Thursday, August 16, 2018

On the Coffee Table: Paul Solarz

Title: Learn Like a Pirate: Empower Your Students to Collaborate, Lead, and Succeed
Author: Paul Solarz
I suppose it's time to let the blogosphere in on the action research project I am planning for my master's program.  Over the past few years, I've gradually tried to incorporate more student voice, student choice and student leadership into my classroom.  It started out of necessity with our middle school musicals.  Neither Drama Guy nor I is much of a dancer whereas many of our students are quite experienced.  So, we've given the choreography of our shows entirely over to them.  Not only are the kids happier with this arrangement but, in fact, we've had stronger productions as a result.  Win-win.  Obviously, we were on to something and expansion of the idea throughout my practice was a logical path to follow.

Unfortunately, teachers of my generation weren't taught to approach education this way and music in general has been a top-down world for centuries.  So, I need to figure out how to do a lot of this on my own.  Fortunately, this is a hopping trend in current education and there's a lot more how-to material than there used to be.  In working out the specifics for my research project, three different people recommended Learn Like a Pirate, so obviously I needed to check it out.

I have found my bible.  Solarz's classroom, as he describes it, is exactly what I envision for my own.  Students, with thoughtful early guidance, run the show.  They guide each other through the daily rituals, choose and design their own projects, they hold each other accountable, they ask each other questions before turning to the teacher, etc.  The book includes testimony from Solarz's own students and their parents so as not to make it seem he is painting a non-existent ideal.  He speaks from successful experience.

Now I need to figure out how to use it all.  Solarz provides a lot and it's overwhelming to take in all at once but I am eager to implement as much as I can.  My job at school is really two jobs with differing demands: chorus director and general music teacher.  There are aspects of the student-led class that will be easier to implement for each.  Probably best to sort out what those are and start there.  As Solarz points out, though, what you believe about your students and their capacities is just as important as the specific activities you plan for them.  It all begins with building the supportive atmosphere.

So, if you are a teacher and looking for some fresh ideas, I think you'd get a lot out of Learn Like a Pirate.


  1. Okay, I may have to check that one out.
    Even though I'm not teaching right now.
    And even though I'm not really planning to go back to teaching probably ever.

  2. Wow this sounds wonderful and I am so happy that you are able to follow your heart and subject.
    This would not work were I live in a Border City. If the students go to school it is for the free breakfast, lunches and computers. By 15 they have dropped out knowing very little English. They are Hispanics living here and nothing more.
    The biggest school district here last year had half of all the 3rd graders in the whole district held back because they could not speak or understand basic English.
    When I was little and went to school in Tucson I had a fabulous education. California was a real powerhouse of education and Arizona kept up because they did not want to lose any great teachers to California. Now New Mexico, California are class 1 or 2 levels of education.
    When the parents do not care why should the children. If the parents only speak Spanish and only watch Spanish TV why would the children even try. Arizona is next. It is so very sad.

    cheers, parsnip and badger

    1. The problems are real but teachers need to start somewhere - no choice but to try your best with the kids who show up. I think a philosophy based on encouraging students and their families to feel invested is still a good one, even with a steep mountain to climb.

    2. You should see the money spent on ESL classes and school workers going out to talk to drop out students and parents. In Mexico, normal school is over at age 15. So thats what they do here.
      We have a great group of teachers trying but you need the children and PARENTS to help.
      To say all the schools districts are like this wrong but when the biggest one is failing it is hard to see the parents invested or the children.

      I think you may live in a great city and state that enjoys much more than Arizona.

      My friend who lives in New Mexico part time (she is a writer and works for the movie industry) said if you look at where NM education is today, it ranks at the bottom and adult illiteracy is at 47 % That is almost half of adults in NM who are operating at a level 1-2 on a scale of 5.
      Arizona is heading that way today.

  3. Your school sounds awesome. I like the idea of incorporating so much student choice in your classroom. This book sounds really good. Perhaps, baby steps are best for implementing all the things you've learned from this book.

    1. Yes, probably baby steps. Really, step one is trusting the students. For the most part, I'm there.