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Student solutionaries in Hawaii: An Interview with Ryan Smith

Ryan Smith, a high school English teacher at Maryknoll School in Hawaii, attended my 2017 keynote presentation at the Schools of the Future conference in Honolulu. Inspired to educate his students to be solutionaries, he took our solutionary professional development course, collaborated with his grade level team, and brought solutionary learning to all of the 11th graders. This past fall, he was invited to give a presentation at the Schools of the Future conference (virtually because of COVID) during which he shared the solutionary work of his fabulous students. You can watch the presentation here

Zoe: It’s really exciting for us to hear about teachers like you who are exposed to our solutionary approach and quickly bring it into their classrooms! Can you share how you integrated solutionary thinking and action into your English curriculum?

Ryan: Teachers are natural solutionaries. It is what we do. We are faced with challenges (individual learning challenges, curriculum design challenges, pedagogical challenges, community challenges), and we are always searching for and experimenting with ways to be more effective. Tirelessly trying to solve the root causes and systemic problems that keep students from learning is what makes teaching frustrating and even infuriating, but it is also what makes it exciting and rewarding. 

When I was listening to your Keynote address at the 2017 Schools of the Future Conference, I had a couple of teaching problems on my mind. First, how could I get students to care more deeply, to be more invested in the reading and writing in my English class? Second, how could my class accomplish more than teach language arts skills; how could it help students have a transformative experience that made them more ethical and engaged citizens in their local and global communities? During your talk, I realized I can integrate solutionary thinking and action and still achieve all of the English language arts standards. I can build in a semester’s worth of reading, writing, and speaking assignments through IHE’s Solutionary Process. If solutionary thinking and action work so well for teachers, they can work for students.

So I rallied Kristie Nourrie and Dallas Uti, the two other English 11 teachers at Maryknoll School, and we designed a semester-long Project-Based Learning (PBL) experience that builds all the major assessments into IHE’s Solutionary Process. Students would write formal project proposals, deliver persuasive pitch presentations, write letters to scholars, build a project website, create a podcast of interviews with local activists, blog about the process, research reliable sources, write a research paper, and share their whole process in a TED-style talk.

Now our English 11 teachers and students are solutionaries together. Solutionary thinking and action haven’t solved all of my teaching problems (I trust you and IHE are working on this for me), but they did go a long way in getting my students to be more invested and have a more transformative experience.

Zoe: How has solutionary learning been received by students?

Ryan: Students love it. They really do. And for so many reasons, but I’ll just mention two. First, for all of the students who don’t like reading and writing, it is a refreshing change. Not because they do less of both, because in my class there is more of both. Rather, they are tired of being told what to read and what to write. English teachers typically pick the texts and the essay prompts. Students are hesitant to trust teachers to pick books that are interesting and relevant to them or to assign essays on topics in which they have something to say. The Solutionary Process empowers them to pick the topic of study, select the texts, develop the questions, and write on what interests them. I’ve noticed my students doing more than I ask instead of trying to get away with doing as little as possible.

Second, my students are juniors in high school, so ages 16 and 17. Many of them have a blossoming desire and confidence to transition from childhood to adulthood. They are ready to research tough topics, add their voice to the public discourse, and take real social action alongside adults out in the real world. Since all the work is authentic – for real purposes, for real audiences – they feel it is worth their time and deserves their best effort.

Zoe: That honestly makes me want to do a happy dance, Ryan. Please tell us about some of your students’ solutionary work. What has the impact been on both your students and on the issues they’re seeking to address?

Ryan: You may assume that if you allowed students to select the issues to learn about and work on, everyone would study ocean pollution so they could have an excuse to go to the beach with their friends since we live in Hawaii. But, no, their interests are wide-ranging.

Braden was curious about how uncertainty about the purpose of life can lead to despair, and how people use philosophy and religion to find meaning. He collected over a thousand surveys through the school community and online social networks. After a couple of months of reading and writing about despair and finding meaning, he presented his findings to two Princeton philosophy professors, Andrew Chignell and Eric Gregory, via Zoom. The last part wasn’t required, but Braden wanted to share what he found, and they were glad to listen. I can only surmise the academic and personal impact this project had on Braden and others, but it fills me with hope and inspiration to see a teenager deeply dedicated to understanding complex issues of emotional health to set himself up to help others.

Kaila lives in beautiful Kaneohe, a town on the windward side of Oahu that sits at the base of the Ko’olau Mountains. On her way to school, she drives by a large ugly mural of the mountains that has been defeated by time, weather, and graffiti. Already a talented and ambitious artist, Kaila formed a team of four students to help her turn this eye-sore into a place of beauty. One student researched Kaneohoe’s lost native community and culture; one researched how blight emotionally impacts young people in neighborhoods; one investigated environmental ethics; and one studied urban art as social action. Of course, it wasn’t as easy as showing up with paint. Kaila set out to get city approval, and after about twenty phone calls to a half dozen offices, she had city permission, county okay, school support, and insurance. The painting was planned, and then the pandemic put everyone on stay-at-home orders. It was a problem that had no solution, other than patience. Ten months later and now a senior, I told Kaila how sad it was she couldn’t finish, and she quickly corrected me, “No, we are going to finish. I am going to paint that wall.” I am thinking to myself: Kaila, the class is over. I am no longer grading you. You don’t have to. The Solutionary Process has students wanting to learn, wanting to work, wanting to achieve their goals. I love that solutionary students have better motives than fear of Fs or longing for As. 

Zoe: What did you learn from the first year of solutionary work that is informing what you are doing in year two?

Ryan: First, we wanted to introduce students to local solutionaries to help students brainstorm project ideas and get inspired. Wendy Chang, who is Maryknoll’s Director of Advancement and active in the non-profit and philanthropy community on Oahu, took the lead and invited local leaders to speak to students. Students heard from people who are life-long solutionaries – adults whose life work is preventing poverty and homelessness, reducing plastic use and pollution that ends up on Oahu beaches, providing services to paroled women to prevent reincarceration, and raising awareness to stop sex-trafficking. Each speaker set the bar high for students by discussing the complex forces at the root of the problem, explaining the great lengths you must go to solve a problem you care about, and the amount of time you should stay committed to social change. English teachers know how essential mentor texts are in the writing process. Writers need to see numerous examples of writing done well before aiming to do the same. Likewise, the students greatly benefited from meeting local solutionaries. Moving forward, I think this is an essential part of the process.

We noticed one of the first obstacles students faced, and one of the trickiest to overcome, was getting money to fund their work. Many student groups didn’t need much, but they needed some money to get started. Again the Advancement office stepped in. They shared the Solutionary Project with a potential donor, and a generous couple offered to participate by reviewing the project proposals and the ‘pitch videos’ and award seed money to deserving students. It is just wonderful to see the students’ own generosity inspire others to be generous. What impact is all of this having on the school and the local community? Whenever I think I know the answer to that question, I am overjoyed to discover the impact is actually bigger than I imagined.