Who says students with Asperger syndrome can't do English? Susannah Kirkman meets a teacher whose Year 11s are busy devouring Beckett
English teacher Caroline Irwin is disproving the myth that pupils with Asperger syndrome, a form of autism, cannot "do" English. Since she started teaching at Southlands School near Lymington in Hampshire three years ago, results at key stages 3 and 4 have risen significantly, and this year pupils will for the first time sit GCSEs in English literature, drama and media studies, along with English language.
"The traditional view is that pupils with Asperger syndrome cannot cope with English because they find communication, imagination and empathy difficult," she says. "Group work can be a problem, too."
While some shy away from challenging pupils with Asperger, Caroline Irwin thinks differently: "Some people believe that if these pupils find something difficult, they shouldn't do it all. But they are capable of becoming more creative and flexible in their thinking, and we should do everything we can to help them."
She says that her students are sick of being "different"; they like to feel that she has the same high expectations as she would of a mainstream group.
Students' confidence and trust are often at a low ebb when they arrive at Southlands, which was the first school to open in the UK for pupils with Asperger syndrome. This form of autism is eight times more common in boys than girls, and the school is boys-only. Some pupils may already have been excluded from mainstream schools and have a strong sense of failure.
To boost self-esteem and teach them how to work in a group, there is a close focus on drama. The school has encouraged Caroline Irwin to innovate and do whatever it takes to motivate the students, and she uses techniques like role play to encourage listening skills, concentration and empathy. As part of the GCSE literature course, one boy recently took on the role of Charles Dickens trying to sell his book to a publisher.
Students also get the chance to put on drama performances for the rest of the school. Last year, it was a new scene for the film Shakespeare in Love, written by the pupils, and Carry on Macbeth, the boys' own version of their KS4 text.
"The language of Shakespeare hooks them, even if they don't understand it," says Mrs Irwin. "They love the rhythm and the sound of the verse."
This year, Year 11 students are have been another set text, Waiting for Godot, with considerable panache. The boys find the play funny and intriguing.
During a hot-seating session, the group ask Vladimir, played by Tarquin Holmes, what he feels about Estragon.
"Without him, I'd probably start talking to myself," he says. "Our conversations are mostly about philosophy."
And why is Vladimir waiting for Mr Godot? "I want to find a way out of being a tramp, and he seems the only person who cares," VladimirTarquin responds.
The trust built up through drama also helps the boys overcome their fear of having their work read by someone else. So that students can see what they're aiming for, Mrs Irwin shares the marking schemes for SATs and GCSE exams, re-writing the level descriptions in student-friendly language.
Writing is a particular challenge for boys with Asperger syndrome, who feel daunted by putting their thoughts down on paper. Caroline Irwin tackles this by keeping written work to a minimum, and using highly structured, formulaic approaches. Students analyse different genres and break them down into their different ingredients. They study character development and practise writing story openings, climaxes and resolutions.
Literature essays follow a similar strict pattern. The boys are encouraged to make a statement, followed by a quotation, and then elaborate on what they have written.
"All boys are very minimalist - not just those with Asperger syndrome," says Caroline Irwin. "They find it difficult to develop detail around their ideas."
The students also absorb writing and comprehension skills though a wide range of novels. They love being read to and tackle an impressive and challenging selection of literature.
"I read Sherlock Holmes to the 12-year-olds and they hang on every word," says Caroline Irwin. In Year 9, texts include Lord of the Flies, I'm the King of the Castle and Great Expectations.
Class discussion is important, too. "The more opportunities the students have to talk and discuss, the more confidence they have in their abilities," she says. Popular themes are prejudice and bullying, which most pupils have experienced first-hand at their former schools. One firm classroom rule is that no one is allowed to say anything derogatory to another pupil.
Quizzes are extremely popular. The first 10 minutes of every lesson is often a quiz on the set Shakespeare play, which spurs the boys on to learn the plot and characters. "Most boys have no intrinsic motivation, but if there is something in it for them, they will do it," believes Caroline Irwin. She feels that her teaching techniques, distilled from years working in mainstream schools, would be appropriate for all boys, not just those with Asperger syndrome.
* Caroline Irwin can be contacted at Southlands School,Vicar's Hill, Boldre, Lymington, Hampshire SO41 5QB