We were remiss in failing to note that influential Texas educator Harriett Ball died earlier this month. An elementary school teacher for more than 30 years before becoming a star speaker and trainer, Ball was widely known for inventively mixing rap and song into her instruction. According to an excellent 2001 Teacher Magazine story, Ball advocated what she called a “multisensory, mnemonic, whole-body teaching technique.” Children, she once wrote, “learn most naturally and best through play, songs, patterns, movement, imitation, imagination, and rhythm.” She was said by many who observed her to be utterly captivating in the classroom. She sounded—in the words of Teacher writer David Hill—like “a cross between Mahalia Jackson and an Army drill sergeant.”
Significantly, Ball was also credited with helping to influence the instructional philosophy of the network of college-preparatory KIPP charter schools. Legend has it that, as a stuggling Teach for America teacher back in the early 1990s, future KIPP co-founder David Levin began observing Ball in her classroom and was transfixed by her methods. He shared his enthusiam with his roomate, Michael Feinberg, and the rest, so to speak, is history.
In an e-mail to KIPP employees announcing Ball’s death, Levin and Feinberg acknowledged their debt to their early mentor:
Every KIPPster who has sung a chant or used a mnemonic device is standing on the shoulders of Harriett's brilliance. Every time we talk about character mattering as much as academics, we are quoting Harriett Ball. As we teach with the mindset that ALL of us WILL learn, we honor Harriett's memory.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.