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?

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…

Push Your Own Boundaries

If there is one thing in the classroom that terrifies me, it’s technology. It’s something I know I need to get better at; I mean apart from anything else, if I can master it the differentiation possibilities are endless. My students love anything technology related, it instantly motivates them and I have no doubt that when my lessons include it they produce better work and learn more.

So this summer, my self-set mission, is to improve my knowledge and work out creative ways to include more technology in my room. Yesterday, the perfect opportunity came along. Whilst I was sitting totally in my comfort zone at home cutting out pieces of paper for the interactive notebooks I’m making for my GCSE group, a suggestion was made to me by a fellow twitter user (well worth getting onto if you haven’t already – the teaching community on there is amazing). The suggestion: Why don’t you add QR codes? QR codes, I thought – what on earth are they?

Anyway it turned out the QR codes are those little picture links that you scan which take you directly to websites. After the initial ‘There is no way I can do that’ panic subsided, I followed the link sent, to http://ictevangelist.com an amazing blog full of wonderful tips, downloaded the recommended app QRAfter (only £1.49) and started to play.

Much to my delight, it was ridiculously easy. Pick a website, type the web address into the app, press a button and hey presto, you have a little picture link. The app emails the link directly to you, meaning you can immediately print it off. I’ve stuck mine directly into the interactive notebooks I’ve made, so they’ll lead straight to links about what it was like to be a cotton picker in 1930s America, and what racial segregation at the time of Maya Angelou’s childhood looked like. But, for larger classes you could just as easily print the link out and put it on a poster in the room.

We have access to two iPads in the unit and I’m going to download the scanner onto them (totally free of charge), but I’m thinking I may also let students use their own phones. The excitement in my KS4 group would be literally palpable if I TOLD them to get their phones out in a lesson. It would be a sure fire way of guaranteeing engagement, even in an early morning lesson.

This app is differentiation at its best. It allows you to incorporate visual content into your lesson. It promotes engagement from those students who find traditional methods of taking information on-board challenging. It even provides a way of allowing students who are unable to read and/ or write to access online video content independently.

This is technology that anyone can do. Trust me. If I can do it, you can. What are you waiting for? Give it a go today….

Structure Your Free Time

Today was our last day of term; a day on which clearly the gods were looking down on us. Unbelievably, the day passed without a meltdown.

For the uninitiated, this may not seem unbelievable. However, for our students it is. It is these days – the days on which changes occur and normal structures disappear, on which they struggle the most.

Today, however, looking around my room at students happily playing together no one would have guessed that these situations can be challenging. And that is down to my amazing staff. I came in from an early morning meeting, to find two speech therapists playing giant snakes and ladders on the floor with two of my students, a game of cards being led by very enthusiastic staff on another table, a member of staff sharing an iPad game with a students, another looking at something with students on a computer and yet others involving students in creating resources for next year. Somehow out of the chaos, they had a created order.

Free time is fantastic; our students need to experience it. But we also need to scaffold that freedom by providing activities that our students can do. We need to know and understand our students, well enough to find activities that create structure within the freedom. We need to give our students a chance to be successful.

So next time, it’s form time or toy day, and the day isn’t quite the same as usual – make sure you give a thought to those who might need that little extra help to make the day fun. One look at their faces, and you’ll know it was worth it…

Unexpected Change Is Not Our Friend

As much as I love the unpredictability of teaching, there are certain elements of my world where predictability and routine reign. I never know the responses I will get to my questions, and I never know what interesting conversations will arise. However, I could tell you for instance, exactly what each of my students will order for their lunch tomorrow! There are certain elements of their world that my students need to be able to control, in order to deal with the rest of the unpredictable world they live in.

There is a golden rule in my room, one that should never be broken. If you can’t promise something with absolute certainty don’t mention it at all. A promise is a promise and should be kept. Many of our students have had negative school experiences. Their trust is fragile; we need to be aware of that. We need to build it, carefully one day at a time.

Yet change, however uncomfortable it makes us, is inevitable. Our students know that, that is a big part of what makes it hard for them. If one change has happened, what might happen next?

In our room, change is carefully planned for, compromises are made and alternatives created. Students are told in advance, so they can prepare themselves for what will happen. For many the change is still upsetting, but it’s that little bit less catastrophic than not preparing them. It’s fairer, more reasonable, less likely to disrupt learning, less likely to result in total meltdown.

Students with autism need your help with this. It’s once again differentiation; differentiation that won’t take you any planning or marking time, differentiation that won’t involve you making extra worksheets. Differentiation that will make a world of difference.

If you know you will be out of school, or on a course, or that the class will be taking place in a different room please let students with autism know with as much notice as possible. It seems like a small thing, so small many don’t even think to mention it, but it’s huge. This tiny amount of effort will make a massive difference; to students with autism, to their support assistants and most of all to their relationship with you.

So next time there’s going to be a change, think a little, say a little, make a difference…

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…..

How Do We Figure Out What Makes A Difference?

Although we still have a few days left, my mind is drifting to the next school year. I love the summer holidays; every year they are a chance for me to look at my students with fresh eyes, think about how far they have come and about the skills they still need to learn the following year.

Of course I do that at annual review time too, but it always seems different over the summer. Then, I am not doing it because someone else is saying this needs to be done, on set forms that someone else thinks are the right ones. Instead I am doing it purely for pleasure, to gain a better knowledge of my students, to inform my teaching and to ensure that they learn as much as possible.

I’m a bit (well ok maybe a lot) obsessive about it. It takes me a long time, but for me it’s worth it. I enter each year knowing exactly where they are at socially, linguistically and emotionally. I know their strengths and I know which areas may prevent them from learning as effectively as they could.

The forms I use are ones I’ve culled over the years from a variety of places; some are exactly as they were when I got them, whereas others I have made adaptations to so that they work better for us and our students. Firstly I do a strengths and skills inventory. I like to start by celebrating what they can do, what they’ve achieved and therefore can build on.

Then I look at what we need to work on, using a modified Underlying Characteristics Checklist. This really helps me to determine individual skills my students need to learn from 90 different learning related elements. They’re Autism specific, but in reality they work for students who find things challenging for many different reasons. Once I’ve identified the skills to work on, the exciting part begins.

The Ziggurat is my favourite form ever!!! And believe me, usually you practically have to drag me to paperwork. This form is different though; it makes you think about every aspect of your teaching and the child’s learning and how you can ensure progress. Plus added bonus (for me, not my other half) is that usually the things I decide to do involve laminating (not being the tidiest person in the world, I usually leave a trail of small plastic bits everywhere I go).

I love these forms because they allow me to break everything down into small parts, and small parts are great because they feel manageable. It takes away the feeling of ‘they just can’t do it’ and makes you think ‘yes, I know with help they can get this.’ And as a teacher wanting to make a difference, the feeling that you can do something to change things is a fantastic feeling.

So, if you fancy a challenge this summer, and have one or more students that you just can’t figure out how to move forward with, why not give this a go. I promise you, it really is worth it.

If you want to go full steam ahead there is lots more information and video tutoring about how to use these forms on the Comprehensive Programme Planning section of http://www.autisminternetmodules.org (It’s a fantastic website, with some brilliant free training on it).

But for those of you who need something a bit quicker, why not just take a look at the UCC and the Ziggurat. Jot down 5 or 6 skills your student needs to work on at the top (The UCC will help with this). Then think about two or three things you could put in place to help each level of need (the Ziggurat Model Pyramid will help you). Underneath each section write the skill that you think the things you’ve put in place will help. Hey presto, you have a plan of action.

I know it sounds scary, and I also know that paperwork is a pain. But this is a different kind of paperwork. This is paperwork that will get you somewhere. I promise. Go on, choose a student, give it a try….

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…

Let’s Empower Our Students To Cope With Exams

If there is one thing guaranteed to cause anxiety in my room, it’s any mention of the words ‘exam’ or ‘test’. In fact I’m absolutely sure that my students have an inbuilt radar which tells them when any of us have even been discussing the possibility of one! Exams are stressful, it’s the feeling of making a mistake which can’t be rectified, it’s the thought of sitting in silence in a strange room with a strange person, it’s the thought of opening something which is unknown and not knowing the answers. It’s also a change from our usual routine. Especially if we don’t have Art on a Thursday and then someone puts an Art exam on a Thursday – well clearly that is unreasonable of them. Art should not be done on a Thursday.

The reality of life however, is that much as we hate putting our students through the added anxiety of exams – the new curriculum is going to demand that of them more regularly. We need therefore to equip them with the skills to deal with this, without creating additional stress. Luckily we have a few tried and tests tricks up our sleeves to get both us and our students through exams in one piece:

  • Avoid using the words – Exam or Test – we tend to complete a work booklet in silence (because someone is feeling upset and needs the room to be quiet), or do a piece of writing without any help (so the teacher knows which bits she has forgotten to teach this term, then she can make sure she does them next term). We need our students to get used to doing exams, but we can teach the procedure without the anxiety. (If the paper has a cover sheet with EXAM or TEST across the front, rip it off)
  • Try to minimise the importance of the test. If you want to emphasise its importance to your other students, please find a very important job across the other side of the school and dispatch anxious students to complete it, whilst you discuss the importance of getting good marks in the impending exam.
  • Pick your times carefully – in an ideal world the test should take place at the same time as the lesson normally would (thus reducing anxiety about change in routine, and making the student more likely to be willing to give it a go).
  • Allow the student to complete the test in a familiar place, with a familiar person and familiar things around them. If a student feels safe they are much less likely to be anxious and therefore much more likely to perform well.
  • Have a get out plan. Make sure the students knows what they need to do if they feel like they can no longer cope. Can they take a time out? How do they need to ask for one? Where are they allowed to go?
  • Reinforcement, or shameless bribery and corruption. Whilst I normally prefer the former, when the stakes are high and GCSEs are at stake – I have been known to engage in the latter. Make sure you have special rewards for particularly difficult tasks; things relating to your students’ special interests will be especially helpful and will make them feel calmer.

I know it’s hard. As teachers we have 101 demands on our time and multiple priorities competing for our attention, but being aware both of the levels of anxiety felt by many students with ASD about upcoming exams and knowing how to reduce that anxiety will make a massive difference, not only to their emotional state of mind (and that of their families) but also to their results.

Let’s make sure we empower our students to face the demands of the new curriculum, rather than let it overwhelm both them and us.

Superhero Connectives

Today I wanted to focus not on the quantity of writing my students produced, but on the quality. I’m only too aware that for some of my students, getting the work done quickly is their primary objective. There are times when that is fantastic, but I like to have a balance.

So there are days I take the pressure of quantity away and we work on building our sentences one word at a time. We explore new words, look in thesaurus’ and generally learn to enjoy language. Today was one of those days. I wanted to work on using and understanding more complex connectives, so that students would become more familiar with them and more likely to use them in their written work.

I’d had a delivery of some very exciting Lego-like (but much cheaper) Superheroes, each one individually wrapped. So it seemed like the perfect time to be exacting about my standards! Students walked into the room to find 10 un-built superheroes on their tables along with post-it notes (yes they’re creeping into my lessons again) and individually written ‘wow’ connectives. The excitement in the room was palpable. My students couldn’t believe their luck! The deal: choose a character from the pile, write one amazing sentence using one of our connectives, then build the character. Next, choose another character, write an amazing sentence about them and a further one combining both of your characters, then build your character, and so on. Never have I seen them look as happy about a literacy lesson!

The sentences were incredible, in fact some of the best they’ve ever written. But that wasn’t the real magic. The magic was the confidence with which they wrote, the willingness with which they engaged with new language, and the conversations that surrounded their writing. It was a lesson I won’t forget in a hurry.

Tangible things to look at can really help with creativity. They are a ready made base to hang ideas from. They take the stress away and add the excitement factor. So what are you waiting for? Get raiding your cupboards – find your wow factor! Your students can write incredible sentences, you just have to start one word at a time.

As for me, whilst Superhero excitement is here, I’m already thinking about how to incorporate them into my next few lessons…