Ron Clark. Let’s face it, his is a name that many have heard. We have heard him keynote on two occasions, the first dating back to roughly 2004ish. After hearing him speak, people typically fall into two camps.
People either have an amen moment, or they think he is all hype trying to make a buck. Taking that further, he has written a number of books, one of which I reviewed HERE. Head over to goodreads.com or amazon.com and you will see reviews, both positive and negative. Again, people here fall into two camps.
We had the opportunity to go to the Ron Clark Academy recently. Going in, we were pumped. We were excited. We knew that we taught the way that Ron and his staff teach. I wanted to see teaching like we do without having to worry about being “that teacher who is too loud” next door. I wanted new ideas. I wanted inspiration. Most of all, I wanted to talk to the kids. Let’s be real, most grown ups can talk the talk, and in public, we can even walk the walk. But kids, they will tell you the way it is once you get to know them a bit. I wanted to see these results for myself.
Our day started out with a bang. First, a warning, if you ever go to RCA, get there early. We thought we were early and stopped for a cup of coffee at the Wendy’s up the street. Turns out we had to park at the back of a field. There was a crowd forming at the gates.
We were greeted, in the rain, by several members of the RCA staff. Everyone we met was extremely friendly and helpful. In fact, we drove to RCA the day before, just to make sure we knew where it was and to get a sneak peak. Even the security guard at the gate was beyond friendly, pointing out where we would park, and giving us an idea of just how things would go outside.
Making one’s way through the gates, you see the wall across a courtyard painted like a castle. Rounding the corner, we were greeted by Mr. Clark at the door to a sort of staging area/visitor center. Right out of the gate, you know this is not going to be a quiet day. Music is pumping, kids are shaking hands and making small talk. People are getting excited. We spoke to a couple of kids, and were impressed by their ability to engage in small talk. I know many teachers say this is not a needed skill, it isn’t in their standards, etc. Personally, I think it is great. Kids need to learn how to communicate with people effectively, and the first students we met lived up to the expectation.
Finally, we were sorted into houses. Now, by sorted into houses, what I mean is we finally noticed that we had been sorted when we chose our name tags. Me, I landed in Isibindi. The house of courage. So, sorry Mr. Clark, but I’m Isibindi, I didn’t land in that blue house.. but at least it wasn’t Altruismo.
We were then ushered into the main school building. Again, music was pumping, we were being prepared to see something different. That message was clear, without a word being said.
Ron spoke for a few minutes, giving a brief history of the school, why he opened it, and a few of his basic ideas about kids and school in general.
Quickly, we are separated into groups and ushered through a series of quick observations. I would guess that each group is in each class for roughly 15 minutes, but to be truthful, I was glued to the kids, not to my watch.
We started in Mrs. King’s room. The students were discussing literary elements, rising action, climax, etc. The students were engaged with each other, politely disagreeing on various points, and using evidence from the text to back up their answers. The teaching was solid, in fact, it was more facilitating than teaching, but it’s the kids that make RCA what it is. You knew when walking up to the entry, this was going to be cool.
We were then ushered into Mr. King’s room for a current events lesson. With guitar strapped on, Mr. King was leading the students through a discussion about political cartoons. Here, we saw kids be kids. Sure, they were civil, they were polite, but it was the first glimpse that, yes, they do have minor discipline issues, and they deal with them. Students sign their name to a whiteboard when they commit an infraction, and it is done in such a way that the lesson never stops. Others are not watching the offender, but are still glued to the lesson. They are tracking Mr. King as he speaks.
Later, we learn that this is a learned skill for these kids. It’s funny in a way, this is something we taught heavily when we taught lower grades, and somehow, it slipped away when moving up to the middle grades. You can guess what we are teaching this week.
After leaving “The King Wing” (where we felt a special kinship because they are married teachers teaching together like us) we made our way over to Mr. Clark’s 5th grade math class. Now, let’s just cut to the chase. Mr. Clark has been seen all over the world. People know to expect the unexpected. No one was terribly shocked when he taught from the desktops. I found myself wishing I had my old room from a previous school, where I had a stage of my own in the room. My ceilings now don’t leave a lot of headroom… oh the jealousy. What did shock people was the complexity of the math the students were learning. Easily 3 or more years ahead of other 5th grade math programs I have seen. Sure, some kids struggled with the concepts, but the other kids were cheering them on. One student, Jasmine, was having difficulty with a particular idea. You could see the concern in the other students’ faces, then, like magic, they turned into coaches. They cheered for her, they stood up and tried explaining it to her. No one was to be left behind if they could help it.
After that, we proceeded to lunch. I could post a picture, but it would be just as simple to say look at the Great Hall in Hogwarts, shrink it a fair bit, and you have the RCA dining room. We ate with a couple of students, and learned a bit about the school. This is where I dug in to see what the kids really thought. A quick recap of some of the Q&A:
Is it tough at RCA? Yes. Tougher than they would like at times, but they know why it’s tough.
What’s the difference between a regular school day and a day visitors are in the building? Not much, except for the dancing and greeting us at the door.
Why did my student get picked to attend RCA in his opinion? He figured it was because he beat out the other two students in the interview. He was shocked, he had never been asked this question. He gave several possibilities, weighed them, then decided it had to be the interview. It was nice to watch him reason it out.
What about discipline? It’s all about detentions. No one wants them. They avoid getting in trouble like the plague. Detentions stink.
Rigor- Yes, it was extremely hard at the beginning, but once he got in the groove, he loves the difficulty.
College? Not yes, but of course. As if it were an expectation. He wants to be a computer programmer.
After our extremely pleasant lunch, we went to Dr. Jones for a training on flipped classrooms. This was not a new idea for us, as we are a variation of being flipped (as much as we can at this point) Dr. Jones did a fantastic job of explaining the concept, and gave several resources. I really liked this session because we were able to discuss various tools we have used, and tools she uses, and we both got to learn new things.
We then went to the art room, where we had been briefly before doing line drawings. Here, Ms. Barnes talked poetry. Wait, no, she talked music. Oh… the revelation many have when they realize they are one in the same. Here I learned a new sort of poetry… namely, The Blues. Sure, I had heard them. Yes, I listen to them occasionally. No, I had never really looked at them as poetry. She had us write our own blues verse, and some of us sang it. Yes, we made sure we sang it. In for a dime, in for a dollar. While I am sure the noise coming from my mouth was not the best, it was a ball, and will make it’s way into my classroom ASAP.
Finally, we have a training seminar with Mr. Clark. He explained his beliefs in detail, explained why he is so hard on his students. (and he is, no doubt about it) He explains that the 5th graders we saw earlier have only been at his school for a few weeks, they were still being molded. He has extremely high expectations, as does the entire staff. There was some grumbling that his expectations were too high, but there were far more that held beliefs like we share with Mr. Clark. You teach to the high. Always. You work to bring the low up to speed, but you pace lessons for the high. High expectations bring great results. The students thrive as a result. We asked, they love being challenged. They love that someone cares enough to do that for them.
The final activity of the day was the slide certification. Yes, if you have not heard, the huge blue slide. I managed to fit my 6’6″ self in it, and got my sticker. It’s an amazing experience. Not only because of the slide, but more because of the students cheering each of us on the way down.
So, to answer my question. Does The Ron Clark Academy live up to the hype? Yes. Without a doubt. RCA is an example of school being done the right way. There is greatness at RCA. Greatness in teaching, greatness in students, greatness all around. Is it worth the money? Absolutely. I can say this, because we paid our own travel and everything to get to and from Atlanta. Would I do it again? Absolutely. Now, to you administrators trying to decide who to send. Allow me a moment. Don’t send the goats. (Ron calls these riders). Even the somewhat compliant goats (These are Ron’s walkers). It’s next to impossible to pull a goat along. Same goes for dead weight in a school. Don’t let them eat up resources. Send the ones who are jogging and you think a little boost will make them run. And by all means, send your runners. The ones who are taking chances, making mistakes, and getting messy. (Thanks to Ms. Frizzle for that one).
To the staff and parent volunteers of RCA, thank you for allowing us the opportunity to come into your school. It is an amazing facility with amazing people running every aspect of it.
To the students of RCA, thank you for what you do, but more importantly, for what you will do in the years to come. You are blessed to be at RCA. Make the most of everything you have. Believe in yourself as much as your teachers do, as much as I do.
And finally, to my brothers and sisters of Isibindi. I wish I had the chance to get to know each of you. Stick together, and lift each other up. Be brave in all that you do, and forge your own way in life. And… about that performance after the epic slide ride. I ached for you. Nail that performance this week. Use each talent that you have to it’s fullest, and kill it.