Inspiring future community leaders through SOLE

You’d imagine trying to get 1,000 high school students engaged in the same activity at the same time would be challenge enough. But not for Jeff McCellan: he decided to add a little extra chaos to the mix by making it a SOLE (self organised learning environment) as well.

Jeff has been using SOLE in classrooms across the Cleveland region for over a year. When one of his funders said they were interested in exploring this pedagogical approach to engage large numbers of students around issues that matter in the community, he thought big.

So they set about the task of gathering 1,000 students from Cleveland and North East Ohio to focus on just one question: What is in your heart and mind about the ownership of power in your community? This question goes right to the heart of a community still reeling from a recent incident where 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot in a park by police in Cleveland.

In March 2016, 45 different schools came from 15 different districts, along with about 20 community members, including representatives from the mayor’s office, and took over an entire building on the Cuyahoga Community College Metro Campus.


After gathering everyone together in a lecture theatre and an auditorium to set the scene, they broke out into 37 different rooms where SOLEs happened simultaneously around the Big Question. The biggest room had 40 students; the smallest 20, so as you can imagine it was pretty lively! There was one SOLE facilitator in each room, as well as a high school student acting as a support facilitator.

“We were interested in hearing what students thought about where power lies within their communities,” explains Jeff. “One of the aims was to give them a question that would be open enough to give them the freedom to do that – we didn’t want to focus on a particular concern or point to a solution for them.

“There was no protocol forced on them to do anything and that’s the beauty of SOLE – it’s such an open process,” he adds. “You just take something that’s interesting to you and run with it.”

Jeff tried out a few different questions in classrooms beforehand with both children and adults before deciding on the final one.

There were huge variations in the students’ answers, which are currently being collated. Some showed a really creative approach to tackling the question by performing songs or poems to illustrate their research findings.


Dr James Stanfield, lecturer at SOLE Central, Newcastle University, UK was visiting SOLE Cleveland last week. “It was awesome! I was really impressed by the scale of the event and the enthusiasm the students showed for SOLE,” he says.  James is now working with SOLE Cleveland to develop a number of joint research proposals that will help to build upon the great work being carried out here.

One of the key strengths of bringing so many students from diverse backgrounds together in a SOLE in this way was to give them the chance to hear other people’s views. “It’s one thing tackling a question like this in your classroom with everyone from the same neighbourhood but a very different experience if you’re all mixed in together with one kid from a very rural area sitting next to someone from the biggest urban centre in our state,” says Jeff. “People’s perspectives vary greatly, and that’s what makes for interesting discussions.

“We wanted to set the bar high for these kids so they want to be more involved in their communities. Hopefully, it will inspire some of those students to take a more active role.”

Some of the teachers and students had already done SOLEs in their schools, others had never even heard of it before. “Imagine walking into a building where in every classroom you looked in, there was a SOLE going on! It was so much fun,” says Jeff. “It was amazing and I’m really happy with how it went – we’re now planning a whole series of them. There’s a lot of great questions out there that we need to engage kids around.”


SOLE Cleveland partnered with the Northeast Ohio Medical University’s (NEOMED) Health Professions Affinity Community (HPAC), supported by AmeriCorps, to reach students from extremely remote rural communities to the most urban places in Ohio. Staff helped to reach out to these schools and facilitate the SOLEs and will now work on evaluating the impact on the students and community.