Valerie Camille Jones loves using technology to help her connect to and engage her students at the Ron Clark Academy. Jones is one of eight teachers from across the country featured in a campaign celebrating the unsung heroes of back to school — teachers. CONTRIBUTED BY J. AMEZQUA
Photo: Photo by J. Amezqua
Photo: Photo by J. Amezqua

Life with Gracie: Teaching method wins Ron Clark Academy math instructor hero status

Back in the spring, some former students of Valerie Camille Jones noticed a Facebook post in search of innovative teachers making an impact in their community.

They’d barely finished reading the message when they decided to post a link to, Jones’ website, the same one that had instructed and inspired them through the years, and lo and behold Darius Scott came calling.

That’s the same Scott who’s a top 20 finalist from Pharrell Williams’ team on season 9 of NBC’s “The Voice” and has since joined the producer’s creative collective called I Am Other.

And so naturally Jones was surprised and delighted.

She’d heard of Williams’ I Am Other and loved the connections they created in the community. What Jones didn’t know was that I Am Other had partnered with Old Navy to champion the “unsung heroes” of back to school — incredible teachers — through a series of music videos performed by, who else, extraordinary classroom teachers from across the country.

Math teacher Valerie Camille Jones uses ActivTables in her class for group work and to help the students visualize the math they are learning. Jones teaches at the Ron Clark Academy. CONTRIBUTED BY J. AMEZQUA
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

When Jones learned she’d be creating a song, she hesitated because, well, the 38-year-old math teacher doesn’t sing except in the classroom. Scott, though, assured her he’d help, that it would be fun, and besides her students would love it.

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That last little bit resonated with Jones because, put simply, Valerie Camille Jones will do just about anything to get her students’ brains clicking, and there’s a trophy case in a corner of her room at the Ron Clark Academy to prove it.

“I make up songs for my kids all the time,” Jones said before the start of a summer STEM class last week, “but it’s just us.”

A month or so after Scott contacted her, she was on a plane to Los Angeles, where she met Scott and the seven other teachers who’d been selected and started work on the videos.

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For years, through its ONward platform, Old Navy has partnered with nonprofits like the Boys & Girls Clubs to empower youths with real-world skills, training, and job opportunities to make a difference in communities and blaze a path to a brighter future.

In addition to donating more than $10 million to the Boys & Girls Clubs, the brand also has committed to providing youths from local nonprofits with 10,000 jobs by 2020 through a paid-internship and training program, and is sponsoring a fundraising campaign to raise $1 million to benefit clubs here at home and in Canada.

Through Aug. 7, Old Navy will match in-store customer donations to the clubs, up to $350,000.

The team at I Am Other lent their expertise to the effort, helping each teacher through the songwriting and recording process. (All videos will be available on Old Navy’s YouTube page; and the songs via Apple Music and Spotify.)

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In “A Fashion Combination,” Jones sings, no raps, about the different outfits you can make out of two shirts, three skirts and two pairs of shoes, showcasing how math can be used even in everyday outfit planning.

“It’s a really nice beat,” she said. “Everybody was comparing me to Issa Rae of the television series ‘Insecure.’ It was an incredible compliment.”

Jones caught the teaching bug during her senior year at Naperville North High School, about 30 miles west of Chicago, where she grew up as an only child.

“I took a teaching class and got to work at a local elementary school,” she said. “The teacher made me teach math lessons, and I fell in love with it.”

Students responded to the way she explained math to them; how she was able to help make a personal connection to each problem and help them remember it.

“They kept saying they never saw it that way.”

Jones was hooked. When she graduated in 1996, she headed to Spelman College to pursue her teaching dream, concentrating solely on mathematics and her second love, dance.

Because she hadn’t taken any education classes when she graduated in 2000, she wasn’t certified to teach.

An adviser suggested she check out the TEEMS program at Georgia State University. It allowed students to earn a master’s degree and certification within two years.

Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

While pursuing a master’s in mathematics education, Jones signed on to substitute teach at South Atlanta High School. Her first day there, she met the principal and completely won her over. Instead of Jones substituting, the principal convinced her to teach with a provisional certification instead.

“My first year was literally on-the-job training,” Jones remembered.

For the next seven years, she taught at South Atlanta, at Alonzo Crim High School and Carver School of Performing Arts, where she first started fusing acting, dancing, drawing, and performing arts into math lessons.

RELATED: Ron Clark wants more people to see Atlanta school’s teaching methods

“Our math test scores went through the roof,” she said as a big smile crept across her face. “My geometry class had the highest scores in the state of Georgia.”

Valerie Camille Jones of Atlanta is one of eight teachers from across the country featured in a campaign championing the unsung heroes of back to school in a series of videos. The videos feature original songs penned and performed by the teachers and created in partnership with Pharrell Williams’ creative collective, I Am Other. CONTRIBUTED
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Jones figured there had to be something to mixing the arts and math. She decided to find out and in 2007 applied to a doctoral program at Columbia University Teachers College, where in addition to being taught the facts, candidates were taught how to teach them.

“I loved that,” Jones said. “I learned so much but also started falling in love with technology.”

Before long, Jones was adding video games and other technology into her math lessons.

Finding ways to reach and teach everyone, not just her students, became her mission.

Jones graduated from Columbia in 2011, when a former co-worker from Carver described the Ron Clark Academy, where her son was enrolled at the time.

Teachers there were encouraged to teach outside the box. Jones, who was chair of the department and twice named Teacher of the Year at Carver, would be a good fit.

Jones loved the idea of continuing to teach in the African-American community, and although most doctoral students do not go back to K-12, she felt a pull to teach at that level.

Jones applied. She’s been here seven years now, the longest she’s ever taught at one school.

At the Ron Clark Academy, Jones has taken students to the White House three years in a row and is the coach of a four-time National MATHCOUNTS champion team.

“I love it,” she said. And Ron Clark Academy?

From the looks of that trophy case at the front of her classroom, I’d say the feeling is mutual.

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