Further experiments with SOLO and creativity: the honey lesson

Ok, so the next creative lesson aimed to cover similar ground to the last one – unseen poem, creative poem, SOLO levels – but with a slightly different group. Half the students had not been there for the shell lesson – for the most part, the less able/confident half. They needed to catch up, and I wanted them to have a go at something different at the end of term, too.

Clear cups, jars, plastic tubs, plastic spoons, two jars of honey. And amazingly, no accidents.

So – I paired the two halves together; I instructed the people who had been in the shell lesson to make sure the new person they partnered was following the work, although obviously I circulated and supported too. And out came the honey…..

We spent some time investigating it: the lava-slow pace, the tiny bubbles, the light and scent. Mercifully it didn’t become a whole-body experience.

The rest of the lesson followed a similar shape to the shell one: A Jar of Honey The students who had written shell poems were effective learning partners, guiding the others though the SOLO stages we had identified.

Two students had difficulty with the extended-abstract idea of the honey being symbolic, a metaphor; this took at bit of extra individual teaching.



They produced some amazing poems (again, an Edmodo homework task.) The timing was ambitious and we didn’t have enough left to spend much on Jacob Polley’s poem in the plenary. I will come back to this in September, and keep practising – little and often – tackling an unseen poem or two when time permits. Instead, as homework I asked the students for short commentaries on their own poems, for a final display. If they can use this approach as successfully for unlocking someone else’s work –  sweet.


































Note to self: must go over alliteration again 🙂
Further examples: a_jar_of_honey_  honey 2 honey 3





Experiments with SOLO part two: creativity and poetry

At the 2012 NATE conference, held in lovely York, I attended a  brilliant action research session in which two projects were outlined and discussed,  by Helen Lines of Exeter University, and by Karen Lockney from the University of Cumbria. Both stimulated tons of ideas, but I was particularly triggered by Karen’s project report,  Writing the Unseen Poem: can writing poetry help pupils become better readers of poetry?

This addresses the gap in confidence, noted by AQA, The Motion Report and OfSTED (see presentation above),  which pupils seem to experience when approaching the  ‘unseen poem’. They often tackle poetry through ‘naming of parts’: they have internalised that writing about techniques is  important and that they can achieve reasonable success when this is linked to meanings they have learned in the classroom (perhaps rather than discovered or explored by themselves). But reasonable success doesn’t access the higher mark bands, where more original exploration of meaning and effect is needed. And, anyway, is this really what poetry is about? Where has the interest, curiosity, CREATIVITY gone? How can we encourage all students to see poetry as condensed, crystalised ideas, patterns, messages?

One answer is to make them poets. Karen Lockley’s project involves a combination of  creative writing and modelled questioning which really appealed to me. The components might not be new in themselves, but the way of using them within the constricted GCSE course seemed simple and brilliant. The work she described was undertaken with a y10 class whose achievement was on the C/D borderline.

In essence, the students were encouraged to write using real stimuli, ones brought in by the teacher and then by students. They also listened to the teacher reading a poem of her own, and to her being questioned in role as poet by another teacher, thus modelling an interrogative process which could reveal layers of meaning and something of the thought processes of the poet. The students annotated the poem based on what they’d heard. They wrote pieces themselves, questioned each other, annotated each others’ work. It aimed for a shift in perception for many students: that poems are messages, have things to say, are more than 3 metaphors, a simile, some enjambment and maybe a dash of alliteration for the hell of it.

A SOLO light went on in my brain. The noting of ideas and techniques in a poem might enable a student to attain a multistructural or even relational stage in the taxonomy; the leaping-off into deeper meanings, making other connections, including a deeper consideration of context surely reach extended-abstract. (Obviously, with an unseen poem the contextual awareness is missing, but with a greater confidence in writing about writing poetry, students can at least grapple with deeper meanings.)


So, welcome back to the y10, most of whom we met last post, plus a collection of shells. The class members are targeting A/B grades.

(Thanks and apologies to Karen Lockney here: I hope I have represented her ideas faithfully!)


I began by giving each pair a shell, and asking them, cold, to ‘write a poem’. Unsurprisingly they stalled and talked, and played for time – after 3 minutes only two had begun. Why was it so hard?

I questioned them about this; they confronted the difficulty of starting and ‘having an idea’.  I told them that in the blue folders on their tables were some sheets which might help. These had the SOLO headings on (see ppt How effectively can we use our creative imaginations) and we worked out a way of equating the stages of thinking with those which might be adopted in a creative writing process:

Unistructural                     being aware of one idea – had to write about a shell!

Multistructural                  collecting vocabulary choices in a word box* by looking at/listening to/feeling (etc) the shell.

Relational                            using poetic techniques – linking ideas, eg similes – I didn’t dwell on this as I wanted them to focus on meaning behind technique.

extended/abstract          deeper significance – using the shell to represent something else


*The word box isa technique I often use to kick-start creativity. It’s just a box you draw, and fill with random ideas and vocabulary that you think might work well to describe something. It does make them upgrade their word choices.

When we looked at deeper meanings, it was quite quick to refer back the work we had done recently on Ozymandias: was Shelley really talking  about the arrogance of along-dead pharaoh, or did his poem have a different, hidden, political reference? We linked this idea of deeper significance to extended-abstract.

They worked on the poems again, and were quite excitable, some almost competing for their peers’ attention as they tried out ideas. This is a mini-plenary, when they were thinking what their shell could represent:

a scribbled feedback of representational ideas! – extended-abstract

The students also checked out the criteria as another mini-plenary, picking out the key words which linked to the Key Question (L.O.)  to see how their learning linked to the exam requirements. Copies of this sheet were in their folders: Unseen poem + creativity

Then I took the plunge and read my own poem with them. My subject leader was observing this lesson as part of our coaching programme: we were focusing on various aspects of improving KS4 attainment. I had forewarned her that she would have a role to play, but not let her see the poem, so the questioning (as Karen Lockney had set up) was genuine. The students annotated their own copies of my poem with ideas of what I was trying to say:Weathered shell.

(I leave you to think about what my hidden meanings were – feel free to have a go for ‘Unseen’ practice!!)

Having modelled how to interrogate/explain meanings, I asked them to do the same in pairs about each others’ work (see ppt above) and as a plenary they wrote answers to two questions on the ‘exit’ post-its provided. Some egs:

1.How does writing poetry help us to understand it?
2.What do you think would be your next step?
Some answers:
‘1. Writing poetry gets us in the frame of mind of a poet, eg imaginative. You can see relational parts of a poem.
2. Every lesson look at a new poet, to get to at least relational by the end of then lesson’
‘1. Writing poetry helps us to understand it because it helps us to create a deeper meaning within the poem.
2. My next step would be to look at more poems and try to find an extended-abstract meaning in them.’
‘1. Allows us to understand how writers use metaphors and hidden meanings to portray their theme.
2. Highlight words which you feel have hidden meaning.’
The lesson was really successful, although quite ‘full’. Ideally, this work would have taken two lessons, and the creative process developed more organically,  but the group was a temporary mixture of elements of two classes, joined up because their classmates were completing CAs, and this was our last lesson together. The students were asked to complete their poems and upload them to edmodo for me to comment on them. Examples which show the leap through the SOLO levels are here: shell eg shell eg2 the_shell_eg3 shell_eg 4. Fantastic stuff. My subject leader loved it too. But was it a one-off? And how would I ‘catch up’ the rest of the class who hadn’t been there?
Next step – getting really sticky…..Honey and Creativity




How An Old Dog Learned New Tricks

Preamble: upgrading my teaching with webtools and Twitter

It all started with a short project run in conjunction with the University of York PGCE, aimed at encouraging trainee teachers to observe the use of web 2 tools in school, and requiring them to design some lessons using new zappy ways to make teaching more engaging and interactive.

Nick Jackson, aka @largerama, and our Digital Leaders @fulfordDLs shared ideas and a slow burn ensued. At first, it seemed to some trainees to be another Thing We Have To Evidence. Blogging about it seemed a cheeky requirement on top of applying for jobs, marking, and preparing for the dreaded Assignments.

Obviously, pour encourager les autres, I had to have a go. As I said in my subsequent presentation to my department, I am A Teacher From Another Age, but if I could manage Facebook, my kindle and my Samsung Galaxy SII, how hard could it be?

JillLavs: A Teacher From Another Age?

Anyway, the web 2 tools were just the start. Alongside those came Twitter: one of my A level students was examining cohesion in twitter threads, so I had to get involved, or how could I advise/assess EngB3 properly?

So @JillLavs was born. Things were speeding up. I followed news sites first. I checked out friends, who mostly had accounts they didn’t use. I was delighted by satirical comedians. Then I discovered other teachers. Oh…..right. I get it.

And so to warp speed. Things I wanted to try out were leapfrogging each other and piling up in my planner, and I babbled manically at colleagues in the corridor, eager to try a new project every week. (The trainees, by the way, did great things, and have reflectively blogged ages before I have.)

And it proved contagious: one, two, five of us began to tweet. In the middle of a different research project (Grammar For Writing, with Exeter University) whilst looking at compound nouns with year 8, we began to play with portmanteaux terms – a habit which truly got out of hand as we began to collect them for a language display. But it was when we were tweeting about slackademics, floordrobes, and speaking sloaneois (cf Made in Chelsea) that we also found out about SOLO, each of us in splendidly appropriate isolation, but synchronously, as it were. Within a week it was on the agenda for a department meeting. Five of us decided to try it out in different lessons.

So I’m going to stop here and tell you, in time honoured tradition, about How I Went Solo.

It seemed sensible not to oversell it: sometimes nothing sets you up for student disdain like overenthusiasm. Instead, I introduced the SOLO taxonomy with minimum ‘ta-dah’ factor, and in quite a traditional (lamentably non-flipped!) style.

I was returning to Anthology Character and Voice poems, and looking at Simon Armitage’s ‘Give’ with a fairly able 10 class.

I had SOLO taxonomy terms on the board, but didn’t attempt to explain them. I told them we were going to study the poem, and mentioned in an offhand manner that at the moment, they were at the pre-structural stage – apart from a boy who had come from another group and had already looked at the poem, who had perhaps reached the uni-structural or even multistructural stage. The class were good-naturedly curious, and the boy in question pleased (although not quite sure why!)

Firstly we had looked at images of people begging, and discussed our responses. They peddled the usual tedious nonsense that really, people who beg are SECRETLY RICH (what – so they beg in their spare time?) and I made them back into softies by showing them the Power of Words you tube clip with the blind beggar.

We did some original writing from the points of view of imagined beggars and imagined givers/passers -by.

Finally we read the poem and they noted at least one idea they thought it was about. At the end of the lesson, I asked a number of them what ideas they had about the poem now, and linked their answers to the taxonomy: they quickly clicked about one idea/several, but ideas unconnected.

I asked them to re-read Give for homework, and to use wallwisher to ask a question about it. The questions (most of them) are here:
1. Is there anything significant about the structure of the poem?
2. What was the inspiration for the poem?
3. When was the poem written?
4. Why was the writer inspired to write this poem?
5. When was this poem written and what is the deeper meaning of the last stanza?
6. Does the poem relate to Simon Armitage?
7. Why is there a reference to the nativity in the 3rd verse? What is it meant to represent?
8. In the tenth line, it talks about “change” does this just mean money or does it have a deeper meaning of change?
9. What message is Simon Armitage trying to convey in his poem?
10. Did the writer of the poem intend to make the audience think that the character was male?
11. Who is the writer referring to when saying “dear” and “I’ve chosen yours”?
12. Through the poem, is Simon Armitage telling the reader about someone that he knows?
13. whose perspective has the poem been written in?
14. In the 3rd stanza it talks about change and then coppers and locks and change. Is this talking about money or prison?
15. why did Simon Armitage choose to write about identity and why does he include lots of rhymes, repetition and alliteration in his poem?
16. what is the message that Simon Armitage is trying to show to his audience?
17. does the poem relate to anything that happened in Simon Armitage own life?
18. You say ‘for coppers I can dance or sing’…. but are you any good????
19. Are the references to the nativity intentional?
20. why did he want to write about somebody on the street?
21. Does the poem give an opinionated attitude towards people on the street?

Before the lesson I had collected and pasted their questions onto A5 sheets, which I handed out. They considered the range of these, and grouped them, before embarking on a group activity from the AQA support materials. Each group investigated, in pairs, an aspect of the poem. Having fed back, and annotated the poem together, we went back to the poem to think about the questions we had and hadn’t answered. The students reckoned that all of the questions seemed to have been covered except for Does the poem relate to Simon Armitage?

A good question indeed!

The next lesson I introduced them more formally to the SOLO taxonomy. This is something I came back to over several lessons, playing matching games and other activities until they were comfortable using the terminology. For this I thank LisaJane Ashes, David Didau and a host of other SOLO practitioners whose work is brilliantly exemplified and discussed on Twitter.

I gave the students the two pages of information about Armitage from the AQA Anthology teaching materials, and asked them in pairs to highlight anything they thought was relevant to our new question.

We compared points and ideas, and the students liked the way they were encouraged to be creative in their thinking. They were aware that they were mostly already at a multistructural stage, having gathered a lot of ideas, but struggling to link them. Here’s where the hexagons came in: the students then transferred their points and ideas onto paper hexagons; they then had to link them in order to try to form a diagrammatic plan for an answer to the question ‘Does Armitage’s poem link to his life? How?’ I asked them to choose a point which they considered the key idea for starting.

An able but quite ‘reliant’ class, they like reassurance and having the ‘right answer.’ It was therefore magical to see them make this leap quite happily and with certainty, discussing how their ideas linked together. Only one pair made a kind of linear arrangement; the rest made ‘essay patterns’ all of their own:

I asked them to save these patterns by sticking them into their books.


The following lesson they wrote their answers as short essays. This was followed by some peer assessment: I asked them to write on post-its what stage of the SOLO taxonomy was reflected in their partner’s work, and why. They used numbers to represent stages; some also wanted to give a suggested of a grade (this wasn’t my idea – I am aware of the debates about linking stages to grades!) I permitted this, with some misgivings but to preserve their interest and idea of tracking progress) :


As an extra plenary, I asked them to give me some feedback about the task: what did they think about using hexagons and SOLO so far?

Two answers burst forth, both from boys:

‘I like these better than PEE paragraphs [he hesitated here] well, we still need PEE paragraphs, with quotes, but I used to write mine in any old order, but now I can see a bit more how to link them up.’

‘Well, Miss, I think you made a mistake. You made us stick the hexagons down, and then halfway through writing my essay I realised the order of my points was wrong – if they had been ‘loose’ I could have reorganised them and worked out a better sequence.’

Hmmm – good point well made!

The most surprising and gratifying part of the exercise was the certainty with which the students embraced the SOLO levels: most of them felt that their understanding was relational, and one or two had made their own leaps of understanding to achieve a really extended-abstract point. There is still work to do, and their mastery of structure and expression is by no means complete, but I felt they now had a tool by which to measure it, and a good idea of how to progress.

Next – part two: creativity, writing poetry, and SOLO…