The big parade: Reflecting on Expo Elementary as a student and father move on

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At the end of a sticky day in June the excitement will bubble over and fill the halls of Expo Elementary. It’s the last day of school and the kids are ready to burst through the concrete walls and into the summer. But first, there is a great ritual that has to take place – all the sixth graders line up and march in one long parade through the school, high-fiving and smiling through the shouts of those who will be back.

My son George, my youngest, is in that parade today. After 11 years of greeting my kids at the end of every day as I came to pick them up, my time as an Expo parent is coming to an end. I will miss the place because it taught me a lot, too.

Expo Elementary is an excellent school. The teaching principle that drives it is the radical concept known in education circles as the Theory of Multiple Intelligences. First proposed by sociologist Howard Gardner, this theory breaks down the way that people understand their world into seven different skills – linguistic, logical-mathematical, musical, bodily-kinesthetic, spatial, interpersonal, and intrapersonal. The theory is that since each brain processes information in different ways, each one will learn new information and skills in different ways.

To translate that: everyone learns differently. You can add “Duh!” if you’d like.

Understanding the diversity of an urban district is a lot more difficult than census information on popular lines of division like ethnicity. Every child has something that they are good at, even if they don’t know what that is. Every child struggles in some way and will try to weasel out of those things if they can. Crafting a rigid curriculum that will meet the needs of everyone has to take this into account.

The way it works at Expo is that a new concept is taught in many different ways, each designed to reach out to one of the identified ways of processing the world. Algebra, for example, might be taught first in graphs and pictures and then in stories and lastly as a series of numbers. The loop is closed when kids who “get it” the first way are recruited to use the time after they have completed the assignments to tutor those who are struggling, knowing that the next round the roles might be reversed. Every one of them brings something to the experience and each leads in turns.

Through this process, what children learn more than anything is how they learn. They understand themselves and what they are good at while they practice what does not come as easily.

That does not mean that there still aren’t kids who cannot find their place in Saint Paul Schools. There is a terrible “achievement gap” that lurks askew from the average, separating our next generation into “Haves” and “Have-Nots” before they have a chance to understand what has happened. While that is a terrible shame, what is important is that we are talking about it actively and openly, working to understand what diversity means in terms of families, kids, and even how we all approach life itself.

We have work to do, certainly. In the meantime, the experience of a diverse urban life is being channeled into understanding and leadership that stretches far beyond simple “education”.

Next year both of my kids will be at Great River, a charter school that is both IB and Montessori – and a great school for its own reasons. It has many of the important characteristics of Expo, including development of leadership among kids and an understanding that everyone has their own way of learning. The shared work and turns being the kid that “gets it” have built ties across many lines that will stay with them for their lives. They aren’t just better students for it, they are better kids. That’s not something you’ll ever find in a series of filled-in ovals or an average of any kind.

I will miss Expo, whether George does or not. I learned a lot just being there. And I will enjoy the big parade maybe even more than he does, no matter how much it makes me cry. My littlest one is growing up and becoming smarter than his old man every day.