A conversation with Harriet Ball
Kipp academy takes its name from a rap developed by former Houston teacher Harriet Ball. She developed her own fast-paced style of teaching after being thrown into a tough Houston classroom with no training or help. Looking for answers of their own on how to reach kids, KIPP co-founders Michael Feinberg and David Levin used to sit in on her classes during breaks from class as Teach for America volunteers in Houston. Today, Ms. Ball consults with school districts that want to upgrade teaching. She spoke with the Monitor about how she developed her methods. Excerpts follow:
There's a whole new game now. It's not like [kids are] coming in ready to learn. They say that these special-ed kids, these labeled kids, can't sit still. There's always a label that says they can't, but you can take these kids above grade level. The thing is to get them to think that they're not in school, that they're doing what they love to do. They love to sing. They love to rap. It crosses all color lines. They forget they are in class. They are having fun. The fear is out.
On the first few months
I tried so hard that first month in Houston, because the kids knew nothing. They couldn't do numbers, and I couldn't get the second-graders to read. There were seasoned teachers there, but they wouldn't help me do my lesson plans. So I wove my own method. I got them singing. I'd get the most popular songs, and change the words and set [learning] objectives to rhyme. Sing the song, I can't go wrong. When you're working to music, you forget you're working. Eliminate all the education terms. Show them how to get through and find the answer. I teach them to find the answers through patterns, verbalization, memory cues, codes, chants, acting it out.
On connecting with kids
Just listen to the kids. They'll tell you everything you need to know. I started to watch them on the playground to see what they were doing. They were dancing, so I brought those moves into the classroom and used them to teach about latitude and longitude.
On teaching kids to listen
You have to train them how to listen and see things. They listen by singing. If you just talk, they will not hear you. Give it to them in a beat: Give them a stomp, stomp, clap. Have some competition in it. Put it into a game format: You could start with a $2 pack of [multiplication] flashcards from the store. Sing them at the beginning. Then get them to beat the clock - see who can do all of the tables in 50 seconds. Sometimes I'll write something on the board and then say, "I'll bet you can't remember what I just wrote." Just say, "I'll bet you can't," then erase it. They'll remember it every time.
When I make a mistake, there's a chant for that. There are no put-downs in my classes and no being sent out of the classroom. I use the corner; that's my discipline setup. Don't send them to the office, they can't handle all those kids. And what will that child do but go by your office to smile at you. I tell them: When you see one of your teammates weak, it's your duty to make sure that you get your teammate over the river. Row the boat. You can't just sit in the boat, you must move. You must answer back [to questions in class.] I'll do anything that raises up a child higher.