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!