Teaching History in a specialist school: a peek at life as a non-specialist specialist.
Even with just two years experience in a specialist school, there are lots of thoughts to share about the experience as a History teacher. The school is a specialist provider for dyslexia, dyscalculia, dyspraxia and a range of other learning difficulties and it was, to be honest, a tentative leap for me to accept the job without the specialist SEND training I thought would be essential. Pupils at this school are well-behaved, polite, largely tidy, funny, caring, flexible, motivated and deserving the absolute best service possible. They also usually have negative baggage from mainstream struggles, late identification of needs and anxiety. The science behind children developing these difficulties is an area I don’t yet fully understand. I haven’t cracked the best way to help them learn yet – but the door has just chinked open a little.
‘Back in the day’, in 1999, trainees learned to deliver and develop a subject and SEN understanding was limited largely to differentiation, an overview of some ‘common’ learning difficulties and the behaviour management that could result from pupils ‘kicking off’ due to inadequate meeting of needs; I’m not aware it has changed much, and the chances of emerging as a qualified teacher with a parallel, comprehensive specialist knowledge of SEN, are still rare. Therefore, schools with specific areas of expertise like mine, employing subject experts needed to meet national curriculum demands, means 3 things: a very steep learning curve, dependence on advice from experts & quality CPD, & a sense of justice. Achievement for our pupils is the high bar it is anywhere else, & it is up to me to make sure I don’t do them the mightiest disservice by not helping them learn their way.
So, the scene is this. Small classes, no more than 8. A full gamut of subjects and the expectation to sit GCSEs. No TAs. Pupils dropping in and out for therapy sessions. The usual ‘no pen, Miss’ and ‘X is winding me up’ but no extraordinary behaviour (in fact, the opposite – the energy required, the latent frustrations and anxieties, previous learning experiences, developmental lags should imply some really difficult pupils but there are none, behaviourally). Classrooms are typical – some over-busy and jolly (guilty), others more functional. Chairs get left untucked, bags forgotten, pupils loiter when you secretly need a coffee. Breaktimes are lively and way more important than the bits in between (obvs) but boundaries are clear, routines set (& quite often known!) In short, nothing really different to any mainstream school, it might seem.
So what does it mean to teach History in such a school? At a crass & simple level (& no disrespect to my pupils with the generalising), pupils struggle with writing, generally have reading ages considerably lower than chronological ages (at worst, by half), struggle with spelling (‘Lebensraum? Harsh, Miss!’). So reading and writing are onerous? Hmmokay. They find sequencing illogical and taxing, find chronological sweeps of time impossible to fathom. Right, so cause and consequence is an early obstacle, and don’t even start thinking about change and continuity. They can struggle with empathy and inference, so sourcework & interpretation is really confusing. Memorising 10 key words & meanings is a massive feat, so let’s not even contemplate how hard pure exam-based GCSEs will be (4 topics crammed with content – yikes). Formulating ideas and communicating non-verbally is tough. Getting started and knowing how to organise thoughts can be a spaghetti mess. Time-pressure is a nightmare – where all pupils have 25% extra time as a minimum, how to manage a 1-hour lesson and accelerate all pupils’ learning simultaneously? Letters on a page – even a well-crafted, colour-coded, diagram-based page – jump around and have a party. Dates? Well… Recording understanding and ideas, when nearly all pupils are entitled to a Scribe in exams, is either uncomfortable or impossible, or anything in between.
Ah ha, you say – all those skills that historical thinking and understanding are built on? Well fundamentally, yes. However, as the Historical Association freebie postcards told us a few years ago, History is ‘gossip well told’ so, provided I can crack the methods, everyone loves good gossip so what’s the problem? The solution is to go west and differentiate, my friend! In fact, differentiate like never before – pupils at my school are not weak learners, or unlikely to achieve – far from it on both fronts and the school motto of ‘the same road by different steps’ suggests that, at one level, History teaching is no different to any other school, as long as you target it appropriately and personally, which is what we’re all supposed to do anyway. Pupils at my school have extraordinary intelligences, probably more unorthodox, sometimes disguised, more empowering and more unique than I ever understood so, hey, if I can tap into these intelligences, I’m flying, right? Well yes. But how does it work? What needs to be done that is different? ‘Bespoke learning’ & ‘tailored lessons’ may be fashionable eduspeak but actually, it comes down to that basic bottom line – knowing pupils’ needs and ensuring they can access, enjoy and stretch.
In a typical day, I need to consider font size. Paper colour. Chunking instructions. Colour. Processing time. Key words and meanings. Access to sensory tasks. Which pupils need a finger fidget. Which pupils need an escape card. Which pupils can read comprehensively and still understand very little of what they have read. Who needs to fire up the laptops immediately (&who needs to process instructions before tippy-tapping). Who needs scaffolding. Who needs more, much more, teasing out of thoughts. Who needs extension work that fits. Who needs 3 chances to clarify instructions. Quite a list, but is it THAT different to the thoughts of (history) teachers in any school? I’m not sure whether my SLT team would agree, but I believe that the development in History learning & teaching is a 60-40 balance: 60% tapping into, planning for my student’s individual needs and 40% how much I love my subject. How can I explain how very cool and clever David Low was? How can I make it easy to understand the physical lapse of time between Alfred’s victory at Edington and the Battle of Hastings? How can I best relay the consequences of the consequences of the Boston Tea Party? How can I explain that a non-King – William Marshall – was as important as a King in 1216? It’s about thinking more creatively than ever and making resources specifically for my pupils.
Visually fantastic clips that appear to tick all the content boxes have narration that is too quick. There’s no chance to process before the next bit is up. Powerpoints often have captions that also move too quickly – pausing and re-reading helps, but loses the impact and flow. Textbooks are an enigma: all those letters on a page, partying away & dancing around. The weight of reading material, and even the content expected to be processed, can cause alarm, disengage pupils and immediately elevate the subject into ‘wordy’ and therefore to be avoided/loathed. But at the same time, should my pupils be deprived of that overview, reference point, glossary etc? The chance to look through and get a holistic ‘feel’ for the topic? I suspect, despite the convention that most textbooks don’t work for us, that actually they would. Trial to start in September!
Please be sure, I’m no guru. I don’t have the background knowledge about what creates special educational needs and disabilities. I don’t have a teaching legacy in SEND. I don’t have a full armoury of every strategy ever developed, but I’ve made a start. I do have no-singing, no-dancing lessons. I do occasionally have lessons that would horrify Senior Leader or Ofstedians. I do get it wrong, quite often. But it’s a superb challenge, with infinite possibilities and I think I’m getting a bit more of a handle on it and, really exciting, it’s probably helped me celebrate my passion for History because it’s the one resource I have, for free, in spades.