To engage all ways students learn, two schools changing teaching models

| Bridget Ryder for The Catholic Spirit | March 9, 2015 | 2 Comments
Kari Staples, principal of St. Alphonsus Parish School in Brooklyn Park, and Zach Zeckser, principal of St. Mark’s Catholic School in St. Paul, are implementing in their schools this fall a new educational initiative called IDEALS, based on Harvard developmental psychologist Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligence Theory. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit.

Kari Staples, principal of St. Alphonsus Parish School in Brooklyn Center, and Zach Zeckser, principal of St. Mark’s Catholic School in St. Paul, are implementing in their schools this fall a new educational initiative called IDEALS, based on Harvard developmental psychologist Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligence Theory. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Student strengths and individual learning are at the core of a new educational initiative two Twin Cities Catholic grade schools plan to launch this fall. Drawing on the success of a school in Royal Palm Beach, Fla., St. Alphonsus Parish School in Brooklyn Center and St. Mark’s Catholic School in St. Paul are aiming to show all students they are smart, “just smart differently,” said Kari Staples, St. Alphonsus’ principal.

“It’s helping students learn where their strengths are and how they can use that in all their subjects, and figuring out where their negative mental habits become road blocks,” she said.

The model — called “IDEALS” — is rooted in Harvard developmental psychologist Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligence Theory. It identifies eight intelligences – spatial, interpersonal, intrapersonal, naturalistic, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, linguistic and logical-mathematic — and posits that each person is stronger in some intelligences than others. According to the theory, students learn best when using their strongest intelligences.

Teaching to multiple intelligences

Traditional school teaching, with teachers standing at the front of the class talking and writing on chalk boards, appeals only to linguistic and mathematical-logical intelligences, according to advocates of the multiple intelligence theory. For lessons to reach the emotional center of every student, teachers need to incorporate diverse materials and activities. This is achieved through a “mini-production” that touches as many intelligences as possible in 20 minutes.

As big as the idea initially sounds, implementation can be simple, its advocates say.

Angie Brown, second-grade teacher at St. Mark’s School, sees her teenage daughter as an example of how multiple intelligences work.

“If I knew then what I know now, I would have set her education to music,” Brown said. “She learns everything through music. She set the quadratic equation to ‘Pop Goes the Weasel.’ She can’t even say it; she has to sing it.”

In practice, not every lesson may include all the intelligences, but the goal is to hit each intelligence at some point during the day. For Brown and other teachers, it’s doing many of the things they already do more intentionally and intensively.

“It can be as small as using a song or a game of charades to teach verbs,” Brown said.

Innovative approach

Zach Zeckser, St. Mark’s principal, discovered the educational model at a time when he, the school community and St. Mark’s pastor, Pro Ecclesia Sancta Father Humberto Palomino, were discussing creating what Zeckser called “St. Mark’s 2.0.” Should they teach Chinese, emphasize technology or become a classical school?

“We wanted something that would distinguish us and be organic,” Zeckser said. “This seems like a really logical step.”

Staples and Zeckser learned of the model through Twin Cities education guru Paul Bernabei, who is on a mission to refocus American education away from test scores and grades and toward human development. A founder of the Top 20 Training initiative, Bernabei was already working with Staples and the staff at St. Alphonsus when he brought up the idea of implementing a multiple-intelligence-based model. He knew of a Florida school pioneering the approach, and included it in his 2014 book “Why Students Disengage in American Schools and What We Can Do About It.”

Wendy Soderman started the IDEAL School in Royal Palm Beach 20 years ago with her sons—twin 2-year-olds Korey and Kyle, one quadriplegic and one able-bodied but both with normal intelligence. Not finding a school that fit the needs of both of them, Soderman, a teacher, decided to launch her own school.

She made it as visually appealing as possible by building a play ship and decorating it with a yellow brick road, murals and fountains. To teach her two sons, she appealed to all five senses in each lesson.

The school grew and within a few years, the entire pre-kindergarten class tested in the gifted range and above on the IQ test. The local school board accused her of teaching to the test, but she was actually teaching according to Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligence Theory, Soderman said.

“It’s realizing that each human being is wired differently,” she said. “You might be attracted to something I don’t even notice.”

A happy brain

According to Soderman, brain research shows that when students learn through things that naturally attract them, the entire brain is activated. Information becomes meaningful and is retained longer. The result is lifelong learning, thanks, in part, to the science behind the method — triggering the amygdala, the emotional center of the brain. When the brain is happy, the reasoning portion of the brain functions better, and the information slips easily into the memory.

“I have to make it relevant, I have to get to amygdala first or it’s like getting the phone number of someone I don’t know,” Soderman said.

Soderman named her pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade school the IDEAL School, which stands for Individual Differentiated Enriched Active Learning. St. Alphonsus and St. Mark are adding a spiritual component and calling their version “IDEALS,” Innovative Differentiated Enriched Active Leadership Spirituality, with the additional component of how their students serve God and neighbor.

Getting started

Other schools have approached Soderman about replicating her school, but this is the first group “with the faith and heart” to be able to implement it.

“I’m trusting my baby with them,” Soderman said.

Staples and Zeckser visited the IDEAL School in January.

“It’s amazingly beautiful,” Staples said. “It feels like something besides a school.”

Staples and Zeckser hope to upgrade and enrich their school buildings with art, welcoming spaces and natural elements to gibe with the IDEAL school environment. In June, Bernabei and Soderman will conduct a week of training with the teachers from both schools. The schools are writing grants to help with the costs of implementing the program, but the beginnings of the implementation process are already reaching students.

“There are going to be new ways of learning,” said Cecilia Brennan, a St. Mark fifth-grader. “There are different smarts like music smarts. I just found that out, and I’m excited about it.”

In light of the long-term benefits, Brown, the second-grade teacher at St. Mark, doesn’t mind putting in extra training time and lesson planning over the summer.

“Whenever you take something new on, it’s a lot of work initially, but in the long run it will make our job easier because kids will be more engaged,” she said.

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