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Tech Class

Sole Thriver

A Grade 9 English teacher sees surprising results when he matches technology with a new learning concept.

By Stefan Dubowski
Photo: Matthew Liteplo

Photo of Jamie Cohen, Ontario Certified Teacher, seated with three students. One of the student is working on a laptop and talking with Jamie. The other two students are looking at a smartphone.
Jamie Cohen, OCT, challenges his students to tackle the novel Siddhartha using the SOLE.

The Challenge: Encourage students to study English literature in a new way.

The Solution: Create a lesson in which students use technology to study a literary classic in a self-organized learning environment (SOLE).

Lessons Learned: When Jamie Cohen, OCT, introduced two of his Grade 9 English literature classes to the SOLE concept of a self-organized learning environment, he knew he’d challenge them to think differently, but he had no idea one student would respond so positively.

Cohen is a teacher at the Anne and Max Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto. He found inspiration in Sugata Mitra’s TED Talk on SOLEs. An education researcher, Mitra believes students should tackle challenging subjects through their own creativity and ingenuity.

Cohen downloaded the free SOLE Toolkit from the TED Talks website and put the concept into action in his classes. He had his Grade 9 English students study Hermann Hesse’s novel Siddhartha. He obtained a free digital copy of the book through Project Gutenberg and uploaded the text to Genius, an annotation website where he and his students could share comments, questions and multimedia related to the novel using school and personal computers.

Then the classes dove further into the SOLE system. Based on their readings of Siddhartha, they worked in groups to consider what the SOLE Toolkit calls “big questions” such as: What is a teacher? And, What does it mean to be a true friend?

After the students visited neighbouring groups to see how others worked, they reconvened to discuss their findings and, together, presented their big questions — and big answers — to the class.

One student surprised Cohen with how he responded to this alternative learning style. Diagnosed with learning challenges, this youngster often struggled in school. In the SOLE, he thrived. Cohen rates the student’s work among the top 10 per cent of the class in terms of quality and quantity.

Observations: In conjunction with modern technology, the SOLE proved especially effective for the student with learning challenges. The novel was available online, so there was no concern that he’d forget to bring his copy to class. He was allowed to move around and socialize, which was a boost for this tactile learner. And he could access the videos and podcasts whenever he needed them, allowing him to take in information at his own pace.

But this young man wasn’t the only one to benefit. Through peer interaction, the students got to know each other better and learned to acknowledge diverse interpretations of the subject.

As for the teacher, Cohen validated his belief in challenging students to think beyond the quest for good grades.

The College’s professional advisory Use of Electronic Communication and Social Media ( guides members’ professional judgment in the use of technology.

Helpful Hints Jamie Cohen, OCT, gave students two sets of grades for their work on assignments related to Hermann Hesse’s novel Siddhartha: one set for achievement and another for effort. “It shows them that I value their efforts and engagement with the text,” he says.

You Can Do It Too!

What you’ll need

Access to Project Gutenberg (, Genius (, Sugata Mitra’s TED Talk on self-organized learning environments (SOLEs) (, the TED Talks SOLE Toolkit (

Steps to take:

  1. Use Project Gutenberg to download a free electronic copy of Siddhartha, by Hermann Hesse.
  2. Use Genius to annotate the book with assignments for students.
  3. Follow steps in the free SOLE Toolkit to engage students in “big questions.”