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Time to Reflect

The start of the new academic year, gives me chance to reflect on the year ahead. This is the second year in a row that I have started a new position, Last year, I was fortunate to be offered a middle leadership role as Head of Year 11. I really enjoyed taking on the challenge of leading a year team to ensure that we provided a safe and enjoyable environment for our year 11 to achieve. I work in a generic special school and I was pleased with how successful the whole team were in ensuring our students applied themselves to their learning and developed as young people throughout the year. There were certainly challenges along the way, but I look back with very fond memories of the year,

This year, our school has undergone a major reorganisation – in terms of how our students cohorts are arranged. Rather than being year based, we have moved to a more needs based system with different hubs for moderate learning difficulties (MLD), severe learning difficulties (SLD), Profound and Multiple Learning Difficulties (PMLD) and the 6th Form. The thinking behind this, is that we will be better placed to ensure that the resources for specific students can be utilised more and that by teaching in need groups – progress can be shown more clearly. Obviously this smacks inclusion in the face a little, but we have a Complex needs coordinator who role is to ensure that where appropriate students have the opportunity for inclusion across different areas of the school. Now my role has changed too – I am now Curriculum Leader for the 6th Form responsible for ensuring that we have a dynamic and appropriate curriculum for the many different types of learners that we have in the 6th Form. I think there are 7 different curriculum’s running alongside each other, which is great for providing a tailor made curriculum for the majority of our students, I have written briefly about creating a 6th curriculum before.  I am very much looking forward to this role and the challenges it creates in the currant climate of changes to OFSTED inspections.

Contrary to some people’s beliefs, special schools are still inspected using the same OFSTED criteria than all school s in the UK. We have the benefit of using the SEN progression guidance to help us justify the slower rates of progress for students with SLD and PMLD, however MLD are expected to make the same levels of progress and this gets mixed into the overall picture when OFSTED make their judgement. We had the pleasure of Her Majesty;s inspectors come visit earlier this year. There are many things to be celebrated about school (emotional well being, exceptional performance in the Arts, outstanding vocational provision) unfortunately under the new criteria we were classed as requires Improvement as the progress in Maths and English was not rapid and sustained enough.

This has led to a change in focus as our school for the new academic year, we are now putting in place more focus on literacy and numeracy across the whole school. I for one am quite excited by the challenge of this and to a certain extent agree that we should have the high expectations of our students to achieve in literacy and numeracy regardless of ability. However, I think that OFSTED need to recognise the appropriateness of what we mean by literacy and numeracy, For one student this might be developing their writing skills however for as more severe student this might be improving their communication skills so that they can effectively communicate their needs and wants. For our SLD students in the 6th Form it is about developing their numeracy and literacy skills to enable them to become more independent in their lives for when they leave school.

No matter what we think about OFSTED and whether we agree with the hoop jumping or not, being in the position our school is in we have no choice and have to look at the priorities to ensure that the next time they come to visit we have done everything we can to show an upward trend in progress in the core subjects, Not being a English or Maths specialist I am slightly nervous, but looking forward to developing my knowledge of teaching these subjects and looking at new and exciting ways to be able to deliver these across the life skills curriculum that I deliver in the sixth form.

Looking around a colleagues today, there was a real sense of togetherness that we as a staff team want to ensure the best for our students and I am quietly confident that we will give the students the best opportunity to shine in these subjects, not just for OFSTED but because it is the right thing to do.

2012 complete and what lies ahead in 2013

As we come to the end of another year, I like to think about what lies ahead in 2013. I have been very fortunate this year to have lots of opportunities to develop professionally and work with some with some fantastic people in developing resources and ideas to use with SEN students. On Twitter, @TeacherToolkit was asking teachers what has been their three highlights of the year. For me there have been many, but I narrowed it down to the three moments –


So as 2012 comes to an end, I look forward to what 2013 will bring. Particular things I am looking forward to are:

  1. Continuing to be part of the Kinect in SEN Professional Learning Community – this group of professionals are looking at ways to use the Kinect and other gesture based technology with open-source software to help engage SEN learners to explore different activities to promote movement, creativity and interaction. The response, so far has been excellent with many developers being interested in helping us create applications
  2. Android and Microsoft Tablets – I confess that I am somewhat of an Apple fan and the iPad has certainly had an impact on learning of students with SEN if used correctly. However, I am also excited about the other tablets available especially the Google Nexus 7. For me personally, the specification of the tablet and the price are certainly appealing. In addition, being able to code and get applications onto the the tablets using Processing is another selling point and something that I hope to explore later this year. I feel we have started to see a different Apple over the last few months and though they will continue to produce fantastic pieces of hardware, Google and Microsoft are certainly weighing in there with alternatives.
  3. Develop my own coding – since the summer I have been learning to code in Processing and have managed to code a couple of applications myself. This year I want to develop this further and start looking at other languages and platforms such as OpenFrameworks and Ruby Processing.
  4. The release of the Leap Motion – another piece of technology that allows the user to control computers using gesture based movement. This is similar to the Kinect, but tracks just hand and finger movement.
  5. Finishing our interactive floor and wall display for our sensory room – this is something we began working on in the Autumn term and hope to complete this term. We are looking at a cost-effective solution using the kinect and webcams to provide interactive displays for students to use. Many SEN technologies companies charged thousands of pounds for this, where as the aim of the project is to keep costs to a minimum and I am happy to say we are on track with this.
  6. Developing in my role of Head of Year – I have really enjoyed the challenge of being Head of Year this term. The role throws up many different challenges and I have been fortunate enough to have a fantastic team to work with. At the beginning of the term, I certainly felt out of my comfort zone, but I have really enjoyed the pastoral side of the role and have really noticed a difference with the year group at the end of Christmas which credit should go to the whole of the Year 11 team.
  7. Lastly to continue to use Twitter to share and engage with like minded individuals. It certainly has helped me in a number of ways and given me opportunities that might not have occurred if i had not spent the time to interact and collaborate with many other professionals on the social network.

This list is not exhaustive and as usual it very difficult to predict what will occur over the next 12 months. I certainly would not have predicted to be where I am now 12 months ago.

Happy New Year!!!!!!!!!!

Using innovative technologies in the classroom – The Echoes Project

This post is the third in a series of posts on the Festival of Social Sciences – Using Innovative Technologies in the Classroom event that took place in Birmingham on Thursday 8th November. You can view the first post here and the second one here.

The Echoes project

Echoes is project led by Dr Kaska Porayska-Pomsta from the Univertisty of London with the focus to support children on the autistic spectrum with their social communication skills in particular joint attention. Many autistic children fail to pick up on the social cues given by others which can often lead to misunderstandings for many children in the spectrum.

She realised that technology could have a role to play in supporting children in developing these essential social skills and so developed the Echoes project. The idea is to provide children with an environment for them to practise these skills on something that isn't human and isn't going to take offence.

Echoes uses touch screen technology alongside cameras to pick up information from the user so that the virtual autonomous agent Andy can react appropriately to their input. Andy's traits are preselected by the team which determines how he reacts to the information he receives. In addition the cameras allow him to understand where the child might be looking. His personality has been built using artificial intelligence which enables him to react differently to different children. Depending on the child's development, Andy will react differently and adapt his actions accordingly. For example, if a child touches an object frequently, Andy might think the child likes that object and then would concentrate on using that object in different activities.

By observing children playing with Andy, it allows teachers to gain a better understanding of a child's strengths and weaknesses and explore questioning in relation to learning and development. I really enjoyed having the chance to experiment with the technology and Andy would instantly show me what the activity was and also signed in makaton to promote further interaction.

What really excites me with this project is the plans for the future. Kaska explained they are exploring different routes to open up the accessibility of the project. One use could be through using the Microsoft Kinect and using the tracking capabilities of this technology alongside Eyegaze cameras. This would be something that in my particular setting would be of great benefit as it opens up the project to wide range of students.

After having the chance to play with the project I left feeling that this technology could benefit many students in enabling to practice social skills, interaction and co-operation in a safe environment to prepare them for transferring these skills into real world contexts.

Related Links

The Echoes Project

The SHAPE project, technologies to enhance learning for young people on the Autistic Spectrum


Drawing with Sounds Processing sketch

Since learning to code, I have explained to colleagues that if they have any ideas or needs for specific apps to come to talk myself or my colleague Keith Manville (@open_sen) and we would look at how we could design a application which would meet their needs. This happened to Keith a few weeks ago and I don’t want to say too much as he has already written about the process of designing the app on his excellent blog which you can find here.

What he has created is a simple visual and audio app that will draw bezier curves and ellipses depending on where the mouse is positioned on the screen. In addition it will play notes from the midi synthesiser using the soundcipher library created by Andrew R Brown. The outcome is a simple cause and effect app that not only stimulates the user visually but also through sound. The app can also be used on a touchscreen which increases the accessibility for some students. In the short time in testing this app out with students, I have found that different students react differently to it. Some are more interested in the visual shapes that are produced whilst others are motivated by the audio coming from the app when touching the screen.

Example of the image that is produced using the drawing with sounds app

In addition to this, I have adapted the code slightly so that switch users can access the app. Instead of the shapes being drawn depending where the mouse x and y axis are, the shapes are drawn randomly. Again I have found similar results with students being engaged and stimulated by the visuals and sounds being produced.

Part of our ongoing project is to produce applications for students with special educational needs, we have wanted to make the applications easy to share with others. We have set up a wiki: and if you click on the applications page you will start to find some of the applications that we have coded to download and try with your students, Both Keith and myself would greatly appreciated any feedback and comments regarding the applications as this will help improve them and further applications for the future.

N.B – If you are interested in seeing the work we are doing with the Kinect in the classroom please visit the PLC page at

Big Draw Day – Taking a line for a walk!!

One of the pictures shown to the students at the beginning of the day to give them an idea of Keith Haring’s work.

On Wednesday 24th November, our school took part in the national Big Draw Day. The day focuses on a particular artist and their work and it gives the opportunity for students to participate in a range of cross-curricular lessons based on the artists work. This year the focus was on the work of graffiti and visual artist Keith Haring. Based around Haring’s work, students were encouraged to take a line for a walk and this was the main focus for the day.

An example of the art that can be created using the Line Sketch application.

My colleague Keith Manville (@open_sen) had been working with on a application based around generative art and between us we looked at the possibility of running this as a workshop for the day. The aim would be for the student to create their own art using ICT and this would be achieved by taking a line for a walk. An example of how the sketch runs is shown in the video below:

The program runs automatically and the user controls the change of colour by either pressing the ‘space bar’ for a random colour choice, ‘m’ for monochrome and ‘b’ for black. In addition the user can pause the sketch at any time and the application allows for the user to export their image as a jpeg. This application was coded in Processing which you can read more about in an earlier post here.

We found that the simplicity of the program meant that a wide range of students could access the application and create some beautiful pieces of art.

Alongside this, we decided to run a kinect session based on some of the applications that we have found, which have been coded in Processing. The programs we used were created by Amnon Owed and they are based around using the kinect to detect the user and interact with the images on-screen. More information on how these are coded can be found in his useful tutorial here.

The first one we used was the Kinect Flow application which turns the user into a wavy line polygon and will track the movement across the screen. What I noticed for this application was the instant attraction for some of our ASC students using it. They wanted to explore what happened to the image when they moved their body. This was really interesting as these students would shy away from taking part in physical activity, but were really active during this session.

Example image of what the user experiences on-screen from the Kinect Flow application

The second application, again created by Amnon Owed, pours shapes over you. The user can use their body to collect them and bat them away. The tracking is very good with this app and I found that it even worked for wheelchair users. Also the app would pick up two users so was good for collaborative teamwork between students.

Example image of the user collecting shapes in the Kinect Physics application

After we had run the sessions, we had some time to reflect on the day and overall we felt the students had enjoyed the different applications that they had experienced. In terms of the line art sketch app, we found that students enjoyed making the art and were putting thought into when they should change the colours. However some students found that they could exit the app by pressing the ESC key and this is something that we will disable in future versions of the app (reminded me of students exiting apps on the iPad before guided access was added)

The kinect applications we used were not specifically designed with SEN students in mind though the natural user interface of the kinect allowed the students to instantly pick up what they had to do. It has given me some food for thought when it comes to coding my own applications for the students and developed my understanding of how to code for the kinect. If you are interested in learning more about using the kinect with SEN visit the excellent wiki being developed by group of schools using this tech with their students :

I found Big Draw Day, motivated me to continue to code and make applications for our students. The sessions continued to show, how these application encourage creativity, movement, engagement and exploration. To finish I was going to leave you with a video of a application that I am currently coding – no where near the finished product but gives you a flavor of some of the applications we hope to create.

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