Published on Feb 8, 2017

This is Video #11 in my 12-part video series based on my book The Power of the Adolescent Brain: Strategies for Teaching Middle and High School Students In this video I focus on using expressive arts activities for channeling burgeoning teenage energies. I explain how the adolescent’s limbic system or emotional brain matures at puberty while the part of the brain that works to inhibit emotional expression, the prefrontal cortex, doesn’t mature until the early twenties. Consequently, the teenager is in a situation where his foot is, metaphorically speaking, on the gas pedal, while the brakes have yet to be installed. I suggest in this video that the expressive arts represents a great way to channel this emotional energy, and present 5 ways to do this in the middle and high school classroom::

1. Incorporate Creative Writing into the Curriculum

2. Encourage Students to Express Ideas Visually

3. Let Students Be Creative with Multi-Media

4. Allow Students to Show Learning Through Music

5. Permit Students to Express Ideas Through Drama and/or Dance

Examples are given in the video for how these 5 strategies can be integrated into regular academic coursework, such as having students choose an element in chemistry class from the Periodic Table, such as neon, and write a poem about it, or having students report on a topic such as U.S. government, by putting on a play.

You can watch this video by clicking on the play button above, or read the transcript of the video below:

‘’Hi, I’m Dr. Thomas Armstrong, and this is Video #11 in my video series based on my book The Power of the Adolescent Brain: Strategies for Teaching Middle and High School Students (published by ASCD).  As part of this series we’re looking at eight practices that middle and high school teachers can implement in the classroom which are in line with recent research concerning how the adolescent brain develops.  In this video, we’re going to focus on adolescent brain-friendly intervention #7:  expressive arts activities.

One of the key features of adolescence is their sheer energy and the almost explosive way in which this energy sometimes gets expressed.  At times a student’s emotional expressiveness gets to the point where we might even call it impulsivity, and in fact, if you’ll remember from video #4 when we detailed 12 risks of adolescence, many of those risks were due, at least in part, to a teen’s impulsivity, leading to traffic accidents, sexually transmitted diseases, substance abuse, and suicide, among other risks.  We know from other videos in this series that a big reason for a teen’s impulsivity is the fact that the limbic system or emotional brain matures at the beginning of adolescence.  On the other hand, the prefrontal cortex, which acts in part to inhibit those impulsive behaviors, doesn’t mature until the early twenties, as you can see from this slide, where the maturation of the neocortex (represented by the blue and purple areas) proceeds from the back of the brain to the front where the prefrontal cortex resides.

Consequently, adolescence is a time when, to some extent, emotional expression is paramount. The big question is:  how will this emotional energy be channeled in the life of a teenager?  Will it be channeled into risky behaviors that lead to tragedies like traffic accidents, substance abuse, and gang violence. Or will it instead be channeled into things that are creative, artistic, and aesthetically valid?

Adolescence can be a time of tremendous creative vitality.  The 19th century French poet Arthur Rimbaud wrote ALL his great poems during his adolescent years. French composer Georges Bizet (the creator of the opera Carmen) composed his celebrated Symphony in C at the age of 17.  16th century German artist Albrecht Dürer produced the earliest known self-portrait drawing in European art when he was 13.  And Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed his five incredible violin concertos between the ages of 16 and 19. Consequently, using expressive arts activities in middle and high school represents a key opportunity for channeling adolescents’ emotional energies in positive and creative directions.  In this video, I’d like to share five strategies for doing this.

The first strategy is to incorporate creative writing into the secondary school curriculum.  There are many ways to integrate creative writing into academic coursework, even in courses that may not seem relevant to this type of activity.  In science class, for example, students can pick an element from the Periodic Table, such as neon, and write a poem about it, or in math class they can write a short story about Rene Descartes discovering the Cartesian coordinate system as he watched a fly buzz around on his bedroom ceiling.  In language arts or social science courses, students might be encouraged to become part of the National Novel Writing project, where people of all ages set a goal to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days – usually in the month of November.  Their young writer’s program supports K-12 teachers and their students in writing a novel of any length at any time of the year.

The second strategy is to have students express their ideas visually.  Students can create drawings, sculptures, or paintings to demonstrate their learning in any content area, for example, painting a historical scene, constructing string or wire sculptures of mathematical patterns, or creating illustrations of events or themes in a piece of literature.  Teachers can ask students to make quick one-minute sketches of a concept they’ve just taught. In addition, students can be permitted to hand in comic strips with dialogue in lieu of written assignments.

The third strategy is to let students channel their creative energies into multi-media projects. Student photography or other student created digital works can be used by teachers as a substitute for a written assignment or to report on a topic in a course.  Teachers can also ask students to visually interpret a text or a concept they are studying in class through a video or a photo montage.

The fourth strategy for channeling adolescent energies through the expressive arts is to allow students to demonstrate their learning through the medium of music.  In history class let students conduct research projects on historical eras by analyzing and then creating music based on the music of those periods. In science, have students use simple percussion instruments to rhythmically perform scientific concepts such as Boyle’s law, nuclear fission, meiosis, or evolution.  In language arts class, allow students to use musical composition software to create songs based on the characters and narratives in the literature they are reading.

The final strategy for using expressive arts activities at the middle or high school level involves permitting students to express ideas through drama or dance. In a government or social science course, give students the option of demonstrating their learning by writing and presenting a play, for example, by portraying their knowledge of how a bill is passed by the U.S. government (this play, of course, would have to be performed in slow motion, or even as a freeze frame!).  In language arts, let students act out scenes from the stories or novels they are reading or use improvisation to represent an alternative way a scene in a novel might have gone.  In foreign language courses, reinforce the meanings of vocabulary words by having students dramatize them either individually or in groups.

If you’d like more information about using expressive arts activities at the middle and high school level, or want to know all eight interventions that are adolescent brain-friendly, get my book The Power of the Adolescent Brain: Strategies for Teaching Middle and High School Students, available through Amazon or other online sources including the publisher ASCD.  You can also find the other videos in this 12-part series by going to my channel on You Tube.


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About the author

I’m the author of 20 books including my latest, a novel called Childless, which you can order from Amazon.

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