Remembering Pioneering Educator Harriett Ball

Harriett Ball was a public school teacher who made learning contagious by setting it to a rhythm. Her classroom techniques were the inspiration for the first KIPP charter school. She died earlier this month at the age of 64. Tracy McDaniel, principal of KIPP Reach College Preparatory in Oklahoma City, remembers Ball.

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

Harriett Ball was a public school teacher who made learning contagious by setting it to a rhythm.

BLOCK: Like a liter. Come on, that's a Coke bottle, not two liters, but one liter.

KIDS: Coke bottle, not two liters, but one liter.

BLOCK: And a millimeter?

KIDS: (Unintelligible)

BLOCK: A milliliter?

KIDS: (Unintelligible)

BLOCK: And a kilogram?

KIDS: Heavy as a textbook.

BLOCK: By getting her students to chant and rap their lessons, Harriett Ball created her own kind of revolution, starting in Houston schools. Harriett Ball died earlier this month after a heart attack. She was 64.

It was her classroom techniques and tricks that were the inspiration for the first KIPP charter school. There are now 99 KIPP schools, with 27,000 students around the country. And Tracy McDaniel is the principal of one of them, KIPP Reach College Preparatory in Oklahoma City. Welcome to the program.

BLOCK: Thank you. Thank you so much. Glad to be here.

BLOCK: And we should point out right away, the name of this chain of schools, KIPP - Knowledge is Power Program - that comes from one of Harriett Ball's chants, right?

BLOCK: That is correct. Knowledge is Power, from her chant, "Read, Baby, Read." And it talked about, you know, knowledge is power and power is money. But how do you get that? You start from reading.

BLOCK: And the chant we were just hearing, where she's going through units of measure - the liter, that's a Coke bottle; kilogram, heavy as a textbook - did she talk about the chants, why they worked?

BLOCK: Well, she did. She did. She talked about teaching students and trying to reach all students. And you know, in every classroom in America you have some kids who just can't get it. And so what Harriett believed was, you know, meeting the kids at their level.

And she knew at their level, those kids were listening to rap songs quite a bit. And what she did was change some of the lyrics to math chants. And so the kids already knew the songs. And so it was a pretty easy transformation for the kids to adapt to that.

That's what her phrase was - all children will learn. And so Harriett believed that, and she practiced that belief. And she put it to use.

BLOCK: She was a big woman, a tall woman, right? Over six feet tall. Sounds like she was just...

BLOCK: Oh.

BLOCK: ...magnetic as a person.

BLOCK: She was magnetic, energetic; she had a presence. She would actually dance and do the chants with the kids. A little intimidating as well, even to teachers. And so - and some teachers thought, you know, I can't pull this off. I can't do those dances. And Harriett said listen, your kids will teach you how to do these things. They know how to do the dances. And so Harriett wouldn't take excuses from anyone.

BLOCK: Harriett Ball's son said this about her - that she taught him excuses are the tools of losers.

BLOCK: That is funny. She didn't believe in excuses. And she'd always tell the kids, you know what? Even if you try and you fall down, get back up. You don't have nothing to lose, but you have everything to gain. And so she taught the kids to be successful. And the kids had a confidence about their learning as well. They had fun, but they had confidence.

BLOCK: What do you have with you when you go into a classroom to take a test? And they would say, well, I have my pencil. They'd say, well, no, it's something else. They say, well, my brain. She said, well, it's one more thing. And they'd say, what? She said: your body. And so she taught the kids how to use chants, using their bodies. She devised this chant, even - remember the song maybe 10, 15 years ago, about - the "Macarena"?

BLOCK: Oh, sure.

BLOCK: Well, she taught that chant using math and doing measurements. And she taught the kids the upper body was a half a gallon, you know. So one arm was a quart, the other arm was a quart. And instead of saying, hey Macarena, they would say, hey, it's a gallon.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: And so the kids are up just dancing and doing the Macarena and then saying, it's a gallon. And we never had to teach those skills again. So the kids took their bodies inside the classroom when they took tests.

BLOCK: Well, Tracy McDaniel, thanks so much for talking to us about Harriett Ball.

BLOCK: Well, it's an honor to talk about Harriett today. And you know what? Her legacy will live forever.

BLOCK: Tracy McDaniel, the principal of KIPP Reach College Preparatory in Oklahoma City, remembering the educator, trainer and classroom inspiration Harriett Ball, who died this month at age 64.

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