My name is Paul Solarz and I have been teaching 5th grade for the past 15 years in Arlington Heights, Illinois, USA. Becoming the best teacher I can be has been a lifelong passion of mine. It has caused me to spend most of my free time reading and collaborating with others in the profession in order to learn best practices and effective pedagogy. In addition, I also spend lots of time blogging about my experiences as a means of reflection.
I believe strongly that today’s education system is outdated and inefficient and needs to be redesigned. As a result of this belief, I have made the following changes to my instruction:
- Focus my lessons on 21st Century skills, Big Ideas, Enduring Understandings, and Essential Questions
- Formative assessment is used to provide feedback so all students improve throughout the learning process
- Critical thinking scenarios & real-world problems are used to increase rigor and relevance
- Students predominantly work collaboratively with their peers
- Once an assignment is turned in, students are allowed (& encouraged) to improve it indefinitely
- As soon as we finish an objective or task, we take time to reflect and synthesize our learning
- We use technology to create, collaborate, & reflect more than consume
- Students write & create for authentic audiences such as classes around the world, authors, and scientists
- I spend most of my time setting up lessons, observing & reinforcing, providing immediate feedback, & encouraging collaboration
- Project-Based Learning, Simulations, and other self-made 21st Century units dominate my instruction
- Students spend most of their time "creating" based on information they gather
- Nearly 100% of students' questions are directed towards fellow students rather than towards the teacher
- My students spend 90+ minutes in school every week exploring their personal interests during Passion Time
- Students set goals each trimester & assess their progress towards those goals
Provide as much evidence as possible in your responses.
1. INNOVATION Discuss your approach in driving innovative and effective instructional practices for your students inside and outside the classroom. How do you demonstrate success? (500 words or less)
In order to provide as much evidence as possible for this application, I have linked all of my claims to website entries. The application, with all of my links, can be found at this address: bit.ly/globalteacherprize - I hope that you find this to be an innovative way to share my experiences with you!
In my class, I am committed to providing my students with the best education possible. To do that, I look critically at my goals and determine the best way to accomplish those. One of the things that I do before each school year is determine how to teach my students the 34 twenty-first century skills that I believe they should learn. I do that by identifying which units or activities naturally lend themselves to each skill and creating activities for the rest. I focus my instruction, feedback, and assessment on progress towards those 21st Century skills, as well as towards curricular objectives and individualized needs. I blog about this in detail regularly here.
In my opinion, the success of my instruction is measured through happy parents, student feedback, student progress towards goals, and my biennial reviews from my administrators. But to support my way of teaching, I also use objective data from formal assessments, observational data, and work samples.
Here are some unique examples of innovative and effective instructional practices and student learning outcomes in my classroom:
- If you only check out one link, this is the one to look at. My students explained all of our learning experiences that we had throughout the year on video and through words.
- I believe strongly in the idea that reflection and synthesis improves learning. Therefore, each of my students maintains an ePortfolio of their work throughout the year, complete with reflections.
- Because I want my students to develop a love of learning, we spend time each week pursuing our own personal interests and sharing our learning with each other.
- In order to develop a love for reading within my students, I work hard to purchase books that they will all enjoy, and promote discussions during literature circles.
- My students created videos that explained all of the 21st Century skills that we focused on throughout the year, and how we practiced each.
- I created a simulation that helped my students better understand our country’s expansion westward. We did daily activities that made the learning fun!
- I created a simulation where we all colonized Mars in order to learn about government and our Constitution! We even created our own Constitution for our colony!
- In order to meet the specific needs of each of my students, I created stations where my students could get individualized support or enrichment based on their needs.
- Pre- and Post-Assessments using markers and video instead of paper tests!
- Publishing our writing via podcasts instead of writing or typing!
- Taking our learning to a larger stage: the Science Fair!
- Debating which alternative energy source should power our country!
2. DEVELOPING GLOBAL CITIZENS Share your approach for preparing children to be global citizens in a world where they will encounter people from many different religions, cultures and nationalities. (500 words or less)
Although the vast majority of my students each year are caucasian and either Jewish or Christian, they have a strong understanding and appreciation for people of all religions, cultures, and nationalities due to our diverse surroundings. We live just 20 miles from the heart of Chicago, which according to Wikipedia has the fifth highest foreign-born population in the United States. Although each suburban neighborhood tends to have a dominant nationality, everyone interacts respectfully with each other throughout each day.
We do several things throughout the year to reinforce respectful relationships with each other and with others in our community. During classroom meetings, we talk about the importance of mutual respect and understanding each other. We learn not to pass judgment or make assumptions based on stereotypes or misunderstandings. Last summer, I was fortunate enough to attend the Asia Society’s Global Learning Conference in New York. There, I learned how to provide my students with a stronger global perspective, and, upon returning, was inspired to create a “Global Awareness Curriculum.” This curriculum has ten components which are embedded into my curriculum rather than separate and isolated. The activities range from learning about people and regions in other parts of our country to learning about people and cultures around the world. Children typically don’t have a strong understanding of what life is like for others around the world, and I wanted to do my part in changing that. I want my students to be more aware of the diversity in our world, more interested in learning more, and committed to making positive change throughout the world.
Some activities (with links) from my Global Awareness Curriculum include:
- Skyping with authors, wildlife experts, astronomy experts, park rangers, and other experts from around the globe in order to improve our perspective on our world.
- partnering with other schools, classes, and students from other states and countries around the world to compare experiences, backgrounds, and resources (e.g. pen pals in Brazil, collaborative Google Presentations in India, etc.).
- Celebrating other cultures and their holidays to understand their history
- Mystery Skyping with students in classrooms around the world (Canada, Germany, Brazil, etc.) to learn about geography, climate, and culture.
- Using art to learn about history, culture, and design (e.g. The Mayan Culture in Mexico, Italian sculptures)
- learning about how overpopulation is becoming a problem and what it means to our planet’s future by reading “If the World Were a Village.”
- learning about various aspects of other countries to put our country into perspective.
- what it takes to create your own country (and then we created one!).
- learning about what other countries feel is most important for their citizens by reading the preambles to each of their constitutions & using their words (and our prior learning) to collaboratively write a constitution of our own.
- Taking time out of our busy day to cheer for our country in the Winter Olympics!
- Reading & discussing “Time for Kids,” a weekly children’s magazine that teaches current events happening all around the world.
3. IMPACT ON THE COMMUNITY Share the impact you have on your community and how you serve as a role model for students, parents and fellow teachers. (500 words or less)
As much as I dedicate my time and effort to improving my teaching practice, I also realize the importance of balance in my life. Family, friends, and community are important to me and I make sure to make time for them.
Every Monday (with exceptions) for the past eight years, I have cooked dinners as a volunteer at a local soup kitchen where guests enjoy a free, hot meal. When I am in charge, I plan the meal, purchase the ingredients, prepare the meal with other volunteers, and cook the meal. I share this experience with my students because they enjoy coming out to serve the meal with me throughout the school year! I have created an online sign-up for them and their family members, promoted it within my classroom, and spent time talking with them about our impact on our local community. Parents claim that their children are often overwhelmed with emotion the first time they volunteer and learn valuable life lessons they couldn’t learn otherwise.
Although I am not yet married and don't have any children of my own, I am extremely close with my sister and her son and daughter, as well as my mom and dad. My nephew is nine years old and has autism. To see life through his eyes has helped me better understand my students, and has made me a more compassionate person. I feel as though he and I communicate with each other a little differently than the rest of the world communicates with him. My niece is a "13 year old stuck in a six year old’s body!" Although only a first grader, she seems to have an eidetic memory and knows how to infer gestures and hidden meaning, sarcasm, as well as opportunities to manipulate! My parents are two amazingly generous individuals who would do anything for anyone, and I am doing everything I can to absorb all that they exude. They have been my most influential role models throughout my life, and I work hard to teach my students in the same way that I was raised.
One way that I have connected my students with our community was through an Arbor Day event where my students wrote a play, acted it out at a local park for our neighbors, and sang songs while our mayor planted a new tree. This connected the residents of our community with our school in a positive way. Another way that we have worked with our community was when we completed a project with our mayor and police officers trying to improve the safety of our downtown area so that students felt safe hanging out after school.
Over the years, I have worked hard to attend sporting events, plays, recitals, concerts, and other important events for each of my students. I feel that one of the best ways to forge a strong relationship with each student is by getting to know them outside of the classroom walls.
4. IMPROVING THE TEACHING PROFESSION Share how you are contributing to the improvement of the teaching profession. How are you helping to raise the bar of teaching, sharing best practices with your colleagues and encouraging people to join the profession? (500 words or less)
A couple years ago, I came to the realization that sharing my expertise with the world didn’t cost me a thing! Even if others took my ideas and used them as their own, I still got paid the same as if I didn’t share with anyone. So I decided that I would share everything that I was doing with the world, for free! I began to blog about my lessons, my beliefs, and my learnings, and I passed on the information via Twitter. Before long, I had built a personal learning network of over 8000 educators who were interested in what I had to say and were willing to share what they were doing in their classrooms with me!
This network of peers responded so positively to my blog entries that I began to participate in and host Twitter chats online. These chats focused on a specific aspect of education and drew educators in to share ideas & resources and have conversations that pushed each of us forward. Our collective minds are so much more valuable that any one individual! Having made a name for myself, I began being contacted by local administrators to do professional development workshops in their districts with their teachers. I led workshops called:
- Creating Your 21st Century Classroom
- Twitter for Educators
- Becoming a Global Classroom Through Mystery Skypes
- Leading Children to Pursue their Passions
- Enriched Learning Projects
- Developing Units with 21st Century Skills in Mind
- Who Owns the Learning? Examples of 5th Graders Running the Show
This passion for improving my craft also inspired me to travel to Finland and China with highly inquisitive educators to compare their education systems to ours. We blogged about our observations and held a Google Hangout that was viewed by hundreds of educators.
This past spring, I was awarded the Illinois Computing Educator of the Year award. At the conference, I led a workshop on Passion Time, did a few interviews, and gave a short speech. It was quite the experience!
In order to encourage teachers around me to try new things in their classrooms, I have used my planning time to model lessons with their students. I have also opened up my classroom to dozens of teachers from my district and neighboring districts to observe and discuss their observations afterwards.
Today, I continue to work hard to raise the bar of teaching and share those experiences with educators both near and far. I collaborate with educators on a daily basis, sharing my experiences and learning valuable ideas from them. In order to keep track of my interactions with other educators, I maintain a scrapbook of blog entries that mention my name, events that I attend, etc. I am also working on writing my first book on education focusing on creating a classroom where teachers set the stage so students can lead their learning.
5. USE OF THE PRIZE FUNDS If you were to win the prize, how do you plan to spend the money in the short term and over the 10 years? The money will be yours to spend as you wish however please share any projects that you are passionate about e.g. teaching or school related projects that would benefit from the additional funding and recognition the Prize would bring. (500 words or less)
If I were fortunate enough to win the Varkey GEMS Foundation Global Teacher Prize, I would try to balance my needs and my wants both professionally and personally. After paying off my home, I would dedicate some money towards self-publishing my next book. (I’ve just begun the process of writing my first book and publishing it.) I would think that including this award on the cover would certainly help boost sales and interest in what I have to say about education!
Since access to technology is still tough in my school & district, I would put some of the money towards purchasing a laptop for each of my students to use while in my class. I have a strong desire to use technology in nearly every subject, nearly every day! I now know how to use it in transformative ways, rather than just as a novelty or a replacement for paper. I’ve learned that laptops are the device that I prefer to use in my classroom over iPads, desktops, iPhones, etc. Laptops help us accomplish all of our goals in an efficient manner.
I have always wanted to earn a doctorate degree, and the Global Teacher Prize would allow me the financial resources to be able to earn one. I would probably choose to earn an Ed.D. in Curriculum and Instruction, as that is my area of passion. Although I currently plan to stay in the classroom for the remainder of my career, that may change eventually and I would love to have the certification and other requirements needed to become a Curriculum Director or something similar.
I definitely want to have enough money set aside for my niece and nephew to attend college if they choose to go that route. I want them to know that they can choose any career path that interests them, and not be dissuaded by lack of money. They deserve to find a career that they can be passionate about too!
I have always been a saver, and most likely, the rest of the money would be put away, invested responsibly, and reserved for my retirement. I can imagine that after 35+ years in education, I’m going to want to spend my golden years relaxing! That nest egg would allow me the opportunity to do so!
I would sincerely like to thank the Varkey GEMS Foundation for offering the Global Teacher Prize and appreciate you considering me for this award. Although I feel like the odds of winning a prize like this are small, I feel confident that the questions asked in the application and the criteria for winning the prize match what I’m trying to accomplish in my career. I’m so glad to see your organization promoting best practices in education around the world, so thank you for what you are doing!
Paul A. Solarz
5th Grade Teacher
Westgate Elementary School
500 S Dwyer
Arlington Heights, Illinois, USA