Andrew Arnold leads the class in a motivational chant from his desktop during Elizabeth Wolf's 8th-grade English class at Holmes Middle School (Covington Independent). Photo by Amy Wallot, May 15, 2012

Andrew Arnold leads the class in a motivational chant from his desktop during Elizabeth Wolf’s 8th-grade English class at Holmes Middle School (Covington Independent). Photo by Amy Wallot, May 15, 2012

By Susan Riddell

At Holmes Middle School (Covington Independent), disco balls and baseball bats are routine academic tools.

Characters like Tara Bullvoice show up to rap about five-paragraph essays.

And students will listen to Alanis Morisette’s “Ironic” before defining irony and explaining two examples in the song.

“It’s not your traditional stand-and-lecture series,” said teacher Travece Turner, who teaches 8th-grade language arts. “This allows me to be creative as a teacher and really push myself to think outside the box.”

Turner and other teachers in the Covington Independent school district recently wrapped up their second year using the Ron Clark Academy teaching approach. This approach focuses on unique, creative approaches to presenting content while addressing student confidence and focus.

“My favorite thing about using Ron Clark’s method is the excitement and passion for learning that I see in my students,” 8th-grade English teacher Elizabeth Wolf said. “They are more engaged and really seem to enjoy learning. The methods also motivate students to be more creative and involved in the learning process.”

Wolf will routinely dress up in character to present lessons. While students were preparing for their K-PREP tests last spring, she became Dr. Ima Reader, who talked to students who were dealing with text anxiety. She would present a case involving mock students like Stayaway Stephanie or Worried Wendy, who was apprehensive about testing. Students then discussed the form of test anxiety, they would diagnose the ailment with a creative name (anxianosis or testinitis) and find a cure (have confidence, face your fears or take a practice test).

“I also perform skits for them dressed like characters from books and stories we are reading,” Wolf said. “I write and sing raps to help my students remember content. In my room, you might find students singing a motivational chant (some while standing on desks), classical music playing while students work at their tables or sports jams to get students energized and alert.”

If students are excelling academically and exhibiting good behavior, Wolf allows a student to hit a button on the wall that turns off the lights and kicks on a disco ball with lighting.

“Some dance music begins to play and students have just under a minute to get out of their seats so they can dance and celebrate,” Wolf said. “I even do a little dancing.”

The use of music is a staple of the Ron Clark teaching style.

Turner uses it in her classroom as a signal to start and stop an activity.

One of her lessons incorporated music and baseball.

Students read the short story Striking Out, and discussed theme and situational irony. They each had five short answer questions to answer. While doing so, Turner played Nelly’s “Batter Up” loudly in the classroom, and she walked around with a baseball bat on her shoulder since the lesson focused on baseball.

To check the responses, Turner set up a baseball diamond in the room with chairs, bases and a pitcher’s mound. A student sat at each base and the mound with the answer to one of the five questions. The rest of the students walked around the room to each base and the mound, and had their answers marked right or wrong by the students sitting at each base and the pitcher’s mound. If students got a wrong answer for a question, they had to complete a wrong answer analysis sheet. If students answered all five questions correctly, their names were posted on the Hall of Fame board.

Centering the lesson on baseball and including visuals and audio cues help content stick, Turner said. It also benefits her as a teacher.

“I push myself to really think outside the box and find new ways to present information to my students,” she said. “The students are into it, and they hold me accountable for keeping the class exciting.”

Covington Independent teachers who use the Ron Clark Academy approach all attended a professional development in Atlanta. One of the unique benefits of this training is that teachers who complete it and use the teaching style get a classroom makeover. Teachers can request how their classroom will look.

Turner’s room has an urban look, with airbrush paintings of skateboarders and city life covering her walls. Wolf’s room is modeled after an urban coffee shop.

“It has a little stage and spotlights for presentations and poetry readings,” Wolf said. “All of the classrooms at the Ron Clark Academy have themes and are beautifully painted. It creates a much better learning atmosphere.”

Tara Bell teaches 3rd grade at Glenn O. Swing Elementary School. She is one of four teachers at the Covington Independent school who use the Ron Clark approach.

She said her room not only has high energy but high expectations as well.

“Students rarely sit for more than 15 minutes without moving,” Bell said. “Students participate weekly in interactive and project-based learning. The expectations and rigor are high, and the students have risen to this type of teaching and seem to be excelling in all areas.”

Turner and Wolf both said they have noticed their students’ confidence increasing dramatically over the past two years. Bell also has seen many signs of success in her classroom since she started using the Ron Clark technique.

“I see students who are more aware of how to be respectful,” she said. “Students who can be responsible for their own behavior and get back on track very quickly. It has taught students to be more respectful to classmates and teachers in all situations.

“Students have learned to be patient and to expect that I will always ask for a justification of their answer and for them to go deeper with their answer,” Bell added. “Students actually begin cheering each other on in a very low chant as they move toward their answer. Because of this, students have become more confident with their answers, and the answers they give are at a very high level.”

Bell and the other three teachers at Glenn O. Swing Elementary using the Ron Clark technique meet monthly to share ideas and go over his books. She said she couldn’t imagine teaching any other way.

“I absolutely love every technique, and you can’t talk about just one because they are all intertwined in some way to make everything work for the student to be successful,” she said.

Ron Clark Academy
Elizabeth Wolf, elizabeth.wolf@covington,, (859) 392-1100
Travece Turner,, (859) 392-1100
Tara Bell,, (859) 292-5821