Today the kids have to be roused early and move themselves through the morning with purpose because Spring Break is over. It cuts many ways. The weight of routine is lightened for them by a sunny green day with a crisp snap to it, as lively as we can expect in early April – but they’ll have to spend the day inside. They’ll get to see their friends again and tell stories about what they’ve been up to, but there will also be work. For all the different seasons mixing in their heads and around them, what it always comes down to is that they really like to learn, they really like their school.
Saint Paul is not usually known for the quality of its schools for many reasons, none of them any good. In our urban world not every kid is born into a family that sets up school to be easy. Some families are poor and have to move often, others do not speak English at home, and others are disrupted by a family member’s physical or emotional struggles. Results of tests, taken by filling in little bubbles of knowledge with a #2 pencil, reflect this over the district as a whole. That can scare away people who live life on the average.
Like a crisp Spring day, our next generation requires a broad vision to take it all in at once and an attention to detail that sees each new bud for its all beauty. Previous generations did not always learn these skills the way my kids are.
The main reason that my kids love school is that they have an excellent school. Expo Elementary was founded on a 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.”
My own kids have mixed feelings as they go back to school and miss out on the tender Spring sprouting up through the thin chill of April. Some things will come easy to them, and some will be a little more frustrating. Taken together, though, it’s an experience that they really do enjoy. 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.