With the verve of a motivational speaker, 12-year-old Rodrick Johnson stood beside his decorated science board explaining its purpose. But for the seventh-grader with the rapid-fire delivery, the science presentation crossed subject lines to incorporate creative writing, geography and math.

At West Baltimore's William H. Lemmel Middle School - where pupils have routinely scored below average on standardized tests - Rodrick is one of hundreds of pupils who are being "taught outside the box," according to Principal Vera Holley, in an attempt to make learning fun and help raise test scores.

For Holley and her staff that meant using the emergence of the East Coast's noisy 17-year cicadas to the school's advantage.

"The goal was to capture a teachable moment through cicadas," said Holley, who is in her third year as the school's principal. "To be a great and effective teacher you have to take what's exciting and available. A whole lot of teaching was able to be done because of this project."

For Rodrick and many other pupils, learning has become less a chore and more an engaging activity.

"[My] teachers don't just teach straight out of the book," he said. "They try and explain things and go over them with us."

Yesterday morning, in the school's second-floor hallway, the fun aspect of learning was on display as seventh-graders excitedly showed off their winged catches lying curled up and stiff inside glass cylinders.

For the science project, pupils were required to write poems about their experiences with cicadas, map areas of the country where the insects would emerge, conduct interviews, and gather information from books and the Internet, said Lisa LeCompte, a seventh-grade math teacher.

"In order for the content to be meaningful it has to relate to their lives. ... Completing worksheets is not beneficial to them; they need hands-on activities," LeCompte said.

The seventh-graders will also get to stretch their communication skills; at the end of the school year they'll be teaching sixth- and eight-graders about the bugs' habits, LeCompte added.

For his presentation, Rodrick used dead cicadas and construction paper replicas, and discussed interviews he conducted with adults about the last time the bugs came calling.

Most pupils welcomed the project, but 12-year-old La'Shay Byrd had reservations.

"It was too much work. I had to stay up until 1:30 in the morning to do it," said La'Shay, who received a grade of 94.

Although La'Shay complained about having to touch bugs, she said the skills she learned would stay with her forever.

Holley said she hopes sentiments like those will help transform Lemmel Middle from underachiever into success story.

Holley credits creative projects such as "Year of the Cicadas" with raising school attendance from 86 percent to 93 percent during the past year. She also estimates that parent participation has increased about 50 percent.

Rodrick said the cicada project gave pupils an opportunity to shine.

"A lot of people don't get to see what we can do," he said. "But with a project like this, we get to show off that we've learned something."