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…

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….

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