Emily Comer '14 Johnson Opportunity Grant Winner Attends Ron Clark Academy to Study Teaching Techniques

Emily Comer is a Literacy and Language Development major from Dallas, Texas. She attended a teacher training day at Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta to study how inner city school children learn.

We drove to the school behind a white jeep. I read the license plate out loud: "Rêveur." French for dreamer. That's cool, I thought. Then I realized that it was one of the words over the gate of the school, and the name of one of the school's houses. "It must be Mr. Clark!" I exclaimed.

Once the gates opened, we were ushered into the library, where we were greeted by a mob of smiling faces, all singing and cheering for us. The room was packed, but the students managed to make their way to us and took the initiative to strike up conversations with us. They asked where I was from, how I found out about the school, what I taught. (I had to explain that I was still in college, but hoped to be a teacher someday; I was certainly the youngest person attending teacher training.) When I asked what they liked to read, every one of them had a unique, intelligent and well-reasoned answer.

One of the teachers explained a little bit about the school, and then we moved into Mr. Clark's room, where he was teaching a fifth-grade math lesson. Observing him teach was like watching a theater and dance performance. He was almost a blur of movement, spending more time on top of the tables than on the floor. The students also jumped on the tables several times for chants they had memorized. Mr. Clark kept firing questions at the students: "What if I changed this number to that? What if I wanted to square it instead of divide it by five? What if this were a negative--what would the answer be then?" There was hardly ever a quiet moment. Even when one student didn't respond immediately (and Mr. Clark never moved on to another who knew the answer), someone else started a cheer, and the rest soon joined in, giving the first student time to think. We observers sat mesmerized the entire time. But toward the end of the lesson, Mr. Clark hit the Red Button, turning the entire room into a disco party! Even the visitors got to their feet then. We danced together for about thirty seconds, and then returned to our seats, breathless but ready to learn more.

The lesson lasted over an hour. Afterwards, Mr. Clark took us on a tour of the school, explaining its history and organization as he went. Some of my favorite parts of the school:

  • the stairs filled with coins from around the world, symbolizing the school's commitment to global learning
  • the giant wheel that is spun to reveal which of four houses each incoming fifth-grader will belong to
  • the generously donated flat-screen television that keeps track of the house points
  • the vibrantly painted and decorated classrooms, revealing the teachers' unique personalities and interests (a time machine for the history teacher, a floating periodic table in the science room, etc.)
  • and most of all, countless photographs, ranging from the building when it was just a run-down factory to the first eighth-grade graduation ceremony.

I'd read about all of these in Mr. Clark's book, The End of Molasses Classes, but to see and even touch them myself gave me chills.

A little later, we had lunch with the students. I spent the time talking to a vivacious fifth-grader, who told me all about the books she likes to read and her plans to be a Rhodes Scholar and study at Oxford. The articulateness and confidence of these students--even after less than a year at the school--is one of the best arguments for Ron Clark Academy's methods.

The rest of the day alternated between workshops with the individual teachers and observing their classes. Though none were quite as magical as Mr. Clark himself, they all shared the same enthusiasm and energy. I particularly enjoyed the workshops on using the blues and rap to teach content, as well as a lecture on the art of questioning. These teachers are clearly thinking about how to get their students both to remember lesson material and to engage with it at the highest levels possible. I look forward to incorporating many of their methods when I return to Lexington's schools, and as a teacher myself after graduation.

At the end of the day, my head was spinning with all that I had seen and heard, but one excitement still waited. We had to become "slide certified." In the center of the school lobby is a giant, twisting, electric-blue slide. I had been looking forward to going down it since I first read about it months ago, and it was well worth the wait! As I spun around and slid out into a smiling, cheering crowd, I marvelled at how happy students and faculty were to be working, learning and living together.