Wednesday, July 27, 2011

"Molasses Classes" no more!

When you think of non-fiction books about effective teaching strategies, “page turner” probably doesn’t come to mind.

That’s only because you haven’t yet read Ron Clark’s new book, “The End of Molasses Classes.”

First, there’s the title. What’s a “molasses class?” Clark — author, Disney “American Teacher of the Year,” and Oprah Winfrey’s first “Phenomenal Man” — explains it right away. Molasses means slow, and that’s exactly how he would describe so many classrooms in the U.S.: slow-moving classrooms sapped of all energy, with drained teachers and half-asleep students.

That’s the exact opposite of what you get at the Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta and with this book. Much of that is due to his writing voice—engaging, bright, energetic, just like Clark is in real life (as we know, from visiting the school often as etiquette instructors). But he also includes so many real-life examples of how he’s solved problems in the classroom and in the homes of his inspiring students, that by the end the reader feels like he or she knows them.

That’s all very well and good, you say, but what’s the book about?

In a nutshell, it’s about energizing and improving teachers so they can invigorate their classrooms, reach their students, and create a difference in education so strong that Clark calls it a revolution. Readers can learn how to do this in part by reading about RCA’s core values.

It is clear that the school is a highly disciplined environment, but that within those rigid guidelines is plenty of room to thrive and even shine. Clark and other RCA teachers push their students, often giving grades that are probably lower than what students would get at other places—but those high expectations result in not only impressive test scores but also a love for learning. Students feel loved, too: Clark visits students homes just to see how they are studying, and invites them to his house for dinner. School trips routinely include visits to other countries (global learning is a hallmark at RCA). Teachers get to work early and stay late, and think nothing of volunteering their time to put together last-minute events or even remodel a student’s dire living conditions.

The book also offers tips to parents on how to encourage their children without being “a helicopter parent,” he writes. “You can’t come to their rescue forever...Parents need to learn that there is a difference between supporting and interfering.” (Interfering, as illustrated by several examples he’s experienced, includes insisting a student hasn’t cheated when he has, or complaining about or demanding changes to grades.)

Clark’s clear devotion to his students is impressive, especially his way of becoming involved in their personal lives — a brave choice, when many teachers keep students’ home lives (especially when they are messy, and thus more in need of intervention) at arm’s length.

Not every school can have a giant blue slide that goes from the second to first floor. Not every school can rewire a classroom to accommodate a “magical red button” that triggers a strobe light display to celebrate everyday achievements. Not every school can incorporate Hogwarts-style school houses.

But there are plenty of changes people can make that cost nothing at all, other than your time and commitment. Those investments yield so much, as evidenced by the heartwarming (sometimes tear-jerking!) success stories of RCA students.

In fact, by the time you finish the book, you’ll wish you could be an RCA student, too!

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