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Getting REAL: John Sole Interview
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An interview with John Sole, Project-based Service Learning Master Teacher

lackney workshopAbout the interviewer: Jeffrey A. Lackney is dedicated to blending the disciplines of architecture and education through the advocacy of collaborative design, cooperative research and design pedagogy. School Design Research Studio

See also The Philadelphia Story: John Sole Interview Part Two

An educational trend impatiently awaiting a creative response from school designers are classroom environments that emphasize active, self-directed project-based, where cooperative problem solving strategies are favored over traditional, lecture-oriented, discipline-focused, teacher-centered instruction (see Lackney, 2005; Taylor, 1993).

Arguably, Project-based Service Learning (PBL/SL) is one of the most effective educational pedagogy available for all learners. This methodology prepares students for the myriad learning expectations in the real world through an active learning process that teaches critical thinking, problem solving, teamwork, negotiation skills, consensus building, technology, and responsibility for one’s own learning (see Washor, 2003, Wolff, 2002).

Project-based service learning, meets and exceeds grade appropriate curriculum and standards requirements through real-world problem solving applications.

John Sole: Getting REALJohn Sole, a Master Teacher who recently founded Guerilla Educators, LLC embodies all these educational ideals, as he says, with “real students doing real projects in and out of real classrooms”. John Sole takes PBL theory and makes it real and concrete for children and adults alike—”Guerilla-style”. The capacity of project-based service learning to make learning authentic, relevant, and FUN is exemplified by those whose educational experience has been affected by John Sole, or Teacher John as he is affectionately known by students around the world.

As Sole explains: “A 9-year old student in this class, we’ll call him ‘Jamaal,’ whose mom was a junkie, didn’t know his father, whose 25 year old uncle beat him up to take his lunch money, and had already been in the “system” even at this young age, would regularly come to school hyperventilating with rage. The only thing anyone at the school knew about this child’s behavior was that it was bad and worse. He was non-verbal, as a rule, and violent.

jaamalJamaal was one of thirty-two 4th grade students that were involved in a project to build a model of an old, elegant bridge in the neighborhood of the school. They decided to use a steel skeleton and stone facing, just like the real thing. It turns out that this bridge connected two banks of a creek in which a decisive, early battle of the Revolutionary War was fought which allowed George Washington’s Continental Army to escape to Valley Forge (and the rest, as they say, is history). My students would never have learned about this historical gold nugget in such a visceral way had they not embarked on this bridge project.

When the project began, it became clear that Jamaal saw the full scope of the work ahead. As the work progressed, this young man not only became a leader of the work processes but also delegated work to various classmates. When the project was completed, Jamaal’s reputation was transformed into a “leader.”

There were many complexities about this project, from figuring out how to make the big archspan, to the correct ratio of water to cement, scale, etc., and this child visualized the whole thing. We also discovered through Jamaal’s sketches that he was one of the most accomplished 4th grade artists in the 5th largest school district in the country. When the project was completed, Jamaal’s reputation was transformed into a “leader” at this school. When it was time for my students to report out and be celebrated, Jamaal actually was a presenter on the floor of Philadelphia’s City Council. This project gave this particular young man the opportunity to experience in a very powerful way, that he could be a productive member of society.

JAL: John, why should architects be interested in project-based learning?

john sole lectureJS: Architects should care how students are taught for the simple reason that they are taught in schools that architects design. From a purely enlightened self-/bottom line-interest, imagine how “in demand” their services would be if they designed schools that could actually be used, in the words of our friend and colleague Ed Kirkbride, as a three dimensional textbook (an idea originally espoused by Anne Taylor (1993), also see Programming and Design of Schools Within the Context of Community). A building that would intrinsically lend itself, because of its design, to having a positive, measurable impact on nationally normed tests!

Where the design process is mirrored across the grades on the frontlines in classrooms to create projects that can be “harvested” by both the teachers for their curriculum and behavior-modifying content, and architects for the information that can be translated into more effective school design. If the students do well academically and socially in the schools, this is a reflection on the quality of the building in which they learn. The interesting part of this is that world-class architecture projects, many of which include High Performance, “Green” principles, are taking place in classrooms across the country (and globally) NOW.

As an educator, architecture projects across the grades right into post-graduate classrooms are the gold standard of hands-on learning. Now it is time for school designers to see the value of supporting these types of projects in schools. The benefits in terms of citizenship, curriculum, and ownership that can be mined from a good architecture project, are of tremendous value to both teachers and their students.

Having said all this, it is my absolute firm belief that world class education can take place under a tree. Imagine what can be accomplished if you built to accommodate this educational methodology.

JAL: John, how did you get started in project-based learning pedagogy?

JS: In 1998, after about 20 years as a classroom teacher in the School District of Philadelphia, the Director of Service Learning for the District at that time asked me to come out of the classroom to assist in the work of getting Service Learning into schools across the city and to provide training and ongoing support to teachers who were conducting projects in their schools. Over 4 years as the Service Learning Specialist for the District, I trained more than 2,500 District educators and was responsible for more than 30,000 students conducting a wide variety of hands-on SL projects across all grades.

In 2002, I co-founded Green Woods Charter School, a school which uses Environmental Service Learning as its primary pedagogical focus. In September, 2004, I started Guerilla Educators to address the critical global need of providing the tools necessary for educators to practice world-class, hands-on Project Based Learning in their classrooms, schools, and Districts. Besides providing Service Learning Professional Developments to educators across the United States, I have trained professionals from Russia, Ukraine, Japan, and Canada, among other places.

JAL: What are some of your more recent projects?

real students 2JS: Currently, I am assisting the Metro Madison School District, in Wisconsin, to train teachers, provide ongoing support for and to visually document Service Learning projects in schools in Madison. I am a consultant for the School District of Philadelphia, where I have more than two dozen projects taking place in classrooms from k-12 and across all demographics. Projects include architecture, recycling, intergenerational, energy conservation, and water monitoring. I am also a consultant for the Delaware Valley Green Building Council, the American Institute of Architects, Architecture in Education program, and The Alliance to Save Energy’s Green Schools program, which I am currently assisting, to broaden and standardize their work in California.

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February 27th, 2006

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