Ron Clark, the 2000 Disney Teacher of the Year, founder of the Ron Clark Academy (RCA) serving inner city students from metro Atlanta, a White House honoree, and the author of best-selling titles on improving education, will deliver the featured keynote address at the Second General Session of the IRA Chicago Convention on Tuesday, May 1, 2012.
A gifted teacher who excels at transforming low achievers into high performing students, Clark taught for many years in Harlem before launching RCA in Atlanta. Highly imaginative and prodigiously energetic, Clark assails contemporary American education for teaching to the mean, stripping energy and enthusiasm from classrooms, and tolerating too much unruliness from students. In his view, these trends are what drive mediocrity, and to him mediocrity is the enemy of excellence.
His students are taught to address people by name and to ask a question back to adults to show reciprocal interest in people who are interested in them. They celebrate each other’s success and accept group punishments for individual misbehavior.Clark’s remedy is two-pronged: set and enforce standards of personal conduct and responsibility for students, and challenge them through educators who possess and display markedly higher levels of creativity and enthusiasm than those commonly found among teaching staffs.
Clark’s teachers, in turn, are challenged to reach far and wide for innovative instructional techniques that appeal to students’ interests and engage not just the understanding but the whole child into the excitement of being a successful learner. They’ll read stories in many voices, dress in costume, act, sing, and bring students to different locales—whatever it takes. Unconventional? Yes, Clark would say, and by design! Each year thousands of teachers from around the country visit RCA to spend time with him and his faculty to see how it’s done.
A compiler extraordinaire of “to do” lists, Clark imparts his program in short, easily digestible steps whose numbers form the titles of his widely read books. Reading Today recently contacted Ron to sound him out on certain comments in one of these texts, The End of Molasses Classes: Getting our Kids Unstuck—101 Extraordinary Solutions for Parents and Teachers.
Reading Today: Your book devotes an entire section to parents, specifying things they can do to improve student behavior and attitudes. Do you think that current policy debates on American education make too much of pedagogy and too little of decorum?
Not necessarily. For some reason it seems that everywhere you look there’s just not enough time to educate the whole child. Parents don’t impart manners as much as in the past, and many schools just overlook the problem of unruliness, or treat it as a given. I don’t. Children have to acquire knowledge, learn how to work alone,
and be able to convey content to others. We expect all of this to come through the classroom. But if we want students to become people who can truly change the world, then we also need to teach them how to be disciplined and respectful members of society.
RT: On that subject, you wrote in The End of Molasses Classes that as a teacher you also have to be “a mentor, an educator, an advisor, and sometimes a parent.” Is there a danger that teachers can take quasi-parental authority too far?
RC: Not as long as common sense is applied. Honestly, I see this less as a danger thanas a necessity. It’s the mentoring and attention to behavior and responsibility
that make all the difference in producing the most successful student achievement. Otherwise, the teacher would just be there to say “Here’s content, learn this.”
RT: You write that “Our staff at RCA is the most amazing, brilliant, and giving group of individuals with whom I have ever worked.” What do you look for when you hire teachers, and what do you do to develop their potential? What themes do you stress in your Educator Training Program?
RC: I look for the best people I can find: teachers who are innovative and do not teach the same way everyone else does. I want to see a teacher looking to work here show me something that I’ve never seen before.
Moreover, I never hire anyone to teach here without fi rst seeing them do a few demonstration classes. In other words, I like to “test drive” them. No school should ever hire a teacher on the basis of an interview alone. So I put applicants right into a classroom where I can watch and observe them. I once had a “teacher of the year” applicant, and when she taught a demonstration class for me she was simply horrible. Even the students knew it.
We give our teachers trust and the freedom to use their creativity. We never say that a lesson must be done a certain way. When you give good teachers this much freedom to unleash their creative potential, brilliant things can happen. And, of course, I visit classes regularly to see how things are going.
When you observe teachers and students in this type of setting, it’s like heaven. You see adults who are happy and passionate, and every kid in the class has a great respect for learning. You’ll hear lots of clapping and cheering. Too many new teachers have sat in college for four years and don’t know what excellence is. We try to show teachers things that are compelling.
RT: You have sobering things to say about schools of education: “One of the biggest challenges facing our education system is that we have college professors all over our country sitting behind desks lecturing their education students on how to be dynamic and engaging teachers. The professors are dull, boring, and doing the exact opposite of what they are asking. Most of them haven’t been in a classroom in years, if not decades.” Do you envision a better regimen for preparing teacher candidates to enter the profession? What would it entail? What message will you give to the teacher educators in your audience at IRA Chicago?
RC: Well, what I said is sad but true, although not in every case. I travel a lot. Some of the colleges I have visited have sent their students here for training. The feedback we almost always get is that they learned more in one day here than they did the whole time they've been at college.
Teacher education needs to be very different. To be a surgeon, for example, you have to spend serious time in actual surgeries, observing and then assisting. It should be the same with teachers. They should spend more time out in schools than in college lecture halls. Some colleges are actually moving in this direction.
My advice to teacher-educators is to do better at feeding the expectation of excellence. Show your students that teaching can be dynamic, fun, and passionate. You set the tone. Be the example. Get your students engaged, happy, and excited about the role they've chosen to pursue.
RT: How do you move students to the ultimate goal of self-directed reading?
RC: I use multiple approaches to bring written material to life. For example, I might use different voices to animate the characters in a story. Often I stop reading and explain to my students what I am seeing in my imagination, and I work that with them. I want to get across to them that what they can create in their own minds is more powerful than anything they know.
Often my students’ biggest obstacle is vocabulary. So I use games and other techniques to pre-teach select vocabulary that they will subsequently encounter in their reading. Sometimes I even use flash cards. Then when the kids get to the reading, they are thrilled that they recognize and understand the new words.
Sometimes I dress up as a character. Sometimes I take a book or story and make a mystery out of it, which the kids have to solve. Sometimes I just grab the available props. For example, when reading a story about a heavy rainstorm, I turned the lights on and off, and used sounds to suggest pounding raindrops.
To get real engagement, you have to pick the right books. To really get that self-directed reading, you’ve got to use books that animate and fascinate, and these can be different for different students.
RT: You write that it’s important to show students how to study. Do today’s students have trouble understanding what their role is?
RC: In America we’ve simply dumbed education down too much. Instead of teaching to the brightest, to the top tier, we generally focus instruction on the mean level. That’s the level where things are so easy to understand, no effort or exertion is required. What results is mediocrity. The irony is that by making the material harder, we force students to hunker down and think a lot more. In that process the act of studying happens naturally. We need to always be teaching to the top tier if we want to achieve excellence in our schools.
RT: You also write that teachers need to stop stressing about test scores. Is that really a practical suggestion in light of the current implementation of the Common Core State Standards?
RC: What I mean is that teachers should avoid mention of them as much as they can. At our school we just focus on teaching. No one mentions test scores here—that’s a strict rule. We want learning to be joyful at all times. We save the mandated tests until the last week of school. And we describe them to the students as a celebration of our learning. And do you know what? Our test scores are great!
The IRA 57th Annual Convention will be held in Chicago from April 29 to May 2, 2012. Visit www.iraconvention.org for more information.
This article is reprinted from the April/May 2012 issue of Reading Today, the International Reading Association's bimonthly member magazine. Members: click here to read the issue. Nonmembers: join now!