Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Travelling SOLO. Part One - Planning Writing

Recently, educational life on twitter has been reinvigorated by two things. One was the belated discovery of a chapter of English teachers (suggestions for more creative collective nouns for us - a bore, a metaphor, a pretension perhaps?) and the other was my happening upon SOLO taxonomy. I'm sure many of you reading this will be familiar with SOLO - if not, here is a blog I sent my department explaining the generalities of this potentially excellent tool.

Since then, I've gone in deep. My experiments have covered the three strands of English. In this blog, my application of SOLO to mock GCSE CA will be the focus.

Some context. My year 9 second set ended KS3 ranging from 5c to 6c. They'll all be expected to attain C or above, and, based on some of the great progress they've made this year, I'd hope some can attain the highest grades. They're a cracking set of kids, with a lot of personality and a lot of potential.

One problem I see too often is when a student who can attain a C, intellectually, begins GCSE English with insecure skills, which don't match their potential; it can be incredibly frustrating and demotivating for them to feel they are constantly underachieving. This year, I'm ending year 9 with a range of mock KS4 assessments - these will provide myself and my KS4 manager (I'm very lucky to have two extremely capable key stage managers who manage their areas skillfully while I attempt to lead the department to the promised land of outstandingness!) with accurate data with which we can plan a range of early intervention strategies. This wasn't the class's first lesson using SOLO - they had already used it to research the pros and cons of the fascist monarchical system for a debate.

That's the context. Beware. I may ramble. This is what happens when a frustrated novelist hits a keyboard.

After reading up on SOLO, I made myself some hexagons and headed to the classroom. My intention was that the class would complete a Me, Myself and I style piece, introduced, prepared and produced in 6 lessons. We began by identifying the key elements of informative, personal writing, looking at some examples from minor celebrities and politicians, as well as previous attempts by pupils. After completing these tasks and identifying the main features, we moved onto the planning stage, which is where I had planned for SOLO to take centre stage. In hindsight, SOLO could have played a role here, in order to develop extended ideas about the key features, so that all pupils had a greater understanding of genre and purpose.

The planning stage was enlightening. The pupils were predominantly level 5. Their writing often lacked a sophistication of structure, with plodding narrative and the more obvious shaping of texts predominating.

SOLO changed this. Using hexagons, they generated as many ideas as they could about their chosen event or individual. One recurring issue that SOLO couldn't help me with was two boys who were unable to develop an idea. Eventually, I changed their task to a narrative piece, so I could at least get an idea of where they stood in terms of GCSE bands.

So far, so normal. Pupils always brainstorm before writing, usually turning it into a plan which the more able structure interestingly, and the rest write in the order they thought of it.

This time, the relational thinking kicked in, and all that changed. I watched as a series of complex shapes and patterns appeared on their cleared desks. Extended abstract thinking happened, as extra hexagons were grabbed to add an extra detail that the learners felt would hold their piece together. For pupils at this stage of their education, it was great to see. They were really thinking deeply about their structure and their ideas.

Next, they paired up and went over each others plans. They suggested ways to improve them, and, in some cases, fresh ideas occurred. This was, I felt, down to the clarity of the thinking. The plans were then added to, whether it was extra detail or new links. I resolved not to look too closely at the plans, or the work until it was completed.

Marking was, for once, hugely anticipated! I was keen to see what they had produced. Pleasingly, progress appeared to be superb. Much of the work was equal to the predicted GCSE grades of C or B, with some attaining above - especially those who have the lower predicted grades. They've worked hard this year to secure their sentence structure and paragraphing skills, and this new input to their planning and thinking skills seemed to have secured this.

Ambitious overall structures were attempted, and attempted much more successfully. A few went for a more sophisticated structure, and didn't quite make the whole thing stick, but their grades for content and organisation were higher that if simple structures had been used. Where it worked, their personality and other writing skills shone through. None of them forgot to use paragraphs - there's usually a couple!

Within the texts, the links and thematic ideas that they'd noticed in their planning shone through. It didn't read like C/D borderline work.

Pupil feedback was overwhelmingly positive; they love SOLO. Comments focused on how they liked the way it allowed them to see their ideas, and the links between them, in new depth and detail. This was certainly reflected in the confidence with which they structured their writing.

In reflection, I'd change a few things next time. Possibly, I'll get them to have concepts for their writing on the hexagons, and then add detail as they start to move them about. This might make the extended abstract ideas more organic. However, I'll certainly be using SOLO to plan writing with all my groups in future, as the level of sophistication in writing can help all students. Next time I have a writing task for lower attaining groups, who struggle to become multistructural, I'll definitely use SOLO to simply help them in generating ideas.

Next time I get time, I'll try to reflect on using SOLO to research Blake's life, predict the content of his poetry, and then compare the Chimney Sweepers for Innocence and Experience!