Photocopier Traumas

Last year, the unit was a sea of paper. Giving out books is risky. For many of our students, their first reaction upon seeing a challenging piece of work or making a mistake is to rip up whatever they are doing. They work so hard and make so much progress that losing the history of that always seems too much of a risk.

I therefore usually resort to paper, which once complete gets stuck in books and marked. Even this though is not without its challenges. A blank piece of paper is frightening for lots of my students, so a printed sheet with their personal objective and a writing frame for those who need it seems to work better. That is until the photocopier decides to print something not quite properly! My students are masters of perfection and can be guaranteed to spot the evils of the dreaded machine if it dares not to print perfectly straight by even a millimetre. A smear of ink where it shouldn’t be, a line that doesn’t print as it should, a picture that isn’t quite the right colour can all cause trauma. The machine and I have words on a regular basis but somehow he doesn’t quite get the message, that when it comes to my students accuracy really does matter.

So this year I’ve sacked him. He simply isn’t worth the trauma. This year in Key Stage Three we are going virtually paperless. We’re going to save our work on the drive (do not get me started on memory sticks, they too are meltdown inducing temperamental pieces of kit; they are also far too easy to snap in half, throw out of windows and hide up your jumper), I’m going to plan it on the drive, differentiate it on the drive and mark it on the drive. The computer you see knows how to be accurate, its lines are always straight, the colours look like they should and it’s too big to stick up your jumper. It also is much loved; ripping up the computer would result in no computer to play on at break, even were it possible it simply would not be worth it.

Now going paperless isn’t for everyone, it wouldn’t for instance work for my year 11 students, they need to maintain their handwriting speed in preparation for their exams. It’s also something that because of resources won’t be possible for everyone – it certainly wouldn’t have been an option for us last year. So, what easy differentiation can everyone do?

It’s simple (maybe), be kind to the photocopier, be kind to yourself and be kind to your students. If there’s a student in your class with autism and you’ve photocopied a sheet check it over first. Make sure it’s as straight as you can humanly possibly achieve and that the ink is as even as possible. I know at times it’s easier said than done (believe me I really do know), but carefully scrutiny can save a multitude of meltdowns, it’s well worth the extra few seconds at the dreaded machine…

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Teaching Like A Pirate? Really?

I have always thought I was a bit mad. I mean take one look in my classroom (or the blog), and you’re likely to see me running round pretending to be a goat, jumping of a cliff (my desk), throwing bits of sweet corn around, acting out a part or pretending we’re somewhere totally different than we really are. Yes, really. Behind the closed door of a classroom you can get away with all those things. What’s more the students love it. I mean sure, mine think I’m totally crazy. But as we say in our room; who would want to be ‘normal’ anyway? Normal is boring. It is dull. And in our room, it is definitely never dull.

Why? Because learning should be fun. And well, if it wasn’t fun, none of us would learn very much. The fact that all of the permanent unit staff have the capacity to be crazy is the very essence of what makes our students successful. It distracts them, makes them forget they are learning and therefore they become less anxious, less scared and more prepared to have a go, make mistakes and therefore to learn.

Today however, I found out a secret. Shhhhh listen very carefully and I’ll tell you in a whisper. I am not mad; I am a pirate.

You see after having loved ‘Learn Like a Pirate’ so much that I have worked every waking hour (and some sleeping ones) since I read it, because there are so many ideas buzzing round my head that I can’t wait to activate them, I decided I had better read the first of the pirate books ‘Teach Like A Pirate’. So in the last 24 hours I have. And well, hence my discovery. There are others out there as crazy as me. My methods are justified and validated, there are others out there spending hours researching their students’ interests and running crazily round their room to illustrate a point; what’s more anyone can learn them.

When teaching students with autism, there are so many things competing for their attention (the rustle of a tree in the wind, a favourite episode playing on loop in their mind, the sound of a word they like, the fear that they have failed before and might again) that if you want to keep that attention, you have to do everything in your power to keep it; to engage them; to enable them to learn.

‘Teach Like a Pirate’ teaches you how to do just that. What’s more it proves once again, that good autism teaching is good everyone teaching. This is a book written by a mainstream teacher for mainstream teachers. It’s full of checklists of hooks to get your students involved, ideas that can be incorporated into any lesson by any teacher. Ideas that are guaranteed to win over not only your students with autism but everyone.

It isn’t a book about differentiation. It’s a book about engagement. But it’s that engagement, that trust, that willingness to go beyond the boundaries that will take your differentiation to another level. So channel your inner craziness and use it, and if you’re not sure you have any (or enough) of your own craziness read Dave Burgess’ ‘Teach Like a Pirate’ and he’ll make you believe you can find it, however deeply you have it hidden.

Go on, what are you waiting for? Start differentiating like a pirate…. Arrgggh!

If In Doubt Make A List

I don’t know about you, but I love lists. In fact I would make a list for just about anything. I’m not sure if my love of lists emanates from my love of nice stationery (I mean after all I need somewhere to make my lists), from the fact that I have a terrible memory (and would therefore forget what I was supposed to be doing without one), or whether it’s simply because they give me a sense of direction and accomplishment when I tick them off. But whatever the reason, I wouldn’t be without them.

Lists however, aren’t just for teachers. They can be great for students too. Lists help them to organise their thoughts, plan work, give them a sense of what’s happening next and even to make sure that they’ve covered everything they need to in order to complete a task.

Lists can be useful for all students, but they’re particularly useful for students with autism. Many students with Autism have a weak central coherence which means it can be difficult for them to see the wider picture. This can mean that students focus in on a particular element of what you’ve said rather than on the whole task. Most students with autism also like structure and certainty. A list of what’s going to happen in the lesson or over the term can really help them to feel more confident and less anxious because they are able to predict what will happen next.

For students who haven’t used lists before you might need to model this approach first. You can start by writing checklists on the board for students to use when completing assignments, or by giving individualised post it note checklists to students on the front of their book. Whether it’s the steps of how to work out a mathematical equation or the things to include in an essay; pretty much everything we do has a list of steps we need to follow.

As students become used to the format even very young students will become increasingly confident at making their own lists. Students can therefore start to write down the steps themselves, allowing you to go and check the steps before the student starts working. It’s a really quick way of checking understanding and helps greatly to lesson the anxiety of students before starting work.

Of course, as lists won’t just help students with Autism, they can be used with the whole class. They will however make the biggest difference to those students in your class who struggle with organisation, short term memory, central coherence and self belief. They will provide those students with a much better chance of success in their final product and thus help to raise their self esteem.

Often however, those students most likely to benefit from lists are the ones most reluctant to use them. For those students, making lists cool can be a crucial step in the process. So why not use the notes section of smartphones? Or even better a free app called Trello which I found today courtesy of ‘Learn Like a Pirate’ which allows you to organise your lists into sections and even add pictures and websites to them to make them even more interesting.

So there you go, easy peasy. Differentiation really is as simple as making a list! So next time you set your students a new task, why not give it a try? What have you got to lose?

Show Me How

Most of my students are worried about making mistakes. And I don’t mean worried in the sense that their worry may cause them to write a word they are confident in spelling rather than a more challenging word they can’t. I’m talking about fear so paralysing that even putting a pen on a piece of paper can feel like a challenge that is to great.

For many it’s this anxiety which has meant they struggled too much in mainstream. It’s easier to act out and display difficult behaviours than to admit you’re too frightened to start. So when we set a piece of work we have to think carefully. We have to make the difficult feel simple. We have to take away the fear.

One of the ways we do this is through modelling. We do the whole class modelling of collating ideas, sharing them, writing on the board etc. But we also simply sit and do the work ourselves. We become fully involved in the lesson. Sometimes we even get stuck. There is nothing more enabling than helping the teacher or member of support staff working with you fix the problem. On the days you’re finding things hard it’s exactly the kick-start in motivation you need.

So whatever it is we’re doing, there are always spare copies or resources. It’s amazing how contagious writing can be, when the person sat next to you is obviously excited about what they’re doing; when they talk to you about their ideas; when they show you there’s nothing to be afraid of.

When fear comes into play, you can’t tackle the problem head on. You can’t tell a student to do the task. You can’t tell them it’s not scary. But you can show them. For those students who come to lesson with support this is easy to do, all you have to do is give out an extra sheet of paper and encourage the member of Support Staff that you’d love to see their work too.

For those that don’t have support it isn’t insurmountable. Think carefully about your seating plan. Place your confident excited writers near those who find it harder and encourage talking in the first ten minutes of the process. Encourage students to share their ideas as they start and even more so, encourage other students to magpie those ideas.

This one is really easy to implement; differentiation that’s as easy as handing out an extra sheet of paper. So go on, what are you waiting for make sure you’re stocked up for September…

Support The Support Staff

The job of secondary learning support assistants is incredibly difficult. How many of you would feel you could support a child in Maths, English, Science, Music, Art, French, ICT and more? I know I couldn’t, at least not without considerable help from the classroom teacher.

Although not all students with ASD get additional support in class, many do – at least for some part of their timetable. Teachers are given very limited training about how to work with them, and at least at first it can be nerve wracking to have an extra adult in the room. Learning Support Assistants are dedicated professionals who work incredibly hard to ensure success for the student(s) they work with and can often appear more expert at managing the child with SEN than the teacher feels that they are. As a consequence of these things many teachers leave the LSA to manage (and often teach) the student with very little input.

As teachers we need to be responsible for effecting a change. There are lots of ways that we as teachers can help support staff and therefore help the students. What’s more every single one of the support staff I work with would welcome more teacher input. So here I’ve tried to sum up the top five ways that you can be part of that change and make a difference. What’s more, it’s all really easily achievable:

  • Say hello to the member of support staff when they come into the room. It sets a tone of respect for the other students and shows the LSA that you value them being in your lesson.
  • Give LSAs materials that you are studying in advance, so they have more time to think how to support the student in the lesson.
  • Check in regularly with the student and their LSA, to make sure they both understand what you are teaching. It’s impossible for an LSA to be an expert in every subject they work in.
  • Reassure the LSA that your priority is that the student learns, not that they complete the task. Encourage them to let you know if they feel the task is too hard for the student to complete, rather than over prompting them. (This one is in bold because it’s the one that I know worries support staff the most)
  • Ask the LSA to write – either directly in the student’s book or on a post it note – the level of prompting they gave the student to complete the task. This will benefit the student because you can plan more effectively for them, but it will also benefit you because you will know what they can do and what they can’t.

The key is to remember the LSA is not the differentiation, nor is it their responsibility to differentiate the work. Students with SEN (even those who come to class with specialist support) are the responsibility of the teacher. Having an LSA in the room can be a massive asset both to you as a teacher and to the student being supported, but in order to maximise their impact we as teachers need to take responsibility. We need to enable LSAs to have the impact they want to have. We need to enable our students to be the best they can be.

So what are you waiting for? There’s a whole lot of ‘Hellos’ to be said…

Rome Wasn’t Built In A Day

It took me six years and five attempts at my driving test to lean to drive. In fact humiliation of all humiliation my baby brother passed before I did, about a month after his seventeenth birthday. I wasn’t exactly what you would call a natural!

I mean, don’t get me wrong, I aced the theory test – twice in fact! The first one ran out before I passed the practical. I knew exactly how I was supposed to drive but my body wouldn’t comply. To make matters worse, I did insist on continuously driving on the wrong side of the road (which didn’t go down well with the first driving instructor who lasted only a very short time before he gave up on me). I didn’t, and still don’t, know my left from my right and that made things more than a little tricky.

Luckily, I was both stubborn and resilient. I decided that no one was going to tell me I couldn’t learn to drive and I persevered. But this time, I wasn’t leaving it in the hands of a driving instructor. I knew that somehow I had to learn which side of the road I should be driving on, but that I needed to do it in a way that would be safe and would give me time to think. So, I rode a push bike. For three whole years whilst I was at university I rode my bike everywhere, I still got confused about which side of the road I should be on but on a bike it was safer. I could stop when I needed to, put my bike and myself on the pavement and give myself time to think. Gradually over time, I had to think a bit less and then a bit less until it became almost natural to me which side of the road I should be on. And at that point, I braved the world of driving instructors again…

Sometimes our students test us. We work so hard planning our lessons, preparing learning opportunities for them and yet still they don’t seem to make progress. It’s frustrating because we’re at a loss of what else we can try that will make a difference. Sometimes (not always), but sometimes the answer is we need to do more of the same. We need to provide opportunities for repetition, we need to allow students time to practice those skills until they become natural to them. But most of all, we need to not give up. We need to believe that all of our students are capable of learning and we need to persevere. We need to persevere so that they can.

Of course, we need to do this for all students, not just those with SEN. But perhaps for those who don’t find it easy, for those to whom learning doesn’t come naturally, it matters all the more. The students who challenge us the most are often the ones that need us the most. So next time you feel like throwing your hands in the air and giving up, stop a moment and think, maybe you just need to persevere that little bit longer…

Braving The Technology

So this summer, my technical knowledge has been progressing. It was my mission and I’m on route to conquer it. I do feel a bit like a soldier heading to battle, because this is one area of teaching that is taking me way out of my comfort zone. But at the same time I’m crazily excited about each new stride into the world of the unknown I make.

The differentiation possibilities with technology are endless. In fact the more I learn, the more I see possibilities that I hadn’t even dreamt of. Take OneNote Class Notebook for instance. That had been sitting on my computer as part of Office365 since well, probably forever without me even knowing it existed. Without me realising it, I had an amazing differentiation tool right at my fingertips, totally free of charge and ready for me to exploit it.

So, what does it do? Well, it enables you to create a NoteBook for your class. Within your NoteBook you have a library section that you can fill with notes, questions and resources. You can also include links to webpages and videos, as well as record yourself talking to your students. Students can see things in this section and copy and paste them into their own NoteBooks but they can’t edit them, so you know your original content is secure.

Next is the ‘Collaboration Space’ where students can work together on various projects. They can type simultaneously with each other, or they can use it as a space to peer assess work. It’s hard for me to get my head around this properly (in the absence of students to test it on) but I’m really excited about the possibilities and I know it’s something that’s going to make group work and collaboration a lot easier for students.

Thirdly are students’ individual NoteBooks, here they can complete work which only they and you as the teacher can see. Even better it saves automatically, no more panicking when they turn the laptop off when saving or lose their memory stick; both of which last year were monumental meltdown inducing problems for us. This next part I’m really excited about: I can post individual tasks for students here, I can post links to websites that relate directly to that student and I can even read pages of novels aloud and post them on the page. There are times we all wish we could clone ourselves. And well, this looks about as close as that is possible to get! I can be on every person’s screen, giving individualised instructions at the same time – no more waiting until I get round to each student to give instructions. (Admittedly the thought of my voice in stereo all around the room is a frightening prospect, but well, that’s what headphones were made for!)

This programme is all of my differentiation dreams come true. I’ll still be very much hands on – I have no plans to become a virtual teacher, but this will allow for a much greater level of independence for my students. And that has to be a good thing! Even better, once I’d got over my initial terror, it was pretty easy to figure out. If you can work in Microsoft word, you can easily master this.

So, if you like me are new to this expanding possibilities of technology this seems like a really good place to start. For those of you that have Office365 email at school, all you need to do is click on the little squares in the top left corner and you get a whole range of apps. I haven’t played with the others yet, but give me chance and I’ll get there!

I’m still not exactly what you would call a whizz, and I have a zillion things I want to learn to do, but I’m pretty proud of how far I’ve come. And hey, I’ve still got four more weeks of the holidays left to learn lots of new things…. What are you going to try today?