Four years ago, Connie Walthall and her son Tony knocked on the door of Harriett Ball's Texas home.
The young man and his mother were eager to surprise the elementary school teacher.
"I came to thank you. Did you know that Tony came home every day and told me about you?"
Walthall began to describe how her son had returned from school each day repeating Ball's lessons.
Ball told her students they were worth more than the poor neighborhoods they were from, that there was no reason they couldn't achieve their dreams.
Through her son, Walthall began to take Ball's words to heart. She moved out of the stark low-income housing building referred to as "the jailhouse" by neighborhood children.
She decided to go back to school to become a teacher.
The Walthalls are one of many families touched by Harriett Ball's radical teaching style and words of inspiration.
During the 20-plus years Ball taught in Texas public schools, her methods weren't always applauded.
She sometimes butted heads with a system that didn't appreciate deviation from the norm.
However, Ball was committed to her rambunctious teaching style, which is now nationally celebrated.
Teach To What Kids Know
As a young teacher, Ball never let standardized tests put limits on what her students should learn.
One day, as a game of naming state capitals sent echoes of cheers and shouts down the hallways of Houston's Bastian Elementary School, the principal popped in to see what was going on.
He quickly intervened. "These are fourth graders. They don't need to know the state capitals. It won't be on the test."
"Yes sir," Ball feigned compliance.
When the door swung shut, Ball quickly resumed her lesson, albeit at a muffled volume.
She used songs, chants and games to get kids excited about learning. "I take whatever the kids are watching and make it educational," she said.
Ball once taught math using a McDonald's commercial tune; another time, she used a mock boxing match to help students "knock out the continents" for a geography test.
"They all aced the test," she remembers.
Interaction is the cornerstone of Ball's method. "They're not just listening to me, they are responding."
The dramatic improvement in her students' test scores soon attracted attention.
Teaching The Teachers
In 1993, a struggling young Teach For America instructor named David Levin approached Ball. "Do you mind if I sit in on your class?" he asked her. "I've never seen teaching like this before."
Levin soon began spending his lunch hour observing Ball's class. Then he began to meet Ball for mentoring after school and on weekends.
Inspired by Ball's success teaching Bastian Elementary's underprivileged students, Levin and his friend Mike Feinberg founded the Knowledge Is Power Program.
The young men borrowed the name from the lyrics of a song Ball used to encourage her students to read.
Today, there are 99 KIPP Academies across the nation, putting low income students on a path to college.
No Child Left Behind
Ball continues to make an impact in education. With Harriett Ball Enterprises, her teaching consultancy firm, Ball tours the country training teachers her methods, which she calls "fearless learning".
She also shares her message through books and television appearances.
She rejects the term "low performing" in reference to students.
"I don't know what those are," she says. Ball prefers the phrase "under-taught."
She cautions against judging children -- or putting them into categories -- based on their appearance or their family life.
Instead, by helping teachers improve, she hopes to reach under-taught children across the nation.
Every child, Ball says, has "hidden treasures, but no one's opened up the chest yet."
That's where the teacher comes in.
To see Harriett Ball teaching her students the metric system with one of her many catchy tunes, watch the video below.
To make a donation to Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), which runs schools across the country based on Harriett Ball's revolutionary teaching techniques, visit KIPP.org.
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