In some regards, this post makes no sense, not so much the content of the piece, but rather the timing. It’s crunch-time, go-time, D-Day- whatever particular flavor of end-of-the-year-and-I’m-a-teacher-type metaphor that you’d like, and that’s where I’m at. It really makes no sense to spend the last half hour of my morning clicking keys before getting ready and heading off to school. Many other items on the to-do list require attention. There are objectives and Really Important Last-Minute Things to accomplish. But I guess if you’re reading this post (and not clutching really important arteries in shock that the Write Project is putting out something in 2017), you’re likely someone who values the written word, just a little, and it should come as no surprise that inspiration or desperation, depending on how one looks through the lens, nudges me toward the keyboard, eschewing other important matters.
Okay, with that disclaimer/apology out of the way, I’ll start by saying that I’m haunted by Ron Clark. To the uninitiated, he’s a former national teacher of the year, and about 10 years ago, he founded the Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta. It’s a demonstration school, meaning that classrooms are outfitted with seats for the students but also as many as 100 stadium seats, depending on the classroom, for visiting educators to witness educational brilliance. I happened to be one of those visiting educators in February, and the visit still gnaws at me.
It’s one of those places that make you wonder if it’s indeed real. From the Hogwarts-like magical appeal to the 5th graders able to converse like talk show hosts to the two-story slide greeting guests at the front door to the way Innovation has emeritus status on the faculty, it’s an educational wonderland, one I can’t stop thinking about. Ron Clark, and perhaps the noble pursuit of building a culture of academic excellence, haunts my daylight hours. Thankfully he hasn’t invaded my dream life; I’ll save that for Tiger Woods. (An explanation of that facet of my REM world should probably be inserted here, but I’ll just suffice it to say that in my nightmares, Eldrick and I have plenty of rounds, usually ending with him getting disgruntled postal worker-like angry and uncorking all manner of 100-proof expletives.)
Perhaps daily, perhaps weekly, I think about how to incorporate much of RCA into the fabric of the school where I work. Though the Ron Clark Academy is obviously a Shangri-La of its own, without close comparison, there are a number of takeaways that I carried home, eager to infuse into the Happiest Place on Earth, my classroom:
- The Rules of Engagement – Technically in educational warfare, only one rule exist: make sure students are engaged. One of RCA’s pillars is high student engagement. From teachers climbing atop desks to students singing the rules of grammar to Ron Clark teaching a 15-minute math lesson using only music and hand signals, there’ are no apathetic, slouchingly-unendearing “Why do I have to learn this?” torpedoes being launched from the cheap seats in the classroom. Wide-eyed gleams adorned student faces as they theorized and worked. I want my classroom to be one needing a permanent, “Students Hard at Work” sign.
- Rigor Non-Mortis – Sure, the students at RCA do academic life in a Disneyland-like environment. One teacher’s classroom celebrates the inspiring genius of Lewis Carroll in majestic and awe-inspiring ways. But one pillar of the school is academic rigor. Yes, school can and should be fun, but if that’s all it is, we’d call it summer camp. High student engagement needs to be paired with academic rigor in order for students to truly achieve. Yes, I want my classroom to be a Wonderland in its own regard; I’d just like to produce future Nobel Prize winners in the process.
- Do You Believe in Magic? – Teachers at RCA speak of spellbinding more than attendees at a David Copperfield Convention. Whether it’s in a room transformation or a whole-school makeover, they constantly unveil some pedagogical sleight of hand. One teacher explained a whole Power Rangers room re-do, allowing students to mastery academic concepts in “Morphin’ Time.” It leads me to think, “If such novelty doesn’t compromise educational objectives, why not have some fun while learning grammar? (That’s not to say that grammar isn’t inherently fun; it is. Some folks are just a little misguided in that regard.)
There is more I could say, and probably will at some point. For now, I’ll just simply tell Ron Clark that he continues to haunt my thoughts, and considering the Willy Wonka of the educational world that he is, I’m sure he’s fine with that.