Recently, I had the privilege of attending the Ron Clark Academy. For those of you who are not familiar with who he is, Ron Clark is a young teacher who revolutionized the way that educators approached their students first in North Carolina and then in the Harlem area of New York. He was so influential that a TV movie was made about him which starred Matthew Perry. He has authored three different books, all of them containing practical information to help teachers reach their students.
Ron Clark opened his own academy here in Atlanta about seven years ago. Since that time, his students have accomplished more than many of us dare to believe for our own. The academy tries to mimic actual public school classrooms in that one third of his students are gifted or very high achieving; one third are what we would label as “regular” students, and one third are students who have learning issues or discipline problems in their schools.
When I walked into the Ron Clark Academy, I was blown away. A gauntlet of smiling youngsters greeted me with firm hand shakes, hugs, and perfect eye contact. In the background, speakers were blasting Van Halen’s “Jump”, and teachers and students alike got on a giant trampoline jumping up two stories. The atmosphere was ecstatic and explosive. Children were dancing and cheering. What an incredible first impression!
We then proceeded to spend the day touring the facility, attending workshops being led by teachers, and observing actual teaching. The entire building is designed for teacher training, so we watched comfortably from our seats as Ron Clark jumped on top of the desks, encouraged the kids to dance and sing, and completely engaged every single learner in the large classroom. Each teacher we watched had a unique style if their own, and all students were completely attentive to every word they said. It was unbelievable! I cannot possibly spend one blog post detailing everything that I saw, but what I am going to do is try to sum up some of my major take-always from this life-changing day.
Being positive. Every single teacher in the building was glowing with positivity the entire time that we were there. The students knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that their teachers wanted to be there. Each student felt valued, loved, and welcomed. Positivity overflowed to the students too. Whenever a kid answered a question correct in class or achieved some sort of accomplishment, the other students would erupt in applause.
Smiling. Believe it or not, this one simple facial expression, a smile, made a world of difference at the Ron Clark Academy. Students, teachers, and staff were grinning from ear to ear. One of the kids that I ate lunch with during the training said that greeting students with a smile and looking happy was the one piece of advice he would give to his former teachers at his old school. I makes a difference when students know that the adults in their school are genuinely happy to see them.
Teaching to the Top. The old saying, “A rising tide raises all ships” is certainly true of the Ron Clark Academy. Although they have a wide variety of learners at different ability levels, everyone is taught as if they were in the top of their class. Fifth graders are learning math traditionally taught in grades well above their own. The kids are learning, literally, thousands of vocabulary words throughout the course of the year. It is incredible to see what these amazing students can do! The test scores show how well this approach is working in that most of the students in the Academy score well above their peers on standardized tests.
Teaching with High Energy. Each classroom in the Ron Clark Academy can be described as very energetic. There is a definite pace in which everything moves, and that pacing does so much to keep kids engaged, on-task, and excited about learning. Dull moments do not exist within the walls of the school. Music and fun activities help to set the tempo of the day.
Having Passion. Every person who works in the building is passionate about the students achieving success. This passion, however, goes above and beyond the classroom. The staff members spend time getting to know parents and kids outside of school, often giving up nights and weekends to foster an amazing atmosphere of caring community. The passion doesn’t just stop there – all educators are experts in their respective content areas, and their excitement for the subject that they teach spills over to their students.
Incorporating a Spirit of Competition. Students in the Ron Clark Academy are divided into four houses that compete against one another for points. The houses, similar to a fraternity or sorority, become part of the identity of the kids. The competition is based in positivity, and it fosters the kind of atmosphere in which students praise one another for doing well.
Being Organized and Prepared. Every teacher in the Ron Clark Academy is flawlessly organized and able to run their classroom with extreme precision. The schedule changes on a daily basis at the school, and with many spectators coming in to observe and learn, everyone in the building needs to be able to have enough preparation for a plan B or C or D.
Fostering an Atmosphere of Fun. Colors are splashed all over the walls. Music is playing in most of the classrooms. Kids are up on their desks dancing, often to the beat of a djembe drum. A giant slide welcomes each student when they walk in the doors- a reminder that anyone can learn in their own way. At the Ron Clark Academy, a spirit of fun permeates the building.
These observations are just a small drop in the bucket of what I experienced while I was there. The images I saw and emotions I felt will forever be tattooed in my mind as a reminder of an experience that I will forever remember. If you ever have a chance to visit the Ron Clark Academy, GO!
Personally, I will never view my students and my calling the same. So much can happen if teachers choose to look past the day-to-day drudgery of our jobs and be reinvigorated and excited again, falling head over heels once more for our first love, the love of teaching. Ron Clark and his team gave me the exact boost I needed to take my classroom by storm, believing things about my students that no else dared to imagine for them! I will never forget this incredible experience…
To learn more about the Ron Clark Academy, visit http://www.ronclarkacademy.com.
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