Tom’s story. If I could just reach you…

Listen to Tom’s story or read below

I’m going to start with the story of Romeo and Juliet. No, I’m not retelling the play, but many of you who have heard me speak know that the assessment of this play one year was light bulb moment for me on UDL, choice, and reaching my students. But I’ve gone three steps ahead so let’s start at the beginning. I met Tom (not his real name) on his first day of post-primary school. I had read his profile; knew he had Dyslexia, that there were questions about ADHD, and he had the use of Assistive Technology. I knew I would have in some Learning Support classes and see him also in my English class. I can tell you now, that from very early into his first year I just wanted to strangle him! Nothing I said went in. He wouldn’t – or couldn’t on reflection- follow an instruction, and I truly believed at times that he was going out of his way to infuriate me. I raised my voice, I complained him to his Year Head, at one point I said I just couldn’t deal with him anymore. And I’m sure he was cursing me from a height, the mutual frustration was getting obvious. Now, I can usually suck it up and got on with things but there was a lot going on with this year group and I was struggling like it was my first day of teaching with them almost every day. I think I took issue with them doing ‘easier’ work and different novels and plays from their peers in other English classes and pushed students like Tom too hard to prove they were as good as the others. What I did was push him further out of my reach. And then, two things happened.

First, I stopped with the differentiation. No more me telling Tom, and others, to take the easier worksheet or just answer questions one and two, when others had one to five. And why in differentiation was it always the default to go to the first questions anyway? What if question five was the one he needed to work on? Instead, choices were provided. I started with the basics, ‘pick one question that will show me what you know or help you learn more’ or ‘choose a worksheet, writing template, guiding questions, or write your own’. These choices weren’t just offered to Tom and other students who I was differentiating for, they were offered to everyone in the class. And every student was taking up this offer. Second – and here is where Romeo and Juliet comes in to play – I moved away from the ‘easier’ or ‘differentiated’ text options for this class. I found different versions of Romeo and Juliet. The Shakespeare’s Stories set which was a set of Shakespeare’s play in accessible English with wonderful illustrations accompanying each page. Shakespeare Made Easy was a collection of Shakespeare’s play with modern English alongside Shakespeare’s original Old English text. There was of course Leonardo Di Caprio’s movie and youtube clips from other adaptations (movies and plays). And then the school text of Romeo and Juliet used by the other English classes. The boys loved it! I chose to read from the Shakespeare Made Easy book and while all students needed to follow the play they could use whichever version they liked to signpost the way. We started with the death of Mercutio to whet our appetites (who doesn’t love a good sword-or in Leo’s case, gun -fight) and asked the question what caused this and what were the consequences and we took it from there. Tom got into it but I still wasn’t sure if he got it, or was even enjoying it. What I did notice was my desire to strangle him was lessening.

Then came the assessment. How, after giving them the freedom to choose how to learn about Romeo and Juliet was I going to ask them to now write me an essay?? The answer was simple, though I’ll be honest it took me a while to see it because of our focus on the written exam! I was clear on the knowledge and understanding I wanted the students to demonstrate so why couldn’t they use the skills that worked best for them to do it? So, I gave them more choice. To show me what they knew about a character’s development they could write an essay, do a presentation or role play, make a movie or poster. But Tom had another idea, he asked could he write a comic strip. My initial reaction was no and fear. My perception of comics was lots of pictures with few words other than ‘BOOM’ and ‘WHAM’. How was that going to show me what Tom knew? But, I said yes and how glad am I that I did! Tom’s comic strip was amazing, full of detailed drawings, direct quotes (from Leo aswell as Shakespeare), reader signposts and comment bubbles. Did I say it was AMAZING?! I learned so much about Tom in that one exercise. What an amazing artist he was, yes, but also what he really knew and not just what I had seen from written work. I hadn’t presumed competence. In fact, I had capped it! But in that moment, I felt I had reached Tom. Or that he had reached me.

Tom went on to do well in English in his junior cycle, won school story and poetry competitions and was invited to read one of his prose at a Dublin Literary Event in his final year at school. And on graduation day, we didn’t strangle each other-we gave each other a hug.