May/June 2019

Practical PR: A showcase for intelligences

By Jim Hook
Jim Hook is director of the communications department at North Palos SD 117 based in Palos Hills.

People have different strengths and intelligences.

Howard Gardner, the Harvard-educated Ph.D. proved that years ago with his “Theory of Multiple Intelligences” that suggests human potential lies in the fact that people have a unique blend of capabilities and intelligences that reach beyond the classroom.

For the last two years, North Palos SD 117’s Conrady Junior High School in southwest suburban Chicago has been proving just how “intelligent” its 1,100 ethnically-diverse student body is by conducting Multiple Intelligence Symposiums. These events, the third of which was May 3 in the Performing Arts Center at neighboring Amos Alonzo Stagg High School in Palos Hills, feature amazing students performing amazing feats.

The seeds of the event were planted by Conrady Team Leader Adie McHugh while studying learning symposiums as part of her Teacher/Leader endorsement. McHugh suggested the idea to veteran Conrady teachers Frank Mateja and Caroline Sweiss, friends and colleagues who have been known to challenge each other in friendly competitions between their respective classes. Conrady Junior High was the recipient of the prestigious National Blue Ribbon Award in 2017.

To say that Mateja, a history teacher, is a bit on the competitive side is a major understatement. He and Sweiss, an English Language Arts teacher, decided to hold a friendly competition three years ago between two of their honors classes.

The students competed in an eight-topic debate, which Sweiss’ students won.

“They destroyed us,” Mateja clarified. “Let’s not mince words. It wasn’t even close.”

Having a hard time accepting the thrashing and looking for a chance to redeem himself, Mateja approached Sweiss and asked for an opportunity to avenge the earlier embarrassment. He suggested a new competition that has evolved into the junior high school’s third annual Multiple Intelligence Symposium, which he refers to as a “science fair and talent or variety show rolled into one.”

The competition is inspired by Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences. These “intelligences” relate to a person’s unique aptitudes and the ways they demonstrate their intellectual abilities. Mateja said he likes the symposium because it gives “all kids the chance to shine and to discover their hidden talents.”

“Not every kid can shoot a basketball or sing in a choir or figure out the square root of a three-digit number,” he said. “But every student has talent and is intelligent in something. That is what makes this competition so amazing. We have had some incredibly talented kids compete over the years. I mean, some of the things they did blew our minds.”

Buckle up, Mr. Mateja. This year’s talent could be even better.

Take Anna Slodyczka, for example. The Hickory Hills eighth-grader plays multiple instruments and is part of the Conrady band. She spends every Saturday in Downtown Chicago, where she practices as part of the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra.

Slodyczka aspires to someday conduct the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. But for now she has her sights set on Conrady’s Multiple Intelligence Symposium with her musically-talented group of friends.

Slodyczka plays the bassoon. Martin Sweeney plays bass clarinet and bass guitar. Juan Ornelas plays the drums, Wiktoria Ziemba plays the violin, and Chris Kalinka plays trumpet and alto saxophone.

The quintet plays together in a band and, for the symposium, they’ve created their interpretation of the “evolution of music,” incorporating various genres of music into one longer piece.

“Music influences our culture,” Ornelas said. “Music is a reflection of ourselves. We’re going to incorporate different styles of music into one piece by altering the tempo and style.”

In a different act, Samantha Doyle said she is excited about performing a skit that mirrors the popular “TED Talks.”

She said her talk focuses on helping provide teens with coping skills when they feel overwhelmed. “Kids are stressed out, depressed, and full of anxiety,” Samantha said. “School, grades, relationships, and social media all play a role in a student’s life and it can be hard out there for them. They also need to know how to deal with their feelings.”

Friends since kindergarten, Ashley Fontana and Kyra Murphy perform a dance interpretation of the “Gender Pay Gap.” The idea, the girls said, came from Murphy’s mom and “we just ran with it.”

“We’re excited about this opportunity,” Murphy said. “We get to do what we love to do, which is dance, while having an opportunity to take a stand on a real social issue.”

Fontana and Murphy said they decided to participate after seeing a video of last year’s show during a social studies class. “Our two favorite teachers (Mr. Mateja and Ms. Sweiss) were talking about it and were involved in it so we decided to do it.”

Mateja said, “Everything the students do is based on inquiry and research. Kids are smart in so many different ways. These kids are incredibly passionate about what they are doing. We use this competition as a catalyst for creativity and independent learning.”

Conrady incorporated inquiry-based learning into its social studies curriculum as part of the new Illinois Learning Standards. Inquiry-based learning was incorporated into the ELA honors classes in an attempt to add rigor to the curriculum.

Students construct essential questions and explanations using reasoning, correct sequences, examples, and details to help them guide inquiry about a topic, ask essential and focusing questions that lead to independent research, and determine sources that represent multiple points of view that will assist in organizing a research plan.

Originally part of the eighth-grade honors curriculum, the competition is now open to all eighth graders. Sweiss said the competition “requires kids to think outside the box.”

“These kids are the best of the best. They are the best Conrady has to offer,” she said. “This is a unique opportunity for them to get up on stage and showcase their talents, their smarts, their passion, and their creativity.”

Mateja said students “use their multiple intelligences to create and present things that are truly inspiring.”

The first two symposiums featured honors students, but this year the competition is open to all eighth graders. Students practice on their own before or after school or at home and meet periodically with teachers who serve as mentors.

Teachers who serve as mentors include Sweiss, Mateja ,   McHugh, Kristin Brudzicz, and Jessica Doneske.