What I learned at Ron Clark Academy!
I was fortunate enough to get to visit the Ron Clark Academy last month and I am so excited to share the experience with you! It was an amazing professional development day and I highly recommend all teachers who have a passion for education to find a way to experience this teacher training!
I want to start by saying, I was skeptical. Why on earth would I go to a school that is not the grade I teach? Why would I go to a school who obviously has opportunities that my students don’t? Why would I go to a school that has so much money pumped into it when the schools I have taught have had huge budget issues. It just did not make sense to me, how could what I learn at this rare school translate into my classroom? But on a recent trip to Atlanta (to go to EdExpo) I felt like I could not get so close to Ron Clark Academy and not visit. Boy, was I glad I did!
Our day started with loud hip-hop music, students dancing all around including on furniture, teachers taking turns on the trampoline, and students walking up very cordially to welcome us! This was where we caught the first glimpse of what great kids these children were! We were then moved to their main office area where the students departed for class. Ron Clark and Kim Bearden (the founders of the school) shared expectations for our visit, the history of the school, and how the school worked overall. The energy was high and we were all very excited to see what it was all about.
We started by going into Ron’s 5th grade math class. When we walked in the classroom was filled with the Disney song Let It Go and the students were busy working a math problem. Ron was giving hand-motions to the students as to be showing them the steps of the problem, the students would watch attentively and then work, and then watch attentively and then work. It was clear the the students had worked math problems to music like this in the past, and they knew exactly what he was teaching even though he was not saying a word! It was amazing to see!
The second half of the lesson was a student who taught. He did so good and all of the teachers in the room were so impressed! After the 15 minute lesson, Ron asked the student what grade he would give and he said a D! The teachers in the room literally gasped. The boy went on to explain that his toes were not pointed all the way towards the students, his vision was closed off to part of the room, and that he did not make contact with all 35 or so students participating in his lesson. The class discussed it, he was open to the suggestions, and returned to his seat. My stomach cringed for this boy, but he sat down and moved on. I was amazed at what a truly open and accepting learning environment had been created.
All of this happened in the first hour of being at the Academy. It would be impossible to break down every part of the day so here is what I took away that amazed me:
- The school was completely submersed in music. The morning started with music and the lessons were choreographed to music. When a concept being taught needed some memorization or repetition, the students would all jump on their tables or chairs and start singing a song to remember it. This was throughout the day and in every class! Every class also had a drum player. When asked about this Ron said they give students who are fidgety a drum for them to use when appropriate. When a concept is received by a student, he/she beats a little pattern. When a transition happens, he/she beats a little song. It really helps the flow of the class and fills those tiny moments with something to uplift them. This was an unexpected aspect of the school that I was so excited to see! (My own son has dyslexia and we moved him to a performing arts school where he is doing AMAZING!)
- Whomever the attention on is physically raised up! Teachers and students stand on desks and tables. Sounds crazy, yes, but it really was amazing how just standing above forced the full attention of the others in the room. At one point, Ron and the students were even walking across the tables to check students work! Where we would walk around the room, they would literally walk across the desks! Ron shared with us, after the students were gone, that the expectation is hands are raised up at least 70-80% of the time because it creates excitement and engagement. After seeing it in action, I completely agree!
- Students are taught how to interact with others using good old southern values (as described by Ron himself.) Do what is right and high expectations is the norm! They are taught how to speak to one another, how to negotiate, how to support others, and how to present to a group! The students are very articulate and seem to understand the importance of communication skills because it is taught!
- The expectations are extremely clear! Students are to answer a certain way, use a certain volume, and conduct themselves in a certain way. We witnessed a student not speak loud enough and she had to go put her name on the board as a warning. This was not a dramatic event, just a reminder for her to remember the expectations. Although the expectations are high, and yet they still have fun!
- Students are the focus at all times. At no point was the teacher just strictly instructing, but they were engaging the kids in conversations amongst each other. They agreed and disagreed with each other in a way that was so productive. They acknowledged hearing what the other students were saying before they added their piece. It was amazing to see!
- Learning is fun!!! When Kim does sentence construction, she literally converts her entire room (walls and all) into an operating room! Students wear lab coats and glasses to protect their eyes! They are completely submersed in the experience and probably don’t even realize they are doing a grammar lesson! In Ron’s room there was a magic button he uses to celebrate when students earn it. The students during our day did not earn the magic button, but it did come up during a training session with Ron. So he pushed the button and this happened!
- Teach to the top and the students will rise! Kim and Ron both touched on this with us but I highly recommend seeing them in person or reading their books to learn more about this.
- There is no down time. Like literally none. The phone never rings, no one ever walked in ask a question, and the school never had announcements. Learning time is sacred and not interrupted. With that, the teachers also fill every single minute with lessons. I have always prided myself on having smooth transitions and staying focused but after seeing the teachers at RCA I can see where I definitely have room for improvement. It was a whole new level of student engagement!
- The classrooms were exciting and had really cool stuff in them! Kim’s room had VW bug in it and a phone booth (which I somehow did not get pictures of)! How cool is that. OK this part is not so realistic BUT I will say that the classrooms were bright, inviting, and definitely had a cool factor. You don’t need a VW to do that! Hope King’s classroom was like getting lost in a book just like in Alice and Wonderland and her husband’s classroom (who is a rocker guitarist for lack of a better description) had a snake in the wall; like a real live snake!!!
- The classrooms did not have a lot of clutter! Plain and simple, there was no hoarding of things like teachers tend to do (guilty as charged right here!) They had cabinets and things were put into them. They had shelves that were decorated with items as opposed to having stuff stored on them.
- The school runs off of a house and points system. When students enroll, they are assigned a house. The house welcomes them and they are proud of what house they reside in! Throughout the year they earn points individually and through activities for their houses! It’s very much like Harry Potter and it appears to work really well!
Needless to say – I-WAS-AMAZED! I am proud to say I was slide certified that day! I left the Academy feeling inspired to connect on a more personal level with students. I left feeling like I did not have to have an unlimited budget (of which RCA does not have) to create an exciting experience for my students. I left feeling like kids need to be taught and practice daily communication skills! I left feeling like many of those things that we used do to make learning fun (that have been taken away) need to be brought back by making the expectations are higher! The main thing I learned: The teacher makes the difference.
If you are not able to visit the Academy, Kim and Ron have both written several books and although I have not read them cover-to-cover, I highly recommend these two. They are easy reads that are loaded with the philosophies and concepts they use right in their very own school! (You honestly don’t have to read them cover-to-cover as they are loaded with tips on specific items!)
It was truly an amazing school and I am so grateful for the opportunity to have visited! Without a doubt, I would go back again and again to just soak more of it up!