If Harvard professor Howard Gardner could be eavesdropping on my conversation with Key Learning Community’s first group of graduating seniors, he’d be smiling. He’s the author of Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, which identifies eight distinct kinds of intelligence and offers both rationale and strategies for educating young people toward fulfilling their potential, the idea upon which this internationally-known Indianapolis Public School magnet school’s vision and philosophy is based.
Front row: Brittany Gray, Alicia Grant, Annie King, Stephanie Gaunt, Elizabeth Mc Peak Row 2: Jozette Ramey, Nikki Fancher, Kelly McGary, La’Toria Wilson, Leili Haas Row 3: Jeff Williams, Kevin Randolph, Harrison Hansen, Gabe Smith, Bryan Ballard, Peter Reynolds, Bruce Jackson, Calvin Wilson, T. Hailey
“So, what’s different about your high school?” I ask the 19 members of the Class of 2003. “Other schools put you in a box,” Harrison says. “You have to do whatever teachers tell you to do. There are things you have to do here, too. But what you have to do makes sense more often. And you have choices, options for how to do it. I could find what’s right for me.” Nikki likes the way the school environment helps her stay focused on her work. She likes having friends she knows “for real.” “We’re close here, like family,” Alicia agrees. “Teachers know how you work, who you are.” Bruce laughs. “Everyone knows your business here,” he says. “In a good way. If you need help, you can get it.” The one-on-one help teachers give — especially in math — allows him to enter flow, he explains, referring to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s theory that students perform best when they are fully engaged in the learning process. “Once I get in flow, solving problems is a pleasure,” he says. “Having choices makes flow more likely to happen, too.” “What’s flow like?” I ask. “I was just in flow,” Emily (a junior) says. “It’s why I was late. I just kept painting until I realized someone from the next class was standing there, waiting to take my seat.” Peter, who’s been at the Key Learning Community since first grade, is fascinated by the way Gardner’s various intelligences come into play as students take on tasks and see them through, working as teams. “It’s a reflection of how it will be in the workplace,” he predicts. “Getting along has a big role in a successful career.” All of the students agree that what they’ve learned on their weekly CLOs (Community Learning Opportunities) will help them make the transition to adult life, too. Brittany used to be shy, but spending time in the community made her feel comfortable with adults and taught her how to act in the “real world.” Alicia’s community experiences helped her see how she might translate dreams to reality, when a chance encounter with a caterer during her apprenticeship at the Indiana Repertory Theatre showed her how her two greatest interests, cooking and theater, might be combined. Jeff learned to love the city he once found boring. “I couldn’t wait to get out of Indianapolis,” he says. “CLOs let me see the city for what it really is. Now I want to live my life here.” I’m amazed, really, by the insightful, articulate way these young people discuss what and how they’ve learned in high school. Gardner ought to hire the whole bunch of them as a road show, I think. Listening to them talk proves better than tests or statistics that he’s dead-on in his view of what school should be. Graduation occurs a few days later in the auditorium at the War Memorial downtown, and Gardner flies in from Boston to attend. He listens with obvious pleasure to the graduates’ speeches, then talks to them about history — how distant and academic it seems. How it so rarely occurs to any of us that what we’re living every day is history — or will be, in time. “You are a part of the history of education,” he tells them — the first graduates of the first school in the world to use the theory of multiple intelligences, Csikszentmihalyi’s theory of flow and other innovative educational theories as the basis of its curriculum. He speaks of the importance of vision, reminding them that they are here this evening because a group of IPS teachers had a vision of what a school could be. “You are our legacy,” English teacher Gari Williams, their class sponsor, says to them in parting. She raises her hand, and they rise, switch their tassels to the other side of their caps and let out a whoop of joy. They are smiling. We all are. In the lobby there are hugs and tears, balloons, girls tottering on too-high heels, cameras flashing, promises. They mean to change the world, these 19 kids. And I’m betting they will.