Last week, I witnessed the most amazing group of kids I have ever seen at the Ron Clark Academy. I wish I could show you what I saw because words cannot really do justice -- it's just something you have to experience.
The day began similar to any other school visit. As I approach the school I am greeted by someone from the school who will give me instructions of the upcoming format for the visit. However, this time I was greeted by three young men around the age of 13 or 14 from the school, and immediately what I notice is the way they greet me. They all gave me a firm handshake, looked me in my eyes, and said, "Nice to meet you Mr. Thomas, welcome to our school." Why is this significant you ask? Because a lot of times, especially with young kids, they mumble, look at the ground, don't say "sir," etc. So our conversation continued -- they were engaged, focused, looking in my eye the entire time, and very well mannered. I thought to myself, well they probably picked the three brightest and sharpest kids to greet me and coached them how to behave, but still pretty impressive. However, after meeting the other kids in the school, I kid you not, every single one of them conducted themselves in the exact same manner. It was like the Twilight Zone or something. Every student: firm handshake, introduced themselves, looked in my eyes, "nice to meet you sir."
When I entered the class room, I was floored. The fifth grade classroom was working on a complex algebra problem, and after they got the answer right, the teacher, Ron Clark, put on some music and they all stood up on the desks and started dancing for about three to five minutes. It was the hook to DJ Khaled's, "All I do is win win win no matter what." Ron Clark was at the front of the class doing the Dougie (he was doing it pretty good too) -- the whole method was complete positive reinforcement for them. Then, they all sat back down. Literally every student was completely engaged in the discussion, attentive, eager to learn. They then started doing multiplication. But not like 6 x 7, but 67 x 13 all in their head. The teacher would throw out some numbers the kids would pause for about four or five seconds then all give the answer in unison. I thought it was a trick or something. One of the teachers who were observing along with me asked why they don't use pen and paper? Ron Clarke explained that they do when they first start during the year, but that they don't have time for pen and paper because they have to keep up with the rest of the class, and by the time they write down the problem, the class will be off to the next one. He then told her to give the class a multiplication equation, and she replied five times four, and the look Ron Clark gave her was as if to say "don't insult us," and he gave the class 54 times 48, and again they paused for three to five seconds, then in unison gave the answer. It was amazing.
Then again after about 15 minutes of work, they all got up, stood on their desks and started dancing again to music, then they all sat back down. The teaching method utilized often was through music. It makes perfect sense, because I am usually amazed at how my kids know all of the words to all of the shows they watch that has music whether it's Kung Fu Panda (one of my son Malcolm's favorites), Doc McStuffins (one of my daughter Imani's favorites), or Little Einsteins (My youngest daughter Sierra's absolute favorite). They all learn the words to my reggae music I play around the house and know all of the words verbatim, so it makes sense that transferring that learning into school work would be successful. Ron Clark explained to me that sometimes when the students are taking a test and trying to figure out a problem, he sees them sing the song to themselves and that reminds them how to correctly complete the problem. It's like their mental cheat sheet. Here are some of the words to the songs they sang called, "Gonna Get This Math Off!"
Let's get this algebra, it's really not tough
When you're adding if the signs are the same, just chill they will not change
Let's speed this up, when you multiply like signs -- positive's up
With unlike signs
WHAT DO YOU DO?
When you multiply
A NEGATIVE COMES THROUGH
But if you add, the sign of the larger will be had
Find the difference and there you go
The integers are easy, now you know!
With an exponent though, the number will grow
Multiply the digit again and again
The number at the top tells you when you can end
After observing these amazing students, I sat down to speak with Kim Bearden, the co-founder, executive director and English teacher at Ron Clark Academy.
She told me how the kids at the school come from varying academic and behavioral backgrounds. Some were gifted and at the tops of their classes, while others had never had academic success before attending RCA or had been labeled as "problem" kids in previous schools. That they have kids in all of the top private schools across the country, and what's so great about that is that they tested into those schools. RCA is big on pushing academic rigor, and all of the students -- from the gifted to those who had struggled before -- are given high expectations. There are kids who when they first came to the Ron Clark Academy, would sometimes be two and three grade levels below where they should have been. For instance, if they were in the 5th grade, they were reading on a 2nd grade level. And now, many of them are on full rides at some of the top boarding schools and private schools across the country.
The school is big on discipline--they have never had a fight there. She told me how there were kids in this school that would be the kids who would throw the desk at the teacher, the kids who would get in the fights, but when they come there, they don't behave that way and her point was that if you set the right climate and culture the kids will respond. They won't feel like they have to be on edge or protect themselves or that it's them against the teacher. They all know without a doubt, that the teacher is on their side. They are very strict there, but not like a warden strict, which is unfortunately the approach that many teachers have been trying with kids for decades, but like a strict parent who cares about the kids but has definite rules and guidelines that have to be followed.
When I was in school, I had a teacher for freshman English whose name was Mr. Williams. He was without a doubt, the best teacher I have ever had. He engaged us, challenged us, kept the class fun, exciting, challenging, and disciplined. He was strict, but I never felt that he was not on my side. He commanded respect and that's what he received. He also wasn't afraid to give positive reinforcement which also was very beneficial. He taught us that it was "advantageous" to us to always do our best. That was one of his favorite words to use: advantageous. I still use it every now and then. I had many other teachers who I had a similar relationship with: Ms. Fisher, Ms. Barre, Ms. Coleman, Ms. Alexander, Ms. Edwards and I never had one issue with them. They could be as strict as they wanted to be with me because I knew they were on my side. They gave respect and got it back in return.
See, I was the kid who would get offended when a teacher would try to be a warden or was a "sit down, shut up and do your work" type of a teacher, so I can relate to the kids who have the issues with their teachers today. For some reason, so many teachers don't understand that you have to give respect to get it. I don't understand why that is such a difficult concept to understand. Mr. Williams gave us respect and he demanded respect in return, and I never even heard any stories of him ever having disciplinary problems with any student, but I heard stories of other teachers getting cussed out, threatened etc. I didn't hear of any student actually throwing a chair at a teacher, but I definitely had my share of run-ins with teachers who didn't understand the concept of giving respect and then getting it back in return. I remember very clearly in elementary school Ms. Scalet, Sister Louise, Sister Emily, Sister Agatha were
at one point or another about this close (holding my thumb and my pointer really close) to being either cussed out or screamed on for thinking they can talk to me any way they chose and expect me to give them all the respect in the world or as being the "authority figure" or "Brides of Christ" smh. Fast-forward to high school, I remember Mr. Arrington, Mr. Marcum, Mr. Bankston, Mr. Elmer Lee Davis, were even closer to (although I am thankful it never got to this) being punched in the face because they didn't understand that you couldn't challenge my manhood -- especially not in front of my peers and expect me to still treat you with reverence and honor because you are a teacher. So I was very impressed that Ms. Kim Bearden, a little energetic white lady from the Ron Clark Academy understood this concept. I think most people will conclude that our education system is virtually broken, and the best way to fix this, in my humble opinion, is to fix teachers.
She talked about how important it is for them to push these kids academically and that they have so many kids who when they first came there had no idea how smart they were because they were never challenged. She talked about one student in particular who was their first valedictorian to graduate from their school. She explained that when he first came there for his admissions interview, you couldn't understand him, he mumbled his name, looked at the ground when he talked, weak handshake, didn't really speak. However, after going through their program, at their graduation, he got a scholarship as a 7th grader for being one of the top 50 seventh graders in the country. His high school is paid for, his college is paid for, his graduate school and his summer enrichment programs are all paid for. His mother told them how in elementary school, she wanted him tested for gifted, but no one really seemed to see his brilliance. This student, after going through the Ron Clark Academy and being pushed and challenged, became the valedictorian and gave a commencement speech with no notes, no podium, to an auditorium of 1,000 people. He is currently at Pace Academy in Atlanta, and is one of the top students in the private school.
The Ron Clark Academy is creating leaders of tomorrow. They aren't just talking about starting an educational revolution, they are putting transferring that idea into action. It was amazing to see and anyone that takes a tour of their facilities, observes their students, the passion and excitement of their teachers and their overall teaching methods, will come away with a feeling that the future is in good hands.