Reflections on the Autism Friendly English Classroom (2)

Linda Harris, educational consultant and former ITE lecturer at the University of Strathclyde, offers her thoughts on Charlene Tait’s recent seminar for SATE.

Charlene Tait, Director of Autism Practice and Research at Scottish Autism, held her audience spellbound in the recent SATE Seminar, ‘The Autism Friendly English Classroom’. Charlene explained that children with autism are as varied in their behaviours and needs as any other learner and that empathy is the foremost requirement of teachers to help minimise the severe stress suffered by those affected.

Autism is a developmental condition that affects behaviours, communication and information processing. Since the presumption of mainstreaming in 2001, there are increasing numbers of these youngsters in mainstream schools and they can appear chameleon-like in that they modify their behaviours to blend in with their peers. However, stimulation overload can overwhelm them and they can opt out of activities or become so overloaded that their behaviour becomes problematic.

The core features are difficulties in social communication and interaction, social imagination and sensory processing. However, with the sensitive awareness of others, along with augmented and supported communication in some cases, they are able to develop and indeed display remarkable cognitive strengths and intense interests. Their restricted social imagination can lead to what appears as rudeness as they attempt to align themselves to societal norms. In their need for predictability, they attempt to exert control over their environment by incorporating routines in their lives. There is also a high incidence of synaesthesia for these individuals so in hearing a sound, they may experience a colour instead.

Teaching these learners is enhanced by concrete explanations and the frequent use of visual aids. Personal writing is the most accessible type of writing for them as they can describe what they have experienced easier than creating another’s experiences. Other helpful, practical suggestions offered by Charlene include deploying some of the visible thinking and visible learning approaches. (See Project Zero here and the work of John Hattie here) Additionally, these children need processing time of approximately 10 seconds, so we need to be prepared to wait for their responses.

This was an extremely enjoyable evening of learning interwoven with anecdotes and laughter. I am looking forward very much to the next seminar.

Reflections on The Autism Friendly English Classroom (1)

Sudipa De, a PGDE student teacher at the University of Strathclyde, reflects on the recent Autism, Friendly Classroom seminar from Charlene Tate of Scottish Autism.

“It’s like we have big secrets: we are in it, they are not!” to quote Charlene Tait from her recent SATE seminar: The Autism Friendly English Classroom. Trying to understand what others mean and how to behave can be bewildering and stressful for autistic children.  The ideas presented in the seminar demonstrated Charlene’s deep understanding of classroom management with an insight to the world of youngsters under the spectrum with Autism.

As prospective English teachers, the most important attribute we should possess towards people with autism is empathy. Autistic students have a very poor sense of themselves, and need a lot of reassurance and confirmation of their performance. It is our responsibility as educators to support them in having a voice and enable these young people through their journey in life.

Qualitative research shows that the developmental profile of children with autism is rather spiky and inconsistent in comparison to their fellow counterparts. This is a human condition which clearly explains their difficulties with understanding receptive language, processing instructions and poor sequential memory. They are easily prone to distractions and have delayed sensory processing and lack skills in perception. Their developmental differences make them think, feel, view and react to the world differently. Their perspective of the world is very honest, consistent and truthful – and sometimes appears to be rude and arrogant to others!  Often autistic pupils are unable to organize or put limits to their own behaviour or acknowledge the rules of the society. To help us understand such complex issues Charlene advises the use of appropriate language.The language used in the playground with peers is different to the language used in class or with family. Similarly, the language we use in a seminar is different to the language we would use with our colleagues in pubs! Autistic pupils are unable to differentiate it. They struggle to adapt or model their actions and communication according to the demands of the situation.

As we are aiming to achieve successful learning experiences within the classroom environment, we need to shift our thinking from behavioural management of autistic children to stress reduction. It may appear on the exterior that the students are calm, pacified and relaxed. However, the unpredictability of when something different might happen can be very challenging for autistic students. Consequently, they often choose to stay with familiar activities and resist learning new routines. Repetitive, rigid behaviours are signs of stress overwhelming them. Scheduling daily or weekly events lessens the anxiety level and outlines a framework of ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘where’ and ‘when’ for them, helping with transitioning independently between activities.

English is difficult for these children and we need to acknowledge it. Pronouns like she, he, you, we, and I, or concepts of positional language can be really difficult to comprehend. To overcome such barriers in understanding, visual representation of the context by sequencing cue cards to build up a story line;  providing a picture/word dictionary would be helpful. Using emotion cards displaying abstract concepts of happiness, fear, remorse, excitement, and anger can help with better understanding of emotions.

A myth prevails that autistic children suffer from lack of imagination. This is not necessarily so .They suffer from contextual blindness, which is their inability to see the wider picture and think logically. As an example, Charlene refers to a scene in the movie Rain Man where Raymond misinterprets the sign “Don’t walk” and stops in the middle of the intersection. His mind doesn’t understand that “Don’t walk” can also mean ‘hurry up’ if he is halfway through the crossing.

For better understanding of novels or drama, films can be helpful sometimes as it helps the students to visualise the characters. Another interesting approach may be to ask them to create or present a paper cut out of the characters they think resembles them best. Graphic representation, creating online work space, use of speech bubbles with basic introductory sentences such as “The author says….” I know this because…”or The illustrator says….”can help in understanding. Charlene directed us to The Autism Tool Box for further practical approaches and practice grids.

Touching on perfectionism Charlene advise us, “be imperfect yourself”, to enable the pupils feel that it is ok to make mistakes! It’s all about modelling the task set to get it right for every child.

My participation in the seminar has consolidated my learning experiences of working with autistic kids over the last four years. Charlene’s relaxed, friendly and interactive approach combined with her video clips of interviews from autistic pupils generated a lot of productive discussions. Our fantastic hosts at Marr College –  despite their other professional commitments – were very welcoming too.

 

Get Write In! competition

NATE and SATE sponsored the Get Write In! creative writing competition for looked after children.  SATE National coordinator Raymond Soltysek chaired the judges, which included Scottish Makar Jackie Kay.  A record of a wonderful evening can be found at HERE .

Peter Thomas, chair of NATE, reflects on the event:

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It was a pleasure to represent the National Association for the Teaching of English at an inspiring event in Edinburgh’s beautiful Our Dynamic Earth centre on 15th August. The event was the Awards evening, where the winners of the Get Write IN! competition were announced. This creative writing competition was organized by CELCIS (Centre for Excellence for Looked-after Children in Scotland) based at the University of Strathclyde with the help of Raymond Soltysek, Chair of SATE (Scottish Association for the Teaching of English).

All contributors in the junior and senior sections were children in home or foster care, and the Dynamic Earth Hall was filled with them and their very proud carers. Volunteers in superhero dress provided stimulating games and challenges at tables around the hall, and there was a fine buffet and musical accompaniment to make the occasion special.

Jackie Kay, Scotland’s national poet was the star of the presentation, and well suited for the role. She spoke movingly and wittily about her young experience in care, and her struggle to become a writer. There could be no better role model for the youngsters in the room – especially as she read a poem called Care Leaver written for the event. Raymond Soltysek provided an eloquent reinforcement of Jackie’s description of writing as a form of self-defining and discovery, and the message from these two was a ringing endorsement of creative writing for all children, as well as those present on the evening. It was good, also, to have the event supported by the Mark McDonald, Scotland’s Minister for Childcare and Early Years. I had to reflect, regretfully, that England cannot boast such a splendid competition, or such government support.

The winner of the junior section was Joseph Ness and the winner of the senior section was William Cathie, both of whom wrote movingly about the impact of significant events in their lives. Both winners’ work was read out by Jackie Kay, and all the finalists had their work published in a booklet – a sign of success and approval that was well received by entrants and their carers.

The whole evening was a highpoint in a city in the middle of its annual Festival – a testament to the quality of care in Scotland, to the power of creative writing as an extension and development of self, and to the commitment of CELCIS and the University of Strathclyde to the motivation and celebration of young people’s achievement.

 

Two fantastic upcoming SATE events (2): How success in Literacy and Language improves Wellbeing

On the 20th of September, SATE are delighted to be hosting an evening seminar with Professor Sue Ellis of the University of Strathclyde. Professor Ellis will explore current policy challenges whilst also looking at evidence on effective teaching approaches. She will also focus on the way aspects of literacy, language and literature contribute to pupils’ social, emotional and intellectual wellbeing.

Professor Ellis has a strong commitment to knowledge exchange and to research that directly supports improved literacy outcomes for pupils. The recurring themes in her work concern literacy and equity, policy implementation and teacher development. She is the co-author of the highly-regarded report Closing the Attainment Gap in Scottish Education published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in 2014.

You can sign up for this event at https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/sate-seminar-how-success-in-literacy-and-language-improves-wellbeing-tickets-37562945782.

See you there!

Two fantastic upcoming SATE events (1): The National Writing Project

Founded in 2009, the National Writing Project UK aims to deepen understanding about what writing is, what it can do for teachers, and how the process of writing can be more meaningfully managed in schools. It is a not-for-profit co-operative, a network of teacher’s writing groups run by teachers for teachers, and a research project that aims to explore writing and find out further answers to the question, ‘What happens when teachers gather together to write and share their writing?’ 

Each meeting of a writing group gives teachers a chance to share ideas, resources and approaches to teaching creative writing, with members leaving each session with something new to try with their classes. In addition, the National Writing Project UK reports attending a writing group boosts confidence both in teaching writing and in teachers writing for themselves.

Currently there are twenty-one NWP UK writing groups meeting regularly in England. In October, for the first time, a Scottish branch of the Project will launch in Scotland.

On Wednesday October 11th, a Glasgow branch of the NWP will hold their launch event at Springburn Academy in Glasgow. Simon Wrigley, co-founder of the NWP UK, will be in attendance. He will give a brief introduction to the NWP and the research it carries out, before leading us in a session of prompted writing. We will end with a discussion of strategies for encouraging creative writing in the classroom.

All teachers of writing ­­- primary, secondary and tertiary – are warmly invited to attend. Below is an outline of the launch event. If you are a keen writer or a nervous writer, a teacher of writing and think joining the Glasgow NWP writing group might be for you, please come along! All welcome.

Any questions or queries, or to let us know that you intend to come, please get in touch with Lisa Hamilton, English Teacher at Springburn Academy on;

gw17hamiltonlisa@glow.ea.glasgow.sch.uk

Or connect with Lisa on Twitter @MissHamiltonEng

National Writing Project – Glasgow Branch Launch event

Wednesday 11th October, 4pm.

4:00 Welcome and Introductions; NWP – the evolution of this teacher-led, research project – the evidence so far – experiential learning of writing for UK teachers interested in 

  • exploring their own process – half-termly opportunities to write in a trusted group, 
  • reflecting on the changing nature of writing and learning, 
  • networking with other NWP groups, and collecting evidence of the effect of teacher-owned CPD on well-being, agency and pedagogy

4:10 Sampling common NWP practices: quick writing exercises including free-writing or ‘automatic writing’

4:30 More sustained writing practice

4:45 Listening and responding to others’ writing, sharing your own writing, discussing how to develop meaningful/ discovery writing across the curriculum: –

  • free-writing, 
  • writing alongside pupils, 
  • initiating, developing and sustaining writing journals and writing groups

5:00 Questions, further discussion and future dates and venues of Glasgow NWP

5:15 Finish 

 

 

SATE Seminar: The Autism Friendly English Classroom

We are delighted to announce our first South Ayrshire SATE Seminar, on the 6th of September at 4.15pm in Marr College, Troon.

The approach taken will be to recognise and value your expertise as English teachers and to enable you to import understanding of autism into your classroom practice.

This session will provide an overview of the autism spectrum. There will be particular focus on the potential strengths of and challenges for autistic learners. Autistic thinking and information processing will be explored. There will also be an emphasis on the impact of the environment and the importance of wellbeing in relation to learning. There will be a focus on practical approaches, useful resources and the opportunity for discussion.

The session will be delivered by Charlene Tait, Director of Practice & Research for Scottish Autism.

Tickets can be booked through Eventbrite at https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/sate-seminar-the-autism-friendly-english-classroom-tickets-37058695556 .

We look forward to seeing you there!

“Small Shadows and Black Marks on a Page”: Taking the Panic out of Reading Poetry… NATE 2017

Kerri-Anne Campbell describes her experiences of NATE conference, 2017…

When I read a poem for the first time I am often left feeling perplexed and frustrated. Panic usually sets in if I read it over and over again yet still can’t uncover the underlying meaning. Attending the annual NATE conference in Nottingham made me realise that I’m not the only one. Some of the most experienced English teachers also feel this same sense of bewilderment when they read a poem for the first time, and they’re not afraid to say it.

The conference offered a wide range of innovative workshops and seminars which addressed many such concerns. One workshop which I learned much from was, Taking the Top of Our Heads off – Poetry for GCSE and A Level. The name of the workshop was derived from Emily Dickinson’s quote, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry”.

The workshop introduced different approaches to the teaching of poetry, to meet its aim of alleviating the anxieties often felt by teachers and students when studying and writing about poems for exams preparation. Different activities were outlined to bring fun and excitement to the kids’ experiences of reading poems. I left the workshop equipped with so many interesting ideas which I hope to use to motivate and engage my pupils in their own study of poetry.

For me though, the highlight of the conference was Simon Armitage’s keynote speech. Armitage brought to profile the difficulty of reading and understanding poetry and confessed that when he was a student, poems often appeared as “small shadows and black marks on a page”. He went on to make an impassioned plea for the reconceptualisation of the traditional approach to teaching poetry away from the model within which poems are mechanically deconstructed word by word, insisting that a poem is not a lock to be picked, or a code which needs to be cracked, nor is it a riddle to which teachers have the answer. This was music to my ears, and is something I anticipate sharing with my pupils with no small excitement.

Armitage told us that an appreciation of language is one of the greatest gifts you can give to young people, and he suggested that in order to avoid instilling a life-long abhorrence of poetry in their pupils, teachers should introduce them to poems to which they can personally respond: poems which fire up their imagination; poems which inspire their creativity; and, poems which encourage independent thinking. He urged schools to achieve this by continuing to teach contemporary poems, and importantly, by contextualising and relating poetry to issues important to pupils’ personal and social lives. He said that by so doing the gateway to more difficult and unfamiliar work would be opened wide.

Armitage reminisced about discovering his love for poetry in the ‘Worlds’ anthology whilst still a schoolboy, and called for getting back to using poetry books as opposed to photocopies in the English classroom. Until this address, I had not heard of this anthology, but now await the arrival of my own copy with eagerness.

As an NQT I realise how fortunate I was to have the opportunity to attend the NATE conference before I even begin my first year as a teacher. I met so many inspiring people and left brimming with ideas. One thing that really struck me is that reading and discussing a poem for the first time can be a terrifying experience for teachers and pupils alike and I will endeavour to ensure that this is not a secret kept from my pupils. I want them to realise that we will journey and discover the world of poetry together.

Kerri-Anne Campbell is a newly qualified English teacher in East Dunbartonshire.  Views expressed here are her own.