Special School Experience: Art, Signing, and Harvest

Monday

Today I was with the Puffin class, who are a group of 10 year 4 pupils. We began by doing some work about what items we would find in our house, and which room we would find them in. This was interesting as there really wasn’t a right or wrong answer for lots things (maybe you do have a television in your kitchen) but it was a good task for developing speaking and listening skills. We then went into PE where the children’s personalities began to shine when given that freedom to run, jump and travel around the hall. This was fantastic to see, and it gave me a chance to get to know them all better.

The school uses a very visual approach when communicating with children. Symbols for their visual timetables, to show what they’re doing next. Although symbols are used in mainstream schools, these had a slightly different design and I believe this is commonly used for children with autism.

Symbols used for visual timetables

Symbols used for visual timetables

Later on, after lunch, we took the children on a walk to the local supermarket where we identified items we would need for a cooking lesson and bought them. The school takes the children out on a regular basis, usually on trips relating to their learning, but sometimes makes visits to places that parents find difficult or a cause for anxiety. Having an autistic nephew I can say that supermarkets were not an easy place for us to visit, so to see these pupils with a range of abilities working excellently and happily in a busy Tesco really made my day. Life skills are extremely important for these children, so the fact that the school is preparing them for daunting real world experiences is amazing. The deputy head told us how they had conquered the dentist, the hairdressers and cafes with groups of pupils. It reminded me that education is about preparing pupils for life after school. Sometimes that fact can get lost amongst the league tables and test results.

One thing that definitely hit home today is how unique every child is. This is so much more apparent in a special school, but it is certainly true everywhere. With this realisation comes the understanding that what progress looks like to me, may not be progress to everyone. Hearing about children that have dramatically improved their behaviour and overcome issues with classroom anxiety is fantastic, and it really highlights that education is not all about test results and levelling.

Tuesday

Today I spent the day with a class of wonderful year 6’s. I had an absolutely fantastic day cooking, dancing, acting and creating art with them. They all seem to have an infectiously positive attitude and are happy to greet strangers into their classroom.

We studied Guiseppe Archimboldo in art, and created our own portraits using fruit and vegetables.

We studied Guiseppe Archimboldo in art, and created our own portraits using fruit and vegetables.

This school has a community approach to their learning, with children working in groups across the school for certain subjects. This does create the feeling of a whole school community, with everyone knowing everyone. It is quite different from the school structure I am used to, but seems to work very well for these pupils.

Today there very quite a lot of adults in the room (1 teacher and 3 TAs, not including me, for a class of 11) Because of this I took more of a backseat approach today and did a lot of observing. I wanted to do what was best for the children, and although I’m used to getting stuck in, if they all have enough support I didn’t want to muscle in, especially with some children having very complexed behavioural problems. However this proved an excellent opportunity. I was able to really observe the differences in each of the children, and how their routines are adapted to them. Everything was taken into consideration from seat in the classroom (some children had a wiggle seat to help them focus on sitting) to method of communication (some children prefer to sign).

A wiggle seat...I'm not sure if this is the proper name!

A wiggle seat…I’m not sure if this is the proper name!

It’s hitting home how difficult it is to be in a school all day and then come home to a mountain of course work. I’m getting through but it’s making me aware of what I have to face when I start my first placement. There is no time for procrastination!

Wednesday

We have reached the half way mark and everything is still going well! I have started to realise the power of sign language. I have met some children that only sign, and others that seem to prefer to sign but do speak. Maybe it’s their first language, or they find it easier to communicate in that way. Either way I have now picked up some basic words, and am finding myself being much more active with my hands when speaking to children (yes I’m now one of those people that talk with their hands).

I think this can only be a good thing, as it is forcing me to be more precise and clear with my instructions, and I aware of the language I am using to ensure I am not being confusing. I know with autism especially complicated instructions can be difficult to interpret. I’m not entirely sure yet whether sign language has a place in mainstream school, but it is certainly something I am interested in learning more about. Best practice in a special school is best practice everywhere after all!

Here are some words that I have encountered and learnt this week: 

This week has shown me how simple changes to how we communicate to children can dramatically improve their ability to understand what you’re saying or asking them to do. Communication needs to be ever changing. It isn’t just speaking, and as teachers we should not expect children to adapt to our way of communicating.

Thursday

All of a sudden the end is near! Despite feeling sad to leave so many amazing children behind (it definitely feels like I’ve known them all longer then 4 days) I am leaving with only positivity, having gotten so much out of this week.

Today I sat in on a maths lesson for the upper school, lowest attainment group. It was fascinating to finally see an aspect of our maths seminars put into practise…learning to count. The children were learning to touch items when counting, and that each item gets one label. We take so many things for granted that we already know. Counting seems easy to us, but it is actually a real skill. So many pieces of knowledge go into being able to count confidently. It was interesting to see how the children were grasping the concept, but then struggled when instruments were introduced. They used a stick to chime out given quantities on a chime bar.

Once you’ve gotten to know these amazing little individuals, you realise how progress for them is an achievement, even if it isn’t considered ‘normal’ for their age. Progress is very personal, and learning needs to be tailored to the needs of each child to achieve this. Yes this is definitely easier said then done, but what I’ve learnt this week is that we cannot be confined by what we expect a lesson to be, or what we expect progress to be. We need to be guided by the children, to allow us to tailor their learning to them, challenging them, engaging them and allowing them to reach their next step.

Friday

Today has been manic, but a perfect way to end a fantastic week. I have been with a wonderful year 6 class again today, and we began by rehearsing for the harvest assembly. We ran through seating positions, directions and lines…I even learnt a motto in Kirundi (that’s the language spoken in Burundi, an African country that the children have been learning about) It was fantastic to see everyone take part, and even non verbal children performed their lines with the help of iPads.

The children then began a lesson on WWII. This has been an ongoing topic for them, and today the focus was rationing. iPads were then used again for two of the children that have trouble communicating. By using an app called Prologuo2Go the teacher was able to program key words in relating to the subject, and then the pupils could give their answer by pressing the correct symbol. This was a simple addition to the lesson but changed the children from bystanders to active participators. Just because some children have nothing to say certainly does not mean they have nothing to communicate to you! It was like watching a totally different child.

prologuo2go app

prologuo2go app

The enthusiasm of these teachers is admirable and completely infectious. They all know their pupils so well and are aware of the smallest change in their behaviour that may indicate an issue or upset. It is hard to put into words just how inspirational this week has been.

One thing that has surprised me is how much I have enjoyed using sign language. I’ve picked up quite a few words in the short time I’ve been at the school, and I now think I may look into doing a part time course in it to gain a low level certificate. Some children seem to really benefit from having that method of communication, and I think as a teacher it is important to be flexible to the needs of our children. Maybe one day sign language will come in handy in my classroom!

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