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Fort McMurray Learning through the Arts program leader Sarah Neiman, left, plays a game with grade six student Steven Fuchiara during programming in Fort McMurray, Alberta on Monday, June 16, 2014. The program integrates the arts into curriculum and has boosted math and literacy scores of First Nations kids above the provincial average.

AMBER BRACKEN/The Globe and Mail

At St. Anne's School in northern Alberta, teachers are stepping away from the chalkboard and using creative new techniques to teach the most confusing parts of the curriculum.

Sometimes this means using elaborate charades to act out examples of literary tools such as similes, metaphors and personification. Or turning a tarp into a giant Cartesian grid, laying it on the floor and getting the students to use mathematical equations to move between co-ordinates. Or explaining the food chain through a break-dancing competition – insects do a simple step and shuffle, apex predators must perform a more demanding move like the worm.

It's all part of the Royal Conservatory's Learning Through the Arts Youth Empowerment Program, which uses drama, music and visual arts to teach core curriculum to students in Grades 6 through 9.

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The results, outlined in a report released this week by the Royal Conservatory, show that those who benefited most from the program were First Nations and Métis students.

Between 2010 and 2013, the first three years that the Learning Through the Arts program was delivered to about 3,000 students in Fort McMurray, the Grade 9 math scores of First Nations students have climbed more than 20 percentage points, beating the average for Alberta's non-aboriginal students.

First Nations students also beat the provincial average by nearly 10 points in Grade 6 language arts and posted a 20-percentage-point gain in Grade 9 social studies.

"It's thrilling," said Shaun Elder, executive director of Learning Through the Arts. "We always thought it was possible, but to see [aboriginal students] beating the provincial average in serious topics like math and language arts, that's off the charts."

Educators across the country are struggling with how to get First Nations youth – a fast-growing demographic – to live up to their academic potential. As a group they have long trailed their non-aboriginal peers on standardized tests, and only one in three graduates from high school.

The program pairs local artists with classroom teachers to develop creative ways to teach some of the drier or more confusing parts of the core curriculum. The teachers identify the concepts that their students struggle with most, and the artists help develop new ways to visualize or act out those ideas.

Grade 6 students at Fort McMurray's St. Anne School learned about a type of metaphor called personification this week using Learning Through the Arts techniques. Rather than memorizing the definition of personification – a literary tool that lends human traits to animals and inanimiate obects – 11-year-old Ryan Kelloway and his classmates acted out examples.

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Ryan crouched on his hands and knees, like a chair, and pleaded with his classmates to sit on him.

"Please, please, please! Just come and sit!" he said, his eyes wide with dramatic flair.

"The chair begged me to sit on it," someone shouted, as the classroom erupted with laughter.

The program generates a more fun and informal feeling to the classroom, according to Gabby St. Martin, 16, a Métis Grade 10 student at Fort McMurray's Holy Trinity School. She remembers feeling intimidated and shy for most of her school career until she became part of Learning Through the Arts about two years ago.

"[The program] allowed me not to be worried about messing up," she said. "If you did you could laugh it off."

Gabby particularly enjoyed the elements of the program inspired by First Nations culture, many of which were developed with the help of Hazel "Issapaakii" Derange, a local elder and residential school survivor.

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Issapaakii teaches students about traditional medicines, such as dandelions, and their teachers lead them in a scientific investigation of why these weeds can be used to treat skin rashes. (They contain an abundance of nutrients, including vitamins A, C and K, calcium and potassium.) First Nations and Métis students often struggle because they're intimidated by traditional classrooms, according to Issipakii.

"For all of my life I was terrified of classrooms," she said. "I never wanted to go to school. The teacher would ask me to answer a question and my mind was blank."

Just letting kids out of their desks to move around can help them relax, she said, and the cultural elements of the program give aboriginal students a badly needed sense of validation.

Mr. Elder and his staff are exploring ways to expand the program into nearby communities with a higher density of aboriginal students, including Fort Chipewan and Fort McKay.

The challenge is finding local artists in a remote part of Canada where the cost of living is so high. The expansion will also test whether the program's success can be replicated outside the affluence of Fort McMurray and the region of Wood Buffalo, where the average household income is $189,000.

Issapaakii, a soft-spoken great-grandmother with shoulder-length salt and pepper curls, lowers her voice and drops her easy smile when she talks about the expansion.

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"It's a different way to reach kids," she said, "and there are kids who badly need that."

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