Friday, December 14, 2018

5 Misconceptions About the Ron Clark Academy (and the 5 Things I Found to be True)

This time two weeks ago, I was in a car with three of my new coworkers making the drive home from Atlanta, Georgia. We had just experienced what was promised to be the professional development of a lifetime (five words I never thought I'd string together), and even four hours into our drive we were still riding this incredible teacher high (at least I was!). If you've ever heard of The Ron Clark Academy, you likely know that there is a special tone of voice educators use when speaking of this school, some complex mix of reverence and excitement tinged just around the edges with envy. Some have described it as Disney World for teachers. Others call it Teacher Nirvana. Many just can't seem to find the words to truly describe The Ron Clark Academy. Like witnessing the miracle of life, falling in love, or tasting Marmite for the first time, The Ron Clark Academy is something that must be experienced before it can be truly understood.

Have you ever had Marmite? I mean seriously...
I've been talking about my own RCA experience for two weeks now to pretty much anyone who will stand still, and I haven't quite found all of the words I need to really make sense of it all. The only way I can wrap my brain around this experience is to tell you about everything I thought to be true about RCA and how those things weren't really true at all. It is my hope that by sharing with you the five misconceptions I had and the truths I learned, you will be able to get a firmer grasp on what this place is really like. 

Misconception #1: They're that school that just dances and listens to music all day long.
There's a lot of fun stuff going on at RCA. This is undeniably true and a part of what makes RCA such a unique school. Have you seen this video? Or this one? But to say that this is what they do all day long is a gross hyperbole. The naysayers of the world seem to think you can't be learning in the same environment that you are having as much fun as you see in these YouTube videos and on the RCA social media, but au contraire. In fact, it is the environment that makes this school a hive of academic rigor and success! The folks at RCA are constantly striving to achieve a balance between the fun stuff (creativity, passion, enthusiasm) and the serious stuff (discipline, rigor, high expectations). They can get their kids to work so hard for them because there is also fun happening in their building. This is a seriously academic school, and it would be an egregious error to believe otherwise.

Misconception #2: They get such great results out of their kids at RCA because of all of their funding, corporate sponsorship, and other resources.
It is undeniably cool to walk into this beautiful building and see an enormous dragon skeleton, a hall with a fireplace, a mirrored wall, and the absolutely stunning classrooms. The Promethean boards and tables found in the classrooms are undoubtedly useful tools, and the journeys these students are able to take around the world are the "field trips" of dreams. However, after my day at the school, I am convinced that the truly magical part of RCA lies underneath all of the flashy stuff. They get great results because it is a tightly run ship and the teachers are the best I've ever had the privilege to observe. I am absolutely convinced that you could scoop up the ten RCA teachers and the philosophies that make this school tick, drop them off in any under-performing middle school in the U.S., and they would have that school turned around in four years. They have it figured out here. They know what is most important in a child's education, and that is what they focus on. Ron himself spoke so passionately about how his school is teacher-centered. The most important part of his (and Kim Bearden's) job is to hire in new educators, and they settle for nothing less than extraordinary. Then they clear the plates of their teachers and give them two jobs: building relationships with the kids and creating amazing learning experiences. If we poured as much into our public school teachers as RCA does, we would get incredible results too.

Misconception #3: The professional development days hosted by RCA  are all for show. 
It really seems too good to be true, but I have it on the highest authority (the kids themselves) that this is absolutely not the case. Throughout the day, we had many opportunities to speak with students. We ate lunch with them, they helped guide us to our observations, and they would occasionally interact with us during class, depending on what their teacher had asked of them that day. I made a point of asking multiple students at different times throughout the day what the difference was between their typical school day and the days that there were guests in the building. They all said the same thing. The only difference between the regular school day and the PD day is that there are teachers there watching them. That's it. Now, it would be remiss of me to glaze over the fact that there is no such thing really as a "regular" day at RCA. There are no bells. The schedule is different every day, depending on the needs of the teachers. It is safe to say the school day is atypical, but they don't put on a special show for the days that there are guest educators in the building. It's just part of their "normal."

Misconception #4: Everyone who visits RCA leaves feeling completely reinvigorated.
I think this is probably true for the majority of educators, but there are some teachers who leave RCA feeling bitter, jaded, or even cheated. I think it can be really hard to see past the pizzazz of RCA. I have heard more than one teacher say of the RCA experience that "it's nice and all, but we can't do that" and "there's no way we could ever do anything like that school does." Some teachers seemed to feel endlessly frustrated by the constraints of their own building and administration, so seeing the freedom and professional treatment of the RCA teachers leaves a sour taste in their mouths. Other teachers deeply feel their own school's lack of funding when walking the beautiful halls of RCA. I am so thankful for the advice given to me by my own building principal. She said to think of going to RCA like a trip to Sam's Club. Go to RCA knowing that you can't bring it all back with you, but find something that you can put in your cart. I know that I will likely never be in a position to take my students to Greece as a culminating activity after studying Greek mythology. I can't get all of my ELA students a free 23andMe DNA test to kick off a research project. I doubt I will ever get Promethean or Oprah Winfrey to sponsor my classroom. But there are amazing things happening at The Ron Clark Academy that I can take back to my classroom. Why can't I combine the visual arts with my language arts classes like Susan Barnes? What's stopping me from crafting my own silent lessons with sign language like Ron Clark? Why not try a room transformation like Hope King, or teaching with music like Wade King? Can't I hold my students to an incredibly high standard like Dr. Camille Jones, or build a love of reading in my students like Korey Collins? I may never have lots of money to pour into my classroom, and I don't have the luxury of selecting the students I teach, but I can use movement, music, and magic to create an amazing learning experience and a career in which I will thrive.

Misconception #5: A visit to The Ron Clark Academy will bring joy back into my teaching.
This is the understatement of the century. I have been to professional development that made me feel good, that lit a fire under my feet, that made me feel enthusiastic about going back to my classroom. The feelings inspired by RCA are so much more than that. I didn't feel good; I felt valued. I didn't just feel enthusiastic about going back to my students; I felt a sense of urgency, a need to start making positive changes to my classroom culture. RCA didn't just light a fire under my feet; it lit a fire in my soul. A visit to RCA is great for learning teaching strategies, but those were not the biggest takeaway for me. I left with the spirit of revolution in my heart. Ron talked about how politicians are not going to change public education. No one is going to make public education better for us. If we want to improve our education system, it must start with the teachers and the administrators and the work we do in the classroom. I felt so inspired to innovate! I left RCA feeling braver as an educator than I ever have before. I feel brave enough to raise the bar on model behavior and to come down harder on discipline, because I've seen that you can have incredible results when you set those incredibly high expectations. I feel brave enough to be more creative, because it should not matter what the teacher across the hallway thinks of you. I feel brave enough to trust myself as a professional, because I am one!

If you haven't made it to RCA and you love the hell out of dynamic learning experiences, get thee hence! You can't pour from an empty cup, and my own cup was overflowing when I left. Two weeks later, and I find that my cup keeps refilling itself every time I take my newfound bravery into my classroom. I turned up the heat on my discipline, and my students actually said thank you. I started teaching ASL in class when appropriate, and my students learned types of figurative language faster than ever before. I tried a (mostly) silent lesson, and I had 100% engagement because the kids had to pay such close attention and were so surprised at the novelty of it all. I quit teaching to the bottom kid, and I started teaching to the top kid while offering support to the kids who have a long climb to get to the top. I assure you, if you go in with an open mind, an open heart, and an empty grocery cart just waiting to be filled, you'll leave satisfied and ready to revolutionize your classroom.

Happy Teaching!

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Classroom Tour 2017

It's that time again! I'd like to share a look into my classroom in the hopes that it might inspire. We've already been in school two weeks, so the room isn't as pristine as it was the first day of school. I guess you get to see my classroom as the mostly-functional space it is meant to be.

Want to see how my classroom has evolved over the years? You can check out my previous classroom tours by clicking the links below.

I thought I'd start by standing on a desk and giving you a look at the room from up high. Notice that my desks are definitely not as tidy as I would like, but that's okay. My largest class has 32 students in it, so that's how many desks I have squeezed into this space. I kept the same set up as last year, but instead of having 3 rows, each with 4 sections of 2, 3, 3, and 2, I now have 3 rows with 3 sections of 3, 4, and 3 (with 2 desks in the back on their own). I like this desk arrangement because it is easy to move between rows, all students can see the board, and I can stand behind them and see all of their Chromebook screens.

Starting over by the classroom door, I have my standing desk (which I love, but it's a total mess right now). Above the standing desk is a new set of mini-posters I created on how to do a Google search. In includes some of the information I learned during my Google training this summer.

Now, over by my door...

There are my ugly rules and consequences posters that will eventually get a face life. :)

I revamped my information bulletin board this year to give it a cleaner look. I also did the FOCUS thing with my clock that I saw in about five different Pins. I love it, even if the clock is a little bit big for the font. I added QR codes for my classroom website and Google Classroom this year, in addition to the QR codes for the Yellow Sheet and the Request to Retest form. I have a tardy clipboard and a sign-out clipboard on there too, along with school policies and audition sign-ups for my theatre kids.

Aren't these beautiful?? AHH I love them so much! These are Stacey Lloyd posters, purchased during the annual Teachers Pay Teachers Back-to-School sale. I printed them and laminated them before putting them on the wall. The white circles are Wallpops. I am thrilled with how this wall turned out, and it is already becoming a handy reference area.

Moving down the wall...

I added another area of organization for my classroom. This is my student supplies center. I made a paper bulletin board, which features the syllabus and pacing guide for each of my three preps, and I hung a desk calendar on the wall to note special events. My Absent Binder and student supplies caddies sit on top of the shelves. I moved my homework turn-in spot and handouts drawers to this same area, and then each of those little bins are used to hold students' Smash Books (a first for me this year).

Next to that is a cell phone charging station, inspired by The Teal Paperclip. My students love having a designated location to charge their phones, and I love that their phones are over here and out of sight instead of burning a hole in their pockets!

I added a paper book shelf for book recommendations, also inspired by The Teal Paperclip. I have an envelope of book spines, so after students read a book they would recommend, they can decorate a spine with the title and author's name and add it to our bookshelf.

My desk area is a disaster and basically the same as always, so moving on from that...

I added these two organizers - the drawers system and the file boxes - last year and they are still awesome! They are housed in one of my cabinets. (Those cute little days of the week labels are a freebie that you can get by clicking the Free Stuff tab at the top of the page!)

These are the storage ottomans I raved about in this post. They are so functional! They hold so much stuff and provide extra seating. Love them!

Moving along to the wall across from my info board/literary posters/supplies center...

Those critical thinking posters are more Stacey Lloyd products. They really added a lot of flair to my room this year, and they are so useful! Fashionable and functional are big wins in this classroom.

And the front of the room...

Check out those prints above my white board! Aren't they absolutely lovely?

Those beauties came from Elegance and Enchantment.* Michelle designs these beautiful inspirational prints that you can download. I browsed through her Enchanting Mondays Library (she has a selection dedicated to the classroom) and I selected nine prints for my classroom (at least to start with). Eight of them are above my boards, right in student view, with my favorite one being above my light switch in my classroom. I love that when you download her prints, the download includes files of varying print sizes, and she offers advice for the best printing. These prints are an awesome way to add a touch of design to a classroom, and I loved the messages I selected. I can also definitely see myself finding other designs, printing them, and hanging them in my home or giving them as gifts.

Michelle has set up a custom coupon code for Eat.Write.Teach. readers that will work through the end of the year and takes 10% off any level of membership! Just click here and use the code EATWRITE10.

*Please note that I am an affiliate of Elegance and Enchantment, which means that I'll receive a commission if you click the above links and subscribe.

Have a wonderful school year!

Saturday, August 5, 2017

5 Classroom Non-Essentials That I Can't Live Without

Back in July of 2013, I wrote a blog post called Classroom Must-Haves for the First-Year Teacher. It has been one of my most popular posts to date. As I've been preparing my classroom this week for the 2017-2018 school year, I've noticed that the things I suggested as must-haves back then are still must-haves now (though I would probably add the Classroom Operations Binder as a must-have now). I've also realized that there are a few splurge items that are by no means essentials... but I don't think I could live without them now! So if you're at the point in your career where you are ready to splurge a little on some non-essential-but-hella-useful items, allow me to suggest five.

Quick note: I'm not being paid by any of these companies to say any of these nice things. I just like these products.

1. Flair Pens
My social media scouting has led me to believe that I am not the only educator taking part in an ardent love affair with Paper Mate Flair Pens. They don't smear, they don't bleed (unless your paper quality is poor), the felt tip doesn't become misshapen with use, they offer vivid pops of color, and they last forever! What is not to love?*

*As a lover of all things Sharpie, author John Green would beg to differ. But what does he know anyway? (Besides everything.)

2. Scotch Laminator
I bought one of these last year and I don't know how I lived without one! There's a fairly strict and unspoken no-one-touches-the-laminator-besides-the-librarian rule in my building, so I just never laminated anything. Now that I have the Scotch Laminator, I laminate ALL THE THINGS. Don't worry, you'll see when I post my 2017-2018 Classroom Tour. Everything is super shiny and safely sealed in plastic!


3. Storage Ottomans
I bought one of these collapsible storage ottomans last year and got a ton of use out of it. So, naturally, I bought two more this year. They are currently all pushed together to create a bench. They are deep, so they can store tons of supplies, and they are sturdy so they can serve as alternative seating. Love them!


4. Document Camera
I was fortunate enough to have a Point 2 View IPEVO document camera donated to my classroom a few years ago. At only $69, it is an inexpensive option with high utility. I love that I can detach the camera from the stand and move it around. The quality isn't as crisp as I would like for it to be (in fact, I am hoping to upgrade this year), but it serves its purpose. I use my document camera multiple times a week.


5. Teacher's Pet Board Eraser
I received one of these from the folks at Teacher's Pet to try out and, I gotta say, I'm in love with this thing. Have you ever noticed how the typical eraser wipes up the ink and you get little bits and pieces of ink dust or residue or whatever that rains down on your chalk tray or on the floor or your khaki pants if you are quite vigorous with the erasing? This big old cutie is made of microfiber, so it grabs the ink residue and holds onto it. The best part is you can throw it in your washing machine! As a teacher, I like worthy investments that will save me money in the long run. No more broken Styrofoam erasers or ink sprinkles everywhere!


The cool people at Teacher's Pet were kind enough to give me four extra Teacher's Pets to give away to four lucky readers! Enter to win below!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

What are your non-essentials that you love love love?

School starts next week for me! Wish me luck!

P.S. - 2017-2018 Classroom Tour coming soon!

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Seven Tips for Building Strong Relationships with High School Students

Dr. Rita Pierson is one of my personal teacher heroes. In her May 2013 TED Talk, Dr. Pierson asserted that “every child deserves a champion: an adult who will never give up on them, who understands the power of connection, and insists they become the best they can possibly be.” Her talk was one that gifted me with a worldview shift. I spent my college years in my education classes learning how to be the authority figure that students needed and, in some ways, I think I forgot one of the more important parts of the job: being a good person in the lives of my students. Dr. Pierson’s talk reminded me that we must foster relationships with our students; this is the key to getting kids to work for you and to work for themselves. I have since focused just as much energy on cultivating positive relationships with my students as I have on my lesson plans. Building a classroom community and one-on-one relationships with students is an art; it takes time, effort, and thoughtfulness to craft a rock-solid foundation on which to build the rest of your classroom dynamic. In my experience, though, laying the groundwork made of trust, honesty, and enjoyment in each other’s company will radically change the work that happens both in and out of the classroom.
Here are seven essential tips I have discovered for building strong classroom relationships with your secondary students.

Show interest in their lives outside of the classroom.
From day one in the classroom, I start looking for hints into students’ interests outside of my English classroom: a football jersey on Friday nights, a gamer’s guide stacked in among the spiral bound notebooks, family photos slid into the front covers of binders, the music that blasts out of their ear buds. I take note of these little things, and I wait for the opportunity to engage students in a conversation. I wish them luck at the game that night, or I might mention that if they like playing Fallout 4 then I’ve got some book suggestions for them, or I might play a certain genre of music in class that day to start a conversation. Students are perceptive, despite the fact we often wonder if they are aware of anything going on around them. If you show interest in who they are, they will often respond by showing interest in who you are. This unlocks the chance to share your enthusiasm for your subject and to hopefully hook them.

Stay relevant.
I’m not recommending that you start flipping bottles, playing with fidget spinners, or using teenager lingo. I do suggest that you read the books they are reading, try to see the movies they are watching, listen to the songs they recommend, and check out the Netflix shows they are talking about. It is a lot easier to make a connection with someone if you have common ground, so put in effort at maintaining those commonalities.


Be yourself.
During my first year teaching, I adopted this “ultimate teacher” persona, a weird mix of my favorite teachers from high school. The problem with picking and choosing personality quirks from various others was that I became strangely inconsistent in my classroom management techniques and I was often questioning myself, wondering what those other teachers would have done. By the end of the school day, I was exhausted trying to be all of these other really amazing teachers, so my after-school drama club kids just got… me. Just myself. That was the first group of students with whom I developed a real connection. By the time I started my second year teaching, I decided to just accept myself and to own my teaching identity. Pretending to be something you’re not is exhausting. Embrace your own flavor of teaching, and don’t be afraid to reveal your quirks to your students. Authenticity breeds connection.


Be vulnerable.
We ask our students – our angsty, self-conscious, uncomfortably awkward teenage students – to be vulnerable all the time. Try solving this problem on the board while everyone watches for you to make a mistake. Read this passage from the book aloud while your peers silently judge your pronunciation and pace. Swap essays with your elbow partner and let them criticize your work. We often forget, I think, how utterly terrifying it can be to be vulnerable like that, because we spend so much of our classroom time building up our walls and pedestals. I encourage you, teachers, to be vulnerable too. Let students read your writing. Be sincere about your feelings while still maintaining professionalism. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes and acknowledge those mistakes. Vulnerability allows you to experience true connection, and students will be more likely to open up to you in return.


Be honest.
Vulnerability and honesty go hand in hand because they require one another. In Rita Pierson’s TED Talk, she told a story about having to apologize to her class for teaching an entire lesson wrong. I have apologized to my students for lessons that failed, grading errors I’ve made, or plans that have fallen through. I am also completely honest about my lack of knowledge. I do not claim to know it all, and my students know that. They are comfortable asking me questions because they know that if I don’t have the answer, I will work with them to find the answer. They can trust me because they know I will be honest with them.


Enjoy your time together.
One of the best pieces of advice I ever received was from a classroom teacher turned teacher advocate who said, “The year you aren’t excited to buy a new outfit for the first day of school is the year you should consider changing your career.” The thought of being in your classroom and working with your students should be an exciting one! Think about how much time you spend with those students. If you’re anything like me, you probably spend more time with your students every day than you do your own families. Shouldn’t that time together be enjoyable? Do things together that bring you all joy! Find the fun in your lessons, allow laughter and conversation to have its time and place in your classroom, and take a moment to just enjoy being with these crazy young people.


Treat your students like family.
I spent roughly 1170 hours with students in my English classroom last school year. That number does not take into account my after-school responsibilities, nor does it account for time spent during lunch, prep periods, before school, or after school tutoring students or talking them through life’s problems. These students become my second family, so I treat them like they are my family. My advisory class celebrates birthdays with donuts or cupcakes. My theatre students share meals together before shows and during long practices. We celebrate successes, victories, and good news. We lament bad days and raw deals and life’s ugly moments. We laugh, we complain, we cry, we vent, we lift each other up. It is so worth the time and the emotional toll it takes to invest love in your students. Linda Cliatt-Wayman, another education hero of mine, said, “If someone asks me my real secret, it’s that I love my students, and I believe in their possibilities unconditionally. I see only what they can become.”
We are charged with the lives of kids. Our work is important, and our impact is powerful. It can be life-changing. Building strong, positive relationships with our students affects their success both in and out of the classroom. Make the most of your classroom experience by opening up the heart that brought you to this worthy line of work.

What do you do in your own classroom to foster positive classroom relationships?

Happy Planning!

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Classroom Operations Binder Pages Now Available!

New goodies are now available in my Teachers Pay Teachers store!

Classroom Operations Binder Pages

Remember this post and this post where I talked about how useful this binder was during the second semester of the year? These pages are now available to you!

This customizable Word document has been designed to help you create your own How-To Guide for operating your classroom.

This document includes:
  • Customizable Binder Cover – edit to include your name, room number, and school name
  • Class Roster – edit to include your course name, period or section, and up to 35 students
  • Board Planner – edit to include your course name; print, slip into a page protector, and plan your board layout each day using a dry erase marker (great information to leave for a sub!)
  • Here’s What We Did Today – edit to include up to three course names; print, complete, and put these in your Absent Binder!
  • Emergency Sub Plans Cover Page – put a set of emergency plans in your Classroom Operations Binder and use this page with a sticky tab to indicate where these plans are located in the binder
Check it out here!

Happy Planning!