Bonding Experience 

An imaginative program teaches students to connect with their inner atoms.

The sound of Afro-Brazilian drums and chanting blares from a boom box. It's called capoeira and derives from a form of martial arts by the same name. "A lot of the moves are similar to break dancing and hip-hop," Bhagat says. "It's a natural fusion that the students can relate to."

This is not your typical science class. This is what chemistry teacher Bhagat calls the "Rhythm of Chemical Bonding," an experimental and experiential curriculum he's been developing for more than four years. And if early results hold true, it could change the way students learn everything from chemistry to geography to world history.

The music stops and dance instructor Meoleaeke "Monte" Jones, dressed in white with a cordoned sash and soft-soled shoes, slides to the front of the classroom.

Bhagat stands at the blackboard and faces 15 11th- and 12th-graders. It's just after 8 in the morning on a Friday, typically a difficult time to hold students' attention. But the teens huddled on the floor — boys and girls, black and white, short and tall — appear curious if not eager to participate. Bhagat explains the exercise.

"What we want to demonstrate is how we can use dance to illustrate planetary and orbital models of an atom," he says as he diagrams the element's molecular structure on the chalkboard.

In technical terms, Bhagat's approach combines aesthetic education, social constructivism and existential philosophy. Put simply, his method connects the performing arts — specifically drumming, dance and drama — to chemistry. Bhagat calls it the "3-D" process. His goals for how it works are ambitious: By enticing teens and schools to embrace it, he hopes to "improve achievement on the chemistry SOL test, inspire inner-city youth to pursue careers in science, elicit creative problem-solving skills and enhance social and emotional intelligence."

Bhagat's classroom appears as unconventional as his teaching. Plants are everywhere. So are yoga and New-Age magazines. Composition books sit atop desks that have been pushed to the side and back of the room. There are no lab tables or tools, and the only visible signs that this is a science class are a model of the human body and the Periodic Table of Elements chart that hangs above the chalkboard. But what is imparted here is serious theory, Bhagat says — not flaky empiricism.

The numbers seem to support his teaching. When Bhagat began teaching at Open High in 2000, 50 percent of students passed the chemistry SOLs. In the past two years since Bhagat started phasing in the program, 90 percent of his students have passed the test. Likewise, he says, the significant increase in students' performance corresponds to their heightened interest in the subject.

Bhagat, who is also a yoga instructor, performing artist and founder of the group Drums No Guns, has some strong support for the project. He has received grants totaling nearly $17,000 from the nonprofits Partners in the Arts and The Community Foundation to implement and expand the project. (Debbie Mickle of Partners in the Arts calls it "revolutionary.") As the 2003 recipient of a Community Foundation's R.E.B. Award for Teaching Excellence, Bhagat trained last summer at the Lincoln Center Institute in New York and then studied drumming and its cultural influences in Brazil.

Still, when Bhagat first introduced the "3-D" idea of teaching during the 2001-2002 school year, parents and students were skeptical. "They were like, 'What does this have to do with chemistry?'" he recalls. Undaunted, he says: "Overcoming obstacles to development is what science is all about."

He convinced skeptics and now teaches "3-D" chemistry on Mondays and Fridays — allowing three days for more traditional study. Bhagat plans to integrate various aspects of the program into a complete curriculum that extends to subjects other than chemistry and into school systems, first throughout the state, then nationwide.

For now, the chemistry students at Open High are his inquisitive and giddy guinea pigs.

"Matter implies anything that takes up …?" Bhagat begins asking.

"Space!" the class answers. Next they're asked to factor in mass and consider how Monte, the dancer, uses his space. The task is threefold. The students describe the action, analyze its effects and then interpret the relationship they have with the abstraction by dancing themselves.

When the dancer extends his arms upward he's demonstrating positive energy like a proton, one student observes. "He was using his body to support his weight," another suggests. Fast. Nonstop. Smooth. These are words the students use to describe the motion of what's taking place in the classroom. When a student says the dancer's face looks mysterious, Bhagat appears pleased. "That's interpretation!" he exclaims. "It represents the unknown." S

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