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“Stardusters” The Tydeman Centre Unit Radio

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The Tydeman Centre is a specialist mainstream provision for children who have a statement of special educational needs, and a diagnosis of high functioning autistic spectrum disorder, speech and language disorder or dyslexia. The Tydeman Centre is part of The Malling School based in East Malling, Kent, however students come from across the county. The Unit Radio club offers children age 11-16 (key stages 3 & 4) the opportunity to take part in the production of radio shows. This activity draws out a number of communication skills, helps achieve learning goals, and builds confidence and self-esteem.

The Unit Radio club is open to any student from The Tydeman Centre (there are 92 pupils in total). The number of students involved in a production fluctuates, but there is usually a limit of about nine participants to help maintain focus. Each production is comprised of a different mix of students and lead roles are rotated so that everyone who wants to gets a turn. Productions are previewed at the school and then broadcast from the Unit Radio website.

This case study describes how the Unit Radio club started and now operates, and outlines its educational and social value. It also offers information and advice on how you can make your own radio show, plus downloadable resources such as theme, improvisation and script ideas to help get you started.

The Unit Radio students will never forget the time that they’ve spent working on the radio shows. They’ve blossomed and they’ll keep that forever.” Giles Whitehead, project leader.

The first incarnation of Unit Radio came about in April 2008 when Giles Whitehead asked his English class to pretend they were castaways on an island. They had to live together as a group, build shelter and find food. The project was made as visual as possible using scenery and sound effects and the students became very involved in role-play. At the end of each session, students were asked to write a diary about that day on the island. To make it as realistic as possible, and mimic what might be available on a desert island (for example in trouser pockets), old till receipts, flyers and pieces of corrugated cardboard were used to write the diary entries on. Audio diaries were introduced for those students who found it difficult to write things down, but who could easily express themselves when talking and interacting within a scenario.

A different scenario was used for each session, for example students would improvise how they would react if there were a thunderstorm or if one of the castaways set off on their own in desperation. At the end of each session, the students would tell their story, until they finally escaped at the end of the month. The audio diaries had such merit that they were edited together to create a radio recording that was then broadcast on the Unit Radio website.

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Castaways was such a positive experience for many of the students, in particular those with autism, that a lunchtime club – Unit Radio – was established to continue the production of a range of radio programmes. Unit Radio now meets twice a week with each session lasting 40 minutes.

“Being in Unit Radio is like a little job for me. It gives me a chance to sound off my voice to an audience. The best thing I enjoy is doing the recordings and the comments of comedy. It’s fun and I like working with the other co-stars. It makes me feel more popular, more confident and makes me feel good.” Jonathan Beevis, Unit Radio student

The radio programmes are developed through improvisation and scripts, giving those students who are uncomfortable using spoken communication the opportunity to have a role within the project.

Unit Radio now produces one big show every two terms and a number of smaller productions in between, all of which are broadcast from the Unit Radio website. The club publicises the shows on The Tydeman Centre blog and makes posters to go up around the school. A special preview of each major show is also arranged at the school, where students and special guests are invited to listen to the show hosted by the production characters in full costume, with a slide show of visuals to accompany the recording. It’s now a ‘big thing’ when a new radio programme is released.

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In March 2010 Unit Radio performed a ‘World Premiere’ stage show of one of their most successful radio plays – Stardusters – a science fiction production set in the 81st Century about an out-of-control spaceship – only Dave, The Cleaner, can save the day. Many leading figures from the local community, including the mayor, came to watch as well as students and teachers from the school, family and friends. The production was met with widespread acclaim and local MP, Sir John Stanley, felt it was such “ground-breaking work, deserving of a much wider audience” that he wrote to Ed Balls, then Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, advising it be brought to the attention of all school units for those with severe learning difficulties.

“This adventure was, by far, the most demanding production we had ever attempted. The idea of an outer space adventure was greeted with such enthusiasm that the club went from one lunchtime per week to every break and lunchtime for about two months. These children, who have severe learning needs, then stood on stage and performed their work to an audience. They showed feeling and emotion and moved with such confidence, that our MP felt he should write to the Secretary of State for Education and say it’s a ground breaking thing - that was a really proud moment.” Giles Whitehead, project leader

For the stage show, the students acted and lip-synched to a pre-recorded soundtrack that they had listened to possibly hundreds of times. It was entirely predictable for them and, although they knew their lines, it took away the pressure and anxiety of having to remember them when on stage in front of an audience. For these students this predictability was a great comfort in a seemingly high stress situation. It also meant that very little rehearsal was required. The World Premiere was only the third time that the show had been performed as a group and, in actual fact, the first rehearsal was perfect. The students knew the show inside out and had pictured in their minds what they were doing as their character, so they could just get up and do it.

“The premiere was terrific. It was so exciting being up on stage. I went from being nervous to excited. I got used to talking to the audience when I was on stage. The people laughed and cheered – it was an amazing feeling. I just improvised. Doing the show made me feel like I was the greatest man in the galaxy.” Declan Mills - David Kitkat, the cleaner

Listen to Stardusters.

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Radio productions can support many learning objectives across a number of different subjects including English, History, Geography, Drama, Physics, PHSE and others.

The first project, Castaways, was built around a curriculum exercise called The Island Project (based on the novels Lord of the Flies and Robinson Crusoe) and used role play and diaries to explore the subject area. Giles Whitehead wanted successive shows to also tie in with wider learning objectives. 

The second project, The Adventures of Eco Boy and the Fridge-man, featured two environmental super heroes who tackle a host of environmental problems thrown at them by super-villain, Dr Pollution. This tied in with curriculum work around trying to make the school greener.

Time Travelling News Team (TTNT News) further developed the idea of assisting students with course work. Students took on the role of time travelling news reporters, able to go anywhere at any point in history (past, present or future) to examine an event. Students researched an event and reported back in the form of a radio recording. You Tube clips and sound effects ensured that the TNTT News reporters were really immersed in the subject and knew what they were talking about when they came to do their live reports. The TTNT News concept sits particularly well alongside history and geography learning objectives. For example:

  • The news team travelled forward in time to an underwater Norfolk to report on the consequences of global warming.
  • They travelled back in time to witness the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.
  • They travelled to Benidorm, Spain in the present and the 1950s to report on the development of this now popular tourist resort.

As well as curriculum-led projects, the radio programmes also incorporate learning about life skills by encouraging students to write plays in everyday, real world situations. Inspired by Ros Blackburn’s comment on life with autism (that her life is acting a role), students are asked to act out everyday situations in the classroom and to consider what the social expectations in those situations might be. For example, what would you do if you were in the supermarket and somebody asked you to reach something for them from one of the shelves? Or at the bus stop someone asked if you had change for a note? The aim is that students will be more confident in those situations when they encounter them for real in the future. 

Concepts and vocabulary

Students are able to take home a CD copy of the radio shows to listen to as many times as they want to. Some may need to go over a subject or particular point many times before they can grasp it, and by listening repeatedly to the CD they end up with an excellent knowledge and understanding of the facts and vocabulary contained within the shows. This also gives them a recall of key concepts and the vocabulary that they’ve been studying in class.

For relevant projects, students are also given a vocabulary book, created by project leader Giles Whitehead. Students use these books to familiarise themselves with appropriate language for a theme in preparation for improvisations. For example, for a pirate theme the book might contain nautical terminology and pirate slang.

The productions also have value as a teaching aid outside of Unit Radio and Giles hopes to tie in more with learning goals, and their accompanying concepts and vocabulary, so that the shows are as useful as possible to all students.

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4. Social Value

“I’m most proud of the way in which Unit Radio has boosted the self esteem of the children involved, when this was often lacking before. We have changed the way they see and feel about themselves.” Giles Whitehead, project leader

The use of radio has had a significant impact on students’ self-confidence. Where some pupils might previously have felt that others saw them as eccentric or odd, they now have people who are respected within the community, and other pupils in the school, commenting positively on their work - validating and celebrating their difference instead of showing it to be something negative.

Unit Radio encourages self-confidence by making the most of its students’ talents. Some of the pupils who are introverted and find it difficult to engage really come alive and ‘become’ the characters they play. However one of the students, Zach, is very shy and doesn’t want to be on the radio, but has an excellent sense of humour. He writes plays that are recorded by the other students, increasing his confidence and giving him something to be very proud of.

“By the time Zach had listened to his play seven or eight times I think it would be fair to say he enjoyed it.  More impressive was the way he insisted on sharing it with others and, for the first time that I can recall, expressed pride in something he had done. I have had to reprint a number of your posters for him to distribute. This was quite a unique experience, as ordinarily he fiercely avoids praise or recognition. I seem to recall that your objective was to boost his self esteem – you were certainly more successful than I dared to expect.” Mr Ray French (parent)

The students enjoy being involved in Unit Radio and this in turn has a positive impact on how they feel about coming to school. There may not be any measurable impact on improved GCSE results, but these are children who can get upset by just the sight of a pen and paper. Unit Radio is concerned with the child as a whole and their pride, self-esteem and confidence are all of great importance.

“Unit Radio has made the students feel like stars. Our students are sometimes viewed as not as bright as those in the mainstream school, but we have some amazing talents and the productions show that they’re incredibly bright. Students in the main school and The Tydeman Centre also listen to the broadcasts and establishing a greater connection here has given our students a real status.” Giles Whitehead, project leader

Declan was very shy when he first joined Unit Radio. He is now not only a leading light in the productions, but also takes on the role of a leader within the club. His comprehension and understanding have improved considerably through his involvement, as have his social skills. In March 2010 he compered the live Stardusters show, something that he would never previously have had the confidence to do.

“Since Declan joined the Unit Radio club two years ago, we have seen a dramatic change in his personal development. From the once quiet and solitary character, who found it hard to express and communicate with others, Declan has developed into a confident and outgoing individual, who is always bursting with new creativity for the next world premiere!” Debra and Kevin Mills (Declan’s parents)

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"We cannot praise Mr Whitehead enough for all his hard work and dedication in making this lunch time club Unit Radio happen, and feel that something like Unit Radio would be highly beneficial to other children with special needs in other schools.” Debra and Kevin Mills (Declan’s parents)

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There has only ever been one concern about the Unit Radio productions, which came from a teacher who was worried that the pupils were getting too involved, stopping them from socialising outside of the classroom. Giles Whitehead feels that this comes from a misunderstanding of the pupils involved who really struggle to socialise outside of the classroom, but who will happily interact with other students when they’re at Unit Radio.

Any difficulties that arise at Unit Radio are usually the result of the remarkable enthusiasm of everyone involved. Students can sometimes be over-enthusiastic and need calming, and it can be challenging to ensure that every student who wants to be involved can be.

The editing process can also be very time-consuming – something to consider before beginning a project such as Unit Radio. For example, if a student has verbal dyspraxia it may take 30 minutes to edit a single line to run smoothly so that the student won’t be self-conscious about their performance. A lot of the improvised material will also need to be edited out of recordings and getting the right sound effects takes up a considerable amount of time in order to produce a show that sounds professional.

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Radio is great because you can edit out any mistakes, encouraging students to talk and use language freely. Try to build up a relaxed atmosphere and don’t ever force anyone to talk. Put a microphone in the middle of the table and let your students talk if they feel like it. Everyone eventually gets used to communicating with the microphone there and confidence quickly builds.” Giles Whitehead, project leader

What do you need?

  • A computer
  • A microphone… You don’t need to spend a fortune - a £5 microphone works perfectly well.
  • Audacity… Free downloadable editing software that allows you to layer, chop and reorganise your recordings. You can even chop a word in half so that you can put  two halves of a word together and it will come out sounding OK. Download Audacity Help.
  • Sound effects… You could try and make your own sound effects or use the free website
  • Music… You could try and write your own music, look for talent within your school to write and/or record a piece of music or use the free website
  • A good environment… It’s important that students are in a relaxed environment with space to explore movement and communication.

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Creating a show

It’s best to start small and simple. If you begin at a level that you all feel comfortable with, you and your students will grow and develop your own methods together. To help get you started, here are some guidelines for approaches that Unit Radio has adopted. Not all of these are essential so pick and choose those that will work for you.

  • Everyone who wants to be involved should discuss and decide the genre of the new show. For example wild west, out of space, spy story etc. Preparing for a Show.
  • Students then need to think about and choose suitable characters for the genre and best match them to the people involved.
  • Create a vocabulary book for the theme so that students can familiarise themselves with appropriate language. Vocabulary Book.
  • Participants are then in a position to create a rough plot and improvise story lines.     
  • Create tangible resources such as posters to help build a bigger picture and develop the characters and story line. Unit Radio Methodology.
  • Not all plays have to be improvised, they can be scripted by the students Larry goes to the Library [by Warren, Zach, Connor and Ross at Unit Radio.  Coordinated by Giles Whitehead.]
  • Provide a framework by introducing plot elements that the pupils can react to.
  • Be creative with situations and resources. For example, you might need to improvise to deal with background noise: if someone sneezes it can be put into the story line… “There’s a killer virus on board!”
  • Once students have an understanding of the plot, characters and framework of each scene, you can begin recording.
  • Record each scene separately and without rehearsal to achieve the most natural results. You may need to go back and record additional sections to edit into the original recording.
  • Edit each recording so that the storyline and dialogue flows. This gives students a feeling of safety - they know they can make mistakes or say the wrong thing, but it will all come out OK in the end. 
  • Create or choose your sound effects and overlay them onto the edited recording. Adding Sound Effects.

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For more information about The Tydeman Centre Unit Radio, please contact:

Giles Whitehead
Unit Radio Project leader
Address The Tydeman Centre, The Malling School, Beech Road, East Malling, Kent ME19 6RP
Telephone  01732 840 995

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