We've got school all mapped out
When a group of children in Nottinghamshire shared their concerns about moving to secondary school, high on their list came the fear of being thrown in a notorious school pond. The pupils breathed a sigh of relief when they were told the pond was no longer there - it hadn't existed for two decades.
The children had other myths shattered and recorded their thoughts on CD-Rom to reassure future generations making the transition from primary.
They created a talking book that guides pupils around their new school and helps them deal with worries and awkward situations. The multimedia software was made for two secondaries by a pioneering group of children with special needs. So successful was the work that other schools are now developing their own CDs to help all pupils make the best start to secondary school.
The software followed on from a board game developed by Nottinghamshire LEA. Jeremy Beckett, special needs ICT consultant teacher with the authority, says: "The game was based on a map of a school, and children moved around the board tackling various difficulties they might face. What if they arrived for a lesson and the classroom door was locked? What should they do if they forgot their dinner money?
"We could have paid a company to develop the CDs, but we felt it would be better if the children were involved as much as possible. Originally the project was aimed at children with an autistic spectrum disorder, but we broadened it to include pupils with a wide range of disabilities and difficulties."
Jeremy and his colleague Cath Page ran the initiative, which began in the summer term of 2004. They worked with two pilot schools - Sherwood Hall School in Mansfield, and Valley Comprehensive in Worksop - and their feeder primaries. The idea was that pupils from Years 6 and 7 would collaborate.
They would compare notes on how they felt about moving to secondary, with Year 7 explaining how things actually turned out for them. Since the project was to extend into a new school year, the children would be able to continue sharing their experiences and begin making the software after the Year 6 pupils had arrived at secondary school.
Parents joined their children for the first sessions. Jeremy says: "Their fears were very different: pupils worried about getting lost, and the adults were concerned about things like how the children would choose what to eat at lunchtime. The myth about the pond was based on parents' memories of the school as it was 20 years ago."
A group of eight pupils from each school was selected to develop the CDs, which were created using Clicker software designed to give all children a way into writing. Young authors can word-process their stories by selecting words, phrases or pictures from an on-screen grid, and make talking books complete with voice-overs and illustrations. Jeremy says: "Clicker is widely available in primaries, and it will enable schools to modify the material in future."
The children's talking book featured an interactive map of the school and a section where the pupils talked about their concerns. "They were able to explain in their own words how their fears had been overcome," says Jeremy.
"For example, in the first few weeks at secondary, someone guides them when they move between classrooms, so they learn their way around and don't have to worry about getting lost."
Concerns were grouped under eight headings, including uniform, homework, bullying and lunchtime, and the children put their thoughts on paper, sometimes covering eight or nine pages. They typed the material into Clicker, then read the text aloud, recording it as a voice-over.
The pupils toured the school with digital cameras, capturing views of everything from the tennis courts to the radiators. Jeremy says: "We linked the pictures to hotspots on the map. Clicker allowed us to alter the appearance of the mouse pointer on the screen - it becomes a smiley face whenever you reach a hotspot, so you know you can click to reveal a set of pictures.
"The interactivity was great, and the kids really got into it. One of the boys said to me: 'I really like you coming here on Thursdays, because it means I can miss English.' There was so much literacy involved in this project, yet he didn't see it as work."
The software was showcased at a conference for the county's teachers and the children were invited along as well. "We thought that 20 or 25 teachers would attend. On the day, 85 arrived. The kids stood up and answered questions about their work," explained Jeremy. "When we took the software into primary schools, pupils in one school recognised the voice of a boy on the CD. Pointing out that the boy is a wheelchair user, one pupil said: 'I never thought he would be able to do something like this.' The project boosted the children's self-esteem and motivation. They achieved things they hadn't believed they could do."
A guide to the project has been produced, and six other Nottinghamshire schools are now developing their own software. Nottinghamshire has also started work on a new CD to help with the transition from infant to junior school.
* Clicker 5 Jeremy Beckett says: "In the pilot project, the children typed their text into Clicker. I am currently talking to one of our special schools about making a CD, and, rather than using the keyboard, some of their pupils would probably build up their stories with the help of Clicker word banks and on-screen grids."
Clicker 5, pound;120, Crick Software.
Tel: 01604 671691 www.cricksoft.com
* Logitech microphone. The pupils worked on laptop machines, and Jeremy says it was essential to use a good microphone to help the children make a high-quality recording of their voices. "Children respond well to voices they recognise. We used a Logitech microphone with a noise limiter."
Logitech Premium USB headset 350, pound;49.99, Logitech.
Tel: 020 7309 0127 www.logitech.com