Last week, I tagged along with a Leadership Atlanta group, and visited the Ron Clark Academy, a school that opened last fall in southeast Atlanta. It’s named for the 2000 Disney American Teacher Award Winner and the lead figure in the 2006 TNT movie “The Ron Clark Story, ” who is also the co-founder.
The private, not for profit, middle school is located in an area of town that is better known for illegal after-hours activity. Currently there are 60 students enrolled in 5th and 6th grades. The school is an old renovated brick building. The interior walls and floors are covered with bright colors. The lobby includes the landing pad of a spiral slide that provides a quick way down from the second floor for students, teachers and visitors (yes, I slid down).
The students are well behaved; they look me in the eye, shake my hand and introduce themselves. They respond to my questions with “Yes ma’am” and “No ma’am.” The school’s high level of discipline is the result of what Clark terms the “Essential 55,” guidelines for living and interacting with others that appear in the lobby of the school. Kim Bearden, our tour guide and co-founder of the academy, explains to us that the discipline provides the framework for the creative and fun environment in the academy.
Touring the first floor, we can hear and feel a loud beat coming from above our heads, it makes me wonder what is going on in the class. First floor includes a Delta classroom (as in Delta Airlines), complete with ticket counter, and “The Gauntlet,” a room where students take tests, many of which are hands-on activities.
At one end of the second-story hall is a library, with a fireplace on one side, a couch on the other and a bookcase along the back. In a building that is otherwise filled with color and light, the dark colors and old-fashioned style appear to be remnants of a different period.
When Kim presses a button, the bookcase slides apart and we enter Clark’s classroom. It’s reminiscent of one of Clark’s favorite childhood memories in the cartoon Scooby Doo.
The students and Clark are singing and stomping to a math song, with Clark and many of the students standing on top of their desks. This explains the noise from earlier. Once the song is done, the students sit down and the class continues.
A math problem is introduced, determine the cost of visiting Coney Island: riding the Ferris wheel, buying drinks and hotdogs (with and without cheese). Discounts to the food only. The problem is laid out on the board, and each student begins working independently to solve the problem.
Clark walks on, yes that’s ON, the students’ desks, checking work, praising those who solve the problem and encouraging those who have the wrong answer to try again.
After a few minutes, students take turns at the front of the class, working through the problem together. Clark encourages those who did not get the correct answer to share where they made their mistake. There is a clear expectation from Clark that the students pay attention and learn, and the students are clearly engaged.
At one point, a student at the board accidentally utters an unacceptable phrase. Clark’s quick and low, “Don’t say that” is all the reproof required. The student checks himself and then continues – but appears upset. Correctly finishing his portion of the problem, he sits down, then walks out of the classroom to collect himself returning a few minutes later.
The class moves onto a different problem. With the students shouting out the answer to each step, Clark completes part of the problem. Clark then calls for the same student to approach the board again to work the problem. Clark erases part of the problem and writes an incorrect answer, then sits down. The student stands up, he notes that the number is wrong. Clark acknowledges his mistake and tells the student to correct it.
My guess is that Clark’s mistake is an intentional one, part of the learning experience. It shows the student there is no shame in making a mistake, correcting it, and moving on and exhibits why he is regarded as such a great teacher.
It’s not the dancing on the desks, it’s not the chants and stomps – it’s Clark’s ability to connect with his students that makes him a master teacher. The singing and stomping is a tool to engage them. He cares about his students, has high expectations for them, and teaches using real-life examples. Based on my 30 minutes in his classroom, it works – he’s making a difference.
We are not the only visitors. Teachers, administrators and other educators travel from across the country to watch the classes, and listen to the teachers talk about their approach to teaching students.
While not all teachers will feel comfortable standing on desks, it’s not the tactics that are as important as the results. It is about engaging students, getting them interested in learning and improving themselves.
The teacher who made the biggest difference to me was my college economics professor, Dr. Fred Chapman, who believed that I had more in me than I thought I did. His encouragement and expectation helped me excel.
My daughter’s teacher Leigh Jackson engages her students in a different way, sharing funny stories about her cats “Moca and Espresso,” and stories about cooking. “I share with them what’s in my heart,” she told me.
Maybe that’s all that’s needed.
Perhaps we should forget the talk about education systems and school systems – it’s not the system that teaches, it’s people like Clark, Chapman and Jackson. The question is how to get everyone else out of the way – and support the teachers so they are able to grab the teachable moments when they come their way.