Sunday, May 10, 2015

The Ron Clark Experience

On Friday, I had one of the most incredible experiences of my life. I visited the Ron Clark Academy.

If you know nothing about the Ron Clark Academy, stop reading now and watch this video. 

If you are already aware of Ron Clark, Kim Bearden, and the rest of the staff, then you understand just how big of a deal this really was.  I first read one of Clark’s book, The Essential 55, several years ago. I knew immediately that this person was someone special. I read Kim's book, Crash Course, a few months ago (read about that here) and absolutely loved it. Having the opportunity to meet both of them and see the school they created together was one I just could not pass up. 

My friend, Ashley, and I went together. This is us in the car about to get out. We were a tad excited, if you can't tell. 

I wish that I had the ability to capture in words the feeling that I got upon first walking in to the school. We arrived on a somewhat chilly morning and stood across the street just admiring the building until students—yes, students—came out to greet us. 

They were dressed in their immaculate uniforms complete with ties and looked so mature. They led us through the gates and into the library. This was no ordinary library and this was no ordinary welcome either. Music was blaring, kids were smiling, cheering, singing, and dancing and the sheer energy made my heart race. A large trampoline adorned the middle of the room and students were bouncing away through two levels of bookshelves. It was incredible.

We were led around the room to our stopping place where we were immediately engaged in conversation with a student. I was impressed by that fifth grader’s ability to maintain eye contact, hold a conversation by asking questions about us, and seem genuinely interested all the while. We must have talked for at least ten minutes. His communication skills surpassed those of some adults I know.

Kim Bearden then gave a welcome speech as she gently bounced on the trampoline. She told us a little about the school and about our day and then we were led to the main school building that was located just across the parking lot.  As we entered that building we were again greeted by smiling, dancing, singing kids, loud music and a feeling of pure joy.

The school was so colorful, full of large pictures of students and their experiences while attending the school. Comfy benches with pillows, funky bookshelves, and memorabilia from TV appearances accentuated the colorful walls. And of course, that big electric blue slide stood out like a beacon. A two-story high canvas clearly stating Clark’s 55 essential rules filled the wall near the staircase. Standing there in the crowd surrounded by the students and looking out at the sea of teachers who had traveled from around the world to be there, I couldn’t help but get a little emotional.

When the music finally stopped and the students were dismissed to class, Clark gave us his welcome speech. Hearing him speak was a pleasure in itself because he is so truly passionate about kids and education. He spoke about how we are creating a “soft generation” of kids in America who have no work ethic. America is now ranked 27th in the word in regard to education and there is an obvious need for change.  There was lots of head nodding, lots of Amen’s, lots of cheers. He speaks the truth. Here I was standing in this amazing place, listening to one of my heroes speak about the desperate need for changes in education, knowing how hard he worked to make this dream a reality. I have admired him for many years and I have heard him speak in the past, but seeing him in his own creation took my admiration up to a whole new level.

After his welcome speech we were divided into different groups to start our day. We were told that we could take pictures, but not of the kids and only during transition and lunch times. So, I don’t have any pictures of the kids in action, but I did manage to get some shots of the building with my not-so-great cell phone camera. I was also trying to quickly take pictures while walking so many of the pictures have people’s heads in them. The pictures aren’t the greatest, but they still give an idea of the feeling of the school.  They are the dragons so it correlates with the Harry Potter theme. The cafeteria even boasts a giant two-story silver dragon skeleton. I mean, really, how cool is that!

During our day we had several rotations throughout classrooms, some including kids, some not. The first class I visited was Mr. Clark’s fifth grade math class and I was completely astonished. Before we even entered the room, we came to this view:

To enter, we had to yell, “Passion” loud enough until the painting was satisfied and then the “bookcase” opened up to reveal the classroom. Are you kidding me?! How super awesome!!

As we walked in and took our seats, the kids were already at work on a warm up. As the students worked, “Let it Go” from Frozen blared on the speakers and there was no talking at all. Clark circulated and communicated only through non-verbal signals to the kids, relaying if they were on the right track or not. When the song was over, it was time to debrief. I was expecting Clark to take the lead on the conversation, but instead the kids did the talking and corrections. When each child wanted to speak, they stood up, addressed their classmates, spoke audibly and clearly, and explained either their thinking or the flawed thinking of one of their classmates. Clark had to intervene only a few times to clarify but the majority of the talking was amongst the students. I was on the edge of my seat.

The next activity required the students to complete a math triangle and engage with the audience. It was explained to us during our visit that the Friday visitations were included as a part of the Academy’s curriculum. Students are given a grade based on their interactions with visitors and their application of the social skills they have been taught. So, students came into the audience to elicit help to complete the puzzle. Again, the students impressed me with their ability to effectively engage in conversation and guide our thinking to correctly complete the puzzle.

With the conclusion of that activity, they moved on to working through an equation that resembled something I might have seen in seventh grade. Maybe eighth. It looked difficult! Remember, these are fifth grade students! As they worked through each step, Clark electrified the room with his trademark style. He was up on the desks, walking around and looking each student in the eye, talking expressively with his arms and facial expressions. High energy. One of the students had the job of playing a drum for added effect. Clark later explained that these drums are given to students who are in need of additional stimuli during the lesson  (if you get my drift) and they alone have permission to play the drums. If anyone else complains about not being able to play, they are placed on drum restriction… for four years. Needless to say, no one complained about not having the drum. I digress… back to the math problem.

As they worked through each step with Clark commanding the room, they had several chants and songs they would repeat as they worked including a song explaining which step in the order of operations they would need to use. Because I couldn’t video the kids, I tried to find a video on YouTube. All I could find was Clark himself demonstrating the song. That will just have to do! Just imagine a classroom full of kids singing along with him!

Clark has lots of other little chants that his students do at particular times during the lesson that get the kids out of their seats and kick up the energy level for a brief moment. As soon as those chants are over the kids are right back to business. In this video below, you will just how much interaction there is between Clark and his kids. Even though it was five years ago, it closely resembled what I saw yesterday with one major difference. At the end of the video below, the kids were given the chance to push the “red button.” The kids in the class I observed fell short of the expectation Clark had given to earn the chance to push the button, so there was no disco ball and dancing, much to my disappointment (LOL).

About halfway through the lesson, Clark said that he was starting to get tired. He turned the floor over to a student who actually took over as the teacher. This young man took the floor and guided the students through the rest of the problem. He used the same strategies as Clark, standing on the table, moving back and forth across the room, speaking clearly with high energy, the works. Again, I was on the edge of my seat.

When he was finished, I fully expected some kind of praise from the students and Clark, but instead came a critique. Clark had taken copious notes while the student was “teaching” and pointed out some things that he did well, but also some things to improve. Then he asked the classmates to add their comments and critiques. Shockingly, the student “teacher” took the critique, both positive and negative, very well. He acknowledged that there were things he needed to improve. Overall, the class gave him a "C" for his teaching.

I had a conversation with this student at lunch (check out their awesome cafeteria) and asked him how he felt about receiving critiques from Clark and his classmates.

He said that he was used to it and that he appreciated it because it was helping him to become a better speaker. I asked if he taught frequently. He informed me that he taught a lesson a few weeks ago in China in front of over 100 Chinese educators and students. Wow. Have you forgotten that this young man is a fifth grader?!? Seriously. These kids are amazing.

One of the things I appreciate most about Clark is his transparency and openness with his students. He lets them know the purpose and importance of everything he teaches, both academic and social. He is also completely honest with them. His expectations are super high and he knows that the students can rise to the occasion. He accepts nothing less. He does not praise mediocrity. I am guilty of that, and seeing him in action reminded me just how counter-productive that practice is and how high kids can soar when it is expected.

After leaving Mr. Clark’s room, I attended fine arts class with Ms. Barnes and her eighth graders. 

 We worked on subtraction poetry using newspaper articles which was pretty interesting. Following that, I attended a session about argument writing with Mrs. Haskins, a political science class with Mr. Fleming where we dissected the idea of love at first sight, and a Spanish class with Mrs. Bailey. In Mrs. King’s room, she shared with us a variety of games that she uses in her classroom. It was a blur of a day! Her room was my favorite. She designed hers to be an Alice in Wonderland theme. The entrance to the classroom looked like you were walking through the pages of books. I am so incredibly jealous of that entrance and I MUST find a way to recreate that in my own classroom. Loved it!  

Stuffed in between the classroom sessions were two sessions each with Kim Bearden and Ron Clark without any students. I loved how transparent they both were about the school, the students, the process of creating the school, and themselves. These two people are resilient and hardworking and are both truly inspirational. Clark shared about some of his stressors and how he balances being both an educator and an administrator. Kim shared about her personal struggles and how her students actually helped her rise above them. I’m pretty sure there wasn’t a dry eye in the place at the end of Kim’s speech. It was so refreshing to hear them speak because even though they seem like super heroes, they deal with the same drama and stress both in their professional and personal lives as every other educator.

While we were gathered in the hallway, Clark proceeded to sit on top of the student lockers and share some information with us. 

He explained how they do not display student work in the hallways or fill space with bulletin boards at RCA. He described how when he was teaching in Harlem he was required to change the writing bulletin board every three days. When he asked the students how they felt about their work being on the board, they didn’t even realize it was up there in the first place! He decided then that it wasn’t worth the time and energy to keep up with bulletin boards. So instead, they adorn the walls with pictures of the students. And seriously, pictures are e.v.e.r.y.w.h.e.r.e.  He jokingly (at least I hope it was a joke!) said, “I’ve found that if you put pictures of the kids on the walls they are less likely to pee on them.” LOL! But joking (hopefully) aside, the pictures create a sense of hominess, comfort, and belonging—definitely more significant than a seasonal bulletin board.

Kim shared a great deal about her teaching style and how she transforms her classroom into various themes for different lessons. It was so neat to see pictures of her highly creative lessons. She’s amazing! She also shared with us two strategies she uses with her students to practice punctuation- associating punctuation marks with various referee symbols and using cheap dollar store instruments to create a punctuation symphony. We experienced both of these activities and they were super fun! She says that every classroom needs a little “magic” and that magic can be created simply. She also warned that magical activities must also be tightly tied to standards. Sometimes it is easy to get carried away being creative and lose sight of the focus of the lesson. She was completely aware of how some administrators are wary of allowing their teachers to be creative for this very reason, so she stressed the importance of making the magic meaningful

What I loved the most, however, is that she reinforced the importance of passion. Every year the students at Ron Clark visit Soweto, South Africa and take supplies to the students and families. She showed a picture of a teacher in this town teaching to a classroom full of students with only a chalkboard at her disposal. This teacher successfully engages her students day after day not because of technology, or beautifully written textbooks, or a variety of resources, but with her passion alone.  The extras are nice, but not necessary. It is this passion that each of us must find within ourselves and act upon it to truly make our classroom magical.

Here are some pictures from her classroom:

In one session with Clark, he explained the school’s house system. Inspired by the houses in the Harry Potter books, the students are divided into four houses: Altruismo, Reveur, Amistad, and Isibindi, each with a designated color as shown on the wheel below. Each house is known for different characteristics. The staff members are assigned to houses as well and they are just as passionate about their houses as the kids are!

On the first day of school, each incoming fifth grader walks up the steps, spins the wheel, is promptly rushed up the stairs and thrown down the slide, and when they come flying out at the bottom they are greeted by the members of the house the wheel has chosen for them. The houses create a sense of family and belonging and provide the students with an embedded support system. The students earn points for their houses in various ways and the houses compete against each other all year long until a house champion is crowned at the end of each year.

On Fridays, the houses present a performance for the whole school and any visitors that may be there. They are only given about an hour during the week to come up with their performance and put together choreography and lyrics. The houses did their performances for us at the end of the day at it was impressive to see what they came up with. Some groups did better than others and Clark did not shy away from giving brutally honest feedback to each group. At the end of the performances, an adult from each house chose one child that had been especially impressive that particular week and that student had the chance to spin the wheel to earn points for their houses. Seeing the kids interacting with their houses and cheering each other on was so heartwarming. It was such a privilege to witness this tradition.

At the conclusion of the day, we were each given the chance to slide down the electric blue slide and become “slide certified.” Clark had explained earlier in the day how the slide was symbolic of their motto of having no fear and having the courage to take a different path. It meant a lot to have the chance to make the same journey the kids make on their first day of school.

Of course this experience was complete with loud energetic music and all of the students dancing, smiling, and cheering just as they were at the beginning of the day. As I waited in line, a student came around to collect my purse and take it downstairs so I could slide unfettered. Other students came along to chat about where we were from and what we taught, again genuinely engaged in conversation. Two polite students helped me into the slide and as I came flying out at the bottom, I was enveloped in the familiar positive energy that permeates the school. I was proudly handed an “I’ve been slide certified” sticker and whisked away into the crowd.

Because I didn’t have my phone with me, I couldn’t take a picture, but I found this video of another teacher sliding. You can get a sense of the energy from this video.

Taking that slide was truly symbolic to the message of the school- have no fear and have the courage to take a different path. After my experience at RCA, there’s no going back. I will be making some immediate changes in my classroom.

After all the educators had made their way down the slide, the kids performed a special song for us. They changed the lyrics to a popular song (my brain is so overloaded I can’t remember which song it was) and sang to us about how much they appreciate what we do as teachers and how each of us matter. They took our hands and looked directly in our eyes and sang.  I just about lost it. That may have been the best moment of the entire day. 

We stayed after for book signing and picture taking and lots of slow walking because we just didn’t want to leave. 

However, while we were waiting in line, we learned about a block party the Academy was hosting the next day. So as an added bonus, we also went again on Saturday! During the block party, students had the opportunity to showcase their own writing, whether it was poetry or song. We had a fabulous time hearing the kids performing their pieces. I am still blown away at just how talented the kids are and how mature they are, even in their writing topics. Besides the poetry, we learned a dance taught to us by students, heard a band play, listened in on a drum circle, and even enjoyed an authentic Mexican fruit cup as a snack! I felt so lucky to have an additional opportunity to observe RCA in action. Plus, I got to see an additional room (Mr.King's) that I didn't get to go in the day before!

If you’re still with me after all of that, it’s clear to see how overwhelmed my brain is. I have so many things floating around in my head it was hard to even write this post. But in an attempt to sum it up, these are my three major takeaways from my day at RCA:

1. Have Higher Expectations
2. Make Social Skills a Priority
3. Make the Magic Happen

I’ll elaborate in later posts about how I plan to achieve these goals. :) I’m sure you are just as tired of reading as I am of typing!

Let me say this in conclusion: visit RCA in person. Just go! The students are so impressive and the energy is so contagious, you can’t help but leave more fired up then ever. I’m telling you, there is no professional development experience that has been more personal, more inspirational, and more transformative. You won’t be sorry. And plus, you know you want to slide down that slide! ;)