Wednesday, November 5, 2008

GaETC Keynote - Ron Clark

I just left the Keynote at GaETC given by Ron Clark of the Ron Clark academy. I had heard incredible things about him, but to say that I was blown away by him is putting it mildly. It makes me want to go back to teaching (almost).

One of the first things that he spoke about was the Presidential Rap song that his kids did that was recorded and put on YouTube and has since gone viral and gotten attention from major networks. He performed a bit of it for us and here is the video of his students.

The man is a dynamo of energy and creativity and much of what he said really touched to the heart of what teaching is all about - at least for me. He spoke of innovation and creativity and how we cannot expect our students to be innovative or creative if WE are not allowed to be. Teaching to the test has become the mantra in so many of our classrooms. We have to teach "down" to our brightest kids, they have become the tutors for those struggling, but what about them? He says that we have "flipped the script" entirely in teaching to attempt to not leave any child behind. He approaches things from a different angle, teaching to the brightest instead and raising the others up and he had succeeded.

Music in his classroom, finding what "clicks" with his students and incorporating that into his daily instruction is key. He says it's all about the atmosphere in the classroom. Set the tone, smile, let the kids know that you care because if you don't care about them and let them know about it, how can we expect them to care about themselves and to take ownership of their learning? We've got to think outside the box.

He has 55 rules in his school. I was shocked to hear he had that many, but he defended them by saying that they provide a strict structure that his students appreciate. They know the expectations, they are aware of the consequences. Once those are in place, then he can be as crazy, innovative, silly, and jump on as many desks as he wants to. Set the structure in place first. Being proactive in the beginning gets better results in the end.

Some of the funnier moments in his speech is when he spoke about promoting his book on Oprah. He said that it was she who encouraged him to write a book and after sending her a copy she invited him back to the show. She showed the book to her audience, told them to buy it and then hugged it. From Ron Clark's mouth (loosely), "When Oprah tells you to write a book, you do it." "When Oprah hold your book close to her bosom, you're in." The next day, his book was number two on the best seller's list - right behind Harry Potter.

It was the proceeds from his book that he used to found the Ron Clark Academy in an abandoned factory in South Atlanta. They had 19 break-ins during construction, but he did a four month tour of the neighborhood introducing himself and speaking about his school, eventually the community took ownership of it and helped to build it into what is today. He said that buildings to the right and left have graffiti, but it's like his school is this fortress because not a mark you'll find on his building. He even got some of the street walkers to pitch in. "If you call them, they'll come. They won't stay long, but they helped." And these were some of the very people who were trashing the neighborhood in the first place.

Clark says, if our schools aren't what we want them to be then it's our fault. If you want to make changes, if you want innovation, then everyone has to be on the same page.

Clark says that he doesn't like every student that he's ever had and tells the story of Rondell - a child who he particularly disliked. And of course, Rondell was one of those kids who was never absent. He might be late, letting Clark think he had a reprieve from his nightmare, but then he'd show up with the tardy slip in hand. On the outside he'd tell Rondell, "It's great to have you here, I thought you weren't going to show up today!" but on the inside he'd say "Oh shit!" However, Rondell never knew Clark's true feelings about him because he had established a relationship with the child and an atmosphere in his classroom where students knew that he cared about their success.

One of the last examples he shared with us was of a baseball game of a student that he attended. The student asked why he was there and he told him that he was there to watch him. Not even the boy's mother was at the game. The student would continue to look at him during the game to see if Clark was watching and he was. The next Monday, that student who had not been engaged in class was paying attention and even telling other students to be quiet. Others have said that they have families and don't have time to visit homes or spend three hours at a game. Clark's reply? Three hours at a game can save you a year of heartache.

I think my favorite example that he shared with us was about his chocolate milk chugging. His Harlem kids loved chocolate milk, to chug it in fact. He brought in carton after carton of chocolate milk and told them that he was going to teach them about dangling participles and for every three minutes they paid attention, he would chug a carton of chocolate milk and continue to do so as long as they paid attention and eventually they could see him throw up. They did, and after 14 cartons, he threw up. Now that's sacrifice to get your students engaged in your lesson. It also created conversation within the homes of these children, conversations about school that wouldn't have occurred before and that helped him gain parental support.

The key to it all is high expectations. Continue to teach to the brightest. Be innovative, creative. Think outside the box and engage the students. Find what interest them and bring it into the classroom. His test scores are proof. Can everyone teach like Ron Clark? No, but there are certain ideals that he embraces which every teacher can take to heart.

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