From the Magazine

Creative Classrooms with Raquel Solórzano

Her lessons start with a check-in form, which she has been using for a few years to determine how her students are doing. It’s not all about content knowledge, either. The form is something focused on the whole child. It asks students to rate how they slept the night before, how well they ate (if at all), how things are going outside of class, and then … and only then … leads into a content-based warmup. It says everything you need to know about how Raquel Solórzano thinks about education. 

“It’s a daily check-in for the kids that gives me an idea of where they’re at and how they’re doing. Typically, we will do some kind of reflection or connection to what we did the day or unit before,” Solórzano says. 

Solórzano is an award-winning educator, an Empowered Ambassador, a teacher-trainer, and a great follow on social. Her days are filled to the brim with work that fuels her passion for education, and she meets every hour with the same energy as the previous one. Raquel followed her brother, and fellow teacher, to join Empowered after she gave him a ride home from the airport following an Empowered event. He was energized and passionate about bringing his classroom into the real world with materials, strategies, and support. Not long after, Raquel had built her own classroom market, adopted the Foundational Principles, and reframed her teaching as the building of mindset. 

Let’s take a peek into the life of this West Coast teacher and her whole-child philosophy, and see what we can borrow for our own classrooms. 

From that ever-important check-in form, her students get started on their work, moving into their station rotation activities. Solórzano pairs Empowered activities with station teaching, allowing for students to get up and move, and offering a different learning experience each day. You’d instantly see how that approach informs her classroom design, which is devoid of typical desks altogether. Instead, she has ten tables, with four seats each, color coded, for easy grouping. Her seating is all on wheels, and easily repositioned for any activity she has planned for the day. Her classroom is built to replicate the real-world scenarios she creates each day. 

“It helps to be able to say ‘purple, you’re doing this today, and green, you’re doing this.’ Everything is on wheels, so we can move them around. We can push them together. I also have concrete right outside, so we can wheel them outside if we need more space for something,” Solórzano explains. 

The modular system means she can pivot between PBL, experiential learning, and some infrequent lecture-based teaching on the fly. Classroom currency keeps students engaged and energized in any station. And, in addition to the flexibility and interest that her highly adaptive seating arrangement provides, Solórzano’s classroom is also well -equipped to seamlessly integrate technology into her lessons. 

Just like the real world, she integrates technology into many components of instruction. She has AR and VR equipment for her students as well, allowing them to ‘travel’ to the places they are learning about. She even has a green screen for kids to use. 

“I think if you walked into my classroom on any given day, it might look chaotic, but it’s organized chaos. It gets loud, but, for the most part, we’re on task,” Solórzano shares. “There’s a lot going on!” 

Solórzano is a social science teacher, teaching 11th grade U.S. History and 11th grade AP U.S. History at Western High School in Anaheim, California, which is her alma mater. 

“I’m back at the high school that I attended as a student. That was my goal, I wanted to go back.” Solórzano explains. “[When I was a student there,] I had teachers who inspired me to be better and do better, but I also had some experiences where I wanted to improve the situation and make learning more accessible to all students rather than just some students.” 

And, that’s exactly what Solórzano does. Her lessons are expertly designed to be hands-on and accessible to kids. 

As a history teacher, she takes pride in helping kids draw associations between the past and present. One way she does this is by bringing current events into her lessons. This keeps things fresh and helps students make all-important connections to the content — keeping them relevant to their own lives and 

more memorable as a result. Using Empowered’s activities, Raquel builds market-driven scenarios as context for students to make sense of historical ideas and actions. 

“I like being able to help kids make connections between the past and the present. I don’t really teach history as singular events that happened and then we got here. I try to [make] comparisons along the way and bring in current events. These last couple of years have been great because so much has been happening in our world,” Solórzano notes. 

I think a real shift for me was letting go and not having so much control. For my first few years, I was probably really controlling in the classroom and it took some time and the building of confidence to let that go and let the kids dictate where the lessons and the vibe goes. 

Raquel Solózano

She’s an optimist and positive spirit in her classroom and cohort of teacher colleagues. Another way that Solórzano excels in engaging students in the learning process is by incorporating choice and voice into her classroom. It was Aerosmith lead singer Steven Tyler that famously said of his signature look, “It costs a whole lot to look this cheap.” Well, Solórzano has a similar attitude about her seemingly chaotic classroom. It takes enormous planning and resilience to allow for the flexibility she has in her courses. 

“I kind of just do what the kids want to do. That takes a lot of planning and flexibility, so sometimes I find myself re-doing lessons the night before because something we did that day took it in a different direction and I’ve got to adapt to it. I use more student choice and voice in my classroom,” Solórzano shared. Her approach of giving students ownership and control over their learning experience is an important piece of Empowered’s philosophy, but Raquel has been doing it for years. 

In addition to increasing student buy-in, incorporating student input in the classroom can empower teachers as well. Solórzano said that the feeling of empowerment in the classroom is truly the beauty of being a teacher. 

“It’s your classroom — you get to make the decisions and, for the most part, you get to do what you want to do with those kids,” Solórzano says. “That is a huge responsibility, but also part of what makes teaching feel like such an empowering profession, because you’re the one that is shaping the lessons and you’re the one that is shaping these kids.” 

Incorporating student choice and voice requires flexibility, and an unusual control-based catch-22. On the one hand, when you move to a student-centered learning model, you gain an enormous amount of control that you often forget you have as a core-subject teacher. On the other hand, you relinquish some of that control back to the kids. And it’s that relinquishing of control that Solórzano credits for her effectiveness. 

“I think a real shift for me was letting go and not having so much control. For my first few years, I was probably really controlling in the classroom and it took some time and the building of confidence to let that go and let the kids dictate where the lessons and the vibe goes,” Solórzano disclosed. “It’s hard to figure that out, but I think that’s what makes learning more impactful for the kids.” 

Solórzano has been recognized in many capacities as a teacher, including as Teacher of the Year in her school, state, and county, but it’s when the student shines that she feels she’s had the greatest achievements. 

“I think my greatest accomplishment is when the kids accomplish something,” Solórzano shared. 

“So, for example, I worked with a student. I met her freshman year though a Saturday Academy event. She was super shy, English was her second language, and she definitely put in the work to get where she wanted to be. She ended up taking AP U.S. History with me. Some kids naturally are AP kids and can just naturally do the work, but she was not one of those natural learners. She had to work for everything. She ended up passing the AP U.S. History test and getting scholarships to college. 

“Teaching is one of the best jobs in the world … I don’t think I’d be as happy doing something else.”

Raquel Solórzano

Those examples, I feel, are my greatest accomplishments. I’ve been very fortunate, I’ve been very blessed to be recognized in different areas as a teacher, but I think the student accomplishments, for me, stand out more than my own.” 

In addition to excelling in her role as a teacher, Solórzano serves as a coach for other teachers in her building, helping them to design and create lessons for the classes that are accessible for all students. 

During the time that she is released for coaching, she does a variety of different things — all with the goal of building lessons that are accessible for all students. Solórzano’s day-to-day tasks in this role vary, but the goal is always the same: to make high-quality teaching and learning more accessible. Some days she has meetings, other days she is out in classrooms helping teachers. As a coach, she spends time meeting with teachers one-on-one to go through lessons as well as develop resources for them. There is also a push-in model, in which Solórzano co-teaches with educators who are trying something new or is there to support those trying the latest technology in their lesson. 

Of course, this role, like nearly everything else in Solórzano’s teaching life, has shifted amid the pandemic, but she has still found ways to support teachers within her school and empower them to make their lessons increasingly accessible to learners, despite the challenges of virtual learning. 

“I’m trying to create things that are more generic for teachers to use,” 

Solórzano explains. “So rather than very specific lessons for this science teacher, I’m creating resources that anyone can use and just throw into their content area; more strategy-based than specific content-based.” 

Teaching-wise, Solórzano shares that “everything is different,” teaching in the virtual space, but she has found success in some of the strategies that she has used. 

“I definitely have built in more checks for understanding and have tried to make it a little bit more interactive. You know, use reactions, change your status, show me a picture — something. I’m using Nearpod and Peardeck a lot more than I would traditionally,” Solórzano said. 

Like the rest of us, Solórzano has noticed a disconnect with some of her students with distance learning, but she has been able to reconnect with some of her students by using the chat feature during Zoom lessons. 

“I’ve found success with just private messaging kids. Sending private messages on Zoom and saying ‘Can you check your chat?’ I think that makes kids feel a little more connected,” Solórzano explained. 

Also, as much as she can, she tries to say every kid’s name every period. She says that, in this educational environment, that this might be the only time a student hears their name during the course of a school day. Solórzano talks to her students as they join and leave her Zoom calls, taking any opportunity for a connection. 

She knows that there is mounting pressure to not let kids slip behind academically amid the pandemic, but she cautions that there are a lot of situations unfolding in the lives of students right now and encourages teachers to offer students space to breathe and share as much as possible. It’s more important to illustrate to students their ownership of education now than ever before. With the right incentives and valuable content, the kids will come to the table with what they want to get out of the experience. 

“Just let kids have a moment to breathe and space where they can share what’s going on in their world,” Solórzano said. “I know that there’s so much talk and concern about kids falling behind and not learning enough or not doing enough, but everyone’s in that situation, so just pausing and letting kids have that moment is super important right now.” 

As a current classroom teacher and coach, Solórzano tells teachers who are teaching amid the pandemic that it’s critical that teachers are here for each other right now. 

“As much as you can, don’t do it alone. Even if it’s meeting virtually to plan and prepare, share the burden. Don’t take it all on yourself, because it’s a lot,” Solórzano stated. “It’s draining to be teaching to a screen. It gets lonely. It can really wear on you, so, I think, as much as you can, reach out for help or to realize that you’re not alone and everybody is kind of experiencing the same things.” Raquel has been a vocal leader in the Empowered community, arranging local meet-ups, leading national events, and keeping conversation alive between teachers during trying times. 

In addition to being there for each other, Solórzano suggests getting through teaching in the pandemic by finding ways to celebrate the wins, no matter how small. 

“Whatever we can do, celebrate the small wins because they’re few and far between right now. Whether it’s with your kids or with your staff, celebrate the little things along the way,” Solórzano shared. 

Even with the challenges of teaching during the pandemic, Solórzano plans to stick around and work with kids for the long-haul. With Empowered supporting her, she is a changemaking force in education that cannot be stopped. 

“Teaching is one of the best jobs in the world. It’s probably one of the more stressful ones, but I don’t think I’d be as happy doing something else,” Solórzano said. 

Suzanne Williams is a high school teacher and publications director in Indiana. When she’s not teaching her students Journalism or Japanese, she’s reporting on education-related topics, crafting, longboarding or playing with her corgi.