Earlier this school year, my principal asked if any teachers would be interested in attending the Ron Clark Academy Experience during the week of our Spring Break. After some thinking about it and looking to see if it would be possible to go, I made the decision to say yes to the opportunity to attend the RCA Experience…and I’m very happy that I did!
My first encounter with Ron Clark was when I found out about his book, the Essential 55. The Essential 55 are rules and procedures that a student, or really anyone, could use to be a more respectful and polite person. The idea is that if students learn these Essential 55, that the behavior and understanding of the classroom process would naturally follow with politeness and respect. Over the years I attempted to implement the Essential 55 in my classroom but it became very challenging. With students having several different teachers, and policies and procedures being different across the school, it became a struggle and I eventually just pushed them off to the side.
My next encounter with Ron Clark was at the Spark Conference this past August. He was the keynote speaker and his talk really brought me back to the Essential 55. I wanted to bring them back but then the school year began and the everyday activities of the classroom just took over. After much reflection, I wish I did implement them this year.
These opportunities I had with Ron Clark led me to much interest into going to the Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta, Georgia. The Ron Clark Academy is a school that was not only built with students in mind, but also educators. Each classroom is designed to have areas of observation for visiting educators. Teachers are open and willing to share their techniques and own experiences not because their techniques are correct but rather because they are effective.
When I arrived at the Ron Clark Academy, there was music blasting, teachers dancing, and educators looking all around with many confused faces since they were unsure of what they were supposed to do! Many started dancing and greeting each other even though many of them have never met before. There was a real interest in building positive, professional relationships!
After checking in, there was more time for socializing before I headed into the school. Once the doors opened, that’s when the RCA Experience really began. There were students lining the hallways, music blasting, and an excitement that was going to define the next 2 days. As you walk through the student lined hallways, the students are waving their hands, giving fist bumps, and high fives. You walk through Dragon Alley and then into the rotunda that has a flying dragon on the ceiling. Then you enter the auditorium.
Once I was in the auditorium, there was more music, fog machine, and lights just welcoming everyone! (If you haven’t noticed yet, music is quite important to the RCA Experience!) It was here where we were given a rundown of the next couple of days. We were given the 5 Ws…who, what, when, where, and why…and the ever important how. Who would we see? What would we see? When would we see it? Where would we see it? Why would we see it? How does it happen? We then heard a keynote speech from Ron Clark. We were told his story and how everything came to be. We also heard from Kim Bearden, who is the co-founder of the Ron Clark Academy, who explained her role and why she is so supportive of the Ron Clark Academy. The one thing that really overwhelmed me was that every teacher at the school had such a strong passion for what they do and that they want to share it with others. I could really tell that they truly focused on relationships first and that they want to see all of their students succeed.
When I was finished in the auditorium, that is when classroom observations began. This is where seeing how the Essential 55 and the procedures that are used throughout the school were implemented. It was often explained that getting to the point of where students are today was not a simple process. Students had to break many of the instincts that they previously had to adjust to the routines that take place in the classrooms at RCA. These procedures include not raising your hand but stand to talk and only begin speaking once the teacher makes eye contact with you and giving the floor to another student if you do begin speaking at the same time. This was very interesting to observe but at the same time very positive. It is something that I would like to work on the rest of the school year.
Another challenging piece to begin implementing will be free movement around the classroom. Now, students do not just get up and walk around whenever they want, but the way that they go back and forth to their seats is much different. Many of the classrooms I observed had students sitting at tables. Students were free to walk across tables. While this could be seen as distracting, it actually works. I would see students stand on their chairs to respond to questions, but at the same time, teachers would be standing on tables and desks to teach. It is not a distraction, but rather a position where everyone can see and focus on.
I visited other classrooms while there and many showed that consistency in procedures throughout the school helps make transitions seamless. Also, each class plays music as students arrive or even during the class. The music sets the tone for the day, gets students energized, and creates movement for students. Movement was another huge part of the work at RCA. Movement stimulates the mind and creates opportunity for recall of key terms or concepts. This is another practice that I would like to begin using in my own classroom.
When I visited the classroom of Mr. Ron Clark, it was something different…but in a good way. The first part of the class there was no speaking by him but rather students were responding to his sign language and other non-verbal cues. Students were then given a problem to work on and once it was figured out correctly, they went around and helped other students, all while not speaking but rather using hand gestures. The engagement level was very high but the engagement was not distracting but rather guiding.
Now, I can see how many of you may think that this school is just a place where kids stand and dance on desks and that there’s no order or learning going on. From my own eye witness account, that is not true at all. Students were able to respond with critical thinking skills, great recall, and respect and care for the learning environment. I also noticed that there were times when students were not always on task and the teachers were quick to point it out and bring the students back to the learning.
Another interesting procedure I picked up from RCA is that there is a strong focus on vocabulary. The process by which the reading/vocabulary teacher, Korey Collins has students work on vocabulary. He has students repeat the word, repeat the definition, discuss the word, while also doing a gesture that helps recall the word. Students are then asked to respond to the class while doing the gesture every time they say the word. It has been a proven practice for him and one that I would like to start to use.
Another aspect of the Ron Clark Academy that I would like to see used is the house system. The house system is when the students are divided into four different groups that all focus on a positive trait…Amistad (friendship), Isibindi (courage), Reveur (dreamers), and Altruismo (givers). Students work to get points to be the leaders and work as a team to succeed. There is competition among the groups but the overall success of the system is how students work together as a community to cheer each other on. I chose to join Altruismo when I was at RCA. Let’s Go A-L-T-R-U-I-S-M-O!
So many questions develop after visiting RCA. Some of these questions include “How can my school ever pay for all of this stuff?”; “How can I do this since I don’t have the backing of Coca-Cola, Oprah, and all those big names?”; “Why would I ever let my student stand on desks and listen to music when they come in?” The answer to these questions is quite simple…you don’t have to do everything! The main take away from my 2 days at RCA is that relationships need to happen before anything else! Students need to feel that they are accepted and welcome. Students need to feel like it is there school. Building relationships doesn’t cost anything! All it takes is a smile, eye contact, and some welcoming words. Once those simple practices start to happen, relationships will evolve and, hopefully, everything else falls into place.
While relationships with students is important, there needs to be focus on the relationships between teachers. Teachers need to uplift and value the work of other teachers. It is not the place of teachers to question other teachers but rather it is there place to check in on them and ask how they’re doing. They should observe the work of other teachers and show that they are continuously learning. Be models of learning and models of support for our students.
Overall, my 2 days at the Ron Clark Academy were fantastic. I can’t wait to begin implementing some of the basic practices that I learned and work to strengthen the relationships that I already have. I am also ready to begin to bring some new ideas and concepts to my new endeavor!
Thank you to everyone at the Ron Clark Academy for a great 2 days! I’m looking forward to working with you all more in the future!