My Leap List

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Capturing Magic

Ron Clark 
     I've been meaning to write about my experience at the Ron Clark Academy for the last week.  At first it was too big to process all at once.  How do you explain magic to someone who has no frame of reference with you?  But, now, I feel it starting to slip away as I slip back into my normal life, and I don't want to lose the details, so I will struggle to find some semblance of words to capture the experience.
     People keep asking me what my take away is.  The short answer is magic.  The long answer will probably take me years to figure out and share, but here is a small bit of what will stay with me.
Ron's bouncing sho
     Bounce  
All of us have those days, months, years that are hard, where we feel like we aren't making a difference, that no one needs us, that we need a new job, when we just want to pull the covers over our head and hide.  It was a relief to hear that even a master magician like Ron Clark has these times.  He shared his struggles last year with losing his focus and going through some difficult financial times with the school.  There were days he didn't want to go to school, even though his name was on the building.  This year he realized that he needed to reengage with the kids because that is where the joy and passion comes from.  As an administrator, it's easy to find myself spending the day with paper work, reports, putting out fires, and running a school.  Those times I often catch myself wondering if this is really what I want to do and if I should go back to teaching.  When I spend time with the teachers that radiate joy and passion, or any time with the students, I feel energized and excited and think I have the best job ever.  This was an important connection for me.   He also shared some advice for those days that has already become a part of my philosophy.  When he has those days and manages to drag himself into school, he bounces on the balls of his feet.  After a few bounces, it changes his energy and mindset and he is ready to start the day with excitement.  I tried it last week when I was still tired from my trip and heading off to work when I wanted to stay and sleep.  It was awesome.  My cute sis tried it when she had a difficult few days and she said, "That Ron Clark bounce thing really works!"
Ron "fussing" at the kids
Balance
     I was surprised to see how much Ron "fussed" at the kids while we were there.  They were reprimanded for things that I didn't notice.  One girl was reprimanded for not correcting the boy next to her who had spoken with incorrect grammar.  This was hard for me at first, but Ron and Kim both addressed this at different times during our visit.  Ron said, "You see me 'fuss' at the kids, but you don't see how much I love on them."  Kim talked about the balance that they strive to have for the kids.  If you have structure, discipline, and respect without anything else to balance it, you get well behaved kids who hate school and feel like they are in prison.  If you provide them with creativity, passion, and enthusiasm without anything else, you get chaos.  When you have both, you get rigor.  This is a lesson I will take back to my schools.  I am fortunate to work with teachers who want to have rigor and high standards, so they have created the structural side.  Now I can help them add the creativity and passion so the students want to learn.  
Every room reflects the teacher's passion
Passion
     The teachers at RCA are passionate about their content and the kids, but are also passionate about finding the best ways to teach the content so kids learn it.  Every teacher I talked to said that it is more than the physical appearance of the room, although that definitely adds to the experience.  They also told me repeatedly that they have complete freedom to be themselves.  Ron said that this is a struggle for the new teachers he hires because they want to know how they should teach.  He says we want freedom, but don't know what to do with it when we get it.  Every teacher at the school is completely different.  Wade King loves music.  He has three electric guitars around the room and incorporates music, songs, and chants into his lessons.  His wife, Hope, enjoys transforming her room into what they are learning about.  When I was there, the kids were dressed like CSI investigators and were using what they had learned about inferences to figure out who had committed the crime.  It doesn't matter what you do, as long as it is something that you enjoy and are passionate about.  If we aren't excited and passionate about what we are teaching, why would we expect our students to be?  It's not enough to teach the information.  We need to passionate about finding a way to make learning memorable and engaging.  I loved the question they posed - "If you were walking down the hallway, would you choose your classroom today?"  Focus on your own strengths and talents and bring those to your teaching.  If you don't like the content you have to teach, find a way to teach it in a way you love.  
Kim on her "stage"
Movement and Music
     Every classroom has a "stage" uplifted around the front of the room so the teacher can be seen easily, with higher areas on the sides of the front.  Each teacher consciously incorporates movement into their teaching.  They do not pace the stage or just stand in one place.  They move to an area, make a point, and then move to the next area for another point.  They also continually incorporate movement for the kids.  Throughout the lesson, kids would get up on their chairs to respond to questions.  They also got up on their desks to do chants, choral responses, or songs.  Kim teaches English.  Instead of teaching punctuation on a worksheet, she taught the kids to use hand signals and stamping their feet for punctuation marks.  The body movements helped the kids internalize what they were learning.  They were the same sentences you would see on a usual worksheet, but everyone was engaged and excited to keep practicing how to punctuate the sentences.  Learning was a game instead of a chore.  The content didn't change, but the way she taught it did, and that made all the difference.  All of the teachers had chants or rhythms that the kids did to get attention.  They also used songs to help kids learn content.  Instead of just memorizing the songs and then not understanding that they should apply it to what they were learning, the teachers taught a bit of the lesson and then taught that part of the song.  Then they taught the next part of the lesson and then added that section of the song.  This helped the kids understand what the song meant and how to use it.  
Students' faces on great works of art in the dining hall
Students' Interests
     The teachers are careful to utilize what kids are interested in, from the pop songs they use to learn content to the activities they use in their classroom.  Knowing kids love taking selfies, Kim had different groups read different myths.  Then the groups chose a way to stage the main scenes and took selfies of their scenes.  They put them in books and then shared their books with other groups.  The kids loved reading each others' myths because of the selfies.  Rather than just reading myths or sharing out to the class, she found a way to tie it into their interests and made it engaging for the kids.  Knowing how much the kids loved clothes, she had them create the most tacky outfits they could.  Then she told them that their fashions were going to be shared on the runway (the class stage).  They would need to get up and describe the outfit so well that people in the audience would want to buy it, even though it looked tacky.  Some of her quietest students excelled in the challenge and created amazing descriptions for the outfits.  The kids learned descriptive language and adverbs/adjectives but no worksheets were needed.  Even the school walls are focused on students' interests.  Even the dining hall has famous works of art with the kids' faces morphed onto them.  What better way to become interested in famous works of art? 
Kim made me feel like family.
Family
     One of the most important things about RCA is that you are a family.  Lots of schools I have been at say that they are a family, but then allow people to gossip, backbite, and put each other down.  Kim and Ron both talked about how important it is that we model for students what a "healthy" family looks like because they may not see that model in other parts of their lives.  If you work at RCA, you are not allowed to gossip, be negative, or put anyone else down.  Ron said, "You don't have to like each other, but it better not leave your mouth."  They do everything they can to uplift each other.  I saw them continually talk to each other, hug, high five, smile, and pat each other on the back, even when it was lunch or another time when they weren't "on" and everyone was just talking or doing other things.  They go on retreats together, spend time together, and enjoy being together.  The feeling in the school was warm and you could feel the love from the moment you walked into the school.  
Building relationships
Building Relationships
     When someone comes in mad at Ron, he drops his shoulders, holds his hands together and invites them to sit down.  Then he thanks them for coming and letting him know they are mad because they could have just been mad and not told him.  He thanks them for respecting him enough to tell him their concerns.  Then he reassures then that they will figure out a solution and asks them to tell him everything on their mind.  He never interrupts them, even when they are totally wrong in their understanding.  He keeps his voice low and keeps it cerebral because nothing will get fixed by getting mad yourself.  Usually that is enough to fix the situation because the person just wanted to be heard.  When its not enough, they have calmed down enough to have a conversation instead of an argument.  He reminds us to protect our hearts because we often take things personally and get disheartened and jaded.  As you can see in the picture, Ron is masterful at building a relationship with you, even if you just met.  He makes you feel like you are the most important person on the planet.  
Why not slide?
  Take a Risk
     If you feel comfortable, you aren't growing.  At RCA, everyone is expected to grow and take risks, even the teachers.  In Susan Barnes workshop, she taught us the format for Blues songs.  Then she made us write a blues song and get up and perform it in her "Blues Cafe" with working microphones.  When we hesitated, she said, "Yes, YOU!  I'm not falling for it cause you chose a profession where you tell people to do things all day that they don't want to do."  With her encouragement and holding us all accountable, I got up and sang a Blues song that I wrote and performed with a group of educators I didn't know.  I was obviously way out of my comfort zone, but I am so glad I was forced to take the risk.  
This is the look of utter joy!
     This is the philosophy throughout the school, as you can see from the two story slide that takes you to the lobby.  Ron decided, "Why take the stairs when you can slide?" and now you can get out of your comfort zone and slide downstairs.  As you can see from the picture, I needed lots of help getting up, but it was so much fun!  It's nice to rely on other people to help you when you take a risk.  I love the total look of joy that my friend Brittany captured on my face after I slid down the slide.  Then they celebrate your risk with chants, applause, and a sticker that says "I'm slide certified!"  I even bought a shirt to commemorate the event because it is so much more than just sliding down a slide.  We want kids to take risks when they learn, but we need to remind ourselves to take risks and also remember to celebrate the risks we take.
Modern Shakespeare
Remember Your Why
     Hope and Wade King reminded us to remember our why and get back to it.  What made you want to be a teacher or administrator?  Are you still in touch with your why or have you forgotten it?  Is it the content you love?  The kids?  What do you want to be remembered for when you are gone?  Do that!
These ladies bring out the best in me
Positivity
     It is not what happens to you that defines you, but what happens through you.  Your power doesn't come from your ability to control things, but the greater power is empowering others.  Kim reminded us that there are many dementors who suck the joy out of us, so we need to surround ourselves with people who lift us up and make us better than we are alone.  Adam Dovico added that there are negatively charged educators or "electronators" that suck the life out of a school.  We have a new idea and they tell us why it won't work.  We need team effort, but they only think of themselves.  You say, "Good morning!  How are you?" and they respond, "I'm here."  He reminds us, "You will be remembered somehow by the kids.  How do you want to be remembered?"  Hope reminds us that when we pour our heart and soul into the curriculum or the test scores, we will get discouraged because they don't change and it's hard to pour everything we have into something that doesn't make a difference.  When we pour our heart and soul into the kids, we make a difference and feel energized.  
The 2 story dragon that wraps the stairs
Make it Memorable
     When you have boring content or really hard content, teach it with a game like Giant Jenga and Human Hungry Hippos.  When you play games, there shouldn't be any invisible children.  Everyone plays the entire time - no turns, no outs.  Hope uses giant Twister boards that are a smaller board replicated multiple times so lots of kids can play at once.  Start with the why and then ask how you can make it relevant to the kids.  Then ask what product can help you can use to sell it to the kids.  
     It isn't just fluff.  It is the cake.  If the kids are engaged and want to learn, we get rigor and learning, including better behavior and higher test scores.  It comes first, not last.  
Live your dream 
     This is one of the most important aspects of the magic in the school.  Everything is memorable.  Nothing is left to chance.  The kids arrived in their "Live Your Dream" shirts and had a giant pillow fight and slumber party to celebrate their goals and aspirations.  It was more than just a saying on a shirt or a school slogan that no one paid attention to.  It is up to us to create those memorable moments of learning.  When we ask why kids don't learn, we shift the blame to the kids, the parents, socioeconomics, former teachers, anyone else but ourselves.  But if we are honest with ourselves, the answer is because I didn't teach it well.  Just because I stood in front of the class and talked doesn't mean I educated anyone today.  If we want kids to be passionate about what we teach, we need to find ways to engage them and not expect them to engage themselves in our content.  We are the professionals in the room.  We need to be the ones to create the experiences that transform their hearts and minds so they can learn.  
Friendly competition
You Belong Here
     Everyone at RCA is a family and they go out of their way to make everyone feel they belong.  Before school starts the older kids are given the pictures and names of the incoming 5th graders and are expected to know their names and welcome them when they arrive on the first day.  When the 5th graders enter one at a time, the older kids chant his name while a teacher grabs her hand and whisks him up the stairs to the slide.  Ron spins the house wheel and by the time she slides to the bottom, Ron announces what house he is in.  The kids in that house run over, hug the child, and welcome him into the house.  There were two girls I talked to that were best friends and happily showed me their BFF necklaces, but were wearing different house shirts.  I asked them if it was hard to be best friends in different houses.  They said, "No, it's just friendly competition."  Each house has a different story behind it, from the language the word originates from, to the meaning of the word, to the crest.  We got to choose our own houses.  My house is Amistad.  It means friendship in Spanish.  It is for the people who love others and go out of their way to take care of others.  Brittany's house is Altruismo.  It means givers in Portuguese.  Raegan is in Reveur, or dreamer in French.  
     The kids get house points for going above and beyond in their lessons and accomplishments.  The
House Point Board
electronic score board in the main hall is updated instantly as teachers enter the scores.  The pictures on the cups are the faces of the kids who got the points so everyone knows who to congratulate.
     The houses are even celebrated in the fence outside the school.  All of the house names are carved into the metal so you see them as you enter the school.
     Like Harry Potter, the houses help build unity and support for the kids who feel like they belong.  However, it never gets cliquey because the kids know it is all in fun and that they are all part of the bigger RCA family.
The entrance to the school
     This school is a magical place to be.  It was overwhelming to see and do everything that was going on, but I loved every minute of it.  I hope I can use these lessons in my personal life, in my life as an administrator, and share the magic with my teachers.  If you get the chance to go, jump!  I promise it will change your life in ways you can't even imagine.
   



Saturday, October 15, 2016

Christmas Greed

     Hours after celebrating a day giving thanks for all we have, people trampled one another in their greed for more.  People left stores black and blue, battered, crying, terrified, and in one case, stepped over as he lay dying on the floor.
     This is a sad commentary on one of the richest countries in the world.  In a world where most people live off less than a dollar a day, we each consume a cities worth of goods a day and throw away a feast because we have too much.
     Some justified the day as "fun" or "bargain shopping" or as "necessary in a bad economy."  How do any of these words equate to what happened?  How did stepping over someone as he is dying become the deal of a lifetime?
     We worship the mighty dollar and lose the meaning of Christmas.  If Jesus was there helping the man up and carrying him to heaven, I am sure he wept at what he saw us doing in his name.   

Monday, October 10, 2016


     My friend often reminds me that there are things worse than death.  Many people I know who struggle with chronic illnesses, anxiety, depression, and mental illness would probably agree.  The bravery it takes to suffer through their daily existence goes unnoticed by those of us on the other side.  The hard thing is that we often think our reality and struggles are immeasurably harder than anything anyone else is going through or has gone through.  It becomes one more way to divide us instead of bringing us together.  
     I am sad at the world, lately.  Sad at how many ways there are to keep us from really talking, from reaching out and understanding each other, from finding ways to build; rather than destroy.  Politics, religion, gender, sexuality, race, and so many other things we use to divide ourselves and find reasons to hate.  We lament that there aren't heroes anymore but struggle to take a stand ourselves.  
     Some say that we are here to learn and perfect ourselves to return to God.  Others say Earth is Hell, while others say this life is all there is.  To me, it doesn't matter which is true, because the answer is the same.  If I am perfecting myself and learning lessons to return to God, I need every minute I can get because I have a long way to go.  If this is Hell on Earth, I refuse to let the darkness win.  I will do everything I can to make it bearable for the people who have to suffer here with me.  If this is all we have, I am going to make this worth having.  
     If we all live each day trying to make life better for just one other person, death would be the worse thing we could experience.  It is a dark time for many of us, but love has always been stronger than hate.  I hope that we realize that before it is too late.