What exactly is Solon Block and what is its intended purpose?


By Willem Slade

In the beginning of the 2017/2018 school year, as a junior at the Montpelier High School, I held the quite uneducated notion that Solon Block was merely a small chunk of time for students who, for whatever reason, were not able to complete their work by the assigned due date. I had wrongfully assumed that it was a ploy by teachers to punish students for their inevitable procrastination by tracking them down and subjecting them to the work that we all fear so much. I was skeptical, to say the least, about its intended purpose and what significant change it would create in the students of MHS. However, despite my doubts, as I took the time to consider the actual motives behind this recent alteration, I gradually came to realize that the benefits of the newly established Solon Block extend far beyond the purpose of helping students who are scrambling to finish their work before the next class (admittedly, I have been one of those people every now and then). Rather, I have come to understand that Solon Block has brought about far more positive changes, for both the students and staff, than negative changes. This has become apparent in my observations of everyday Solon Block activity, as well as the more recent interview on behalf of the Solon Spectrum, with none other than our dignified principal, Mike McRaith.

 Math teacher Whitney Machnik helps students during Solon Block (Image courtesy Solon Salutes)

Math teacher Whitney Machnik helps students during Solon Block (Image courtesy Solon Salutes)

In our interview, I was able to gather a substantial amount of evidence, thanks to McRaith’s willingness to share with us, regarding the primarily positive responses with respect to Solon Block. His opinions on the topic seemed very genuine and he showed no discernible biases. McRaith brought up several valuable points about how Solon Block is not only an effective way to increase student to teacher connection, through a supplemental period of time in which students can discuss work and request guidance; but also that taking advantage of Solon Block time has limited the amount of “special schedule” interruption that might have came last year from atypical events such as assemblies or student surveys. Furthermore, McRaith talked about how Solon Block provides a time in the middle of the day that is more readily accessible to students who may not have been able to come in during Zero Period, at 7:30 in the morning. He went on to discuss how Solon Block would be a preferable time in which to create and revise PLP’s in the spring, in addition to how Solon Block is being productively used by guidance counselors for college planning classes. It sounded as if many of the high schools in Vermont have been gradually moving toward similar additions, in part because of the widespread successes reported among teachers and students. Increased flexibility was a common theme in regards to both learning and scheduling.

The following is an account of the interview between the Solon Spectrum and Mike McRaith. McRaith had not prepared his answers ahead of time, seeing as we had not provided him with questions before the interview, so we thank him for his consent and willingness to speak candidly. The quotes that you see have not been paraphrased, nor altered in any significant way (but for the sake of brevity, we have not included the whole conversation).

Solon Spectrum: What is your perception of the intended purpose of Solon Block? Moreover, what changes are you hoping to see, whether it be from students and/or staff, as everyone becomes more accustomed to the process?

McRaith: There are several goals. But the most important goal is student outcomes - student learning, and more learning happening at school. One of the goals that [Solon Block] is working to serve is having students and teachers available at the same time. For a long time we have had seven-thirty to eight available, but that didn’t always result in a good connection; it’s hard for people to get up and teams weren’t always up for that. Some kids can’t get here earlier, for any number of reasons, so it's nice to have some time in the middle of the day to be able to connect. That was one of the primary things. Another thing is that you probably remember how many special schedules we had last year. I'm sure we’ll have some special schedules this year, but it cuts way down on that. Every time that we need to have an assembly, we have a built-in time now to be able to do that. We just didn’t have that before. That makes it a little easier. You’ve probably noticed that we’ve done a few surveys: the literacy screening, the reading comprehension screening, the Gallup Poll, et cetera. We are going to do the literacy screening at least one other time. It provides us time to be able to do those kinds of things, like school-wide administration of information or evaluations like that. The other thing is to have a time and space for PLP’s. We’ve done those four mornings in April over the last couple of years. Now, I was actually just sketching it out and coming up with dates. We’re going to try to get those eight hours in this year through Solon Block. A couple times per month; between now and the end of May. In preparation for exhibitions. We also can do a lot of offerings that we haven’t been able to do before. One of the offerings is the guidance counselors, who have been able to use Solon Block to do college planning. They used to have to go into English classes. When we do the youth-risk behavior survey, we will do it during Solon Block. I’ve been doing “Early Adopter” sessions for students that are interested in moving more quickly with their PLP’s. We’re just able to have more flexibility to do college reps. It’s all different kinds of things that we’re able to do. So, the goals are manyfold, but the primary one is access to more help if you need it. It’s a long answer, but it’s all relevant because we want teachers to be able to have a chance to do some pre-teaching for students that are struggling with material . . . It’s just increased flexibility to be able to connect with your teachers as students.

What was the most prominent inspiration behind Solon Block?

A lot of high schools in Vermont have moved to this kind of schedule over the last five years or so. I think that Colchester [High School] was one of the first high schools to do that, and [they] had a lot of success in creating that more academic support and being able to manage assemblies and special events more easily. So I saw it there, and I saw it in Enosburg, the place where I used to work, had gone to that with a lot of success. U-32 uses it. So we had a committee of teachers that visited those places and talked to teachers there to see what the pros and cons were before we made the decision. So, the primary inspiration was seeing it work in other places. Most high schools in Vermont now have something like it.

Without giving names and/or specifics, was there much reluctance when it came to the proposed adoption of Solon Block? (If so,) Why?

It is amazing that in all of the proposed changes I’ve been a part of or initiated, I’ve never had an initiative that had 100% of people that agree that we should do it, and this did. 100% of teachers thought that we should do this. There was discrepancy about how long it should be and what part of the day it should be. That took a while to build consensus. I think if you ask people today, some teachers would say, “Oh I wish it was a few minutes longer”; some teachers would say, “I wish it was a little shorter”; or that it was at a different time. But we put a lot of time into thinking pretty deeply and looking at it from a lot of different angles about what time of day it should be, how it should be connected to TA, or not, and how long it should be. We spent a lot of time looking through the daily schedule to have as minimal impact on course time as possible. It ends up just being a few minutes out of class per day. So, No, I guess, is the answer. I haven’t heard any real concerns from students. Sometimes kids maybe don’t like that they have to do their homework. “I want to go here, but I had to go there”, those kinds of things, but no major “this is terrible, we don’t like this”...nothing like that. I haven’t heard anything (in terms of complaints) from parents.

What percent of students do you think actually use Solon Block as a productive time to do work and/or get help from teachers?

That's a good question. I think we should survey them to find out; to see what kids think about how they use that time. When I walk around during Solon Block, and I haven’t done this in the last couple weeks because I’ve been running my own Solon Block workshops and things, it is mostly academic-like, with some kids clearly not [working]. But, I think that for a few kids that maybe don’t use their time very well, they end up getting pre-booked by teachers. If they’re behind on things, it shows up right away. So then they get pre-booked into spaces and teachers have the opportunity to say, “Hey, you might have been wasting time, but now you’re with me”. So, that is useful. There may be another group of kids that are really conscientious, and they’re so conscientious that they haven’t saved any work for Solon Block; they did it all the night before because they’re used to doing that (working) at night. I think that those students are starting to get into the rhythm of like, “Oh I need to hold off on some of this”. And, I think there is a group of kids that could use . . . we could use their help more. I would love for the mindset of students to not be, “I'm done...I'm done with everything”. Really? You’re done with learning? I don’t think so. You could do more, you could dig deeper in your studies, you could plan. If I have time to sit with that student, I can always find stuff that they haven’t thought of, or “well, you have a summative coming up, you should really prepare for it”. “Oh alright, alright...”, and they get their stuff out and start working on it. But I also would love for there to be more of a mindset in our student climate that is, “If I’m done with things, then there is an opportunity for me to help others”. The math rooms, for example, can’t keep up with the number of kids that are coming to their rooms for help. If there were three or four students that were really good tutors, and develop some good skills on how to help, in math, or science, or English, or whatever their strength was, then they would make a real difference for those other kids. I think it's hard for kids to get their mind around that because I think there is a leftover philosophy of competition at school, that “I need to do well and win, so that you don’t”. So that’s a mindset that we’re hoping will break down. When everyone in your class does well, that's actually good for you too. If the school does better, it’s good for everyone. Not to mention, it would be really great for that person that’s struggling to get that support. I would love to see students that are potentially wasting their time to dig into those things, and look past just what is due, or look past just themselves.

I recently overheard a teacher (in good spirit and humor) boasting that they had the most students in their room for Solon Block... Has this become a secret, underground competition? If so, where do you stand in all of this?

How do I rank? I think my TA likes to hang with me. I think that they like to check in. But my space is small, so I’m probably not going to do very well in the overall numbers. *Chuckles* I don’t know if it’s a competition among teachers. It might be. But I would just hope that it's a competition to see how many students they can help.

Thank you very much.

My pleasure. Thank you.

The Solon Spectrum gives an unofficial, yet nonetheless meaningful , Solon Salute to Mike McRaith for the time and effort he put into this interview process and for helping to get Solon Block up and running!