Pragmatism 101

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Five young leaders make the progressive tradition their own.
Pragmatism 101

In his classroom, on the wall behind his students, Jesse Solomon likes to hang a sign that reads, "Could a student be doing this?" The high school math teacher can't help but see those words dozens of times during the day, a reminder to lay off the lecturing. "I teach math by trying to pose problems and create situations where kids have to have conversations about how they would do a piece of mathematics and how that piece of mathematics connects to other pieces of mathematics," Solomon explains.

For students accustomed to math presented as a series of rules to memorize, absolutes to seek, and blanks to fill in, Solomon's classes at the City on a Hill Public Charter School in Boston must come as a shock. The man whom school co-founder and president Sarah Kass calls "the best teacher I've ever met" listens more than he talks and treats kids as if they are fellow mathematicians. He is the master of the maddening, noncommital answer that forces kids to manipulate information for themselves. "Maybe," he tells one student. "I don't know, try it and see," he advises another.

Yet while Solomon's style has "progressive" written all over it, the teacher is no Deweyian purist. With colleagues dedicated to discovering the most effective ways to teach inner-city children, he's helped shape a school where pragmatism is the order of the day. "This'll sound more arrogant than I mean it," Solomon explains, "but I think we're trying to get at a new paradigm about this stuff—the idea of being results-oriented. Set some bar for our kids, and let's really commit to getting our kids to this bar. Let's hold them to it. Let's not lower the bar; let's get them there. I believe that you do what it takes, you know? If you need to lecture, go lecture. If you need to have them build sculpture, have them build sculpture."

Jesse Solomon

Age: 31
Job: Executive director, Teachers’ Institute at City on a Hill Public Charter School in Boston. Founding teacher, City on a Hill.
Education: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, B.S. in mathematics; Harvard University Graduate School of Education, M.Ed.
Heroes/Mentors: Mary Lou Mehrling: “I taught in the class next door to her in my first job at the King Open School [in Cambridge, Massachusetts], and that’s how I learned to teach.” Also: Marian Wright Edelman, president of Children’s Defense Fund, an advocacy group; Lisa Delpit, author and director of the Center for Urban Educational Excellence at Georgia State University; Jaime Escalante, math teacher who inspired the movie Stand and Deliver.
Favorite Education Books:In the Middle, by Nancy Atwell; A Workshop of the Possible, by Ruth Hubbard.

Soon, Solomon will be spreading this message to new teachers in Boston. For the past eight months, he's taken a leave from his classroom duties to design and raise money for a teacher-training institute that will open at City on a Hill in September. The program is recruiting college graduates with no formal education training to work as "associate teacher fellows" at the school for one year. They'll co-teach with mentors and reflect on their practice. At the end of each year, the institute will help place the teachers in Boston public schools and offer continuing support through monthly seminars.

The institute is a natural extension of the ideas that drew Solomon to City on a Hill five years ago, when it was just an innovative plan for a teacher-managed charter school being peddled by Kass and her teaching colleague Anne Connolly Tolkoff. The two founders insisted that their school would not isolate itself from the larger issues of public school reform but would contribute to change in the system. Indeed, in 1997, Solomon went after and won a $400,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education to launch the Urban Calculus Initiative, a project that enabled City on a Hill to share research and refine teaching methods with other Boston math teachers. Now, by training new teachers, Solomon hopes to give back in an even bigger way to the system that he's stepped outside of.

When a friend introduced Solomon to Kass in 1995, he was teaching math at Brighton High School, a public school in Boston. Then 27, the Cambridge, Massachusetts, native was just sinking his teeth into the challenge of teaching city kids. It was a mission inspired in part by a year he spent at the Efficacy Institute, a Lexington, Massachusetts-based nonprofit that works to prove that intelligence can be developed by all, regardless of race or class.

Solomon wasn't looking to leave Brighton when he heard about City on a Hill, but he had come to believe that public schools aren't set up to help teachers grow intellectually. So when Kass and Connolly Tolkoff offered him a chance to help build a school that would nurture teachers' talents, he signed on. "It was sort of hard to turn down the chance to put my money where my mouth was," Solomon says.

After launching with a staff of five, City on a Hill now boasts 20 teachers who instruct 200 students in grades 9-12; 70 percent of the kids are minorities, and 20 percent are first- generation Americans. The school does not track students; its innovative approach turns city museums into extended classrooms, puts students in charge of weekly "town meetings" on controversial topics, and requires seniors to design and complete internships to graduate. At the same time, the school tries to ground students in the math and English concepts they need to pass Massachusetts' new standardized test. It graduated its first class last spring, a full 100 percent of whom got into college-no small feat, considering that the school's students are selected by lottery without regard to past academic performance. On average, more than half of City on a Hill's enrollment arrives reading below grade level.

The school rents space in the Boston YMCA just off the campus of Northeastern University, a stone's throw from the Prudential Convention Center. It claims as its own several rooms off a quiet hallway on the second floor; take the wrong staircase, and you'll find yourself among Stairmasters and sweaty people. The building fronts a busy street that is split down the middle by the tracks of the city's subway. It's here on a recent spring day that Solomon is double-parked, hazard lights blinking, glancing at his notes as he waits for a colleague to join him for a last-minute trip to Harvard to recruit more teaching institute candidates. He has the dazed look of someone who has 5 million things to do.

Will his institute be a boot camp for progressive educators? Probably not. Frankly, Solomon thinks progressive strategies often come up short in today's urban classrooms. He points to the math curriculum that he uses when he's teaching. It has 9th grade students delve deeply into subjects and engage in activities like puzzling out the ending to an Edgar Allen Poe short story using mathematical concepts.

"It's engaging, cool, and it's consistent with how I like to structure my classroom—there are a lot of great things about it," Solomon says. "But by itself, it does not work in a city school." The average student arrives at City on a Hill with math skills at a 5th grade level. "What that means is for your average kid, you're trying to teach them both 5th grade stuff and 9th grade stuff at the same time. . . . How do you do that in a way that is engaging for kids? It's a huge task, and I think it's time we start owning up to the fact that that's the task."

Solomon concludes fiercely, "It's hard for me to stay true to anything that I don't think is totally working."

—Samantha Stainburn

Vol. 11, Issue 7, Pages 49-50

Published in Print: April 1, 2000, as Pragmatism 101
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