The TAAS Buster
Harriett Ball is in full flight, and the entire fourth grade of Charles B. Scott Elementary in Galveston is caught up in her swing and sway. Wearing a tawny, Tina Turner-like wig, she throws every bit of her six-foot one-inch, 258-pound frame into her "Rap, Rhythm and Rhyme" routine for teaching units of liquid measurement.
"Here's my gallon," shouts Ball, indicating her whole body. As she prowls the front of the classroom like a rock diva, a buzz of delight rises from children who have been through this routine before. They're a tough audience: mostly low-income, mostly African-American and highly at risk of failing the state student-achievement test. Ball has them riveted.
"Got two bones in here and got two bones here," she calls out, slapping first her upper arms, then her lower arms, and moving to the rhythm of the Macarena. "Got two bones down here," she chants, slapping the thigh and calf of one leg. "And two bones down here, right?" she asks, slapping the other. "These are your pints!"
Several children turn to watch a photographer shooting the scene. Ball jerks her audience back in with a command: "Keep your eyes on your teacher! Keep your eyes on the prize! I am your prize!"
"Now these are going to be your cups," she shouts, extending her hands and folding each thumb to leave four fingers up on each. The children are now on their feet, repeating the gestures. "Now pull in your big toe on each of your feet and walk like a duck," she calls. "All right, you got four down here on each foot and four on each hand. Now count your cups!" Ball stabs the air with each hand, then stamps her feet.
The children shout, "Four! Eight! Twelve! Sixteen!"
"So there's sixteen cups in a gallon," Ball continues. "Now how much in a half-gallon?" she demands, extending her thumb-in hands.
"Eight!" comes the response.
"Now count the pints in a half-gallon," commands Ball, slapping her upper and lower arms.
"One! Two! Three! Four!"
"How many in a whole gallon?" Ball slaps her legs, and the kids count to eight.
She repeats the drill, moving faster and faster until she's at Nintendo speed, and the class keeps up, shouting the right answers in unison. With a smile that seems to encompass the whole room, she pauses to shower praise on her co-stars.
"Give yourself a hand," Ball tells the children, mopping beads of sweat off her cheeks. The kids repeat after her: "I'm the bomb! I'm the bomb!"
It could be argued that, in point of fact, Harriett Ball is the bomb. For the last decade, the 51-year-old has been one of Houston's best-kept educational secrets. Long before multisensory teaching became the rage of the education establishment, Ball noticed that her elementary school classes learned more and faster when she added music and movement to her lessons. Over the years, she developed routines to teach kids everything from subtraction to grammar.
After years of laboring in relative obscurity, she finally seems poised to receive national exposure. KIPP Academy, one of Houston's most acclaimed charter schools, bases much of its curriculum on her teaching strategy, even employing the same chants. And Ball, who retired as a teacher last year, has been wowing audiences at national teaching confabs. One such conference led to her biggest gig so far: Later this year, she's scheduled to appear via videotape at a presidential education forum.
But for now, Ball is focused only on the fourth graders in front of her -- and on the test that she's preparing them to take. "You scared of that TAAS?" she challenges the class. She's referring to the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, the standardized test by which students, schools and teachers are judged. Some critics worry that schools' emphasis on the fearsome test places too much pressure on fourth graders. But these kids, whose demographics would predict failure, radiate confidence. Scared of the TAAS?
"No!" the class roars. The kids break into one of Ball's motivational chants: "We are the TAAS busters, and we're here to say, we're going to beat that TAAS in a major way."
"She gave us strategies in all areas: math, reading, language arts," says Scott Elementary principal Terri Watkins, a 36-year-old Galvestonian who in 1996 took the helm of the school in its first year. She faced a daunting task: educating a student body composed of at-risk students drawn from the island's low-income neighborhoods.
Watkins first saw Ball in action at a conference sponsored by Texas Southern University's Center for the Effective Pedagogy of African-American Learners. Immediately, Watkins decided that her school had to have Rap, Rhythm and Rhyme. She signed Ball to a five-year agreement; the consultant was to work with Scott's at-risk students and to train its teachers to use her techniques. In the second year, when the school ran out of funds to pay Ball, she volunteered to continue for free.
Watkins points with pride to the TAAS scores achieved last year by a school designed to gather low scorers on one campus. In math, 74.5 percent of Scott's students passed the test -- surprisingly close to the state average of 80.1 percent. And in reading, 79.7 percent passed, compared to the state average of 84 percent. In writing, a particularly impressive 92.5 percent of Scott students passed -- a percentage higher than the state average of 85.3 percent.
Most of Ball's lessons relate specifically to math and grammar, but Scott teachers say that her effect is even broader. Ball, they contend, motivates kids to do better in all areas of their studies.
"Those third graders who are fourth graders now had Harriett last year, so they are stronger," says Watkins. "Each year they will get a little bit stronger and will get better over the long haul."
According to Galveston assistant superintendent for administration Barbara McIlveen, Scott isn't the only school to show such results: Several low-performing schools where Ball worked with both teachers and students registered significant increases in state test scores.
In fact, Ball says, some people think her success has been a bit too spectacular: She says she has been accused of falsifying test scores, and that her students have been retested because supervisors did not believe at-risk children could make such substantial improvements.
But even when administrators accepted that her kids made substantial gains, they didn't rush to embrace her methods. Ball says that her teaching methods were pigeonholed as "a black thing" that couldn't jump cultural barriers and wouldn't be as effective with Anglo or Hispanic children.
Over the years, Ball would prove that theory wrong -- and she'd do it with the help of two unlikely allies: a pair of Jewish Ivy Leaguers just starting their teaching careers.
Stepping into a sixth-grade classroom, KIPP Academy director Mike Feinberg barks a line Ball had used in Galveston: "Keep your eyes on your teacher!" When Feinberg proudly directs his students to recite the "Knowledge Is Power" chant, the kids shout a Harriett Ball composition.
"The more I read, the more I know," they yell, pounding their desks like drums. "Knowledge is power, power is money, and I want it!" While the materialistic goal is a bit unnerving, there's no arguing that the middle-schoolers do seem motivated to learn.
To Ball's teaching techniques, KIPP adds extended school hours and Saturday sessions. The combination seems to work: Nearly 100 percent of the school's students passed the TAAS.
KIPP's charter agreement with HISD specifies that the student body will be drawn from the Gulfton area in southwest Houston, which is primarily Hispanic and home to one of the most at-risk student populations in the city. In its first three years, KIPP has established a reputation for taking students who'd failed the state test and boosting them into contention for honors placements in high school programs.
Along with stellar test scores, KIPP has also accumulated a coterie of powerful patrons, including Bob and Elyse Lanier, Maxxam's Charles Hurwitz and his wife, Barbara, and Austin-based media consultant Mark McKinnon. Such power brokers seem comfortable with the school's founders, Feinberg and David Levin, both Ivy League honor students.
KIPP's success is in turn helping to validate Ball. Feinberg and Levin have instituted their own management and disciplinary system at the schools, but they freely admit that much of the teaching style is unadulterated Harriett Ball.
Levin met Ball in 1992, when he was assigned, as a Teach for America volunteer, to Bastian Elementary, the southeast Houston school where Ball was teaching. Like many first-year teachers, he ran into trouble.
"When classrooms are not performing, it is usually the result of what the teacher is doing," he says. "My classroom was definitely not performing, and it was my fault. Down the hall, Harriett was teaching, and her fourth graders were doing way more than my sixth graders. I said, there's got to be something wrong here. I'm not doing the right thing with these kids."
Ball recalls that the school principal had decided Levin had no future in teaching, and wanted to remove him. She argued to give the young man a chance.
"David came to me and said, 'I've been watching you when I pass by,' " Ball recalls. " 'I like what you're doing. May I sit in your room at lunch time?' He sat at my desk every day."
Levin began to use Ball's methods and rhymes in his own classroom, and his success showed that Harriett Ball-style teaching can be delivered by any teacher who cares to try -- not just those with Ball's formidable performing skills.
"He can't sing, can't hold a tune in a bucket," Ball laughs about her protege. "Teachers will be complaining, 'But I can't sing.' I say, 'You don't have to. Look at David Levin. David can't sing. All you have to do is tell the kids and put it to a tune. Put it to a rap. These are the words, already there and rhyming.' "
Levin went on to be voted Bastian's 1993 teacher of the year. But infighting between staff at the school led to a housecleaning, and Levin was one of the victims.
"David told them straight out things everybody wanted to say," Ball explains, including the accusation that some administrators and teachers were not putting their students first. "He wasn't rude, he just told facts. They tried to oust him. It scared them to death. They knew I'd speak up, but I'm the old lady. Now here's somebody young."
Ball stayed on, partially because she wanted to see the students she had worked with move to junior high before she moved on.
Levin took Ball's techniques with him to Garcia Elementary, on the city's north side, where he teamed up with Feinberg, another Teach for America volunteer, to launch KIPP, the "Knowledge Is Power Program." After Garcia's administrators took issue with KIPP's unorthodox style and extended hours, Levin and Feinberg applied to start a charter school.
In the meantime, Levin did not forget his friend. Through his recommendation, Ball was hired to train new recruits for Teach for America, and when Levin moved to New York to start another KIPP charter school, he brought Ball there to help.
"They gleaned me for ideas," says Ball, who somehow was overlooked in media reports lauding the amazing test scores by KIPP students. "Whenever they did a write-up on KIPP, they never did mention my name," she chuckles. "They had my poems written up in the Houston Post and in the Chronicle, and I'm thinking, 'Hey, this stuff is copyrighted.' "
Still, she doesn't resent Feinberg and Levin's use of her ideas. "When people would call and say, 'That's your stuff, they're stealing from you,' I said no, those are my friends. I gave them permission. I gave every one of you the right to use my stuff. It's for the kids. You chose not to, out of jealousy or what have you."
Harriett Jane Hill knew she would be a teacher as far back as she can remember. Ball was born in Rosenberg in 1946. Her father, Willie "Buster" Hill, was a railroad worker. Her mother, Allen Ruby Evans, was an elementary school teacher with a high school education. The family of five children moved into Houston, where Hill and his wife got jobs in Ship Channel industries. Harriett's father hired dock workers; her mother went from a school-teaching career to industrial welding.
From an early age, Harriett was fascinated by teachers, especially an aunt who cut a sharp figure in a suit, carried an attache case and drove a Cadillac she traded in every two years. Perhaps not coincidentally, Harriett cultivates a similar image, right down to a spiffy white Lincoln town car.
After graduating from Yates High School, the young woman attended Huston-Tillotson College in Austin and went on to earn a master's degree in guidance and counseling from Prairie View. She took a counseling position in the Austin school district and married a teacher, Paul Franks, who later became a carpenter. Four children later, the marriage broke up, and Harriett returned to Houston in 1985, jobless and with a brood to feed. HISD had no counseling positions available, so she took a teaching position at Fairchild Elementary. (She also married Herman Ball, a hospital maintenance supervisor she had met earlier in Austin. But after Herman attempted to stop a family friend from driving while drunk, the 19-year-old shot him, and Harriett found herself a widow.)
Fairchild Elementary came as a shock to Ball. "I had always lived in a moderately affluent neighborhood," she recalls, "and the kids at Fairchild called their project 'the jailhouse apartments.' " For a while she floundered, looking for a way to motivate kids who were performing far below their grade level.
She was at the blackboard one day, writing down a lesson, when it occurred to her that poetry and rhyme might be a better way to get the point across. "I'd always spoken in rhymes -- it just came out of me -- so I started singing a song, and the kids picked it up."
By the time she joined the staff of Bastian Elementary, she had developed a repertoire of teaching routines that worked at all levels. At Jones High School, she took on classes of high schoolers who did not know multiplication tables.
"These guys were taller than I am, the girls had one and two children, and they didn't have any idea of fractions, and definitely not the Pythagorean theorem," she remembers. But they succumbed to the same magic that had worked on fourth graders at Bastian.
"I started singing, and they sat straight up," laughs Ball. "They're saying 'Hey, man, she's going to let us sing.' I went on and sang the routine, and they picked it up. I thought, 'I'll be dogged. Here are high school students, and the child in them came back.' "
Ball's methods aim at reaching students who do not respond to classic classroom methods, which she describes as the "do what I say, listen, write what I write on the board" style. Since she's begun teaching in rap, rhythm and rhyme, some of Ball's thinking has been paralleled by the high priests of education theory: Nowadays, almost every school administrator and education major uses buzzwords such as "multiple intelligences" and "multisensory teaching."
But Ball is not much for theory. Instead of studying the latest theories of educational psychologists, she took her cue from watching students play video games.
"Watch a so-called attention-deficit child play Nintendo," she says. "What does Nintendo do? It has got something of everything going on. Something for them to look at. Not slow, with the monotonous tone that some teachers talk in. It's fast." Nintendo also rewards making the correct choice, and forces the player to move to a higher level. "And you've got competition, even though it's an inanimate thing. And you've got an automatic thrill: noise." The same kids who flunk their TAAS reading test, says Ball, buy books and read them to find the secrets that will allow them to win the game.
She liked the results in her classroom when she taught Nintendo-style, but her success wasn't always met with approval. "Oh, and I caught it from the special ed department," recalls Ball. "Oh, good Lord. The resource kids who were in my room wound up being non-special ed. They were dismissed, because I taught them in their strongest learning mode, which was being able to move and have visual associations."
While Ball was a student favorite at the HISD campuses where she taught, teaching relationships proved to be an entirely different matter. "Every school I go to there was animosity," she remembers. "Either they love me or they can't stand me." (Ball's former supervisor, Bastian principal Edward Thompson, thinks Ball is exaggerating. Most of her co-workers at Bastian, he says, respected her as a teacher.)
For whatever reason, although Ball has the test scores to prove her method works, it has not been widely copied in HISD. Teaching specialist Linda McKenzie, an HISD employee and a fan of Ball's, agrees that her style could be used more widely, especially to reach at-risk students.
"I feel the district should have capitalized on it," says Ball. "I've got a gift, I'm trying to give it, and they won't take it."
Ball's gifts have found unusual recipients in other places, however, including the Tanglewood home of Anne Dale Owen, a clothes designer and granddaughter of Robert Lee Blaffer, one of the founders of Humble Oil. Owen took an interest in innovative teaching, and had used her influential connections to promote Erik Cork, an educational consultant who was himself blown away by Ball when he visited Bastian. Cork introduced Owen to Ball, sparking a close relationship between the two.
"If we had more teachers like that, we wouldn't have the problems we've got at schools," enthuses Owen. "She is inspiring to the kids, to the grownups. She's theater. It's performance art, and she's a master."
Owen staged several demonstrations of Ball's talents at her home and invited Houston business people to participate. Owen marvels at the almost surreal results: "She had grown people, bankers and lawyers and everybody standing up and moving and singing and dancing."
Owen also hired Ball to tutor her daughter Abigail, who had been graded unsatisfactory at the end of first grade in private school. Ball began visiting the Owen household after school and weekends to teach the daughter and several classmates.
"Abigail went from nonsatisfactory at the end of last year in first grade to satisfactory in second grade starting off the year," says Owen. "I only had Harriett six days after school last year, and I had her four or five weekends this year, so in 12 sessions she brought my child up to the second-grade level." At a parents' conference in October, Owen says, her daughter's teachers told her they couldn't understand how the girl had been classed unsatisfactory the previous year.
Owen says Ball brought to her daughter something that isn't available for any price in private schools. "I walk through the halls of Kinkaid, I walk through the halls of St. John's, and I don't hear singing anywhere," she observes. "It's interesting that dynamic teaching is not used more. It's probably because you don't have dynamic teachers or because it's not considered viable."
That may change for Ball soon, with a little help from her friends.
Cork introduced her to a wider audience at the National Association of Black School Educators in Reno, Nevada, last month and it didn't take long for word to spread.
"I told people, 'You're in for a treat. You're going to see one of the most sensational teachers in the country.' " Cork says Ball soon had teachers, principals and superintendents singing and swaying.
Watching the interplay between Ball and her students in Galveston, it's hard to believe that a technique so simple and inspiring isn't a part of every teacher's arsenal.
"I want to measure a mountain," shouts Ball. "Tell me which one I'm going to use, meters, liters or grams?"
"Meters!" comes the response.
"Why?" demands Ball.
The kids chant: "Because meters measure how long, how wide, how far."
She pauses to mop away more sweat, and smiles at the guests watching the demonstration. "Do you need to see more?" she asks.
It's the easiest answer of the session. Public education clearly needs more of what Harriett Ball's got to give.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.