What gets teachers fired up even more than they already are about their profession? Innovative pedagogical practices that they can apply to their own classrooms, as evidenced by the reactions of educators who recently visited the Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta, Georgia.
The trip, which was organized by The University of Findlay College of Education Dean and professor Julie McIntosh, Ed.D., included College of Education faculty, and educators and students from Grandview High School and Van Buren Middle School. Participants spent time observing and interacting with students and staff at the “demonstration school,” a private institution that serves children from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds by implementing participatory academics and stringent disciplinary methods. It was the kind of experience that allowed for takeaway lessons that can be used in classrooms here, to teach the teachers, and to teach students; McIntosh said some of the lessons had been incorporated into particular classrooms at Bigelow Hill Intermediate School after a separate academy visit.
Those who gathered to discuss the trip said they were inspired. What they saw was a school designed in the spirit of Hogwarts from the “Harry Potter” book series; a stairway covered with old coins from faraway places; students who were not only required to answer questions, but explain how they arrived at their conclusions; physically active teachers who never took a seat; and advanced learning that is preparing students for college and beyond.
“The creativity just was beyond any creativity I’ve ever seen in any school by leaps and bounds,” said assistant professor of education Kathleen Crates, Ph.D. “It was the most amazing experience I’ve ever had as an educator.”
“Everything they did had a purpose. It was student centered and learning centered all the way through. It was targeted instruction,” said Connie Leatherman, director of field experience for UF’s College of Education.
Fifth graders were practicing cube roots collaboratively, said McIntosh. While they solved each problem, a teacher was prodding them to think about the next steps, and to refute each other if they felt things were heading in the wrong direction. The philosophical learning framework heavily draws upon critical thinking and confidence building, she explained.
During lunch, students spoke about their futures, the steps they intended to take to be successful, and could list specific goals, said Crates – an impressive accomplishment, considering the students are in grades five through eight. “It’s a culture, a beautiful culture, steeped in caring and support. Even the alums come back to help. It’s like a great big family that really has it together,” she noted.
Although the school welcomes and frequently hosts educators from across the country to observe their techniques, it doesn’t overtly sell itself, said Allison Baer, Ph.D., associate professor of education; the product, embodied in the people who work and learn at the school, speaks for itself. “Not everybody needs to be Ron Clark,” she said, referring to the founder of the academy whose educational project has become nationally renowned. “He admitted that the school is made possible by private donations. But we should not use that as an excuse for not engaging our students in learning, in active learning. Brain research tells us that we should. You can take the pieces, the concepts, and apply them to how you teach.”
McIntosh referred to the Ron Clark Academy as “utopian,” but she reiterated Baer’s sentiments about pedagogical adaptation. Academy lessons and methods that cost little or nothing at all, such as simple classroom alterations or additional physical movement that better captures students’ attention, can be emulated to help students learn and to become more engaged while they learn, she said.
More information on the Academy can be found at http://www.ronclarkacademy.com/