thumbs raised, the American sign language sign for ?I love you,? as she walks by them in the hallways.

If Knapp is in the building, students in kindergarten and first, second and third grades know they?re going to have a good time in class. But Knapp?s visits are part of her research into whether kinesthetic movement while learning helps children retain information better, helping them to improve grades and test scores.

?We go into the classroom and move the lessons the teachers are doing with the children,? said Knapp, who is co-director of the Methods in Learning Kinesthetically research program, or MILK. ?We put everything into motion. Spelling words and vocabulary words, we act out stories so that they can have one more learning input system to aid memory and also to help with engagement.?

According to MILK?s statistics, of the students who began the MILK program in the fall of 2013, only 32 percent of them were reading on their grade level. By the end of the school year in 2014, 68 percent of students were reading on their grade level.

Of those who were not reading on grade level, 15 percent improved their reading 1.5 grade levels, 65 percent improved by one grade level and 20 percent improved only half a grade level.
All participating third grade classes showed significant improvement on the Discovery Education Assessment test, according to MILK statistics.

Teachers at Fairacres who implement the program also reported fewer behavior problems among their students, longer student engagement, more collaborative learning, students investing in each other?s learning, less stress during tests, students becoming more comfortable reading aloud and an increase in reading comprehension over longer periods of time.

?The classroom is a little bit more quiet. We?re able to get control of them (students),? said Jeannette Frietze, a kindergarten teacher at Fairacres who participates in the MILK program. ?They exercise and get their wiggles out before we start working. They love walking through the halls doing the kinesthetic movement.?

Kinesthetic movements include shaping their bodies to look like letters, using sign language to communicate and tactile sensing.

Alex Shane, a third-grader in Victoria Gier?s class at Fairacres, said she enjoys learning while having fun in class.

?It helps us learn better,? Shane said. ?Some people, when they?re learning, they get all bored because it?s not really fun, but here we?ll do movements and we laugh and have fun when we do quizzes. We have lots of fun here in this class, and to me it?s the best third grade class.?

The idea for MILK started in the 1970s, when the National Endowment for the Arts started their Arts in Education program that allowed artists to visit schools and turn lessons into art projects.

?I found that most of our trained teachers do not know how to include movement into the classroom, so it just becomes visual and auditory,? Knapp said. ?I have been doing professional development for many, many years, and I am finding that those two-hour professional developments really don?t hold, so we come in and we?re here all year.?

MILK has entered into its fourth year at Fairacres Elementary, but funding has become limited. During the program?s first year, MILK?s kinesthetic specialists were in the classroom four days a week for 14 weeks, eventually decreasing their presence so that teachers and students could incorporate movements into their lessons independently.

?We are trying to see whether or not, by adding an input system that involves body movement and by moving things, it improves memory,? Knapp said. ?Since most children are very kinesthetic, moving offers an opportunity to increase engagement and time on task. We?re finding that students also engage in each other?s learning, so it becomes a cooperative learning environment.?

Knapp said she would love to see the MILK program move into every school locally, but funding has become a challenge.

?Right now our limited funds only allow us to be in classrooms two days a week,? Knapp said. ?Our next steps are to find more funding sources so that we can train more kinesthetic specialists to increase our time in each classroom and to expand this program to other schools.?

Currently, Knapp and MILK co-director Ann Gavit, who is also the director of NMSU?s Contemporary Dance Theater, volunteer their time to visit two kindergarten classes, a first- and second-grade class and three third-grade classrooms. To raise money, this summer the NMSU Dance Department hosted a dance performance.

Knapp said she is working on obtaining grants to continue the program.