Differentiation? On a Trip?

Today, as you can probably guess from the title, we escaped the classroom and headed out for some fun! Never have I welcomed such a smiley excited group of students into my room, the sun was shining, the uncomfortable school uniforms were nowhere to be seen and we only had one hour of real lessons all day. We were doing something MUCH more important – we were off to play on rope swings in a hay barn and eat in an American style diner.

I on the other hand, entered the day somewhat more wary; on the one hand nothing makes me happier than a chance to work on Social Skills for a day, on the other a day out of school always fills me with a sense of fear about what could go wrong. And let’s face it outside the predictable world of school there are 101 things that could go wrong!!

I needn’t have worried though, behaviour was exemplary, manners were perfect and great fun was had by all. We climbed on hay bales, crawled through tunnels and swung on rope swings. When it all got too much we had a quick 10 minute iPad downtime break, then we got up and ran around again. We even survived lunchtime without a meltdown, even though the food didn’t taste like we expected it to, no-one was impolite to the waiter, and everyone found something they could eat.

For me, it’s this, the differentiation we do outside the classroom that (despite the worrying I do about it) is the most important. I mean, don’t get me wrong I love it when my students do amazing work. But, even more than that I love it when they live amazing lives; when they make friends, are happy and truly enjoy social times together – that is when the true magic happens.

So, if you’ve got a trip planned here are my top five tips for taking students with ASD on an extended outing:

  • Plan where your students will sit on the coach (talk to them about it in advance, don’t just assume you know them well enough to decide)
  • Let your students know exactly what the plan for the day is (if possible write it down on portable schedule – so that you can update any changes as and when they happen)
  • Unless you are taking a packed lunch which has come from the student’s own home – do rehearse a plan with the student for what will happen if the food turns out not to look/ taste the way they expect.
  • Have a way of creating positive downtime into your day (we took two iPads and a 10 minute timer). Some students might find a full day of intense social activity just too much.
  • Praise them lots, days out are great fun but they are also really challenging, so if things are going well, notice it.

Go on, plan a trip, there’s just enough time to organise it…

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?

Stationery Addict

As anyone who knows me well is aware, I have a bit of a thing about stationery. Put me in a shop with coloured highlighters and post it notes, and well there you have it, I might just as well be in heaven! Luckily under the guise of essential differentiation materials, I have the perfect self given excuse to buy as many post it notes, index cards, coloured pens, stickers and highlighters as I need… mmmm ok need might not necessarily be strictly the truest word to use, but hey that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.

Post it notes are my wouldn’t be without item, when it comes to differentiation you simply can’t beat them. They are quick, easy, cheap to buy and come in a variety of shapes, sizes, colours and designs. You can – if you know your students well – personalise your post it to your students. Even if you don’t now them well enough, or have an extensive enough collection to quite manage personalisation, novelty post it notes are a great way to get their attention.

There are I warn you about a hundred uses for the humble post it when it comes to differentiation, but for now I’m going to give you just three:

1) Adding targets to pieces of work; it means if you’re nagging them for the 50th time that term to use full stops and capital letters, the post it can be moved right to the top of the page they’re going to write on next – let’s face it any way of getting them to read and take notice of our marking has to be a good thing! It immediately shows an observer that you know what that student needs to work on next in order to make progress, and shows you immediately what you were looking for as your objective for that particular student when you next take their book in for marking.

2) My favourite use for them: checklists. Many of my students struggle to remember sequences and a simple post it note checklist can really help them. If it’s something I notice mid lesson, I jot it down quickly on a post it and stick it on their desk, but if it’s something I know is going to be a problem I prepare them in advance; if you stick six standard sized post its on a piece of A4 paper, they’ll even go through your printer, making them look really professional but taking hardly any time to produce. Here is an example that you’re welcome to use as a template: Drawing Angles Post It

3) A planning tool. A lot of my students panic at the idea of an extended piece of written work. Writing down a couple of sentences on a post it note however, no problem at all. And when we’ve done one, well it’s easy to do another; until before you know it you have a whole structure all planned out, without a whiff of anxiety in sight. Even better, each sentence has been carefully crafted because we’re only writing one at a time.

So Mr Post it note, in me you have one VERY dedicated fan, I guess that might just give me an excuse to buy some more….