Friday, February 11, 2011

Lesson #9 - Always be Explicit

I have some classes which need their instructions to be very explicit.  Usually these are junior classes (the twelve to fifteen year olds) who need to be reminded at the start of every lesson to get out their books, their pens, their diary, etc.  Once the kids hit senior status, you can usually assume that such rituals are already ingrained upon them, and that your explicit requests need now only be comments such as "write this down", "finish that for homework", and "no, you can't leave the classroom to get it on with your girlfriend".

There are some kids though, who still need the minor rituals. "Get out your novel" before we commence reading as a class, or "Divide your page into quarters...that means fold your page in half that get your ruler and draw a line down the middle in the other direction...yes...excellent!"  These are the kids who need to be told explicitly how long their paragraph should be, and that the name of the film we're studying has a capital letter...and can be written about in more than one paragraph.

Ah yes, it's the HSC (which is the big one in Australia, the one that decides whether or not you are allowed to enter a tertiary institution or not) and kids are still forgetting the name of a text which will ultimately be worth 25% of their final English result. I...being a giver...and knowing that about half my class has a very poor grasp of the language, let alone the course, have developed a super-awesome workbook with all MY notes in it, with pictures and techniques and spaces for them to restate their understanding of what has just been taught.  It's a 50 page monster, but it's the best way I've been able to a) give the kids a representation of what's happening, and b) make sure they don't lose everything in scrunched up piles of paper mache at the bottom of their bags...if they have bags, and c) I've found that kids are less inclined to turn something in booklet format into a fan or a paper aeroplane.

Anyway - let's cut to the story, I'm presenting a particularly animated lesson on what I refer to as 'the angry scene' in our film of study, and instead of stopping to make notes on the board whenever I think that something is particularly relevant, I direct the students towards the appropriate question on the appropriate page and insist that they note down the important facts.

Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on your perspective,  my landmark for where students should write during this particular lesson was in relation to 'the toilet', a still from the film photocopied onto the page which showed a close-up of feet either side of it.  It was actually vital to the line of questioning, despite how it sounds.  As such, I spent much of the lesson saying things suck as "below the toilet", "above the toilet", "look at the toilet", etc.

So, while wandering up and down the room and checking on student progress, I become aware that one student appears to have a lined piece of paper in front of her, instead of the booklet like everyone else.  I approach her with confusion, and question her:

"Did you forget your booklet?"

"No, it's right here."

"So what are you writing on?"


"But didn't you hear me ask you to answer this question under the toilet?"

"Yes, Miss....I did."

True Story.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Lesson #8 - ASD Kids Will Always Sweat the Small Stuff

I teach several students with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder), as well as those with Aspergers.  They're fantastic kids, and I find that, as with any kid, they all have their little quirks, though they tend to be magnified by their disorder.  I love teaching kids with ASD, because they bring that bit of something different into your classroom, and remind you to keep thinking outside the box.  I have five kids with some form of Autism in my Year 11 class, and they're all brutally honest, which means I always know exactly how my lessons have gone.

Quirks though, they've got a few.  One boy, who we'll call Sheldon (let's face it, he is my little Sheldon), is very, very smart.  The kid's got a eidetic memory.  I have on occasion asked the class to recall an event in a novel where the protagonist was compared to a tiny chicken, and he was able to pinpoint not only the quote, word-for-word, but the page number.  It's insane, and I wish I could take him everywhere with me, because he'd make up for my terrible organisational skills.

He does get quite stressed though, and frequently needs to take 'time out' breaks in class whenever people get too noisy, whenever someone mucks up our schedule (changing rooms writes off the whole lesson if he hasn't been given a week to prepare), or when I want the kids to do group work.  He also gets quite stressed when things aren't as they should be (if someone's sitting at his desk, if someone has drawn on his desk, or his desk is not where it should be).

On the particular day where this lesson was learned, Sheldon's desk was exactly where it should be, my preparation was exactly as it should be, and the class was working beautifully on individual work.  It should have been Sheldon heaven, but alas, it was not; something was wrong.

I could see Sheldon becoming quite stressed (he bounces up and down) and approached him to see if I could rectify the situation.  He turned over his desk, and pointed out to me that, of the eight bolts that held the wooden top of his desk to the metal legs, one of them was a quarter turn out of position.  I looked, realised that prior to this moment, I didn't even know that they desks were held together with bolts, and acknowledged that yes, one of the bolts was out of a quarter turn.

Sheldon seemed relieved that I had seen the problem, and immediately stood up to leave the room.

He was going outside, because either this wasn't his desk, or someone had been messing with his desk, and that wasn't okay.  I tried to wiggle the out of place bolt with my fingers, but nothing happened, so I went to my pencil case and pulled a pair of scissors to use as a makeshift pair of pliers.

"I can fix it!"

Apparently, I couldn't fix it, and he was becoming more and more of the opinion that it wasn't his desk anyway.  His desk had a small patch close to the right front where someone had obviously scrubbed it a little harder than normal to clean it, and this one didn't seem to have that patch, so probably his desk was somewhere else, and could he go back to his desk in the library to do his work, because there was something wrong with the desk.

The whole class has watched this unfold by the way, and when I look up from fiddling with the desk to look at the other students, they're all still busily working away as though nothing is happening, and I smile for a moment realising that they're completely used to random oddities.  A couple even offer their desk to Sheldon, who walks over, inspects them, realises that they're not his desk, thanks them for their kindness, and goes back to fidget by the door.  I allow Sheldon to depart, finish my lesson, and within minutes, the class has left the room.

With lunch beginning, and the classroom now empty, I proceed to look for Sheldon's desk.  I turn over every single desk in the room, and inspect the bolts.  Each time I find one that is unaligned, I turn it back over, ensuring that it forms a straight line with the other desks.  The bell rings for half time, but I'm still checking, and when I reach the 28th desk, I find that it has all bolts aligned, and, delighted, turn it over to reveal a small scrawl in pen across the top.

This is Sheldon's desk, I decide, and pull out a rubber to make the ink disappear.  I'm almost done when the bell rings for the end of lunch, and I realise that I have spent 40 minutes trying to make one child less unhappy.  I reposition the desk, and head off to another room for my next class.

It's a day before I see Sheldon again, and we're back in that room.  He cautiously approaches his desk, as though the uneven bolt may cause hell to open up below him, but it doesn't, and he safely takes a seat and runs his long fingers underneath the wooden top to check the bolts.  I smile with relief when I see him comforted by those straight and even bolts.

It's less than two minutes before I see him bouncing again, and he raises his hand.  "My desk has a squiggle line, just there."

True Story.