Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Ron Clark Academy - my visit!

I can't believe I haven't taken the time to write about my experiences during my day at The Ron Clark Academy. Yesterday's Teachers Write topic has me stalled so I'll work on something I know!

I spent a day in March at RCA. I was so nervous...I knew it was going to be a transformative experience. In fact, it had to be. I felt that if this visit didn't spark something in my teaching I was headed for a dead-end in my career. I was not disappointed. 

Our group started in the library with a welcome from Kim Bearden, who had removed her amazing heels to jump on the trampoline situated in the middle of the room. We were invited to cross over into the main building where the doors were wide open with dancing, smiling kids pouring out. As we headed across the small driveway individual students grabbed individual adults and escorted us in to the main foyer/lobby area.

Kool and the Gang was blaring and kids were dancing and singing and grabbing random adult visitors to dance with. It was electric. I could feel the tears welling up as my throat clenched. I thought to myself...this is how it's supposed to be.

The music faded out as the last of the visitors entered and Ron Clark himself made an appearance to welcome us all to RCA.

THE Slide w/ Essential 55 on wall behind.
Imagine Willy Wonka's chocolate factory as a school and you have RCA. Amazing and unexpected things around every corner. Of course the first thing people notice is the giant blue slide in the middle of the foyer. 

We were broken down into smaller groups and whisked away to different parts of the building. My first stop was a beautiful lounge, er...classroom, complete with plump sofas, chandeliers, and a wall decorated with dozens of record albums. The students performed mini-plays that they'd developed based on popular African folktales. They'd performed all of their plays at a nearby preschool. I was fortunate to sit in on a couple different groups.

I've never spoken to more poised students. They were engaging, bright-eyed, and well-spoken. Although these were 8th graders, the 5th graders I would speak to later in the day were the exact same way.

Following language arts, we were taken to a civics class downstairs in a classroom painted to look like a scene from Arabian Nights. Students were working at tables in silence as we entered. They were reading articles and soon were asked by the teacher to share out. Students stood as they spoke. They made eye contact with one another. They built upon what others said and gave credit to those people. 

Ron leading the tour, stopped to explain pics.
Ron pointed out that there is no student work posted in the hallways. Instead there are giant, beautiful photographs of the students. Everywhere you look there are happy kids on the walls. Also mixed in are framed photographs of famous guests and speakers who have visited RCA. As mentioned in his book The End of Molasses Classes the upstairs girls' restroom is covered in pictures of cute boys...Edward and Jake, Zach, Justin....such a fantastic idea!

A favorite quote from my day at RCA: "Your kids have to LOVE something in your school, and it just might be YOU." Ron pointed out that when he started he couldn't afford real Djembe drums - he used Home Depot orange buckets instead. Kim explained how to create a variety of scenarios from an operating room to ancient Greece using white bed sheets. The Academy is a showplace of course, but it had humble beginnings in regular public ed classrooms like yours and mine.

Other favorite parts of the building...

Dr. Jones's video game themed room
In Dr. Jones's room students were surrounded by what they games! Mario took up one wall, but there was also art from Angry Birds, Tetris, and Timez Attack. The boxes mounted on the wall were covered with paper underneath so that students could punch them (like in Mario!!) and sometimes be rewarded with a treat. How cool is that??
Kim Bearden's room - Hulk Smash!

Kim Bearden's room was amazing too! There was a giant Hulk fist poking through the floor in the front along with a VW Beetle lined with fur and pillows. There was also a telephone booth, a newstand, and an awesome catwalk/stage area. 
Wall at end of hall open to reveal Ron's classroom.

As we approached a cozy book corner complete with a roaring fireplace (fake, of course!) Ron disappeared into a side door. Moments later the walls parted at the end of the hall to reveal his classroom. Magical! 

Writing on the desks in Mr. Dovico's classroom!
Honestly, by the time I reached Mr. Dovico's classroom I was so overwhelmed by all I had already seen I barely remember the theme of his room...I think it was an airplane?? Yes...that's it...there were airplane seats and Delta references around the room. Another reason for not paying attention to the decor in his room was that the students were doing amazing things with Legos. They were building vehicles that demonstrated some totally mind-blowing concepts that I can't even spell. They worked in groups constructively and quietly - not that they weren't talking, but they were just being so polite! Even when there were disagreements, the students spoke in calm, considerate voices with their peers.

Lunch was catered by Sonny's barbecue. I'm telling you this place ran like clockwork! Usually workshop lunch breaks are chaotic and irritating because of long lines. Not at RCA. We got our plates and headed into Ron's room where we were joined by the 5th graders. They sought out visitors and joined us at the tables. Can you think of anywhere you've ever been where students didn't automatically clump together?? Of course, these students have been trained to do this, but they didn't act like it was a chore. The young lady who joined my table was a gem. She answered my questions and those of my table mates. She told us how she had applied to RCA and was so glad to have been accepted because she had been in trouble at her old school. It was great to have unstructured time to speak to students. 

Following lunch we had more time with Ron, this time without students present. He was honest and gracious and above all a hoot to listen to! I imagine that he collapses every night from sheer exhaustion! 

Finally it was Slide Time! Music was playing, kids were cheering and the adults queued up in the long upstairs hallway. As we waited, students worked the line chatting up the visitors. I had a lovely conversation with a young man about our favorite chapter books. Again, he made eye contact, shook my hand, and spoke eloquently about his favorite books - it was a real conversation. As we approached the slide, the students collected our belongings for us and took them downstairs so we could slide unfettered. I plunged down that slide with abandon. It was the perfect conclusion to the day. Having read Ron's latest book, I knew the slide was coming, but I wore a skirt anyways. No sweat, but it was denim...anything flimsier and I can imagine embarrassment at the bottom of the slide! 

Screen displaying current point totals for the different houses.
 (Sorry for the bad pic!)
I visited on a Friday so I had the privilege of seeing the students perform their end of the week routines. They spend about 30 minutes each week working cooperatively to perform a 'cheer' representing their house. After each performance ALL of the students cheered for one another. After all four houses  performed, Ron talked to them straight about what he liked and didn't like about each cheer. Students listened attentively and Ron declared a winner for the week. 

For the grand finale, the students sang Stereo Hearts (with alternative school-themed lyrics) for the guests. Every guest was sung directly to by a student. They held our hands and danced and sang. Another amazing moment among so many during the day. Teachers started filtering out of the building at the end of the song, but several of us lingered to by t-shirts and talk to students. 

Several parents entered at this point and Ron invited a handful of students and their parents to come to his room. He also invited any of us educators still hanging around to join them. 

I sat at the back of his classroom while he gathered the eight chosen students near his Promethean board. He spoke to each one explaining how they had demonstrated excellence and/or effort in various classes so that when he was approached with an opportunity to take some students on a trip he chose them. He built up the reveal masterfully and finally displayed a picture of the Great Wall of China as students hugged and cried and cheered. I had to work to hold myself together. How amazing must it feel to tell a group of students they're going to China??? 
Coins from around the world embedded in stairs.

As I headed back down the coin encrusted stairs, Ron joined me. I shook his hand and all I could choke out was a meek, "Thank you." Seriously, this was a life-changing day. I saw the school I want to work at and the people I want to work with. No....not that exact school and not those exact people, but I want that for our school. There's not a single reason that I can think of for not being able to recreate the energy and enthusiasm that fills the halls and classrooms at RCA. 

I visited in March and made immediate changes in my first grade classroom. First of all, I put the desks in rows facing the front of the room. This seems completely counter-intuitive, but if you want students to focus on the front they need to be facing that way. (We moved around the room lots during the day for cooperative groups and centers, so very little of our class time was actually spent sitting in desks.)

I bought a Home Depot bucket and began choosing different students every day to play the 'drum'. Some were much better than others at this, but no one ever complained about it.

We began taking lots of music and dance breaks...with real music that the kids loved, not just kiddie stuff. One of their favorites was "Never Say Never" by Justin Bieber. (My husband raised his eyebrow at the iTunes statement when the Bieber songs started coming through.) I put the lyrics to the rap in the song on the big screen and we all learned them! I can't think of a better way to practice fluency than rapping a high interest song!

Another favorite break was to do the Cha-Cha Slide. What better way to practice following oral directions?!

I began playing the Mission Impossible theme when students worked in their workbooks. They didn't know the song, but it imparts a sense of urgency that cannot be created by a teacher barking at them from the front of the classroom. As they worked I circulated like a hawk, correcting & commending. We'd then check our work together using the Hover cam. The kids literally begged me to let them do more math workbook pages! (Honestly, I'm not a workbook person, but that's what our county dictates so we'd do what we had to do and get back to games and manipulatives.)

I think the biggest shift in my teaching was that I began teaching to my high kids. I'd heard this idea many times before and given lip-service to the fact I had high expectations for all, but to see it in action and see the progress the RCA students were making sold me on it completely. Every morning I came to my classroom thinking about my highest kids and what I wanted to challenge them with. The other kids absolutely rose to the challenges I presented. I witnessed a 5th grade math lesson taught by Ron. Those kids did stunningly difficult math work - Ron was relentless in his questioning of students. I did not realize it was a fifth grade class until someone asked at the end of the lesson! Ron starts by teaching 7th grade curriculum to entering 5th graders!! 

Another huge shift in my teaching was that I didn't give up on kids. Of course, no one would admit to actually giving up on students, but we do...all the time. When we let any student off the hook and move to another to get the answer we have abandoned the first student. I trained my first graders to 'show some love' to anyone who was struggling to get an answer. We would cheer for that student as he or she mentally chewed on an answer. Without fail the student would come up with an answer. Sure, I had to poke and prod occasionally, but I NEVER let another student off the hook for the remainder of the year. 

One final major shift was that I truly began making eye-contact with my students. Not just glancing their way to catch them being bad or good, but locking eyes with individuals. I began asking after lessons if there was anyone I had not looked at and they were honest about saying yes. If anyone admitted to feeling overlooked I made darn sure to get them in the next lesson and make certain that I connected with that student. 

If you're not sold already, I highly recommend spending a day at RCA. Yes, it's expensive, but the rewards are priceless. I paid for it myself, but my principal approved it as a professional leave day so at least I didn't have to spend a personal day. Save your money, beg relatives, ask for them to give it to you as a present, sell Krispy Kremes on the corner!! We are fortunate to have this opportunity within easy driving distance. I'd go again in a heartbeat. 


  1. I visited RCA on March 31st and it was so wonderful to visit again through your reflections.

  2. Thank you for giving such an insightful reflection of your day at RCA. After reading your post I'm only more motivated to go! From one passionate (RCA loving) teacher to another... keep up the good work!

  3. I just got back! Mind blowing experience. We took 8 teachers from our system and we hope it will change the culture. I enjoyed reading about your experience. Thank you and good luck as you continue to impact the lives of young people.

  4. I'm going this summer and I have read a lot of teachers reviews, but none have actually given concrete ways they changed their teaching. Thank you fo