As the Republican National Convention dominates the news, it’s hard to forget the speech presumptive nominee Donald Trump delivered after his victory in the Nevada primary.
Reveling in his win, he said, “We won with highly educated; we won with poorly educated! I love the poorly educated! We’re the smartest people, we’re the most loyal people.”
I can assure you, however, that everyone is smart, albeit in different ways; this I’ve learned teaching high school for 32 years. And effective educators recognize and cater to their students’ multiple intelligences.
Howard Gardner of Harvard University has identified seven distinct types of intelligence: visual spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, linguistic, and logical-mathematical.
We are each able to know the world through these different lenses; where individuals differ, he says, is “in the strength of these intelligences…and in the ways in which such intelligences are invoked and combined to carry out different tasks, solve diverse problems, and progress in various domains.”
This is nothing new; he first proposed these ideas in 1983. Unfortunately, our culture and educational institutions continue to place a higher value on mastery of the few so-called “academic” areas such as language and mathematics, to the detriment of the arts and vocational areas.
Here’s my point: all students deserve to have their varying intelligences recognized, honored, and fostered.
I’ve taught the highly valued subject of English for my entire tenure at Sierra High School, and I fully concede its importance. Writing well is a complex task and challenging art, one that I enjoy, but which daunts many, high school students and adults alike.
It’s when I became a drama teacher seven years ago that it became clearer to me how valuable a theater program is in fostering different and equally important talents such as coöperation, initiative, bodily movement, and ensemble building.
Despite the fact that our enrollment has shrunk, and some programs have been cut, the music, visual arts, drama, and agriculture programs are in tact, fortunately for our students.
That’s not the case in many districts.
Broaching the subject of “intelligence” with my students, I discover that their internal voices sometimes sound like this: How intelligent am I? On a scale of one to 10? Am I hesitant to rate myself with a high score because I don’t get the math, or struggle to keep up with the reading in my English class?
Their overt answers come in various forms. For instance, when I ask them to score their own essays – using a rubric – that we know well they often settle on a score lower than I have already given them.
Perhaps they’re playing it safe, undervaluing their work so as to pre-empt any feelings of awkwardness that might accompany a disagreement in the other direction. I don’t know.
I do know that being able to function in a traditional classroom: to sit still, listen quietly, and pay attention are also paramount in a typical school setting. And while I concede that there is a time and place for quiet attention – I happen to be a master of it myself – I’d like to reiterate that other disciplines in different settings are not only often undervalued, but equally important.
Recently I took two of my students to hear Sir Ken Robinson. An internationally renowned speaker on creativity and author of “The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything,” he also challenges us to think differently.
My experience teaching both English and drama touches several points on the instructional spectrum – from the sometimes quiet and controlled atmosphere of the English classroom (where we also often meet in circles or get up out of our seats to enact, for instance, 32-second versions of “Macbeth”) – to the raucous drama room with birthday circles and warm-ups and improvisation (in which we also learn to be a respectful audience, to read plays, to memorize lines, to focus and concentrate.)
These courses both offer opportunities to use imagination and access multiple intelligences. My advanced English students write well and love to read and often shy away from any kind of task which requires public performance.
My drama students enact spontaneous or rehearsed scenes in front of large groups, delight in the spotlight, and I sometimes have trouble reading their handwriting, for their verbal talents lean toward spoken rather than written expression. There is beauty in the intersection.
Robinson and Gardner teach us how to flip my students’ question on its head. Take a look at it again. I encourage them instead to ask : How am I intelligent? I know they are, in many ways. Robinson reinforces the idea that we thrive in different elements, and he urges us all to discover our own: “the place where the things you love to do and the things that you are good at come together.”
As Robinson’s title suggests: finding your passion changes everything. Instead of celebrating the poorly educated, let’s use education to help our students find theirs.
Beth Linder Carr of Tollhouse teaches English and drama at Sierra High School. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.