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YouTube student rap stars take on poetry

  • Story Highlights
  • Ron Clark Academy students' '08 YouTube rap performance got millions of hits
  • Clark teaches "global curriculum" with heavy emphasis on current events
  • "I'm teaching an eigthth-grade curriculum to fifth graders," says Clark
  • Student: "My knowledge of the world has improved. ... I'm hungry for knowledge"
By Dana Rosenblatt
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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Seventh graders at Ron Clark Academy became an overnight sensation during the presidential election when their YouTube performance of "You Can Vote However You Like" catapulted them to online stardom.

"I never saw a teacher get up on a desk and dance," says one Clark student.

"The higher the expectations, the higher the results," says Ron Clark, seen here with his students.

Now, their creative and scholastic talents have proved the students to be more than just "one hit wonders."

Academy students showcased their poetry and writings for CNN's documentary "Black in America 2," hosted by Soledad O'Brien.

Cultivating student creativity is just one of the goals of academy founder Ron Clark, an enigmatic educator known for his unconventional teaching methods.

Under his strict tutelage, students at Ron Clark -- who are predominantly African-American -- are expected to excel in all subjects and maintain a high standard of respect for their peers and teachers.

"I'm teaching an eighth-grade curriculum to fifth-graders," says Clark. "Some people say my expectations of the kids, academically, is too high, but the higher the expectations, the higher the results." Watch Clark's students perform their original poetry »

'Black in America 2'
Soledad O'Brien investigates what African-Americans are doing to confront the most challenging issues facing their communities. You'll meet people who are using groundbreaking solutions in innovative ways to transform the black experience.
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But with high academic expectations come an equally high quotient for fun.

It's become one of Clark's trademarks: singing and dancing to popular rap and R&B songs during class to get the kids engaged.

"My first day at Ron Clark Academy, I thought all the teachers were psychopaths," says seventh-grader Jai Springs.

"I thought Ron Clark was going crazy. He was up in front of the kids on desks, he was dancing. ... I never saw a teacher get up on a desk and dance. But now I'm used to it, so I get up on the desk and dance too," says Jai.

Clark, formerly a schoolteacher from North Carolina, founded the academy with money he earned from his book titled The Essential 55, which detail Clark's 55 golden rules for success -- in and out of the classroom.

Clark was invited to be a guest on the Oprah Winfrey show after winning Disney Teacher of the Year Award in 2001. Oprah believed so much in the well-mannered Southern school teacher from South Carolina that she encouraged him to write the book. Later she promoted The Essential 55 on her show, prompting it's ascension to New York Times bestseller list.

Together with co-founder Kim Bearden, Clark transformed a decaying factory in a rough part of Atlanta, Georgia, into a state-of-the-art educational model for middle schools across the country. See newsmakers and iReporters on race, challenges, solutions for black America

Soon after the school opened its doors in 2008, a Christmas package from Winfrey arrived for Clark in the form of a $365,000 grant, or "a thousand dollars for each day of the year," as Oprah referred to it in the letter.

Then came the elections, with a tight presidential race between Sens. Barack Obama of Illinois and John McCain of Arizona.

Inspired by rapper T.I.'s hit song "Whatever You Like," Clark's seventh grade class penned their own lyrics and dance moves. The students' performance carried a message: Cast your ballot because you support a candidate's policies rather than just his skin color.

When they perform the song, half the seventh grade class touts the virtues of GOP's McCain while the other half root for Democrat Obama: "Obama on the left. McCain on the right. We can talk politics all night. And you can vote however you like."

The students "can talk politics with the best of them," says Clark. Video clips of the kids performing have garnered over 15 million hits on YouTube.

"We got lots of media attention. But when the media arrived to the school they realized the song is not the story, it's the kids," says Clark.

One of Clark's credos is teaching a "global curriculum" with a heavy emphasis on current events. Himself an avid world traveler, Clark believes it's essential for his students to travel to other countries to develop an understanding and appreciation of the world in which they live.

Through Delta's corporate sponsorship of the school, administrators have been able to send all 100 of their fifth to eighth grade students abroad before they graduate.

"I'm not nearly as shy as I used to be," says seventh-grader Chi Chi Kasarachi after her first year at the academy.

"My knowledge of the world has improved, I know more about what's going on in other countries and I'm more curious about things. ... I'm just hungry for knowledge," says Chi Chi.

In fact, the students at Ron Clark Academy are better versed in current events and politics than many adults.

"I never thought I'd be interested in watching the news," says seventh-grader Osei Avril. "Now I find it interesting because I have learned the stories behind the news," he says.

Osei -- who pronounces Iranian President Ahmadinajad's name perfectly -- says he's interested in learning about world issues such as the Iranian elections, the Taliban in Pakistan, and the Palestinian- Israeli conflict.

"At the beginning," says Clark, "the kids will say something like 'I've been to East Point [a suburb of South Atlanta]. After a few years they've been to Kenya, Japan, or South Africa, or England. ... They've become very comfortable with understanding the country and understanding themselves."

But it's not just the travel or even the singing and dancing to rap music that make the school so special, say the students. It's the academy teachers' creative ways of instilling education, solid values, and a passion for learning.

"They want you to pass the people at the top," says Jai. "To be at the top nonstop, be at your fullest, to be creative, to think out of the box."


But school isn't all fun and games, she says. Clark is a strict disciplinarian that expects -- and enforces -- model behavior from all of the students.

"I love Mr. Clark with all my heart, he's like a father to me," says Chi Chi. "He might fuss a lot, but I know he's doing it for our own good."

All About EducationBarack ObamaAtlanta

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