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!

A Mother’s Plea

Tonight was our year six transition evening; a chance for us to get to know the parents of the students that will join us in September and for them to get to know us. I sat there with seven sets of eyes looking at me, waffling (as I tend to do) about the way things work in the unit. And yes, it was important that they understand what food is available and how our reward system works and a hundred other things. But all I really wanted to do was reassure them that I care about their child and will do everything I can to understand them.

It isn’t hard for me to imagine what those parents were thinking and feeling tonight. For me my job will always be a little too personal, it is both my greatest strength and my biggest weakness. I will always give my all, but my decisions will never be 100% objective. I will always fight a little too hard for the rights of my students, and I’ll never be able to switch off when I walk out of the door. You see, my own daughter was diagnosed with ASD almost five years ago. I have walked in the shoes of those parents. Sat where they have, in front of teachers and tried to work out whether this one will understand her, or whether instead they will inflict on us sleepless nights, meltdowns and endless stress.

The greatest gift you can give is to understand, to be patient, to care. Sometimes our children will drive you crazy, they will railroad your lessons, hide under your desks, they will scream, they will shout, they may even tell you they hate you. We understand that, sometimes they drive us crazy too! But please, understand that they are not (most of the time at least) doing things to annoy you, they are doing them because they haven’t figured a way of handling this yet, if you help them, give them strategies to try, be patient, eventually they will get there.

In our life we have been lucky to find two lots of people who both understand and care. The first, were staff aboard the Disney Magic Cruise Ship. I remember walking into the kids’ club and being told not to worry all the staff were trained in Autism. And they had, but it was more than that, somehow on that ship my daughter found affinity with so many people. They changed our lives – both hers and mine. They showed us both that there are people who care. They gave us hope. The second are the staff at her current school. She rushes in the door at night now, desperate to tell us about her day. Her teachers will never know the difference they have made to our family, they can’t, because they didn’t see what life was like before they were in it.

I can never repay those people for the gift they have given my family, but I can pay it forward. And every day, that is what I try to do. I strive to make a difference in the lives of those I teach, in the way that others have for us. I ask myself one question: if this were my child what would I want for them?

And now, I ask you to consider that question. If that child in your classroom, the one who doesn’t quite learn in the same way as everyone else, or the one who always does everything you ask but who doesn’t quite fit in, was your child, your sibling, your niece or nephew, what would you want for them?

No Way I’ve Already Done It!

Tomorrow is Monday morning; lesson one I teach my KS4 students – all of whom before 9.30 if I’m totally honest, would far rather be at home in bed than in my lesson. They will be grumpy, and anything and everything that is wrong with their world will be my fault. It’s ok – I won’t take it personally – as soon as the clock hits 9.30 they will become the lovely human beings I know them to be, and I will be forgiven for inflicting endless misery upon them.

I am however determined, as I am every Monday that lesson one will be a success, despite the fact that this Monday I (the evil teacher) will be inflicting the horror of all horror on them. We will be redrafting a piece of work.

Now I should add here that redrafting work, has – in the eyes of my students – to be the most pointless task ever invented. It is in their opinion simply a form of torture which teachers have invented in order to make them miserable. I mean what is the point of redoing something that you have already done, tried your best doing and are quite satisfied with?

Of course I could just say, never mind then let’s leave it at that. However, both they and I know that that isn’t going to happen. I’m far too stubborn for that. My KS4 students are wonderful, intelligent and creative, and more than capable of improving their work. However, that said – nor am I going to embark on a battle of wills first thing on a Monday morning.

Instead I’m going to go round the houses, they aren’t going to ‘redraft’ work, or at least not knowingly. Instead, they are going to complete four challenges – each of which asks them to look at a different element of their work. Those challenges will be handwritten and presented in an envelope which congratulates them on a fantastic piece of work. I need them to understand that 1) They have done a great job with their work, 2) I know that they’ve done a great job, 3) Even when we’ve done a great job, we can still challenge ourselves a little bit more.

One day, in the not too distant future – they will be ready for me to say to them, ‘OK guys let’s redraft this’, but first they need to understand that redrafting something doesn’t mean you got it wrong in the first place and second they need to have the building blocks in place to understand what redrafting work really means.

Ok and I forgot, one tiny other element – a Cadbury’s chocolate éclair – once they’ve completed their challenges they will enjoy their éclair whilst I thoroughly enjoy reading their excellent work!

If you would like to try this with your students here are some printable and editable challenges for you to get started with. Just don’t mention the dreaded ‘redrafting’ word!

What Would You Do If You Were A Monkey In Space?

A common misconception is that students with Autism don’t have imagination. Whoever first made that statement, clearly didn’t have students like mine! My students have richer imaginations than anyone I know; they can invent new words, write amazing stories and come up with a million and one questions that no one else would ever even contemplate wondering about!

I love the conversations I have in my classroom, I learn so much. I have, in the last week alone debated the pros and cons of Disney’s Beast versus The Beast from X-Men, conversed with Dr Brown Bear as I cured my blutack made spotty students (and support staff), discussed the necessary elements to turn an ordinary bedroom into an Australian Jungle and been initiated into the world of online role play. No day is ever the same and that is why my job is the best job in the world.

Alongside the incredible imaginations of my students, comes a desire to discuss their special interests and link those interests to whatever we are learning. At this they are incredibly skilled, and I’m often both simultaneously impressed and perturbed by their ability to railroad my lessons with a fantastic (if only tenuously linked to my lesson plan) question!

I’ve learnt, however, over time that I can utilise these questions to my advantage, rather than feel frustrated by them…. instead I tell my students that they came up with such an incredible question, that I need time to think of an answer that is just as incredible. And that is exactly what I do! The students begin their work, I think of my answers and then, when I can see a student is starting to find things a bit tricky I have the perfect pick me up in a well thought out (if often somewhat bizarre) answer to the very imaginative question I have previously been asked.

So how could this work in mainstream? Why not give those students who can be somewhat tangential in your lessons a pack of post it notes (I already warned you, any excuse and my post it notes appear), ask them to write down any questions that come into their head that aren’t directly related to the lesson. Then when students are settled and working go round the class and check out the post-its. Either discuss individually, or pick your favourite each lesson and give a whole class answer (just make sure students know in advance which method you’re using so they’re not disappointed if you don’t choose them).

Use imagination to your advantage, you’ll be surprised at what you discover!

Smile If You’re Happy

This is a differentiation tip that anyone can do; even better it takes no preparation, no special knowledge and no marking! All you have to do is smile if you’re happy. Yes, really. It really is that simple.

Students with ASD often struggle to read people’s emotions, and many worry that if you’re not overtly happy – then you must be sad – or even worse cross at them. So please; greet students with a smile, smile when you look at their work, smile when you look at them and smile when you say goodbye.

After all, think how nervous you feel if whoever is observing your lesson sits at the back with a blank expression. Do you perform at your best? I know I don’t. Our students are no different; if they think you like them and are happy with them, they will feel more relaxed, and if they are relaxed they are far more able to concentrate on learning.

So what are you waiting for? There’s nothing to lose. Take out that smile and see the results for yourself!

Minecraft? Batman? Mortal Kombat? In Lessons? Why Not!

So much of differentiation isn’t about creating a resource, or planning a different lesson. I mean, sure you can do those things, and sometimes doing those things is a great thing to do. Realistically though you can differentiate for many students without doing those things every single lesson.

All you need to do is remember that students are people just like you; they have likes, they have dislikes, they get scared, they get sad and they get excited. You need to learn what makes them tick. Do they love dolls? Are they a Batman fanatic? Is minecraft their one and only true love?  Whatever their thing is, it pays to educate yourself. You don’t have to become a world-leading expert, just arm yourself with a little bit of knowledge, believe me it will pay off.

A quick chat on the way out of your room or in a corridor about a topic that interests a student, goes wonders towards making you interesting, and if you’re interesting you are worth working for. And well, if you’re going to make yourself interesting you may as well use it to your advantage! Do you want a story written by a Minecraft fan? Try suggesting they incorporate a character called Steve, or an Angry Wolf in there. Do you want a Science experiment carried out by a Mortal Kombat fan? How about, figuring out a way of making clean drinking water for Scorpian. It doesn’t matter what the interest is, with a little bit of creativity you can incorporate it into virtually any task. You get the lesson objective met, the student thinks they’ve spent the whole lesson doing something they want to do and therefore learns enthusiastically, it’s a win win situation – and best of all not an extra worksheet in sight.

After all, we all work better for someone we like, someone we respect, and someone who cares enough to find out a little about what makes us tick. Why should our students be any different?

Lego In The Classroom

Ok, Let’s face it, as teachers we love to play. In fact that’s probably one of the main reasons we’ve spent our life in school. It allows us to be Peter Pan. As my GCSE class frequently tell anyone who will listen; I do stand on tables, pretend to be a goat and have been known to be a princess. I mean let’s face it, in what other job would we get to have so much fun on a daily basis?

So when I read about Lego’s range of educational products last weekend, I have to say I was thoroughly excited.  Not having any budget left though, I turned not to those but to my daughter’s closet, where I raided her lego supply to spice up my lessons. So this week we’ve used lego as a starter both in maths and in English, and I have to stay it really worked, in maths we had 100% engagement from all students, and in English even my most reluctant writers managed to write a full side of A4.

In English, students (both in KS3 and KS4) built their lego models to give them a starting point for their story. I have never seen more excitement in my room, and the task involved zero preparation time, I literally picked up the box of lego and put it in my classroom.

In maths, my lego work involved slightly more preparation time because I prepared individual lego bags for students based on their own learning objectives (e.g. a bag of 12 one by two bricks for a student working on his two times table) – that said, the bags are now made, and I know I’ll use them again and again, so it was well worth it; especially when students arrive expecting to see a worksheet on their desk and instead saw a bag of lego. Maths has never been as much fun!

For more information about Lego’s exciting range of products check out https://education.lego.com/en-gb/lesi