Goodreads: The Essential 55
Published: April 16, 2013
When Ron Clark walked into his fifth-grade class in rural North Carolina, he was confronted with a tremendous challenge. The children had little interest in learning, and were sorely lacking in guidance. How would he transform a group of apathetic kids into disciplined, thoughtful, and curious students? He quickly realized that they needed to learn some basic rules. Clark compiled a list of 55 lessons, and soon, his fifth-grade students–who once struggled to read at the third-grade level–were reading at the sixth-grade level . . . and loving it. What’s more, they were gaining something crucial-self-respect. Those 55 lessons evolved into what Clark calls The Essential 55–guidelines for living and interacting with others. The Essential 55 will prepare parents and educators to teach students the rules for life–everything from knowing how to say thank you, to acing an interview.
Ron Clark’s rules for teaching probably will not speak to every teacher, but they do provide a great basic guideline for teaching a very specific set of students: young children in at-risk schools. Clark’s teaching experience began in rural North Carolina, where many of his students had never travelled beyond the borders of their own state. He later took up a position teaching in Harlem. In both cases, he was working in schools with high teacher turnover rates and where the students did not have the basic educational tools or opportunities many of us take for granted. Many readers may question the effectiveness or validity of these 55 rules as some seem too “obvious” and others too “silly.” As someone who briefly tutored students for the SAT in an at-risk urban area, however, I can easily imagine that Clark’s rules make sense in his particular context and the teaching awards he has won testify to their success.
Probably no one will want to adopt Clark’s 55 rules exactly as they stand. He even includes one that intentionally makes no sense (There will be no Doritos in school) in order to encourage teachers (and parents) to replace this rule and make the set their own. I don’t entirely see the point of this—if the rules work, they work, and teachers should not have to modify them just for the sake of adding “personality”—but it does underscore the point that these are, in fact, guidelines and not commandments set in stone.
It is most useful, then, for readers to look at the general principles behind Clark’s rules. Although there are 55 of them, they appear to function on just a few main ideas.
1.) Children enjoy structure and clear expectations. They respond well when they know exactly what teachers (or parents) expect them to do. For example, do not simply tell them they must be more organized. Buy them folders and binders and dividers and show them exactly how they can label and organize their schoolwork.
2.) School is not simply about learning academic facts. It is about teaching children to succeed in the real work, in any situation. This includes teaching them basic courtesy (how to address adults, how to eat, how to keep a shared bathroom clean) and how this will help them in interviews, jobs, etc.
3.) Teachers (and parents) need to stick to their word and show children that there are consequences for their actions. Having control in your classroom or your home hinges on winning the respect of your children.
Clark’s rules are by no mean perfect or comprehensive, but I believe they point out key ways that teachers can help their students succeed. This book also, though perhaps not as its main intention, highlights the privilege gap in education. Clark admits to being surprised by some of the things his students did not know, and some readers might be surprised, as well. The Essential 55 would be a great resource for teachers who are heading into at-risk schools with no previous experience in one, so they can have some idea of what to expect.
On the downside, The Essential 55 is not particularly well-written, which is a shame as the author is a teacher. The prose is simplistic and often repetitive, which may actually be because the author teaches young children; it may be the way he is used to communicating. However, the book also gives the distinct impression that the section explaining each rule was written separately, and the author did not put a lot of effort into tying them together. Occasionally, Clark references the same event twice but explains the event all over again, without acknowledging that he had talked about it before. The style adds a careless air to the book that it would obviously sound more authoritative without.
The Essential 55 is probably not the most enlightening book on education one could find, but it could function as a quick, solid introduction to teaching strategies. Each rule is stated then given a brief explanation and often a story of how Clark successfully uses it in his own classrooms. Teachers (and parents) will find a lot of ideas to spark their own thoughts about successful teaching.