Teacher Who Inspired KIPP Schools Dies in Houston

By Erik W. Robelen — February 10, 2011 2 min read
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Last week, Harriet Ball, a renowned educator whose unorthodox teaching methods helped inspire the founders of the KIPP charter schools network, died from a heart attack. She was 64.

An obituary in the Houston Chronicle notes that Ball taught for about 35 years in the Houston and Austin school districts. After leaving the classroom, she became a motivational speaker, training thousands of teachers with her techniques, which included the use of rhymes and rhythm to captivate students.

But she’s best known for the influence she had on KIPP, which has grown into a prominent national network of 99 public schools in 20 states and the District of Columbia. The schools bring an intensive, college-preparatory focus, and mostly serve low-income and minority families.

“There would be no KIPP without Harriet,” KIPP co-founder Mike Feinberg told the Chronicle. “Harriett was God’s gift to the classroom. Her ability to both reach and teach children wasn’t just great for kids, it was an inspiration to a whole generation of teachers and education leaders who learned from her what was possible.”

In 2001, Education Week ran a profile of Ball that gives a great sense of her presence, approach, and influence. (She was quite a presence, with a powerful voice—described in the story as “sounding like a cross between Mahalia Jackson and an Army drill sergeant—and standing more than 6 feet tall.)

The story drew from observing Ball in a teacher-training session. Ball described her approach as a “‘multisensory, mnemonic, whole-body teaching technique’ designed to ‘propel at-risk students toward excellence,’ though she insists her method works for all children,” the story says. “In simpler terms, she calls it Rap, Rhythm, and Rhyme.”

The name KIPP, which stands for Knowledge Is Power Program, actually comes from one of the chants that Ball developed, the EdWeek story notes. It goes: “The more I read, the more I know/ The more I know, the more I grow/ The more I talk, the less I know/ Because knowledge is power/ Power is money/ And I want it!/ You’ve got to read, baby, read!”

Jay Mathews, who wrote a book about KIPP, wrote in his Class Struggle blog that Ball “was one of the best teachers I ever saw in action.” In an obituary published today in The Washington Post, Mathews describes how KIPP co-founder Dave Levin first met Ball when he was a novice teacher at an elementary school in southeast Houston.

“Across the hall he met Mrs. Ball, the school’s star teacher,” Mathews writes. “She had developed what she called ‘disposable crutches,’ a stream of mnemonic chants that attached essential rules of grammar and mathematics to the brains of fourth-graders. They learned the words as easily as rap lyrics. The more they used them, the more they became second nature.

“She showed Levin and Feinberg how to move quickly to quell any rebellion, protect children from teasing and motivate learning. Often she used a practiced urban lingo.”

He adds: “She gave Levin and Feinberg permission to use her chants and methods as long as they promised to tell anyone who asked the name of the women they got them from.”

The EdWeek story quotes from her self-published “Fearless Math” manual. In it, she asserted that most students, particularly those at risk, “learn most naturally and best through play, songs, patterns, movement, imitation, imagination, and rhythm.” Her method incorporated all those elements, the story explains. Ball insisted there’s nothing wrong with drills—as long as they’re presented in a fun and engaging manner. “Drill won’t kill,” she liked to say. “Boredom is the killer.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.