Sunday, 11 November 2012

My adventures on the Millennium Falcon with Han Solo

This isn’t going to be one of those blogs where somebody explains what ‘SOLO Taxonomy’ is. There are much better places and books for that. This is about my reflections on using SOLO in the classroom. Now, I am like most people, when something is introduced. “It’s called ‘fire’, you say?” I stare perturbed at the stick aflame with this magical red and yellow stuff: “Are you sure it isn’t the work of the Devil? ”

I have been there and got the t-shirt for a lot of new things introduced in teaching. There rarely is a month go by when something new is introduced or dragged back from the murky depth of the past. Originally, SOLO Taxonomy seemed to have been one of these things and has been mentioned as the new best thing. Thankfully, it is not.

I took me a good few weeks to get my head around the concept. Sadly, I had no Obi Wan Kenobi or Yoda to guide me in the ways of SOLO. Like most new things, they have to trickle through your brain like coffee through a percolator. It takes time. It needs to find links, connections and infuse the original thought with some new ones along the way. Finally, you have a brewed piece of thought that will be a good kick-start to any lesson. I finally attempted it and failed, and then tried it again. Here are some of the things I experimented with:

I love poetry, but I am a bit uneasy about the idea of examining a student’s response to an unseen poem in an exam. Poetry can be a bit like art. You sometimes get it. You sometimes don’t. Sometimes you love it. Sometimes you hate it.  Usually, in art galleries there is lots of standing around looking at it and just thinking about the art and what the artist is commenting on. It is a complex thing. Sadly, we don’t seem to build this thinking and reflecting stage that art needs.  Some of the best discussions about a play have been on the way back from the theatre, or after watching a film. We, my friends, argued and disagreed for ages, but it was a whole lot of reflection that helped us to understand, or not, a text.  How can we expect a student to understand a poem in 5-10 minutes?

Therefore, I have always struggled with the idea of getting students to write about a poem they have never seen before.  Bill, you have 10 minutes to read the poem and then plan what you are going to say. What crazy stuff! Poetry needs time to be appreciated, to breathe, and to be understood and 10 minutes in not enough. Anyway, back to SOLO: 

I decided to use SOLO as a way to approach unseen poetry. I read up on stuff and I spent a week thinking about what to do. This is what I came up with.

STAGE 1: Pre-structural or ‘I haven’t a clue?’
I gave the students the following questions:

What impressions of old people does James Berry show us in the poem?

How does he create those impressions?

Any ideas, folks? A tumbleweed spun its way across the classroom and a church bell started ringing outside.

STAGE 2: Uni-structural or ‘I might have an idea’
I then gave students an A3 sheet of a small poem. It was copied four times on the sheet and that was important to the lesson. The poem ‘Seeing Granny’ by James Berry (I would provide a copy of the poem here, but I haven't got one to hand) is great for this as it is so short, yet very effective. We came up with some ideas in response to the question.

The students read the poem and came up with some initial ideas. This was written up on the board.

STAGE 3: Multi-structural or ‘I have got a few ideas on this topic’   

The next stage was staggered. The students were told to imagine that looking at a poem involves some x-raying, looking deeper into the text than you would normally do. I introduced the idea that you need to look at the poem on different settings and different levels of intensity.  It is probably best to demonstrate the different levels of intensity.

X-RAY 1 - LAYER 1: Looking at how the poem is written

·What do you notice about how it is written?

·What is the most effective word?

·What patterns do you notice in the words?

·What is repeated?

·How is it presented on the page?


 X-RAY 2 - LAYER 2: Looking at how we react towards the poem

·What feelings do you have when you read the poem?

·Where in the poem do your feelings change?

·Do your feelings differ at the start and end of the poem?

·What questions does the poem raise?


X-RAY 3 - LAYER 3: Surface Meaning 

·What is the poem about?

·Who is speaking?

·What different ideas does the voice have of the subject?



X-RAY 4 - LAYER 4: Deeper Meaning

·What is the poem teaching us?

·What is the writer try to get us to see / understand / realise?

Each stage was timed to about 5 minutes. Each group took the poem and highlighted a copy of the poem based on the level of x-raying. After each five minutes, the groups would feedback what they noticed.  I would mark things down on the whiteboard. None of the discussions were focused on developing and extending ideas. All discussion was based on what we found or thought.

Halfway through the lesson, students had four copies of the poem with four different sets of annotation for each one. Now, I decided on the above order of things because I wanted to draw out the initial things students see or notice about a poem. I feel that sometimes these are lost if we go straight to the jugular – the meaning of the poem. Everything becomes clouded and linked to the meaning. Students forget that they ‘disliked’ the opening or how the word ‘she’ is repeated all the time. I found that this way allowed students to make their own opinion about a poem before the teacher appeared and informed them of the 'correct' view. Everybody explored the poem rather than just a select few.

STAGE 4: Relational or ‘look how these link together’
We then talked about some of the ideas in the poem. We would talk about ideas we had noticed in the text. At this stage, some students would progress automatically to the next few stages.  However, to make this more effective, I dragged out the hexagons. I’ve tried this with two ways since and both work. One way is to have students write down ideas on separate hexagons and try to link them that way. Another way is to have an A3 sheet with a grid of hexagons and students start with one hexagon. They write an idea found during the x-raying. Then, in the next hexagon they write a different point from a different aspect or x-ray. They would continue this until the grid was finished. Both ways produced similar results in that students were able to make connections.

There were some excellent connections between the use of the pronoun 'she' to the general embarrassment of the granny kissing them. Because they are embarrassed by her, they dare not mention her name as the poem does.


STAGE 5: Extended abstract or  ‘the penny drops’
Finally, we returned back to the questions and then answered them either as a class on the board, or in their exercise books. Before doing that, the students evaluated which idea would be the best for answering the question.

And finally 

Now, I found using SOLO in this very effective in terms of lesson planning, and, obviously, students identifying how the learning is happening in the classroom. I have always had issues with the idea of a ‘three-part lesson’ as it doesn’t reflect an average lesson for me. A normal lesson might consist of: a puzzle or question as students come in; objectives; starter; explanation; task; plenary; feedback; task to develop and extend learning from the first task; plenary; tidy up; plenary as they leave.  Your average teacher would laugh in the face of a ‘three-part lesson’ as you cannot simplify the process of teaching in such a reductive way. I have three parts to gluing: give the glue stick out; students glue work in; collect glue sticks in. I think SOLO Taxonomy is a great tool for planning and structuring a lesson, as it helps you to plan the different stages of learning. It is like the American TV’s idea of a ‘story arc’. Each part or episode connects to the big baddie at the end of the story – the learning.

I have often used Bloom’s Taxonomy in the same way. You start with easy questions in the start and then end with the difficult question. This stacking up of the building progression has helped me in several lessons. I have found structuring a lesson around Bloom’s Taxonomy particularly useful with looking at non-fiction texts. 

A typical Bloom’s structured lesson might go something like this:

Starter: Find three facts and three opinions from an article.

Task 1: Compare those facts and opinions to three from another article. How are they different?

Task 2: Explain which article has the most effective facts and opinions.

Task 3: Create three new facts and opinions to go into the original article. However, they must change the desired effect of the original facts or opinions. For example: shock changed to sympathy.

Plenary: Create three new facts and opinions for an imaginary text. For example: a persuasive leaflet for the Society of Less Homework.   

Obviously, there would be a lot more fluff, I mean teaching, going on between these, but often I would structure tasks around good old Bloom’s Taxonomy. The level of challenge would increase as the lesson went on and I would be able to take into account ‘the zone of proximal difference’ within the lesson. Plus, it meant that I would always have an easy and engaging start to the lesson. Bloom’s Taxonomy has its flaws and it has some drawbacks, but I have found it quite helpful in organising the tasks or the learning in a lesson.  

Since using SOLO with poetry, I have applied it to ‘Of Mice and Men’ and produced some great results. The level of understanding is vastly improved through the use of SOLO. Before, I would be waiting for the penny to drop and students see a pattern or connection. This way there is a greater chance of the penny to drop and students can see how they are learning things.

Finally, the saddest thing is I sold all my Star Wars figures, including the Millennium Falcon, for 50p each. If only, in my teenage years, I had progressed to the Extended Abstract stage. I might have realised the bigger significance of these small figures and my personal favourite Han Solo.  

Thanks for reading and a bit thanks to Twitterville for directing me and introducing SOLO to me,


P.S. I was going to call this blog ‘SOLO Love’, but then I realised the implications of a title like that as I imagine the 'extended abstract' thinkers will have done as well.

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