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Everyone is 'iSmart' at Horizon Christian

Program allows for in-depth exploration of students' skills
by: Duncan McDonald Horizon Christian student Alex Wienecke gets up close and personal with just one of the many creatures at the Nature Smart station during her school’s iSmart family night last month.

Many teachers acknowledge that students have individual talents and gifts, but rarely do you find a school that invests in these gifts so thoroughly as at Horizon Christian Elementary School.

Principal Judi Smith said she was inspired by Howard Gardner's Theory of Multiple Intelligences, leading her to create and implement the iSmart program at Horizon, which both acknowledges and cultivates every student's particular gift, be it mathematical or interpersonal. Unique to the school, this is the program's third year at Horizon.

'It's very grounding for the students, in that they have a sense of their God-given strengths, talents and abilities,' Smith said. 'We want to catch kids in the act of being smart publicly and privately, and share it with parents.'

The theory is that every student - and every person, for that matter - falls under at least one of the eight 'Smarts' outlined in the program: Word Smart (both written and oral, which includes a variety of skills from spelling to acting), Number Smart (math and sciences), Picture Smart (visual art), Body Smart (athletics and movement), People Smart (social skills, such as problem-solving and communication), Self Smart (introspective capabilities and intuition), Music Smart and Nature Smart.

In addition to taking a self-assessment in the fourth grade, students are assessed by a group of their peers, parents and teachers. These assessments reveal the top two 'Smarts' that characterize a child.

'The fascinating thing is that the same two things seem to be on everybody's list,' Smith said. 'It's not just the parents who see their child as Word and Picture Smart, but the teachers and the peers. When they see that everybody says the same thing, the student has a real sense that there's credibility (to this claim).'

During their fifth- and sixth-grade years, teachers lead each class in the exploration of a different Smart every Friday. One Friday afternoon could be spent doing an outdoor scavenger hunt to develop nature skills, while the following Friday could be spent orating stories in order to build word skills.

In addition, every student participates in two different month-long modules led by a staff member during their fifth and sixth grade years - one module for each of the Smarts they identify with. Students are grouped together by their Smarts during these four-week programs, in which they hone in on what it means to have particular skills, and are given a chance to explore them. This includes bringing in field experts, like a tennis pro to work with Body Smart students, as well as a service project and a field trip specific to each Smart.

'Examples of service projects for the Body Smart module would be cleaning up parks, wildlife areas, building things…we had one student buy a bike with his own money, repair it, and give it to someone on his street that he knew couldn't afford it,' Smith said. 'A lot of wonderful things happen that we think might not have happened if it weren't for this program. We tell them that God gave you this talent, not to hoard it, but to share it.'

Unique skill sets

Aside from the Friday activities and the monthlong modules, teachers utilize the iSmart theory throughout the year and across all grade levels. Students are surrounded by the idea that each one of them holds a unique skill set from the moment they start their schooling at Horizon.

'For those students who don't shine in the obvious areas of (curriculum) at school, like reading or math, they have their moments to shine,' Smith said. 'Teachers pause, publicly and privately, to say, 'Wow, so-and-so solved this problem on the playground. Do you think they might be People Smart?''

First-grade teacher Meriah Shelton, who has led fifth- and sixth-graders in Word Smart modules for the past two years, sees the effect the program has, even on her first-graders.

'When you have a student who struggles in reading or math, it's a great way to build them up,' Shelton said. 'It absolutely changes the way they interact. For example, if you have someone who's really Number Smart, it's great to see the class be so excited to see what he has to say. They'll say, 'Let's see what he got, because he's Math Smart!' They get to rally around each other in a really special way.'

The staff says that the emphasis on individual recognition has led to a definite increase in confidence among students, as well as an improvement in the way they interact.

'We have very few discipline problems here. I don't know how the program impacts that, but it hasn't always been that way,' Smith said. 'We get told a lot that we have a really happy campus.'

Involving students in service projects at a young age might also have something to do with it, Smith said.

'I had 42 different groups of students come to me last year and propose service projects. We're really developing a culture of kids putting other people first, and I do think that factors into the student body's (interaction with each other).'

Monika Rose, a fourth-grade teacher who is also a parent of a sixth-grader, agreed.

'It's more than just academics; it's a social shift. I love that, on the playground, students say things like, 'Wow, you're Nature Smart.' It's exciting to watch.'

Jump rope and math

Despite all this, math and science are still heavy focuses at the school. Last year, the fourth-grade class landed in the state's 90th percentile in math scores.

'We're going to try to guide, direct and deploy the talents of each student, but sometimes you're just going to have to take that math test,' Smith said. 'You can't jump rope your way out of the multiplication table. But if you're Body Smart, have your parents quiz you and you can jump rope as you answer. If you're Music Smart, here's a CD you can borrow (while you study).'

But Horizon is a small private school with 340 students in kindergarten through eighth grade. Could a program like theirs be implemented in a public school?

'Absolutely,' Rose said. 'It's not spiritually based. I think it'd be wonderful if schools acknowledged that, beyond test scores, we need to focus on the students themselves.'

Once students enter seventh grade, the iSmart program takes on the form of a unique field trip and a three-month-long service project carried out in groups of four, with students grouped according to their Smarts. Each group is given $100 and are asked to pray about how God would have them invest their money in order to help other people.

'They're in the process of having some pretty intense meetings, where the brainstorming gets pretty lively,' said Smith, who shared that one group of the Body Smart students is planning on building a sports court for children in Uganda.

No matter how you look at it, the program seems to have had an impact on the student body, Smith said.

'We lift the eight Smarts on banners in our cafeteria and under each title we list all the students in fifth and sixth grade that are that type of Smart. For me, what makes it kind of an emotional experience is that many of these students have never seen their name under the word 'smart' or thought of themselves as smart. For me, it's exhilarating,' she said.