Good Bye, Yellow Brick Road: My Ode to the School of Multiple Intelligences

Note: I wrote this in 2013, and I was only an English teacher at Lima Senior for a couple of years after I wrote this. I teared up while re-reading it, and I stand by my belief that MI did incredible things and being part of it was the highlight of my career as a teacher.  

I’m only going to be a teacher for the School of Multiple Intelligences for a few more hours. When I walk in school, after dawn comes and I’m more awake, I will be an MI teacher–but after my room is packed, my check out sheet is signed, and my keys are turned in, I’m simply a Lima Senior High teacher again.

Being an LSH teacher is a perfectly good thing, of course; I spent the first 18 years of my career doing being one, and I did a boatload of wonderful  things as an LSH teacher–and I will again, no doubt.  Here’s the thing, though: I did those in isolation, one teacher, a bunch of kids. I wrote a piece when we closed Lima Senior about the ending of that era, when we were closing the actual building and opening not only the new building, but also opening three small schools within the building; what strikes me now, after 9 years as an MI teacher, is  how little mention of my colleagues or the larger school community were in that piece. It was the students and me, and any connection with my neighbors down the hall or the principals in the office was unusual.

At the time, of course, I didn’t see it that way. I assumed that my relationships with my department and my fellow teachers was perfectly normal. Then came MI.

Before the school opened, we had spent hours—days–no, weeks–in meetings about what “our school” should be like. Almost everything was on the table: schedule, electives, mission statement, even what our hall passes should be! Even the decisions that were studied by small groups eventually were decided by consensus, not vote, by the whole staff. We eventually learned which teachers orally processed ideas and options, not really committed to the stream of ideas they were spewing forth; they had to think out loud. We learned which teachers wouldn’t say a word through the discussion, but once they did, they were sure of their path. There were a few times, especially at the beginning, when decisions that we thought were made turned on a dime when one quiet, thoughtful Math teacher finally spoke up, saying she couldn’t support whatever that decision was…and the discussion began again. Ultimately, that check and balance made us stronger and more committed to our course of action. We knew what we intended, and even when we fell short (which happened frequently), we still had the vision in front of us–and our leaders and each other, trying to get it just a bit more “right” the next time.

Even after we opened, the discussions and the tweaking continued–and the self-assessment, wrapped up in those dreaded Barnhardt questions. I always threatened to miss the meetings where we had to argue through what rating we should receive on every criteria (citing evidence, of course), but the only time I missed on was when I was out of town on school business. I still think we should have had a voice in adapting Barnhardt, but here’s an important point: the process of discussing those ideas was what mattered; not the rating we gave ourselves. That process is missing now, and it’s impossible for the same degree of voice and interaction to occur in a staff of nearly 100 (MI had around 30 staff members). That’s a big part of what happened behind the curtain, where the students and the public didn’t see–and it’s a large part of what we are losing. Ownership. Autonomy. Partnership with people who have bought into the vision.

As my Facebook page and my phone contacts attest, it wasn’t just the teachers who mattered in MI. In the old LSH, my students were my most important relationship. In the new paradigm, the students were the whole reason we did it, and our goal was to build relationships with them that pushed and inspired them to do more than they imagined they could. And I am still finding daily examples in my Facebook feed of how well that worked. Students who would have fallen through the cracks in the old school have recently graduated from college–something I couldn’t have imagined for several of them based on where they academically when they entered MI. With around 400 students and about 30 staff members, no one was merely a face in the crowd. I could give example after example showing the relationship between teachers and students, and how that carried over into a higher commitment to doing their best on both sides; I don’t even know how to cherry pick an example. The kids matter, and I can find examples of every staff member going well above and beyond to prove it.

We started with a young, inexperienced teacher as our leader, and until Jeff, I didn’t know what it meant to be driven by a vision and committed to working it through. To this day, he is one of the very, very few people I have ever gotten into an actual “shouting” argument with–and there have been times since he left to play on a bigger field that I wish Jeff would come back to continue pushing us, even though I can imagine the arguments we would need to have! Until then, I’d never dreamed what it meant to have the support and respect of the principal, either. And……I’d certainly never imagined that I’d tackle a principal at a Christmas party to try to keep him from winning at Dance, Dance Revolution–but yep, that happened too (with a little help from another teacher–thanks, Melinda!) We were a community, with all the ups and downs, wounds and scars and blessings that implies.

With Jeff as our leader, we had the “rocks” of our foundation, which is the genesis of the oft-used phrase “MI Rocks!” When he left, we asked for and got the right to not just be at the table for the choosing of our new leader, but to run the whole process–and we eventually choose Jeff’s right hand, Sue. As different as her style was, her commitment to MI was every bit as strong. The “Rocks” still existed, but we had outgrown our vision statement; it was dated and generic for what we needed at that point. So…..after several meetings with no progress on a new vision statement, we decided on 10 Belief Statements. They are still the most lofty set of goals I’ve seen for running a school. (I will add them as a separate post when I get to school. I don’t happen to have them posted in my dining room)

I have been thinking about this writing for a week now, and have taken notes–which I have completely ignored as I’ve written in the dusky hours before dawn. I had some good ideas, and who knows, maybe some MI memories will be posted this summer. Or maybe the time will have passed. I’m busy getting ready to teach this summer at Rhodes, and to begin next school year in a different classroom with a different principal and a whole new set of conventions and expectations. Maybe I don’t have the emotional energy left to write more about it in the near future. My alarm clock has rung, and my day needs to start, so I can’t begin the litany of names and memories now.

Here’s my clearest image of MI, what I’ve been remembering this week: The first day in the new building, the first day MI existed. All the MI teachers wore their new,crisp, shining white MI shirts–Bill Blass’ best emblazoned with the MI logo. Students walking in were completely enthralled. Visually it was impressive–but there was something else: it was clear we were working as a unit, we were proud and excited–we were MI. And the kids were too. That’s what they walked in to discover that first day. We did it for them and with them—and especially those first few years, they recognized the difference.

MI existed because of the school reform movement. Bill Gates (via KnowledgeWorks) threw passels of money at us, making all the meetings and training and details possible. We’re closing not because of money, but because the enrollment in our district has gone down enough that keeping three small schools open is fiscally irresponsible. I know that, and I have to trust that everyone involved is going to do their best to make the “new, improved” Lima Senior better than ever.

I’ve learned more about what that means in the last few years, though. I’ve learned that true school reform doesn’t come from the outside-in or the top-down. It comes from the people in the trenches buying into the vision, then working their damnedest to make every day a bit closer to the vision than the previous day was. Will we do that? I don’t know. It’s too soon to tell. What I do know is this: For a brief, shining moment, there was MI.