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Paul Solarz Talks About Helping Kids Learn to Learn

Paul Solarz

Paul Solarz is a fifth grade teacher who teaches his kids how to learn, how to manage projects, how to do research, and how to formulate questions then find answers. They use technology to create and publish their work but technology is not the key. While anyone can watch videos online to learn, Paul shows how the classroom is where deep learning happens through personal contact with a teacher and working with other students. I asked Paul about how he uses technology in his lesson plans, his new book Learn Like a PIRATE, and how his approach empowers kids to learn how to learn.

Tim: When you sit down and plan out a lesson, how do you decide when and how to include technology?

Paul: The idea, for me, is that over the summer I look at my curriculum for all subjects, I look at my big ideas. First of all, I try to integrate all my subjects together long before I get to the lesson. I look at where there is some overlap in content for reading and writing that might fit into science and social studies.

When I start to look at lesson design, I start to think about a number of things. I don’t really take a lesson and say, “how can I bring technology into the lesson?” Rather, I’ve learned a whole bunch of technology tools the students can use, more than what teachers can use. We’re about students creating more than consumption. I look at which tools can work really well with a particular lesson. I don’t force the tool.

For example, we might want to make a drawing of the water cycle then identify each part of the water cycle with experiments. We might take precipitation and show how precipitation works on different surfaces and videotape embed it into a ThingLink image on our website.

Do you teach technology skills as you go or all at once?

Paul: I’ll always integrate teaching how to use a tool into the lesson. If it’s the first time using a tool, I’ll help them create an account or show them how I’ve added them to my account already. I’ll give them instructions weekly on our website so everything is posted permanently.

As a collaborative group, they’re a lot better off if I don’t teach them everything because they’ll start teaching each other and experimenting. They end up with something that shows they’re learning, that was fun and exciting, that was collaborative, and now they know a tool they can use whenever they want to use it.

Are a lot of these tools set up to ensure privacy of students?

Paul: We have an understanding we will never use any student’s last name online, or personal information. We always use a first name and a last initial or my last name.

Typically we embed content into our Weebly website portfolio. We don’t send people to YouTube and other sites. That’s usually the workaround, the embed code. If an embed is not possible, we’ll take a screenshot and post it on our blog.

Do you also teach kids the full range of technology literacy, for example, the global impact of technology?

Paul: Most of the kids, by the time they get to me, they already know. But I will spend time each year to make sure students have the right skills, using search wisely, using the right terms, filtering through things that come up to find the best things.

When we do a research paper, I teach them how to do proper research skills. At the beginning of the year, I teach them you don’t put anything inappropriate online, or look at anything inappropriate. Because in their home life they’re going to have the same experience, in the classroom I teach them the proper way to handle it.

How did you find Genius Hour?

Paul: Years ago I believed that my kids should study topics of interest to themselves but I didn’t dedicate much time to it. As time went on, I read a book called Comprehension and Collaboration and they talk about inquiry circles, opportunities for kids to research and learn about a topic that interests them. My goal was to give back some of the class time to my kids so they could do things that were interesting to them but somehow be educational. I didn’t mind if they were drawing if they were trying to improve their drawing. The focus wasn’t to waste time. The focus was to learn a skill or become more knowledgeable.

About six years ago, I read a book called the Passion-Driven Classroom. The book said let student passions be allowed
for moments of the day. It gives you a model to follow, which she calls Passion Time. Which is why I call my Genius Hour “Passion Time.” It’s basically what are you passionate about and how do you want to spend your time?

Then I wanted to structure it with certain things. I wanted a planning stage at the beginning and near the end a reflection component. Throughout the whole thing I wanted kids to really use meta cognition to look at what they were doing each day, if they’re on the right track, and what adjustments they might need to made along the way. I found Silvia Tolisano’s KWHLAQ chart and thought, wow, this is perfect. This will help me help my kids focus on what they’re looking at in the beginning and at the end help me to get them to reflect.

Then I also tied in the Understanding by Design book which says an essential question should drive the learning. So I called my students questions essential questions at the beginning. They don’t follow the actual definition of an essential question but they do follow the purpose. The question has to be specific to get my kids to tune into what they need to be looking at but at the end they won’t necessarily have answered every question. There’s not really a right or wrong.

How does reflection time fit in?

Paul: I ask them at the end to write a formal reflection on their blog entry what they learned, what they had trouble with, about six questions, whatever makes sense. The essential question is the title, then a video or a picture, then the KWHLAQ, then a paragraph reflection. You can see examples on our blog. We stop at the end of our activity and we say, “Alright, I want us to think about what we just learned, why did we spend time learning, what was new, what excited you?”

My reflections all take place at the end of learning. But I teach them meta cognition which goes throughout learning. A lot of people have trouble understanding this. If you formally reflect throughout, they’ll never learn how to use meta cognition to pause and think about what they’re doing. I want my kids to be constantly reflecting. If you make them fill out a sheet every day, they’ll never going to do reflection on their own.

Is your book a summary of what you’ve learned as a teacher so far?

Paul: It’s kind of a how to manual for creating a student led classroom. Technology plays a small role in the book. It’s how I believe s classroom should run. I believe students should have power to make decisions throughout their day. They shouldn’t constantly rely on the teacher. The teacher should be one of the members of the classroom as you work together on common goals.

The book is called Learn Like a PIRATE and I break down PIRATE as an acronym saying if you do the six things PIRATE stands for, you can create a student led classroom. That’s peer collaboration, imporovement rather than grades, responsibilty in the classroom, active learning rather than quizzes and tests, twenty first century skills like reflection and meta cognition, and empowerment to make decisions. My kids can interrupt the class to make corrections to benefit everyone. So I don’t have to be the one to make all the decisions.

What’s the role of teachers in a classroom when kids can go online to use Khan Academy?

Paul: For me, the way I work, the whole key is I provide kids with the direction up front then I circulate and make sure I’m observing and I give feedback to each kid constantly. A lot of times my feedback is directed to the whole group, for example, here’s something we’re all doing wrong or could do better. Or sometimes it’s just an individual or a group of people that I can redirect or provide instruction for them to help others. So when someone comes up to me and says they don’t know how to do something, I can tell them to go ask another student. You still need a community.

I know there’s definitely online education, and it works well for some people, but the way I believe works best is we’ve all got devices, we’re all working on what we need to work on when we need to work on it, but we all work together at all times.

Teachers might worry about, “how do you know which kids know what because they rely on their partners all the time?” My goal isn’t which kids know what all the time. My goal is, “did my kids learn today? Did they make incremental improvements today?”

We’re so focussed on “I teach, I learn” and we’re not focussed on sometimes it is a process. Not everybody can get from A to Z in one class period. But if they get from A to L and feel good about it, and they’re willing to work from L to Z tomorrow, that’s what should matter. But when we say you only got to L today that’s a failing grade, or you’re not understanding it, then they focus on the fact they’re not good enough.

In our classroom, we’re all about the process. If all you get to is L, then that’s a lot better because you got to L and you feel good about yourself versus you got to L and we told you that you were wrong. It’s a different mentality. We don’t focus on mastery. We focus on improvement and just trying hard and revising. Even if tomorrow we have to move on to a completely different skill, if I come back to it, I want to know you’re going to work on it. In our classroom, because there are no grades, they do go back to it. They don’t feel they have to do enough to get a C. They know they learned some but they need to learn it all.

How do kids respond to a process approach?

Paul: Kids leave the classroom feeling they’ve learned a ton, they feel smart, they feel good, they’ve been collaborative.

How many years did it take to feel comfortable as a teacher?

Paul: I’ll let you know when I retire.

Learn More

Paul Solarz






Genius Hours


Learn Like a Pirate: Empower Your Students to Collaborate, Lead, and Succeed

Solarz has written a thoughtful practical book to capture his ideas and experiences.

Learn Like a PIRATE


KWHLAQ For the 21st Century


Teach Like a PIRATE


Understanding by Design


Comprehension and Collaboration


The Passion Driven Classroom