Wednesday, 30 November 2011

What's the weather like there?

Like many of my colleagues, I’d often thought about setting up a link with an overseas school and running a collaboration project. The children I teach all have severe and complex learning difficulties and to be frank, don’t get out much. Only one of the ten children in the class had ever been out of the country and that was to Disneyland in Paris. Don’t get me wrong but the ‘It’s a Small World’ ride is hardly the best place to experience and learn about other countries and cultures.

I had some of friends who could help. A couple of months earlier I had been out to Latvia to visit some special schools and met an enthusiastic teacher who I knew would be keen to take part. I’d also been emailing a special school teacher in Hong Kong who was interested too. We chose the weather as our theme. It was February, cold and grey in the UK, heavy snow and minus twenty degrees in Latvia and spring in Hong Kong with temperatures up to thirty degrees in the shade. There were other differences between our groups too. The pupils in the Hong Kong school were all the children of well off ex pats. The student’s in Latvia were from much less wealthy backgrounds.

The project kicked off with introductions, video clips and photographs of our schools and houses, conversations about what we had for breakfast, favourite TV programs, places we liked to visit etc.  Then we introduced our work project. We would each gather weather data every day in the form of a photograph taken from the same spot. We’d each measure the temperature at the same time and fill in a simple form showing what the weather was ‘doing’ that day. Each week we would send each other the data together with other messages the students had for each other about aspects of their week.

The project ran for seven weeks. In that time our students learned so much from their peers. Their conversations with each other opened up so many research and discussion topics which led to great teaching opportunities. Did you know that many people in Latvia eat salted herring and raw onions for breakfast? Our students didn’t either so we bought some and tried it. I’m smiling as I’m writing this remembering the faces the students pulled when they tasted it. 

Ever eaten ‘Dragon Beard Candy’? Nope? We went to the Chinese Supermarket and bought some. Spun sugar confectionary beats pickled fish every time. It was a fantastic project from which all of the students in each of our schools benefited.

Now here’s the rub. I ran this project ten years ago.

Internet connectivity wasn’t great in any of our three schools. In Latvia, there wasn’t any. Our ‘conversations’ between schools were emails written on paper at school and sent to the respective teacher’s home account. We could share photographs but only one per email as the mailbox size was restricted to a couple of megabytes. We shared videos by posting the VHS tapes to each other in Jiffy bags and our weather data sheet arrived with the postman each week in an A4 envelope.

How much easier would it be to run this project today? Live video conversations with Skype. Photos shared through Flickr or a dedicated (closed and safe) Facebook group. A ‘YouTube’ channel for sharing those videos. Instant emails with large attachments. A collaborative blogging page to share the data with a world-wide audience. So many possibilities.

Our students gained so much from this project. Today’s technology opens up the world to our students and it’s so much easier today with the plethora of web tools out there.

So what are you waiting for? 

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

"Press the switch"

You’re probably wondering what these Chinese symbols mean. They are the words ‘press the switch’ written in traditional Chinese. Why am I telling you this?

When I worked at Priory Woods School, I used to take pride in just how inclusive my ICT lessons were.  We worked hard to ensure that our use of technology was matched to the needs of the student and that the teaching materials we used were appropriate and meaningful to the student’s age and cognitive abilities. We went further still. I learned how to say the words ‘press the switch’ in a variety of different languages to ensure that my prompting was meaningful to students at a cause and effect level whose first language wasn’t English. I even made a poster for the wall with phonetic spellings so my colleagues could use them too. OFFSOD loved it!

It wasn't long after that I had an epiphany. Why was I talking to the student about the switch when what really matters is the effect that pressing the switch produces? Talking about the switch (in any language) shifts the student’s focus away from the effects they are creating and on to the process of pressing the switch. I decided never again to use those words. Out went ‘press the switch’, to be replaced with prompts that engaged the student with the outcomes not the process.

“More music please”
“Make the hippo dance”
“Where’s Bob the Builder?”
“What’s coming next?”

Of course some students needed to be reminded about the switch. We overcame this by always ensuring there was a picture on the switch of the effect that pressing it would produce.

For example I’d use a picture of the hippo when we were using the dancing hippo activity.

This helped the student understand what the switch was for and to make the link between the switch and the effect will be produced when it is pressed. We may still have to model the movements required in order to produce the effect. This would cover a range of prompts which include showing the student by pressing it yourself (make sure they are looking at you and following what you are doing) or modelling the process with the student’s hand.

Whichever you choose to use, remember it’s really important to give your student time to respond… that means waiting. How long you wait depends on the student. How long might it take for a student with complex needs to process what you are asking them to do? How long for them to work out what is required? Sit on your hands for a couple of minutes and see if the student responds.

So I don’t use “press the switch” any more… in any language!