SOLE gives peace a chance

When Sugata Mitra first muted the idea of the School in the Cloud, his dream was a place where children could go on intellectual adventures together.

But in Colombia, it’s not just children that are doing it – whole communities are embracing self organised learning environments (SOLE) to help them find answers to their own Big Questions.

As SOLE Colombia’s director, Sanjay Fernandes, explains, his organisation’s work to expand SOLE across the country has led to amazing outcomes they never envisaged three years ago. It’s also put them in an unique position to help advise on the peace process, which we’ll get to shortly!

“People in rural communities have their own Big Questions and that’s what has been so powerful,” says Sanjay. “It’s been fascinating to see and very different to your average education stories. It’s not about grade results or organisational objectives – it’s about community empowerment and that’s what we’re all about.”

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Villagers have used SOLE to find out how to make their plantations more efficient and productive and also used what they’ve discovered to set up their own entrepreneurial projects such as creating bakeries or making recycled bags. (SOLE Colombia’s own SOLE kit is made out of old grain/rice/ or flour sacks and has inspired many others to try it themselves).

In one rural village, about one and a half hours away from the nearest town, people go to do a SOLE in the school at least once a week, without any guidance. “They’re completely doing it on their own – we don’t control that,” says Sanjay. “This is real self organisation where we don’t need to do anything at all.”

And now SOLE Colombia has just embarked on its most ambitious project yet – to help the government and the United Nations (UN) with the peace process.

In a significant moment for the country this June, Farc rebels finished handing in their weapons. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc, after the initials in Spanish) are Colombia’s largest rebel group, founded in 1964 as the armed wing of the Communist Party. The 53 year conflict has left 260,000 people dead and more than seven million displaced from their homes.

There remain large rural areas of the country which historically have never known any state presence – just guerilla or paramilitary rule.

“One of big challenges is Farc settling down in these areas to live for the rest of their lives,” explains Sanjay. “Some might move to the city but many will stay, and the issue is how to get these people to share and come together when Farc are known as the people who walk around with guns. Now it’s very different.”

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Sanjay and his team have spent much of the past year developing ideas to help take forward the peace agreement Farc signed in November 2016. “We really want to participate in one of the big challenges this country has ever faced,” he says.

“Everything’s new and nobody knows what to do and that’s why we’re proposing SOLEs. We believe that self organised learning is going to be the tool which people can use to find the solutions to their own problems.

“I have no idea what they need over there and what their problems are. It also doesn’t make sense for me, sitting in the capital in Bogata, to tell them ‘you need to do this’. But I can give them the tools to self organise to solve their own issues.”

After nearly 10 months in the planning, in July the team travelled to one of the closest of the 26 Farc area camps, which are under UN observation. (The UN is working as the mediator between the government and the rebels, to ensure all the weapons are handed in.) It took a day and a half to get there, by boat and jeep. The furthest areas in the jungle are at least several days away.

Although there are UN and military checkpoints, where guerrillas once were paramilitaries now want to go, so the military still has to take control of those areas, and safety is still a concern.

One of the most pressing concerns for the government is how to get education into these faraway places. “We’ve been speaking with the Ministry of Education and they’re just thinking of doing what they’ve always done – setting up schools,” says Sanjay. “But they have to build them and send teachers, already knowing they will not want to stay. Everybody knows this, but nobody says it!”

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So, SOLE Colombia has come up with an alternative plan.

They are initially proposing to set up three bamboo SOLE labs they designed last year in the Farc camp locations. They’re also testing different structures, with the aim being to teach the communities how to create and maintain their own resources.

This will include an NGO (non government organisation) called Fundación Promedio who work with existing garbage/rubbish such as cardboard and metal and can build the labs alongside the people living there, reducing the need to bring in bamboo from elsewhere.

SOLE Colombia took advice from another member of the School in the Cloud community, Projects for All, whose Hello Hubs were inspired by Sugata’s Hole in the Wall experiments in India. These labs will are likely to have less tech than a regular hub, but are designed on the same principle that if the communities can build and maintain them, then they are likely to be more sustainable.

And as a lot of the locations do not have Internet connection, the Endless system will be installed on their computers so they will still have access to a wealth of information offline until a connection can be established.

Unlike SOLE locations elsewhere in the country, SOLE Colombia is also planning to ‘hand hold’ these communities for three years to ensure they can be self sustaining in future.

They realised the extent of the obstacles to overcome during one of their visits to the camp. The original intention had been to run a SOLE on the edge of the UN camp for the neighbouring community and the Farc, but it was quickly evident that this kind of collaboration was still a way off.

“It didn’t happen as people are still fearful of being seen together,” explains Sanjay. “But we did do one just for the Farc members and that was a wonderful experience for them. They’ve been in the jungle for the last 50 years and to be out there in public and able to relax was amazing for them.

“Some of them had never even turned a computer on before but when we connected them with a ‘granny’ in Spain, they couldn’t believe it.”

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The Granny Cloud sessions are all part of the plan to bring disparate communities together with each other and the wider world. “It’s a powerful tool to connect these areas online because there are a lot of people who want to do something with the peace process but can’t get their voice heard,” says Sanjay. “It’s beautiful if they can connect and people all over the world can support them and give them the motivation.”

It was a community effort to set up the SOLE at the Farc camp, bringing in children from the local school, computers from the public library and tables and chairs from a nearby Internet kiosk. The children had never been close to the camp before as they were normally put straight on a bus between their homes and school.

They loved talking to Suneeta Kulkarni, director of the Granny Cloud in India, fascinated by her voice, clothes and where she was in the world!

“Connecting people across the world is very powerful, especially in really remote areas where they are really isolated,” explains Sanjay. “If people are isolated, the situation can arise where it’s ‘either you pay attention to me or I’ll make you’ and this can be one way of solving those issues.”

Last month, SOLE Colombia entered the SOLE labs idea in the Google Challenge for Latin America, where $1m is being invested in each country between five projects. Unfortunately, they didn’t win, but remain undeterred about their plans.

“It’s very speculative – we don’t know if it will work,” admits Sanjay. “But the beauty of it is although what we’re trying to do is a bit crazy, nobody expects nothing from us. We don’t say ‘hey, we’re going to solve your education problem or peace building process’. We’re just saying ‘how about we try this?’ It’s powerful but at the same time it’s self-organising – we don’t know if it’s going to work or not but we have to try.”

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Over the next few months, they will be running SOLEs in seven new camps. “Every funding bid we put in at the moment is to be able to do this kind of thing – stronger community participation to find a solution,” says Sanjay. “We can say to the government ‘if you don’t have enough children to make a full class, it’s easy to set up a SOLE instead’.”  

We’re keeping everything crossed that SOLE Colombia continues to push forward, as the work they’re doing is far beyond what anyone ever imagined SOLE could be. Sanjay will continue with his mission, despite constant funding concerns: “Google didn’t give us a prize but we’ve still got Plan B, C & D!” he says. “Lots of people love our ideas, not so many give money, but we’ll persist!”  

Although their country’s future hangs in the balance, one thing is for certain: SOLE Colombia is not going to stop trying to bring about positive change any time soon.

 

*SOLE Colombia is looking for Spanish-speaking grannies to keep in contact with locations in the Farc areas. The hope is to eventually merge a Spanish Granny Cloud with the main one, but for now, please contact SOLE Colombia direct via email.

 

Background Info:

For the past three years SOLE Colombia has been scaling SOLE in schools, either delivering it direct or training others so they can do so. To date, over 50,000 people in the country have tried SOLEs at least once.

In 2016/17 SOLE Colombia has eased back on showing people how to do SOLEs like they did in the previous year, instead focussing their efforts on the peace process and training other organisations to deliver SOLE, such as Telefonica (to date, the company has gone into 324 schools to help train teachers).

Students in grades 9-11 are also using SOLE to inside a different programme about entrepreneurship that started last year. “What has been amazing is that SOLE is the only thing they’ve continued with –  all the other methodologies have gone,” says Sanjay.

How to make SOLE more social

Helen Moyer hates the word “teacher” despite the fact she’s been one for seven years.

“I remember teachers from my own school days standing in front of the class just relaying facts and I never wanted to do that,” she says. “I want to create an atmosphere where the children see me as a learner as well and SOLE is perfect for that. It’s completely changed the way I teach.”

Williston School, where Helen works, is also a supporter of P4C (Philosophy for Children), which she finds aligns well with SOLE principles. For the past few years they have been working towards letting the children own their learning, embracing new technologies and pedagogical approaches.

Being on the Isle of Man (which is located in the Irish Sea between Great Britain and Ireland – pictured below) means educators enjoy more freedom to experiment than most: they have their own government, no OFSTED inspections, and can create their own curriculum.

“We’re pushing boundaries all the time and the difference SOLE has made has been incredible,” says Helen. “It’s created a level of curiosity and an ability to share their learning collaboratively which is nothing short of amazing. It’s like the love of learning has been re-ignited within them.”

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Helen was first introduced to SOLE three years ago when one of the IT staff returned from a conference where Sugata Mitra was speaking and suggested they try it out.

But the first few attempts weren’t exactly a success. “It was complete chaos and I thought ‘what on earth am I doing?!’” says Helen.

One of her challenges was the amount of high level needs pupils she had in her class, with dyslexia and autism especially prevalent among the students.

So she got in touch with Sarah Leonard, an experienced SOLE practitioner, who at the time was working at Masham School in North Yorkshire. When Helen explained the students were just not ‘gelling’, Sarah put her onto the idea of ‘social SOLEs’ where you focus on an issue affecting the class dynamics rather than a Big Question.

They decided to research dyslexia and autism and in the process learned that a lot of children think very differently from each other. “At the end of the SOLE they were valuing their input in reflection time and it completely changed the dynamics of their friendships,” explains Helen.

“It’s had the most profound effects and now the class is not hierarchical – instead they say ‘I’ll take a bit of your brain and yours and let’s use the internet as well’. It’s definitely given them ownership of their learning.

“I stand back so much more now and let them crack on, giving them little questions to help them delve deeper but nowhere near as much planning as I used to. But the level of questioning has to be quite efficient to be able to draw them in – it’s not an easy ride as a teacher by any means and it can be exhausting!

“I find it’s like being a conductor, getting everyone’s opinions and bringing them together.”

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An example of a social SOLE at the school was when one class was really struggling with friendships. They decided to look at what makes a true friend – such as fairness and loyalty – and explore what that means.

“It was extraordinary,” says Helen, who came upon the idea for the SOLE after doing a bit of research to see what the children valued in a teacher. “They wanted a teacher to be fair – to be equal and make sure everyone gets equal amounts of time, so we focussed on what fairness meant to them,” she explains.

By the end of the exercise, Helen was blown away by the level of understanding her eight and nine-year-olds demonstrated. “Their conclusion was that fairness is about giving people what they need at that time, which is pretty amazing for that age group.”

Helen admits that taking that step back as a teacher is both ‘exciting and liberating’ and also ‘really scary’, but once she did, she saw the value in the learning process.

She has been using SOLE in her class for 18 months and each child, without any prompting, said on their individual reports that the best way they learn is through SOLE. It has now become a regular feature in the classroom, especially in maths, where she will often use a ‘mini SOLE’ to bring in a new concept like division.

“As teachers we put a lid on learning, such as by saying ‘Today we’re going to do space’, but with a Big Question there are no limits.” – Helen

From the Big Question: ‘What would the world look like without insects?’ a little boy who struggles a lot in her class said that humans would be extinct. He could also logically justify his thinking process. “You’d never get to talk about things like that in a regular class,” says Helen.

Her advice for teachers thinking about trying SOLE for the first time this term is to simply ‘throw yourself into it’. She suggests using SOLE initially as an observation tool to see how they learn best, whether it’s in small or big groups etc. and taking time to listen to the vocabulary the children use.

“Some teachers are desperate to guide the children a bit too much and you have to try to stop that,” says Helen.” The SOLE process is chaotic for everyone involved and crashing and burning is part of it, so celebrate the epic fails, enjoy it and save your energy for the end!”

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Helen stresses the importance of having a phrase to use that encourages further questions or investigation, so that if they’re struggling with a concept you’re not tempted to answer it for them.

By way of illustration, when the headteacher came to observe one of her sessions, she told Helen she’d used ‘that’s interesting’ about 150 times! “It stops me answering their questions!” says Helen. “I also go round and magpie their ideas and say ‘tell me one amazing fact you’ve learned in the last 5 minutes’.

“It’s about listening to the children 100% then reeling their threads together to create a pattern that they can go away with and explore further.”

She also finds that inviting the children into the question really helps to get them engaged. For example, she’ll often make it personal and use a story about her own boys to prompt a session. 

“I’ll say something like ‘we had a very interesting conversation around the dining room table and we don’t know the answer to this question’,” she says. “They then become so driven to find an answer to help me at home. That motivation really draws them in and evokes curiosity.”

Helen has the same class again this year and will be taking part in research with Sugata into the use of SOLE and P4C to see how valuable each approach is to the other.

When Sugata visited the school in July he explained that SOLE ‘can’t be watered down’ as then it simply won’t work, in answer to concerns that it might be used by teachers as an alternative to preparing a lesson.

He’s returning to the Isle of Man in January 2018 to help train headteachers. “It’s about making sure it’s about quality teaching and how you maintain that rigour with SOLE,” explains Helen.

With 32 primary schools and five secondary schools on the Isle of Man there’s huge potential to explore the effect of SOLE across the board.

Helen says she’s hoping to go into secondary schools to introduce them to SOLE. “It has the potential to completely change the dialogue within the classroom, and that’s what’s really exciting.”

Find more about Helen in our Community Member section.

Isle of Man photo © Andy Radcliffe and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Inspiring families to learn together

Like many before him, Steven Delpome was inspired to try SOLE after hearing Sugata Mitra talk.

“I was listening to him on the TED Radio Hour and got fascinated by the whole idea,” he explains. Up until then I was a believer like everyone else that you tell children to do things, they practice, learn it and move on. Then the test says ‘they passed’ so they’re good.”

At that point in our chat, Steven pauses to reflect on what he just said: “I’ve moved on so far since then – that sentence makes so little sense to me right now!” he laughs.

Later that year he started experimenting a little in class to see what the kids could do on their own. He didn’t rush into it though – he spent seven months researching SOLE before he took the leap. “I thought ‘let’s try it once and see how it goes’,” he says. So the 6th grade English teacher picked a question off the list of Big Questions  What is irony?

“I followed the pattern word for word and it was fairly brilliant,” Steven explains. He ran the SOLE on the Friday of a long weekend and on the following Tuesday, he pulled the kids aside for 1:1s to see what they remembered. The concept had stuck for almost all of them.

“What impressed me was that they didn’t all have the same answer – they were able to build their own understanding around it,” he says. For example, one girl had found a video online that showed the difference between surprise and irony which made it clear to her. It showed that if a person trips and drops a cake, that’s not irony, but if they’re wearing a medal that says ‘champion cake carrier’ then that is!

A lot of these children were what Steven refers to as “struggling”. They didn’t trust teachers, but in a SOLE were happy to be able to do things for themselves. “There was another kid with ADHD and he was all over the place, but he took in the idea that if you’re stranded on a desert island and you hit the plane with your flare gun that’s rescuing you, then that’s irony!” explains Steven.

Unfortunately, the principal of the school in New Jersey, USA was pretty traditional and didn’t like the idea of children being able to learn on their own, despite all the videos and notes Steven had gathered, and their relationship deteriorated. “I learnt that evidence doesn’t mean much in terms of trying to convince people of things,” laughs Steven.

“I was as hard-headed as he was to push things forward as he was to keep things traditional and it all went to pot,” he explains. When he became so depressed that he was crying in the car before work, he knew it was time to go.

So in June 2016 he quit his job to set up a non-profit organisation, SOLE at Home and has spent the last year developing his idea to bring SOLE into public libraries.

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He invested in some computers and a few other supplies to create the SOLE Hour. “I basically hustled,” Steven explains. “I went around the libraries saying ‘there’s this great programme, you’re gonna love it’. I didn’t know then it was true as I’d never done it!”

His lucky break came in Belleville when children’s librarian Michelle Malone took a chance on him. “She was very welcoming and open minded which was great as you’ve got to be ok with a little bit of chaos,” he says. “That was a pretty good selling point for her as she was open to that kind of learning.”

What really appealed to the libraries was that SOLE offered a new and different approach to learning STEM subjects, which is a big deal in the US (and elsewhere) right now.

Once he had Michelle onboard, more people were willing to try and he now works with over 20 libraries on a regular basis, running drop-in SOLE sessions around Big Questions.

He learnt by trial and error, running lots of SOLEs to discover how to do it better. It’s changed with the audience over time, as he gradually realised this was something people could easily do on their own, with a little guidance.

The ‘at home’ element of his organisation’s title is where he’s eventually aiming for. “The big idea is to go to people in their homes with a loose curriculum to help teach families about SOLE – say 10hrs or so in 1hr sessions – and bring a few families together with one computer and three or four kids to talk about a Big Question,” Steven explains.

By way of explanation, he shared with me a line from the radio interview with Sugata that really stuck with him – “Wouldn’t it be great if a family got together to look up about the Hadron Collider – that would be a pretty good night!”

Steven also took inspiration from a visit to SOLE NYC in Harlem where Natalia Arredondo was running a SOLE lab. “What she did on a limited dollar was amazing and the idea to use smart tvs was a genius move,” says Steven. “That moved me more in the direction of how it could be – to go into people’s homes and give the kids help with school, using curriculum-related Big Questions.

“There are plenty of families in cities across the US who are pretty impoverished and this is inexpensive and fairly accessible. They could work together to do for themselves what the schools can’t,” says Steven. “The aim is to let them know this is an option and it’s something you can use.”

He was recently introduced to a non-profit low-income housing project. The hope is to have a small community where 7-10 families meet once a week to take part in a programme which will help improve children’s reading skills. “I’m very hopeful for that to happen,” says Steven. “There’s a lot of people who live supported by non-profits, especially in cities, and it would be a great thing to bring those families together.”

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During his 16 years as a school teacher Steven realised there’s very little conceptual learning happening in schools. “The more I’ve come to understand from the little we know about the brain is that most of the population needs conceptual understanding for anything else to happen,” he says. 

His aim is to show families the kind of questions they could ask and a way to talk about it – teaching philosophies rather than the ‘how tos’ so they can develop it and use it themselves.

“It’s like a local version of online community where people can turn to each other for help and support instead of paying ridiculous fees for tutors or feeling completely strapped because they can’t pay for them,” explains Steven. “This is something they can handle on their own and that’s a real comfort.

“I’ve been sitting across from the table from those parents for years and you can see it in their eyes – they have so little control over what’s going on.”

He’s met a few doubters about the whole SOLE approach along the way and understands where that’s coming from. “Parents only want the best for their children and we’ve come to believe we know what learning looks like over many generations, whether that’s real or not,” Steven explains. “That’s why some people see SOLE as a ‘dangerous’ intervention. Our lives don’t allow us to sit back and think about what learning looked like for thousands of years of humanity before us.

“A lot of that is ego driven – the idea that we have more control than we think we do – and that’s the biggest obstacle to anything. People think they can control what children learn. But children have always had choice in what they learn – they may have decided not to listen to your lecture, instead memorising the number of goals Messi has from the last seven years, for example.”

Steven says to illustrate his point that if you walked in on one of his SOLEs about clouds in Closter, NJ recently you’d probably think there was a lot of running around and foolishness going on, but not much actual learning.

But in the end they seem to learn just as much – they were exploring how clouds stayed up in the air.  “The kids we consider foolish learned as much as the earnest ones in front of a computer,” he explains. “The hardest point is letting go of the control and that’s hard as we’re raised to believe that we can control what goes on in life.”

He’s come a long way from the teacher he was, sitting listening to a radio programme  in February 2013 that changed the course of his life. When he initially wrote to Sugata after the TED Radio Hour slot about his idea he was amazed to receive a reply. “He was so gracious and gave me really good feedback, passing me on to Suneeta (Kulkarni, who, along with a core team of other volunteers, manages the Granny Cloud).

“She gave me a good talking to, in the nicest way! At that point I was thinking of going down the private tutor line and she gently explained that this wasn’t really in keeping with the philosophy of what SOLE should be.

“That one email changed the direction of everything I thought this could be and should be. If I didn’t have that in my pocket I probably wouldn’t have quit and I’d still be at the school, still miserable. It was one of those pivotal points in life that you don’t realise at the time.”

To find out more about SOLE at Home and how you can support its work, visit www.soleathome.org

SOLE UK

SOLE UK is a forum for teachers across the UK to post the different SOLE questions they have asked their classes and to share their findings. This is a great place to celebrate all things SOLE and to encourage other schools to have a go at using Professor Mitra’s inspirational SOLE approach.

The page will be led by Sarah Leonard. Sarah is an important part of the ‘SOLE Community’ globally, and is a full-time classroom teacher who sings from the rooftops about SOLE to all who will listen! Sarah’s class and school use the SOLE approach on a weekly basis as a way to learn together. the SOLE UK page is also an opportunity for teachers to ask for help and advice if needed. e.g. How to start your own SOLE or to troubleshoot any concerns you may have whilst teaching using this approach.

Contact me

VIDEO: In Kalkaji SOLE, it’s all about earning respect

It may be a tiny research lab, but Kalkaj in Delhi certainly packs a lot in. There are almost daily Granny Cloud sessions and a seemingly endless stream of visitors since it opened two years ago.

Located in a government girls’ school just a stone’s throw from the original Hole in the Wall, this lab is helping to give young people the opportunity to aim high.

Sometimes I find it’s better to leave others to say the words for you and when that individual is Jaya, who has firm views about how she wants to change the world, it’s a no-brainer.

This short interview above, taken from footage by filmmakers Dan Oxenhandler, Will Sloan and Alfred Birkegaard, perfectly illustrates how much a SOLE lab means to children like Jaya, who are inspired to aim high thanks to this interaction.

And it’s not just the children who have benefited from this experience over the past two years, many members of the Granny Cloud also Skype in regularly and love taking sessions here. “From the very beginning they were a bubbly, enthusiastic group displaying a lot of confidence,” says ‘granny’ Edna Sackson, who is based in Melbourne, Australia. “They were able to understand my English and my accent and many responded well in full sentences. It’s great to see how they work collaboratively and offer each other support.”

Sunita Lama, who is based in Dubai, echoes these sentiments. “The Granny Cloud session is always such a boost for a teacher like me and the reason is the innocent effort of each child to participate,” she says. “Though they are young minds, I like to challenge them because critical thinking and analysis are important skills and with so much knowledge available, I personally feel there should be no limitations drawn, especially if it is probing into topics that will benefit them. It is lovely seeing a young bunch of enthusiasts and interacting – these young girls have a lot of eagerness and zeal.”

The children using this lab are in the 6th, 7th and 8th grades. Although the school is Hindi medium, one section is English medium across all classes and it’s this group that uses the SOLE lab.

Children coming to the school are from the lower socio economic classes, whose mothers are either domestic helpers or housewives. The parents’ educational level is also very low.

Kajal Gupta has been the local co-ordinator at this lab since last July. She says she has seen a big change in herself as well as the girls, despite it taking some time for them to feel comfortable and realize that she wasn’t going to tell them what to do like a teacher would! “I am very happy to be a part of this project because it is amazing to bring improvement in the students like this,” she says.

Kajal has seen the girls’ confidence and self-assurance grow tremendously, so much so that they are unfazed by the many media crews and VIP guests who regularly turn up to find out more about the SOLE lab. Every day there are usually granny sessions in the lab and Kajal finds that the students would much rather study there than anywhere else in the school, despite its size!

In the ASER tests of English reading comprehension, early research shows an improvement of nearly 10% on the baseline a year ago.

Kalkaji SOLE is located in a government school for girls. The school runs in the morning, as the premises are shared with the boys who attend school in the afternoons. It is among the smallest of the School in the Cloud labs, with a handful of computers, one of which is connected to Skype during Granny Cloud sessions. The girls who use the SOLE are typically 11-15 years-old from the lower socio-economic classes who attend the English section of an otherwise Hindi medium school.