STARTSOLE helps transform education through SOLE (Self-Organized Learning Environments). SOLE focuses on the process of learning itself instead of simply focusing on the results. It helps prepare students for success in today’s era of technology and information. SOLE provides an early intervention in education that can level the academic playing field and increase equity among all students.
My Experience with SOLE
I’m going to be very honest--if anyone other than Jeff McClellan had presented about SOLE the first time I saw it, I would have never tried it.
Working in a CMSD Innovation school, I felt like we got a training every other week about some incredible educational program that was going to revolutionize our classroom. I had tried a few when I was a fresh-faced first year teacher, and quickly realized most of them were terrible-- a waste of time and energy, draining class time away that I could never recoup. Plus I was a Teach for America member, and so I was already inundated with teaching methods and programs to help me be a more effective, more innovative educator, and adding any more to the list just seemed like effort that I wasn’t willing to expend. I was, like most teachers, almost perpetually exhausted, and not very open to new things with very little guarantee.
But Jeff was our former head of school, and our current one, Feowyn (Fe) MacKinnon Marshment, seemed on board with the program too. Neither had ever led me astray when it came to my classroom, and, unlike most other programs, it was only a one day commitment. So I figured I’d try it, and if I hated it then I’d only lost one day. Plus, Fe had always been very supportive of anything I wanted to try out in the school, so it only seemed fair that I try out a program she was excited about.
My first SOLE wasn’t great. My question wasn’t the most exciting, and I mismanaged my time, so presentations were rushed. I wasn’t exactly thrilled, but I wanted to give the program a fair shot, since most of the problems were my own fault the first time around. The second time, I asked for feedback on the question from both Fe and students, and together we came up with one I was pretty excited about. One week later, I tried SOLE again.
They weren’t the best presentations that my class had ever prepared. But students were excited, and everyone was actively engaged in the process. Students who often refused to present got up and shared their information, and a lot of them had really interesting insights that I hadn’t even thought about. The room was a little hectic, but I saw the value that SOLE could add to my class.
So I started using SOLEs once a week-- SOLE Friday, or SOLE Monday typically. Like most things, students got better at them the more they did them, and I was continually impressed with the work they did. Not every SOLE was amazing (I’d challenge anything that works perfectly every single time, especially when kids are involved), but at the end of a lackluster one we’d discuss as a class what went wrong that week. After a quarter of using SOLEs weekly, I was amazed at the difference in my class.
Presentation skills were incredibly improved. Non-reliable sources were almost never used, as students were quick to call each other out if they tried to use something questionable. Students were working well in groups, without one person taking over completely. Plus, they were making deeper connections organically, and continually thinking about them when they were in my class--the argument on whether WWI could have been prevented (a SOLE Monday question) lasted for over a week, in side conversations, in the halls, popping up again in my classroom.
I saw pretty quickly how well it worked in a humanities class. But then I saw how a colleague was using it with great success in Biology. And how a friend was using it in another school to teach Kindergarten. I’ve yet to see a classroom, traditional or nontraditional, that didn’t benefit from the regular inclusion of SOLE.
So when I tell my teacher friends about it, or I give a training on SOLE, and I see people roll their eyes and sigh, I get it. I understand how overwhelmed teachers are. But the difference it made in my classroom, coupled with how little work the teacher has to put into planning, makes it one of the best programs I’ve ever used, and I want to encourage every teacher to give it a shot. There’s very little to lose, and a whole lot your classroom could gain.
I did a lot of SOLEs in my classroom. The overwhelming majority were very successful--students were engaged, their presentations were interesting, and I walked away feeling great about our progress. That was the majority, meaning that there were some SOLEs (albeit a very small minority) that I walked away from feeling stressed and defeated-- students didn’t enjoy it or were off task the whole time, or the presentations were far below expectations. It happens. It happened to me more than once. However, there are steps you can take to minimize this, and I encourage you to not let one bad SOLE session ruin a great tool for you.
I did find that the easiest way to avoid having a bad SOLE session was to have a great question, ideally one that the students had a hand in creating. By completing this step, students have an automatic buy-in into the process, and the question is more likely to be directly aligned with their interests. This helps raise the engagement level and typically the creati…
If you read these blogs regularly, you probably know by now that not every SOLE goes perfectly. To some, they assume that means that SOLE is ineffective, and they are no longer interested in using it. However, I’d argue that nothing goes right 100% of the time, and honestly if something does it’s probably not truly challenging your students. In addition, I’d challenge them to think about anything in life that goes well 100% of the time. I’ve made my mom’s recipe for brownies probably a hundred times in my lifetime, but that didn’t stop me from forgetting to add flour once. Failure is a part of life-- it’s what we do with failure that matters.
But what do we do with failure? Typically, we don’t sit around and bemoan it (at least not for very long). The key thing to do is figure out what happened, and the easiest way to do that is a simple reflection. Walking through your steps, wondering what happened, trying to pin down exactly what went wrong. As teachers, it’s usually pretty easy t…
In my experience, a teacher’s biggest concern about SOLE is that they don’t understand their part of it. And it’s true: SOLEs are very student-driven, and teachers often take a step back. Several times when teachers watched me facilitate a SOLE in my own classroom, they asked: “But...what do you do?” In my classroom, where the expectations for SOLE were laid out and students were very used to the process, there were long stretches of time where I was walking around and appeared to do nothing. This is intentional! In reality, I was taking a step back--monitoring, but letting students succeed without me. However, there’s a huge difference between “taking a step back” and “leaving the school and driving home.” A SOLE can’t function without a teacher-- the teacher might just be in a little different role than normal.
Students are still students and need guidance. That begins with your big question. Your big question can be generated by students, but obviously, they are vetted by teachers…