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?

The Obsession With Time

My students like things exact. They like structure, they like routine and they like me to say what I mean.

So when I say something will happen at a particular time I have to be clear. If I say in five minutes, then at exactly five minutes and one second someone will point out that I am late.

It can be infuriating and it can drive me crazy, but maybe that says more about my inability to stick to a particular time, than it does about my students. I have to take a moment and realise that my students are not doing it to be annoying, they are not trying to look smart and they are not trying to make me look bad. They are doing it because to them it matters. I said five minutes so I should take five minutes. I should say what I mean and stick to it.

So next time a ‘we’ll do it in five minutes’ is about to roll off your tongue, take a moment and think. Do I really mean five minutes? Or do I mean when I’ve finished what I’m doing? And if it’s the latter, say that. Say what you mean, and do it; to someone in your room that accuracy may just matter. And that’s about as easy as differentiation can get…

The Devil Is In The Detail

Today started off with a sense of tranquillity. We had planned a day in. The new story building Lego was out and it was a chance to play. The Special Interest; currently all things ‘Harry Potter’ came into play. Given freedom, in my house all routes usually lead there. It was decided the world of Harry would be recreated…

Silence reigned. All was peaceful. Until… Meltdown. The only long Lego hair available was ‘girl hair’ and there was no way Hagrid could have girl hair. That would be unforgivable!

Both at home and at school, it is those tiny details, the things I haven’t thought of that derail things. The things that I haven’t given a thought to, because in my head they aren’t important are often the very things that to my students and my daughter are critically important to the success of whatever it is that we are doing. It’s why the lessons that I expect to be challenging often aren’t (because I’ve covered, double covered and triple covered all of my bases) whereas those I think will go swimmingly often end in disaster.

Unless I become psychic (and therefore can pre-empt these disasters before they happen), there has to be another plan (because these events are and will continue to be a part of my daily existence). Today we were saved by a book delivery through the post. Just as quickly as the disaster began, it ended. And this is so often the case.

Had I tackled the problem head on, and said of course Hagrid could have had girl hair, I would have exacerbated things further. Because whilst in my head that is the obvious solution, it is a battle I can’t win, I can’t win it because I simply don’t understand why it is so important in the eyes of my daughter. Distraction therefore, as is so often the case is my best course of action. It is my excuse for why I am so good at talking ‘random rubbish.’

In fact, I would go so far as to argue, that the art of distraction, the ability to intersect a conversation and take it in a random direction until the moment of potential crisis has passed, is one of the most crucial differentiation skills needed when working with students with high anxiety levels.

Once the moment has passed, the anxiety has dissipated; the original activity can more often than not be returned to and enjoyed. In the dining room here, mission build Harry’s world has once again resumed (I haven’t enquired as to the solution of Hagrid’s hair though I may risk a sneaky look later), just as I know that after a brief distraction my students will return to their work.

So next time a student has a moment that seems irrational to you, let it go, talk about something else for a few minutes. You might just be surprised at the results…

Change The Objective

Differentiation isn’t always about creating lots of different activities or worksheets. It can be, and in an ideal world in my classroom at least, I love it when circumstances allow for that. But the reality is that sometimes that can’t happen, and sometimes it doesn’t need to happen. In fact sometimes, it’s best if everyone does the same piece of work.

Most of my students find extended writing challenging, so much so that many come to me not being able or willing to even try them. So when I plan extended writing activities, I like it to be an all singing, all dancing kind of affair. I like to act things out, show films, read books, get out the Lego, make potions, or even throw Baby Corn in the air. And, yes as those of you who have been reading for a while will know – sometimes I even like to break the rules by standing on a chair on a table!

These kind of lessons, the ones with the real ‘wow’ factor, work best if the whole class is engaged in the same kind of activity. Apart from anything else, the craziness I embark upon to get everyone interested and engaged with what we’re going to write about, would make it far too distracting for anyone to concentrate on doing anything else!

So in these lessons, I have to think about differentiation in a different way. I have to think about outcomes rather than input. OK, so I want all of my students to produce an extended piece of writing, but what do I really want individuals to focus on? What do I want them to learn?

For me these learning outcomes are usually something different for everyone, but in a larger class it may be that groups of students have the same objective. For one of my students it might be, ‘I really want you to focus on using full stops and capital letters’, for another it may be ‘I want you to challenge yourself and see how many different connectives you can include’ and for another it may be content based ‘I want you to really think how you could create a surprise for your reader within the story.’

So whilst my class are all essentially writing the same piece, which allows me to make sure my input has been as engaging as possible, their individual focus is different. What they are working on and learning is personalised. The key to the success of it; is to find a way that works for you, of letting your students know what you want them to focus on; what you want them to learn. I use post-it notes, but you could stickers or even large pieces of paper in the middle of tables in larger classes.

This is really easy differentiation, but it’s differentiation that will make a difference. It will make a difference to how well your students learn but even more importantly it will make a difference to how they feel about themselves as learners. These small steps and an individual focus will make them realise that they can achieve. Go on, give it a go, personalise your objectives! What have you got to lose?

Why Am I In Trouble? (Lego Style)

Now you know me; if in doubt use Lego! So this handy trick is one I love.

My students hate consequences, but much more than that, they hate consequences that they don’t think are fair. One easy way to prove fairness (total transparency is important); is by building Lego towers. This visual representation of what has happened will show students that their feelings are validated and also help them to understand why they have been given a consequence.

First, sit together with your student(s) and decide on a scale of zero to ten how many bricks breaking a rule deserves. Being grumpy for instance may get two bricks, swearing five bricks, insulting someone’s mum nine bricks, hitting someone ten bricks etc. The key is to involve the students in deciding; they need to know it’s fair.

After an incident, as a student is talking you can award the various perpetrators (including yourself or other staff members) bricks. As the towers grow, students will not only see that you are listening to them and taking their concerns seriously, but will also begin to see why they have a consequence (because they’ve been grumpy, sworn at someone, then gone on to hit them) whereas even though their friend started it (by being grumpy) they don’t have one.

This is really easy differentiation; differentiation which makes a big difference to students. It reduces anxiety and confrontation, and helps students to understand that they can rely on you to be fair. So next time a student is upset because they think you have treated them unfairly, why not get out your Lego and show them your thought process…

Lose The Glare

Many students with Autism have heightened senses. People often understand that loud classrooms can be difficult, but less people realise that sensory perception difficulties can affect other senses too; one that is often missed is how students can be affected visually. For some students these difficulties can make brightness hard for them to cope with, especially for extended periods of time.

So if you have a student who seems to struggle more when it’s bright, or someone who loves using ICT equipment but seems to get overwhelmed during the task, this is something worth checking out. Likewise if a student becomes disengaged when a sheet of white paper is put in front of them, this could well be worth checking out. You don’t need to do complicated tests, just have a quick chat with the student about why they are finding things tricky. Be open and honest, tell them you really want to help them, and ask how you can make things easier.

If together you decide that brightness is the problem, think about what you can do to reduce glare. The following strategies may help for some students:

  • Sitting the student away from windows,
  • Dim lights in the area of the classroom where the student sits.
  • Try photocopying worksheets on to a different colour of paper (talk to the student about which colours are best)
  • Turn down the brightness on computer screens and interactive whiteboards.
  • Think about trying coloured overlays.

This is easy differentiation. Differentiation that involves no preparation but that will make a big difference. Why not give it a try?

Special Interests

Every day I learn something new. More than that, I learn something absolutely so new that it was nowhere to be found on my lesson plan. It is in fact one of the most amazing things about my job.

My students are specialists. They often have in depth knowledge about particular topics that interest them; knowledge that they love to share. Knowledge that you can harness to engage them in learning about more or less anything you need to teach.

In fact, if I could give you one tip, and only one tip about working with students with autism, it would be to discover their special interest. Discovering a special interest and sharing it with a student with Autism, will very likely be your key to gaining a relationship with them and therefore being able to teach them effectively.

Many students with autism, have a passionate interest in a particular topic, or small range of topics. These are things they could happily engage in for long periods of time, topics they can talk about enthusiastically and incessantly. These can be age appropriate interests, but the degree to which students relate to them tends to be more intense than their peers. In fact studies suggest that students with autism often process these interests in the part of their brain that neurotypicals use to process people.

With my students these interests range from Thomas the Tank Engine to Minecraft, from Big Brother to Manga, from Elevators to Dolls. They are interests that become a part of our day, interests that we as members of staff go to great lengths to find out more about; the more we know the easier it is for us to reach our students, especially on difficult days.

Most pieces of work can, however tenuously, be linked to a special interest. The special interest is rarely the main focus of our lesson, but if we can somehow twist it in there, engagement is guaranteed. I’ve seen our Science teacher rate elements against a ‘hotest to notest’ list in the Big Brother house. I’ve seen support staff interweave an elevator into virtually any story I’ve ever set, and I’ve seen some very creative Pokémon maths.

You don’t need to create in depth worksheets linking the topic in; you just need to know enough about the interest to link it in with your discussion. It can be as simple as ‘So today we are going to be learning about the effects of wingspan on flying. Hey wouldn’t it be great if the creators of Batman had all this research at their fingertips?’ It’s all about thinking outside the box.

Good differentiation is all about knowing your students as individuals and being able to tap into what they care about. If we do this we increase engagement. If we increase engagement we make it easier for our students to learn. So next time you’re teaching something tricky, take a moment to think about how you can make it relate to the special interests of your students. What’s your hook?

Go on give it a go; this is an easy one. Chat to your students. Follow it with a little big of googling to discover the facts, then throw a line into your opening when you talk about the topic. What have you got to lose?