Archive for May 4th, 2009

Smartville: Elementary School Kids Show Their Multiple Intelligences

At this Georgia school, Howard Gardner’s theory thrives — and so do students.

by Sara Bernard

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Boys walking together in hall reviewing papers

Credit: Muzel Chen

Take a stroll down the bustling streets of Smartville, USA, and you’ll see students bringing mailbags full of letters from the Smartville Post Office to Reading Road and Artistic Avenue. They’re working as tellers at the Smartville Savings and Learn, expanding their palates at the Smartville Culinary Arts Institute, and painting and sculpting at the Metropolitan Museum of Smart. Reporters cover local news in the Smartville Times, and clerks at the Little Elephant Depot provide tools that citizens need to do their jobs each day. Learning is the universal occupation here, but everyone in Smartville does that job a little differently.

Smartville is the Enota Multiple Intelligences Academy, a charter elementary school, in Gainesville, Georgia. The nickname embodies the schoolwide philosophy: At Enota, the theory that everyone possesses unique talents and aptitudes isn’t just accepted and celebrated, it’s an integral part of school culture. Kid-friendly labels for Howard Gardner’s eight intelligences — punchy interpretations like “word smart,” “body smart,” or “nature smart” — pervade the school, appearing in hallway signs and classroom conversations. The real-world activities afforded by the school’s village persona, staff members say, allow students to explore and express the multiple ways of being smart.

Girl at desk with a big smile

Smiles at Smartville:

Enota Multiple Intelligences Academy first grader Lilly Adamson and her classmates celebrate one another’s “smarts.”

Credit: Gregory Campbell

“Some people learn by doing worksheets, some by acting it out, some by sculpting, and some by listening,” explains Enota fifth grader Katherine Anderson. “We work together and show each other different kinds of smarts. It helps us choose what we want to be when we grow up.”

This schoolwide application of multiple-intelligences (MI) theory to curriculum is not an ivory-tower exercise, say Enota educators. It is good teaching. “Changing the definition of smart needed to happen for a long time,” says fourth-grade teacher Audrey Thornton. “Gardner’s principle was written to build in flexibility. The beauty in it is that you can take the philosophy and figure out how it’s going to work with your kids.” In other words, adds fifth-grade language arts and social studies teacher Denise McConnell, “we don’t teach content. We teach children.”

Smartville Is Born

The Enota Multiple Intelligences Academy grew out of the reorganization, in 2003, of the Gainesville City School District. Overcrowding in the district’s three elementary schools led then superintendent Steven Ballowe to grant principals the rare and refreshing opportunity to design their own themed academies. The result: five “choice” schools where Gainesville families can opt to send their children, regardless of neighborhood boundaries. In July 2008, the entire district was granted charter status.

Former principal Sally Meadors, an MI visionary, led Enota’s initial transformation. As a fourth- and fifth-grade teaching specialist, her impetus for the choice of an MI theme was based on simple observation. “I had seen a lot of students entering the fourth grade who had many different talents, but who had difficulty reading,” she says. Academic hierarchies were not only problematic, she says, but also ineffectual: “In order to motivate and teach a child, you have to find out where their strengths are and what they’re passionate about, and use that to move them in the direction of learning new skills.”

To that end, Meadors recruited interested teachers and developed a strong, collegial community. Staff visited other MI schools, such as the New City School, in St. Louis; they brought in MI education consultants like David Lazear and Gloria Lapin; they attended workshops, events, and lectures by MI gurus such as the head of New City School Tom Hoerr; and they read books like Teaching and Learning Through Multiple Intelligences, by Bruce and Linda Campbell and Dee Dickinson.

Enota founders allotted 45 minutes during each school day for grade-level teachers to plan lessons and created extended days each month for additional training. They educated the surrounding community about their vision through newsletters and events, and quickly, everyone began to buy in. Parents started putting in longer hours than the teachers, sprucing up the old building with new coats of paint and working alongside the children to add creative murals and amenities.

Planning an entirely new school allowed parents and staff to ask themselves, “What can we do to give kids the feeling that the school belongs to them, and that they want to come here every day?” says fourth-grade gifted-education teacher Marty Jones.

Girl carrying a bin out of the office that's painted like a post office

Special Delivery:

Making the fictional town of Smartville a reality for all students includes a student-run post office.

Credit: Gregory Campbell

Smartville, they decided, was the answer: If, in addition to spending time in a classroom, students have the opportunity to participate in a wide variety of activities, including the running of a little city, they’ll exercise their multiple intelligences on many levels, always in a meaningful way. “It’s a town, rather than a school, and a family, rather than a classroom,” says Audrey Thornton.

The groundswell of community support for the school helped create and maintain what is now the most ethnically and socioeconomically diverse school in the district, with consistently some of the highest test scores — and very little teacher or student attrition. “It was a team effort from the beginning,” says Sally Meadors. “I can’t stress that enough.”

MI immersion

In addition to regular classes, all Enota students have a period each day slated for one of six activities: music, art, creative movement, the culinary institute, physical education, and technology (though all teachers involve technology in many of their lessons). All students rotate through all six of the activities over a six-day period. At the same time, the functioning “village” dimension of Enota — Smartville — is sustained through the collaboration of students and teachers. Every Wednesday, students write letters to their teachers and classmates during regular class time, and every Friday a rotating group of students sorts and delivers that mail. Another rotation of students runs the Little Elephant Depot in the mornings before school starts, and once a week, kids can manage their accounts in a student-run branch of the Peach State Bank & Trust (or the Smartville Savings and Learn).

A big tree painted on the wall just outside a classroom door


Enota students can show they’ve mastered the material in a variety of ways, such as through visual artwork or class performances.

Credit: Gregory Campbell

Teachers of activities, as well as the regular classroom teachers at Enota, take care to integrate MI into every aspect of learning. In her art class, Julie Oliver invites students to explore music, words, and collaboration through the use of finger paints, Legos, and clay. At stations labeled for different intelligences, students have many ways to learn what Oliver wants to teach.

And in Rebecca Goebel’s creative-movement class, she says, “we use our bodies to help us learn other things.” Math, she adds, is a good example: A recent dance was counted in two sets of eight — equivalent to 16 — and limbs were used to form right angles and parallel lines. “This is just another outlet for those children who, if they can do it with their body, might understand it better,” she says.

Each week, first-grade teacher Amy Anderson makes sure she offers at least one activity utilizing each “smart,” and builds that into student awareness and vocabulary. After the first holiday break, first graders take inventory of the activities they like best, and gradually learn to articulate the different intelligences embodied by those activities. In Anderson’s class, heterogeneous groups of students rotate through four workstations, two focusing on the current topic of study — locating and naming the continents and oceans, for instance — and two focusing on a subject the students have already been taught but might need to practice in a different way.

A math game in which students toss counters at a target, for example, helps “body-smart” kids get a handle on their numbers up to 1,000. “Music-smart” children can sing a song about the continents and oceans as they use their “picture smart” to draw maps and create flipbooks. “Rotating through different kinds of activities,” Anderson says, gives students “another chance to be exposed to that material, and another chance to be successful, whether they were successful the first time or not.”

While older students at Enota tend to have a more solid grasp on their individual aptitudes, MI surveys and explorations are routine. Students constantly speak and think critically about their own — and their peers’ — talents and strengths.

Fifth-grade science and math teacher Elaine Cantrell explains it this way: At the beginning of each year, she asks a cross section of the class to put on the wrong-size shoes. Then, they have a race. “Of course, the kids in the wrong-size shoes are going to be so far behind,” she says. “You can’t have too-big shoes on one kid and too-small on another, while everyone else has on their own shoes.” The metaphor is clear for the kids: If they don’t have an opportunity to demonstrate their learning based on their interests and skill levels, “they’re not going to run as fast as they could.”

Two principals standing next to each other

A World of Smart:

Assistant Principal Donna Allen (left) and Principal Susan Culbreth help make the fictional town of Smartville a reality for all students.

Credit: Gregory Campbell

To Each His Own Smart

In fourth and fifth grades, most Enota teachers design learning contracts, weekly activity charts that offer a menu of activities based on varying intelligences, for their students. All the activities manage to address the state standards students need to master. It is the students’ responsibility to complete everything on the chart, or choose a certain number to complete, by the end of the week. Usually, says Denise McConnell, “each of the intelligences are covered by the assignment, and so everyone gets a chance to shine.”

Sometimes, different students receive different contracts, says McConnell, who monitors her students’ reading skills and develops priorities for each. “Everybody’s reading contract looks the same, but there are different assignments in the boxes, and no one knows who’s got what.”

The approach requires teachers to relinquish some control and invest more trust in the students, say Enota educators. “If you walk into my classroom, you might not think that there was learning going on,” says Elaine Cantrell. “But if you listen to them, they’re talking about what you want them to talk about.” And lest teachers think students won’t rise to the occasion, Cantrell offers this testimony: “The first weekly contract I did this year, I had six kids come in the next day and say, ‘I’m done. I did everything!'”

With options to choose from, students often find ways to surprise their teachers. One student who was reluctant to speak up in class created a remarkable sculpture of Abraham Lincoln, recalls fifth-grade language arts, reading, and social studies teacher Beth Hester. “That goes above and beyond anything I could ever teach him out of a book,” she says. “I didn’t say, ‘You must do a sculpture’ or all the kids would have freaked out completely, but it was one of the many choices.

“If you give kids different ways to get at the same concept, then they can do it in the way that’s best and most exciting for them,” she adds. “Motivation and engagement are 90 percent of the game. If you don’t have that, you’ve lost them completely.”

Still, MI instruction in a state-tested school can be a challenge. “We have to remember that kids are going to be tested with pencil and paper,” says Denise McConnell, even if that’s not where their strengths lie. “That’s got to drive some of what we do.”

And it seems to be working: In spring 2007, Enota students scored higher in math on the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test (CRCT, Georgia’s annual standardized exam) than any other school in the district. To mediate conflict between traditional assessments and the kinds of MI-focused rubrics Enota teachers use to assess student comprehension of state standards, they are discussing the possibility of developing a new grading system that could eventually be reflected on report cards. Parents could then see more clearly what skills their children have mastered.

Teacher smiling in class

Ways to Learn:

Teacher Beth Hester encourages her fifth graders to choose different activities based on their intelligences.

Credit: Gregory Campbell

Teachers reinforce student strengths and routinely offer them the choice of demonstrating their knowledge in a variety of ways, through a piece of art, an essay, a Web page, or a dance performance. And many Enota teachers take care to squeeze “smarts” assessments between the lines of letter grades. “On my report cards, I also describe how their strengths are aligned with their ‘smarts,'” says Audrey Thornton. “Parents realize that we understand so much more about their kid than if we were standing up in front of them just talking to them all day long. They realize that we value their child as an individual.”

The Power of Smart

This kind of individuality is vividly on display at Enota’s annual Multiple Intelligences Fair, which draws an impressive cross section of the community every January. Hundreds of prospective, current, and former Enota parents and siblings clog the avenues of Smartville, where every student showcases his or her type of “smart.”

This year, one classroom thrummed with bongos, another with karaoke. One room featured fifth graders in beatnik berets reciting Shel Silverstein poems and serving cappuccinos, while the library was crammed with local “celebrities” — the Gainesville mayor, the superintendent, a local dentist, a pilot, a doctor — signing autographs and discussing the various intelligences they use in their professions. Hallways were packed with student projects and presentations of all kinds, from traditional science fair poster boards to violin performances to unicycle demonstrations.

Ryan, a tiny third grader, sat knitting, skillfully and unselfconsciously, next to a pile of his own handcrafted scarves. When asked whether he likes school, he beamed, deftly looping green yarn as he replied, “Oh, yeah, it’s totally fun — really fun! Usually, kids don’t like going to school, but I love going to school here. It helps me learn a lot.”

Not only do Enota’s students know that they’re learning, but they also know how they’re learning. And it does wonders for their self-esteem, their teachers report. “The other day, I had a child hit me on the head with a piece of fried okra from three tables away,” says first-grade teacher Amy Anderson with a laugh. “And although I scolded him, I said, ‘Matthew, I had no idea you had so much body smart! Why don’t you start doing some productive things with that smart?'”

That’s the language of this school, and the children understand it. “If you tell them, ‘You are smart and you have these wonderful skills,’ then even the things they aren’t as strong in will improve because they feel so good about trying,” Anderson says. “I think that’s part of the beauty here. Students feel safe to explore.”

Sara Bernard is a former staff writer and multimedia producer at Edutopia.

Go to “How to Address Multiple Intelligences in the Classroom.”

This article was also published in the April 2009 issue of Edutopia magazine under the headline “From Theory to Practice”.