The Ron Clark Academy - PART 1
Yesterday I watched, gob-smacked, as
the teacher leapt from table to table in a classroom with about 50 students seated in traditional rows. Every eye in the class was glued on him. Then jumped to the ground to the whiteboard and wrote up a sum.
The next 20 minutes resembled a cross between a tribe’s frenetic rituals on the first night of a full moon, and a soldier squad drill. It was rhythmic, energetic, and organic. He’d start a sentence, and then simultaneously the class would finish it, in song, seamlessly, energetically; all of them together, in strict but enthusiastic unison. There was no pause to this, nor any drama, nor any sense that this was a performance for the visitors. This was business as usual, standard operating procedure: invoking a plethora of short musical rules to solve a sum.
Over the 20 minutes there must have been 30 or so of these cooperative outbursts. Often, students would leap onto the tables simultaneously, all 50 of them, and dance as they sung, for just 4 or 5 seconds, before slipping back into their chairs instantly like nothing had happened, back to silent serious concentration.
Bang! They sung:
“When we begin, we begin together, Parentheses first now let’s be clever” Then, bang! Back to work. Really there was no distinction. The chanting was simply part of the communal thought process.
“When we begin, we begin together,
Parentheses first now let’s be clever”
Then, bang! Back to work. Really there was no distinction. The chanting was simply part of the communal thought process.
The teacher called another student to take over for a bit. Now this student lead the cooperative pack, playing the part convincingly and enjoying the same razor-sharp response times and focus. The student was treated seriously by the others. She called on various peers of various ages, and lead them through patiently when they were stuck. I had the impression ANY of the students could have come up and taken on this role.
For a while there this student stumbled herself, struggling to explain the next step in the solution, and then proposing an incorrect next step. Another student identified her mistake, but she didn’t see it, and the two took part in a public dialogue about it, until she DID see it. This dialogue was more mature than any adults who disagree. And when the girl realized she was wrong, there was no loss of face or embarrassment, and she continued the teaching role as confidently as before.
Now, the lesson continued for a full 2 hours with no break in the momentum and concentration. The teacher spent more time leaping from desk to desk than on the ground. Two hours of maths, then politics, and then history. 30% of students with a low-achieving background. The Year 5 students had only been at the school for weeks. No break in the concentration, no lowering of the energy level in the room. Every student lost in the lesson.
Despite this phenomenal performance in the students, the teacher kept publically chastising students for the most minor infractions:
- A student gave an answer moderately irrelevant to the question.
- A student failed to maintain full eye contact with the teacher, or the speaking student, for a couple of seconds.
- When shuffling the seating, a student hesitated a moment when another student wanted the chair, rather than giving it up immediately.
No student argued with these chastisements, but went straight to the board and wrote up their name. They looked crestfallen but returned and renewed their effort.
I found it confronting that even response deemed inferior to the student’s proven potential brought chastisement. However there was also much praise – very hard-won, but not rare. The bar was clearly set very, very high, and yet students were routinely succeeding in jumping it, and then
Every student on their desks dancing and singing in praise towards the achiever, and then
On with the job.
On plenty of occasions a student struggled to contribute what was asked of them yet were not chastised at all. A Year 5 student was asked to provide reasoning behind certain dynamics relating to the health care issues in the US election. He struggled to respond. Here, no chastisement, rather some very long, patient pauses (patience from all students who looked and listened intently to what the young boy would say.) Eventually some gentle prompting from the teacher.
Clearly he knew the students very well.
They simulated an election debate a few times. An amazing moment occurred when one of the two students prancing around rhetorically on the desks, playing the role of the Republican nominee, replied to the Democrat role-player,
"If you wanted to run against President Bush, you should have done it four years ago"
Of one accord the student body roared with laughter. Every student understood the reference to the recent presidential debate.
The students’ manners and social confidence and presentation were phenomenal. In conversation with us, the visitors, they each introduced themselves and welcomed us and thanked us for coming, offering their hands to be shaked.
These kids were 9, 10 or 11 years old. They were happy, motivated, ambitious, and full of joy. They were very happy to participate and give things ago, despite the overwhelming pressure that they’re contribution must be their absolute best.
And still, over the entire 2 hours, not one student’s attention wandered (I know because I tried constantly to catch one out!)
And still, in the most explicable moments, just when it seemed the student body was settled into some kind of passive attention (I mean attentive, but passive),
they’d finish the teacher’s sentence for him, or leap up to dance and sing again
And no drama about this at all. There wasn’t any dramatic cue from the teacher to invoke the participation. All the way through there was this collaborative rhythm, and the more familiar the ground the less the teacher ever finished his own sentence by himself.
Talk about Jungian psychology! Was this mass hypnosis?
What I witnessed yesterday seemed both ultra-traditional, and entirely radical, and will take some time for me to digest and integrate into my current mindset (for instance, I would have interpreted the traditional rows of desks facing the front as a very bad first sign, and I found the public chastisement of students extremely confronting, although I must clarify it was done with great respect).
The teacher was Ron Clark, the school the Ron Clark Academy. This is the teacher who consistently took on classes in the bottom percentiles in Harlem, and consistently brought their performance up to the top percentiles.
I have SO MUCH more to say about the school – and in fact as I learnt more of the context I understood how it was possible for to that lesson to have been the real deal.
I have never seen anything even approaching this in my life.
But that will have to wait for PART 2!