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?

Let’s Get Writing

If there is one thing I am really passionate about, it’s enabling students to become independent writers. Giving them not only the skills but in the belief in themselves that they can do it.

It’s very easy with the most challenging students, to avoid challenges and the behaviours that come along with those challenges. No teacher and no parent wants to see students upset. However, we also have to ask ourselves what our purpose as teachers is? And if ultimately one of our purposes is to prepare students for real life after school, we have to ensure not only that those students who are cognitively able to read and write do so, but also that the are able to face challenges head on and deal with those challenges, believing that they can.

Over the past few years, in two different locations, I’ve encountered students who have come to me as non-writers. Some at 11 haven’t yet been able to form letters, some haven’t had the phonetic knowledge to create sounds and others have the skills but have simply refused to write in their previous placements. All of these students have learnt to write and learnt to write confidently. They have learnt to believe in themselves.

I don’t have a magic wand, but I do have a lot of perseverance. I believe strongly in the fact that it’s worth going through the tough times to come out the other side. I believe that all my students can do it. And most of all, I believe that a small amount of independent work is worth a page full of work that has been done by someone else.

Scribing can be really harmful. All too often it’s used as a way of covering material, a way of differentiating for students who have no way of keeping up. And I understand that, I understand the why. Content, especially in today’s exam driven world is important. But, we need also to look at the bigger picture. We need to ensure that students have the basics. We need to be flexible enough to stand up, be counted, and change the lesson objective for that child. We need to allow them time to write, to develop their skills. Whether that be through handwriting, or through the use of technology – we need to give our students independence. We need to give them belief in themselves.

So next time there is a student in your room who can’t keep up, stop a minute and think. What does this student really need? Do they really need all the facts of the industrial revolution recorded in their book in year seven? Do they really need to write a full page story? Or can you use this time to build their skills, build their independence and belief in themselves?

It’s only by doing this that we will see true progress. If we scribe for a student throughout year seven, we will still be doing so in year eleven. If we promote independence in year seven, who knows where that student will go…

Match Your Books

When I first started teaching, I worked in an independent boarding school. We had the most beautiful school library I have ever seen. It was the perfect breeding ground to create a love of reading, and I loved every minute I spent in there. Yet despite the idyllic setting and their typically amazing behaviour my year eight students suddenly turned into monsters during reading lessons.

Something, I decided, had to be done. Despite being dyslexic, I love reading. I always have. In fact if I can’t think of many things that I prefer to do. I was determined that somehow, even if it killed me this was a love that I would impart to my students. The problem was books are personal, just because I liked a book didn’t mean a student would.

So, I changed my tack. I no longer read books I wanted to read. I read everything. Everything that is that could possibly interest teenagers. I read literally 100s of books during my first few months there, and I started matching books to students. In fact, it became somewhat of a personal challenge. The more determined the student was that they didn’t want to read; the more determined I was to find a book that they would like. And, much to my delight it worked. Students started reading, and simultaneously they started trusting me. By the end of year eight they had all read a selection of teenage fiction, by the end of year nine every one of them read a full pre 1914 novel. What’s more, they enjoyed it.

Sometimes, we need to think beyond the box. We need to be able to do something different. It’s rare I teach the same book twice, for me, it just doesn’t work. Instead I like to look at my classes and find a book that I think they will enjoy, a book that will speak to them. Whatever the curriculum goal is, my personal one is that I want my students to learn to love books. I want to create a love of reading that will follow them through life.

That’s something that’s never been more important than with my current group. I like to read books that interest my students. I’m well aware that the reading level is well above that of some in the class – but I run other interventions simultaneously to tackle that. When I read to my class, above all I want to transport them to another place, provide them with escapism and joy. I want to introduce them to new language, new ideas, new worlds.

Differentiation is important, but differentiation does not mean dumbing down. Done properly differentiation should provide challenge and excitement. You can enable your students to understand by acting parts out, by working through vocabulary, by scaffolding questioning. But you have to choose a book that will interest them, without an interesting text students will not want to understand. It’s a careful balance, but an important one. After all, how hard would you try to understand something you had no interest in?

Break The Rules (Occasionally)

In my world consistency is important. If I make a rule, I enforce it. Structure works, it makes it obvious that I’m being fair, my students feel safe and endless arguments are avoided. After all if I forget a rule my students will remind me. They are excellent rule keepers (even if they don’t always apply them to themselves) and woe and betide anyone that decides to break them.

But that in itself makes life complicated. After all, as every teenager knows there are some rules that are meant to be broken. One day my students will go into mainstream lessons where other students WILL most certainly be surreptitiously breaking rules discretely – they will pass a note to their friends, they will chew a piece of gum, they will rock on their chair. Somehow it’s essential that my students learn to tolerate this. And that is not an easy mission.

It’s an on-going work in progress; we work on whispering the broken rule to members of support staff, or writing it on a post-it note to give it to the teacher at the end. The thought of not reporting it, is for many, too hideous a thought to contemplate, so we strive to achieve anything but reporting it out loud to the teacher in front of the class and thus receiving death stares from every other student in the room!

However, this comes with advantages. If we’re careful we can flip it and use it. My students find listening hard. There are a million and one tiny details competing for their attention. A piece of paper flapping in the corner, another student fidgeting under the desk, the sound of the wind in the trees – if I want their attention I have to work for it. And there is one thing I know that is sure to get it – yes you’ve got it, a little bit of rule breaking!

So when I taught George’s Marvellous Medicine, and I needed them to focus on listening to just how tall Grandma was becoming – I stood on a chair on a table, whilst staging the whole event by putting a look-out at the classroom door, just in case the headmaster happened to walk past. And whilst teaching Harry Potter and learning to fly – I once again stood on said table, broomstick in hand before jumping (sorry flying) off and racing around the classroom at top speed. I ended by swearing my students to silence and telling them it was a secret. Great excitement ensued. We had collaboratively broken the rules!

Off course they are the world’s worst kept secrets in history; along with the time I pretended to be a goat and head-butted them (I now have no recollection of why), these are the tales with which they regale our visitors whilst extracting the promise from them not to tell the headmaster. They are probably the lessons they remembered the most, their attention was gained, differentiation achieved. Once again, without a worksheet in sight!

So go on, what are you waiting for, give your students a lesson to remember; break a few rules! But shhhhh don’t tell the headmaster…..

Oh No! Voldemort Has Been In The Classroom!

Having a Harry Potter themed classroom, it seemed only appropriate that when we entered the room this morning to find a bunch of shrunken superheroes (and angry wolves – think Minecraft), that it was Voldemort who got the blame.

I love those days when my English lessons are first thing in the morning; I can go round and plant clues to inspire my students. Today, it was once again the turn of my Lego superheroes. Students came in the room to find them planted around the room complete with post-its of what they were saying. The story – Voldemort had slipped into our room overnight, where the superheroes had been sleeping and cast a shrinking spell, now they were only the size of Lego men, and they had to find a way of escaping the room.

Each student chose a character (or wolf – I have a student who loves to do anything Minecraft related), and came up with a post-it of what they thought the character would say. Theirs admittedly were far better than mine; apparently my superhero knowledge is only 3%!! Then when all of our quotes had been assigned around the room with our heroes, students devised a brief plan for escape and regrowth. My students’ imaginations never cease to amaze me – Flash burned through the door, Catwoman walked up the wall and took the tiles off the roof, the wolves became angry, whilst Robin very sensibly got all of the members of the Justice League together before plotting his next move.

There was great excitement all round! It had taken us around an hour, but we were ready to begin planning our stories, this time with our trusty Cue Cards as our prompt. Students lined them up along their desk and completed a post it note for each card. The plan was accomplished and the story writing began!

One student wrote an article for the ‘Gotham Times’, others wrote in more traditional story formats. What’s more, because of all the preparation we’d done together, half of the group were able to produce their finished story independently.

Admittedly, a good proportion of the early part of the lesson was spent with them laughing at my inferior knowledge. But hey, they all knew they could do better so it was all in the name of engagement. Maybe once in a while it pays to let them teach us a few things…

Be A Princess; Use A Writing Frame

I stood in my classroom this morning, and as I looked around, I could have heard a pin drop. All my students were busy writing their stories and we were temporarily redundant. It’s those rare moments where everyone is 100% engaged and 100% on task that remind me how far they have all come.

But it wasn’t always like that. At the start of this year none of my KS3 group were confident writers, in fact one of them hadn’t put pen to paper for over four years. Now, although we have the odd grumble about extended written tasks, every one of them is comfortable writing a side of A4 without any real difficulty. Marking their work, gives me a pleasure like no other. They are now proficient writers; they can all write in full sentences, they can all develop their own ideas and they can all transfer those ideas to paper.

We often just expect students to put pen to paper and write, but the reality is it doesn’t happen just like that. We have to create ideas. We have to explore them together, play with them, laugh at them. We have to make our students want to write. We have to make them feel like they have something to say. We have to tell stories.

Many students with ASD have gaps in their education, sometimes because they’ve spent time out of school, sometimes because they’ve missed lessons due to interventions and sometimes because they’ve sat in lessons but been focussing on the way wind is moving in the trees or the sound of the teachers voice without hearing the words coming out. So we need to be inventive. We need to create experiences that help our students fill in those gaps.

I am thankful that my team are fantastic and versatile actors – in fact if I’m not careful I may lose them to the West End! This term, they’ve been Princesses, they’ve been dragon slayers, they’ve been Greek Gods, they’ve been mythical creatures; they’ve even been the voice of smelly socks. All of course, completely without warning, at the drop of a hat, to provide an array of ideas and create interest.

So ideas sorted, we need to create a structure, a safety net to work from. We use writing frames a lot. In the beginning we cut out one segment of the frame at a time, so that the students didn’t see a whole piece of writing in front of them but instead saw a manageable 10cm by 3cm box with a question or sentence starter (Have a look at how we wrote about Sherbet Lemons). Each box was completed separately, until when finished we presented the students with their ‘whole’ piece of work complete with their gold galleon to spend in our Diagon Alley reward shop. Over time we’ve built that up and now our students are all confident enough to be presented with a full writing frame, and depending on the task and the time of day some are capable of completing them independently.

Extended creative writing tasks are tricky, but students with ASD can accomplish them and accomplish them well. It’s up to us to provide them with an environment which inspires them to write and a structure which enables them to feel safe doing so. Why not try being a Princess tomorrow? Or a dragon? Or even an apple? Step outside the box, have some fun. If you have fun, I bet your students will too!

The Personification of Baby Corn

Inspired by my trip to the Autism Show in Manchester on Saturday, I began today in a state of great excitement. Those of you who know me are probably thinking that actually that’s how I begin most days – and yes admittedly that’s true – but even by my standards I was excited!

You see after hearing a talk on Autism and memory, I had decided that from now on every lesson I teach needs to be not only a lesson but an experience. So I began today at 8.15 by talking to a packet of Baby Corn on my desk. My students (being my students and used to the fact that I am slightly crazy), were intrigued rather than perturbed – and I left the thought with them that all would be revealed in this afternoon’s English lesson.

Partly, I suspect, because they wanted to see what insanity was planned with the Baby Corn; at 12.45 each of them was sat at their desks looking at me eagerly. With a bit of help from my trusty colleagues the insanity began. I chatted to the Corn, then left it on the side to listen to me read Julia Donaldson’s ‘Stick Man’. A book which though very simple illustrated my point perfectly. We talked about Stick Man’s feelings and came up with appropriate things he could say when he felt cross.

Then I handed out the Baby Corn, one per student – along of course with some post-it-notes. Baby Corn then began it’s adventure, it climbed rocks, flew on an aeroplane and even flew (sorry, fell in style) across my classroom, superhero style. All the while we gave our inanimate object person-like thoughts, characteristics and feelings. My students – as always – were amazing. Each wrote fantastic sentences personifying the Baby Corn.

It was an abstract concept, it involved imagination, it involved understanding the thoughts and feelings of others. Technically, it should have been a tricky lesson, but it wasn’t. In fact I can’t wait to start on the feelings of a smelly sock tomorrow morning….