Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Interview with Len Solo: Making An Extraordinary School : The Work of Ordinary People.

Interview with Len Solo: Making An Extraordinary School : The Work of Ordinary People.

With Doug Holder

Len Solo was the principal of the Graham & Parks School in Cambridge, Mass. from 1974 to 2001. He is a firm believer in alternative schools and innovative teaching to educate today's student. His book about his experience at the Graham & Park School is titled "Making An Extraordinary School: The Work of Ordinary People." Solo is also an accomplished poet and is currently working on a short story collection. I talked with him on my Somerville Community Access TV show " Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer."

Doug Holder: Len-- you have seen a lot of trends in education during your time as an educator. What's your opinion of the mass firing of teachers and strict accountability that is in vogue?

Len Solo: The firings are under the " No Child Left Behind Act". Schools are ranked and rated, and if in a series of years the kids don't pass, the school and the teachers can be in serious trouble. The whole staff , including the principal can be fired.

As you know from reading my book I have issues with " No Child...' I think it is the worst turn that American education has taken. If what I describe in the book is true about this special school in Cambridge than " No Child..." is not true. We empowered teachers to be the source of curriculum--the very opposite of " No Child..." The standards with the MCAT for instance are set at the state level rather than with local people.

The reason the Graham & Parks School was successful was because it gave power to the teachers. Because the teacher knows the kids--then the teacher should know the curriculum. And they have to make the curriculum accessible to the kids. That means they have got to find all kinds of ways to do this so it is interesting. Now you have standards that have been promulgated by absent people--bureaucrats--people far way.

Again--one of the reasons the school became an extraordinary school was because of empowerment. When you empower people they take it on the teaching of the kids as their own. Empowerment is the basis of Democracy. This is the opposite of what is happening with "No Child..." With "No Child..."

It’s somebody far away from you making decisions about your life as a teacher, and your life as a student, and your life as a parent of that student. It’s not yours—it is somebody else making these decisions for you. Is “No Child Left Behind” effective? I say no. We hear all the time how kids score well on the MCAT exams in Massachusetts—so you have these tests based on these standards. You don’t need standardization to have very high standards. We did in our school. I say standard testing is a closed system. If you taught writing in college 15 years ago when there was no MCAT, and if you teach now, you would see no difference in writing skills. I know this because I have spoken to college teachers.

DH: You said the mission of the Graham & Parks School was to “educate the whole child.” Can you explain?

LS: Most schools deal with the head. We try to deal with the head, heart and the body.

We are concerned with the whole child. We had a particular kind of education. It was holistic—project-based learning.The classroom wasn’t set up with chairs in rows, with kids sitting in them hardly moving. We had learning areas. We had science, reading, writing and math areas. Our learning advocates start with materials and products. So children become actively involved with their hands. We try to engage them.

We are also concerned about the social lives of kids, and their emotions. Confidence in self is closely related to learning, and for making important choices affecting one’s life. We want our children to be capable and lovable. We want them to know math, reading, science and math and the like and to like themselves and like others.

If you establish strong bonds among people. If they live, learn and work together—that is the basis for academic performance. We created a very strong community within the school. That was the basis for academic learning. We were more concerned with more than the head. We had small classes, in a small school—involving parents in meaningful ways. We really go to know the child.

DH: You were all about students making meaningful connections with adults. How did you facilitate that?

LS: A number of different ways. First—we had a whole bunch of adults in the schools, not just teachers. In any given class you would find 2 to 5 adults. You would have a teacher, an instructional aid, one or two students from local colleges, and you would have one or two parents on a daily basis to work in the classrooms.

I have a chapter in the book about how I put the kids in the community. When kids come to middle school that are beginning to leave their parents and enter the wilder world. We try to facilitate this. We try to do it in a meaningful way. Our program put kids in work situations in the community. They were working in preschools, some worked at the Harvard Crimson newspaper, some worked with seniors. We believe the starting place for learning is experience. A job teaches the student to take what is abstracted and make it come to life.

DH: What is a bad teacher?

LS: A bad teacher is someone who doesn’t know curriculum well. He or she is not accessible to kids, and doesn’t spend a lot time watching kids and learning from them. I also look to see if there is order in the classroom. I’ve seen chaos in classrooms. You can’t tolerate that. To be a really good teacher you have to work ten hours a day practically every day of the year. At our school we were not afraid to tell teachers they were not working out.

DH : You lead poetry workshops in the schools. How was that?

LS: In the early years of school I taught 7th and 8th graders. I really like poetry and I really like short stories. I tried to present stories and poems that kids could relate to. I wanted them to dig it and relate it to their own lives.

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