From the outside looking in, Ericka Payne-Clark’s classroom at Balmoral Ridgeway Elementary School in Memphis may seem a bit out of the ordinary. Rather than restricting students to learn traditionally at a desk, Payne-Clark encourages her students to move around the classroom while she teaches and work in a space that’s best suited for them, even if that’s under a table or sitting on the steps she has in her room.

“We have to know how our students learn best and sitting at a desk and a table is sometimes not it.”

Payne-Clark teaches first through fifth-grade students who are part of the gifted program, known as CLUE which stands for Creative Learning in a Unique Environment. Students in the Memphis-Shelby County District school are screened yearly to qualify for the program and once admitted, leave their regular classrooms to meet with Payne-Clark in small groups for a few hours a week.

After 15 years of teaching middle school English, Payne-Clark said she was ready for a change. Now finishing out her 19th year at Balmoral Ridgeway Elementary School, she says she’s found exactly what she was looking for with the gifted program.

Her new classroom is in an open-space school, meaning there are no walls and no doors to the classrooms. Although some people say that it’s more difficult to teach and learn in this kind of environment, Payne disagrees.

“You can see around the entire school building because of it. It’s different, but it works for our students”.

Payne-Clark said that “we make sure that our students are engaged totally” so that they stay focused throughout the day, which she does by incorporating hands-on activities and movement. By exploring a little spontaneity in class, her students are more engaged, because they’re experiencing something new and are not as restrained.

“I just think it’s important to allow them to be free, you know, and I think that’s how we often times get the best from them,” said Payne-Clark.

The CLUE program allows students to excel in a less restricted environment and build further on what they are learning in their main classes. While her lessons still follow the state standards, the gifted program allows her to push students to “think outside the box”.

“The fact that these students are gifted means they’re not limited to what they can do and I’m not limited on how far I can push them in class […] they’re so excited about the activities that we do in class, and studies we engage in and topics they haven’t been exposed to.”

The CLUE program gives students mentors and role-models, which Payne-Clark said she hopes will help to motivate and support her students as they move forward in their education. Having organizations such as the Nashville Stars to look up to, Payne-Clark said is key in showing her students that “the sky’s the limit”. Having a Major League Baseball team inspired by a former Negro Leagues team would offer valuable opportunities in education, especially as we celebrate Juneteenth later this month.

“Students know that many years ago African Americans were limited to many rights and opportunities. It is important that they now take advantage since opportunities are now endless.”

Payne-Clark said she’s focused on making memorable experiences and having fun with her students while educating them. In the future, she hopes to continue to create these memorable, engaging, and hands-on moments for her kids to remember and build skills they can apply as they grow older. After leaving the CLUE program, Payne-Clark hopes her students will continue on to enroll in STEM programs in middle schools, high school, and beyond.

If you know of someone who is making a positive difference in our community, please let us know