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Flair on a shoestring

With limited resources, Judith Lisgarten has created a special needs syllabus to be proud of, says Dorothy Walker

"My students are amazing," says Judith Lisgarten. "I learn more from them than I could ever teach them."

Lisgarten is a part-time lecturer at Thurrock and Basildon College, a further education college in Grays, Essex, and her amazing students are 35 young men and women with profound and multiple learning difficulties, who attend the college for up to three days a week.

Earlier this year the class spent a day working on the theme of "something from nothing", a concept which neatly sums up Lisgarten's practical approach. Finding herself without a syllabus, Lisgarten created a two-year rolling program for her students, coming up with 60 themes and a series of lessons embracing all the milestone goals in the adult pre-entry curriculum. And with limited resources, she has used a rudimentary ICT set-up as the focus for enriching lessons and helping students develop their skills.

Her program is called Expressions, and every June, Lisgarten makes a list of themes for the coming year. "Two weeks before a theme is due, I work out what I can do with it," she says. For the "something from nothing" day, she took nothing into the classroom. "The idea was to make and do things, because these students never experience that approach - typically they are given things ready-made. We found a few old balloons, so we began by blowing them up, making them into models, counting and then bursting them to do subtraction." The follow-up was an expedition on the web, to explore how magicians make something appear, and other highlights included flour-and-water clay modelling and a musical composition session.

She incorporates clip-art pictures into her lesson plans, printing and displaying them to help students and their enablers share in plans for the day. She also takes photographs of every lesson, using her lunch break to incorporate them in a presentation which students take home. Even those who cannot speak can tell people about their day, using the pictures. Every student has an individual learning plan, and the presentations are also kept as evidence of achievement.

Lisgarten and her class have the use of two computers. One is an old BBC model, specially adapted to run a very limited repertoire of programs to support tasks such as counting, matching and answering questions. "We use it mainly so that students can build skills by pressing a button and getting a result," says Lisgarten. "BBC machines are very robust, so most people manage to get a response."

There is also a standard personal computer. Lisgarten has no assistive equipment to help her students use it, but she has found ways of including everyone in ICT activities. Each lesson includes a horizon-broadening excursion on the web, plus another ICT task. "That might simply be pressing a button, or seeing a page printed out - anything to help with learning ICT skills." Most of her software is standard issue, although she has Words and Symbols, a word processor which illustrates words as they are typed. "I use it to write about what the students have done. It gives them an idea of what reading is, even though they cannot read."

She uses the PC widely for making resources - a recent American food theme saw the classroom transformed into an American diner, with activities from over-writing menu cards to counting stars and stripes.

Her pound;2,500 prize will bring her students more access to ICT. On order are a series of alternatives to the mouse-and-keyboard set-up - a tracker ball, touch-screen and switches - and Lisgarten has also ordered a PlayStation games console specially adapted for use with switches, so that students can learn switch skills in a socially acceptable way.

"I am thinking of running a lunchtime club," she says, "so that people can have some time just to play with everything."

Also on her shopping list are inexpensive digital cameras that can take video footage, so that students can begin making their own films. She says:

"I am trying to stop simply bringing them things, and encouraging them to reach out to the world."

* Teaching tips

* Be ready to learn from your students

* Don't ever think that teaching adults with special needs is the easy option. You need to aim for excellence

* Be ready to laugh - nothing ever works quite as you expect

* Avoid becoming isolated. Use the internet to find the many resources and ideas which people who specialise in disabilities can give you

* Don't get too hung up about lack of resources - this is the only way to find out how brilliant and creative you can be Websites

* clever and often hilarious magazine, written by disabled people, which challenges society's view of disability

* Inclusive Technology's catalogue of equipment for people with special educational needs, plus information on events and networking opportunities


British Educational Communications and Technology Agency.

The whole Becta site is enormously useful


Information from the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, which promotes adult learning


OneSwitch adapts conventional equipment such as games consoles for use with switches


The successor to Words and Symbols is Writing with Symbols from Widgit Software

Tel. 01223 425558;


Jerome Baddley Cascade Project co-ordinator Cascade Project Nottingham

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