I catch up with my pal Pete to find out how his multisensory journey began, his top five favourite story props, talk about his exciting new project and find out the items he'd take to a desert island!
Tell me about yourself
I am Pete Wells, a very proud special needs teacher of 27 happy years. I am also the author and architect of Inclusive Technology’s brand-new Inclusive Stories platform of which I am extremely proud and excited! I am the writer and host of the ‘Pete Wells Sensory Stories Podcast’ which has had thousands of downloads since it started. I am also a parent of two wonderful children and a three-legged cat called Michael Johnson!
What was the first job you had?
The first job I had was a “Pot creature“ in a nightclub in my hometown of Sunderland. A pot creature was a colloquial term for a glass collector if you’re wondering! Part of this role involved me collecting glasses from both the male and female toilets, and I still bear the mental scars today! I soon went onto bar work, and I absolutely loved that job, it gave me all the tools to be a successful classroom practitioner.
How and why did you choose a career in teaching and why SEN?
I actually qualified as a woodwork teacher, something which held, and continues to hold, absolutely zero interest for me! My passion was always technology, and I wanted to be a computer teacher in a primary school. Fast forward to the end of a particularly stressful teaching degree, teaching a subject I didn’t love in the three most deprived secondary schools in the already very deprived Sunderland. It’s fair to say my love for teaching had pretty much disappeared!
To help me get through university, I worked at an extremely busy working man’s pub. I absolutely adored this job and made real connections with a grumpy old fellas that used to drunkenly prop-up my bar. I knew everyone’s name, and more importantly, everyone’s drink, and I prided myself on having that drink on the bar before they even ordered it. Those grumpy old fellas didn’t stay grumpy for long!
With my love of teaching considerably diminished, and my joy at bar work being at an all-time high, I thought I would end up having my own pub and spending my days chatting with customers and getting paid for it. However, a couple of my customers worked at the weird special school up the road and they pretty much bullied me into going to work there at a summer play-scheme.
I remember that at the end of day one… I absolutely hated it! I went home to my parents and said I really didn’t want to go back the next day. However, I stuck it out and went back the next day. This time, I double HATED it! From a sensory perspective, the sights, the sounds and particularly the smells freaked out my young, immature brain! Thankfully, on day three, something just clicked, particularly as I’d fallen head over heels in love with two PMLD students called Aaron and Tracy, who were boyfriend and girlfriend. They were the most delightful couple you could ever meet!
I had a blast last summer with some wonderful students and absolutely fantastic staff for whom I felt a massive kinship. I had found my people and have never looked back!
What is your favourite topic/subject to teach and why?
One of the challenges of teaching that I particularly enjoy, and that many practitioners detest, is the challenge of jumping through ridiculous hoops. As teachers, we are asked to deliver some right old cobblers that we know aren’t relevant to the people in our care but ticks several boxes for OFSTED or the government. Rather than gripeing and whingeing about this, I like to embrace it and think about how I can deliver contentious or difficult subject matter in a way that is appropriate and beneficial to my learners. So, I really enjoy breaking down things like PREVENT, which has a relatively little bearing on the individuals I teach, into components such as the importance of being kind, communicating well and making good choices. The kids are happy, I’m happy, other teachers are happy, and inspectors are happy. It’s a win, win, win, win situation!
However, more recently, I have been getting really excited exploring how to use one resource to deliver meaningful content in vastly different ways to be effective and appropriate for a wide range of learners. For example, in the past couple of weeks, I have been delivering my story “Lolli Ladybird’s Got Spots” to a disparate range of learners in my college. This is a story about a worried little ladybird who discovers she has big black spots all over her back, so goes to see the doctor. In the waiting room, she meets a snail who is very slow, a caterpillar who is always hungry, a wasp who was always angry and so on. The story is all about diversity – we are all made differently, but we all just great the way we are!
So, with this in mind, for my PMLD learners, I have delivered it purely as a sensory story, where I saw interaction, anticipation and engagement increase exponentially.
With a complex needs class I oversee, I have been teaching it as a communication story, with the learners making excellent sentence strips, matching picture to object and interacting meaningfully with each other using the props.
With a group of learners who have autism, I have been delivering the story as a “Zones of Regulation“ tale. Here we have been putting the characters into the different zones, depending on their emotional state i.e. blue if they are tired or have low mood; yellow if they are anxious or overly stimulated/excited; red if they are angry or have lost control of their behaviour or green if they are happy. It is extremely gratifying, moving all of the little creatures into the green zone at the happy ending of the story!
For a group of learners with severe learning difficulties and associated SEMH issues, I have delivered the story in a more traditional manner, with written questions as we went (whilst keeping the engaging sensory props of course!) I got them to reflect on the key messages of the story and try to equate it to their lives. One activity we did was to choose an insect whose POSITIVE traits most resembled one of their peers. Examples included Conor being like a worker ant because he always works super hard, Matthew being like a beetle because he is extremely resilient and Pete Wells being like a butterfly because he is absolutely beautiful! This was really lovely for upping learners’ self-esteem and getting the class to talk positively about each other. We used Snapchat filters to turn our friends into the appropriate insects to make the lesson a bit cool and to increase interactivity.
So, there we go, one story delivered four ways, with awesome results!
What is your favourite thing about teaching?
Unquestionably, the learners. I have felt so privileged to get to know some of the most amazing children and adults I could ever wish to meet. I truly, unashamedly love my students who are under MY and my staff’s care from nine till three every day. I have made lifelong friendships with many parents and families, and I truly feel like I have made a difference to peoples' lives. Plus, the learners are the only people who laugh at my jokes!
How did you get interested in writing multisensory stories?
For the first few years at my first the special school I actively avoided the PMLD classes. They were full of wonky kids and strange machines that I didn’t understand and was very fearful of! This didn’t sit right with me, so, after a few years, I asked the Head if I could be moved into that department the next academic year.
Of course, those first few months with my PMLD class were incredibly confusing, daunting, and I felt like a complete fraud being paid more than my teaching assistants, and not having a clue what I was doing. Luckily, my TA’s (like all TA’s) were amazing, and they held my hand and supported me every step of the way. I will be eternally grateful to them.
One day, one of the staff asked if I tried the Bag Books that we had. I hadn’t, so grabbed “Granny’s Visit“ from the shelf and took it home. I really loved the props, and so told the story with great aplomb to my learners. It felt like a real lightbulb moment! The story was beautifully simple, and most of my learners reacted extremely positively to the sensory stimuli they were given. This story will always have a big place in my heart. However… One teenage boy called Andrew absolutely hated it! Young Andrew had an extremely expressive face - he would blink happily, for “Yes”, and perform the world’s most gruesome scowled for “No!” Granny’s Visit got a resounding NO!
So, I took the props away and had a good look at them. There was a cool letterbox that we could tap, a sponge, some paper, a brush and a few other bits and bobs. I laid them out and re-wrote “Grannies Visit” as “Bogeyman Stan.” This was a spookier story about a bogeyman, coming into your home to put you in his kidnap sack! The letterbox was tapped eerily as he entered your home, the brush became the bristles on his chin and the sponge his big fat tongue as he licked your face!
The adapted story was delivered to the class and received the massively blinking approval of young Andrew! Success! Like all good Sensory Story tellers, we told the story again and again and good old Bogeyman Stan became a semi-permanent fixture in our classroom. This led to bogeyman-themed cookery lessons, bogeyman maths, bogeyman science, PE and so on. For me, it was the dawning of a bogeyman themed holistic curriculum!
However, one thing I really wanted was for Andrew to tell the bogeyman story. He really loved it, and I loved the idea of sitting drinking cups of tea whilst being paid for Andrew to be the teacher. So I knocked up Bogeyman Stan in PowerPoint, knowing that the switch functionality would allow Andrew to become the storyteller. A pivotal moment in my career!
This was 20 years ago, and at the time a funny new thing called the Internet came into schools. Internet forums were very much the social media of the time and there was a vibrant SLD community called the SLD Forum that was filled with all the big hitters of the profession. I used to love frequenting there as it was a real hotbed of resource and knowledge sharing. Naturally, I shared Bogeyman Stan with other professionals on there, and it blew up! It’s led to be writing more stories and becoming known as the weird guy who writes disgusting stories. I’ve never looked back!
Where do your ideas for your stories and characters come from?
Lots of places! I’m lucky enough to have one of those overactive brains that never switches off, so sometimes ideas just slap me around the face right out of the blue as I’m sleeping or walking along the street. I hurriedly write them down, then forget about them for years, and then can’t remember what they were in the first place!
As I mentioned previously, a major source of inspiration is figuring out how to break down difficult concepts and deliver them in a way that is meaningful. Necessity is the mother of invention, so breaking down a tricky idea can then suggest some wonderful story ideas.
My learners are also often a source of inspiration. They say and do the funniest and most wonderful things which will often find their way into my stories (I’m looking at you “Gobbin Hood and his Merry Phlegm!”) Sometimes, my learners are particularly motivated by something, so I might write a story around that.
And I’m sure that many SEND practitioners that are reading this will recognise the next source of inspiration – that is, finding interesting or wacky knickknacks in the most obscure little shops and thinking “Wow! That looks like a centipede with no legs! or “I wonder what this thing does? Does it scrape bogies from behind the sofa?“ So I am often inspired to write stories based on strange little props that I have found. I am forever dragging my long-suffering family into some of the grottiest shops across the globe!
Finally, my writing hero is a prolific comic author called John Wagner. He created, amongst other things, my comic hero, Judge Dredd, which I have read since I was five and continue to read today. John is renowned for his extremely lean writing style. His plots are extremely tight, and there is not a wasted word or bit of fat in his scripts, however, every single story he writes is absolutely bursting with ideas and creativity, which really inspires me. As Sensory Story writers, we have to try and remove all of the fluff and erroneous bits of language from our stories, to present just the narrative. John’s super tight scripts are always a fantastic reminder of this.
Do you have a favourite story/character?
That’s like asking me to name my favourite child! There are a few stories that mean awful lot to me because they’re based on people that I know and love. For example, when I was talking about the wonderful TA’s that supported me in the early part of my PMLD career, there was a particularly amazing lady called Sue Webster. She was an absolutely gifted storyteller, who would have us all under her spell whenever she told a story, and taught me so much. I wrote my very first Webster Witch story as a cheeky little tribute to her. She passed away quite some time ago now, so I am absolutely delighted that Webster Witch is an integral part of my Inclusive Stories platform and will outlive us both!
Other favourite stories include “Don’t Play with the Hedgehogs“ as I think that works as a really effective multi-layered story. It’s either a funny little tale about a nasty badger getting her bottom set on fire or an allegory for racism, radicalisation, and an effective way to deliver the PREVENT strategy. It has my worst ever Dad joke in it too!
I really tend to favour many of my grottier tales and a real favourite is ‘Gobbin Hood and his Merry Phlegm.’ This particularly obnoxious tale was based on an amazing learner I used to teach who could spit at you from the other side of the room, and always hit you in the eye! A real talent! Sadly, Inclusive Technology have flat-out refused to make this one of their Inclusive stories.
Of course, it would be remiss of me, not to mention Sheldon the Snail, who is the mascot for Inclusive Stories. Eagle eyed learners will notice that young Sheldon makes an appearance in every single story on the Inclusive stories platform as a cool little Easter egg. Young Sheldon was born at the request of teachers who liked my work but felt like they couldn’t do much of it as the stories were often too disgusting or teen-focused. I wrote Sheldon Snail’s Sunbathing Session as a response to this and was delighted when it was picked up by the Irish Education Board and used as part of their legendary thematic units for PMLD learners. I still enjoy writing Sheldon stories and get particular pleasure out of torturing or disappointing him at the end of every tale. There will be lots more Sheldon stories on the Inclusive stories platform, so look out for those.
Finally, there’s a new accidental character, who has forced her way into her own set of stories, as characters so often do! Those who have used by Inclusive Stories platform may have come across “My Day at Loch Ness“ I’ve always enjoyed telling this story, particularly as we get to play hide and seek in it. When the animators made it for Inclusive Stories, it starred at delightful little girl who I’ve named ‘Jessie.’ I wrote a similar story called “The Day I Met the Yeti“ and it made sense to reuse the character of Jessie. This has led to a series of stories now where Jessie travels the world, meeting various mythological beasts from different countries. It’s a good way of introducing multiculturalism and promoting play, kindness and friendship. Look out for Jessie in the future, she’s awesome!
Are any of the characters based on you?
My wife would argue that Farticus from “I’m Farticus!” was, but I think the lumbering Sheldon the Snail is more like me!
Which three historical figures would you invite for supper and why?
Charles Dickens. “A Christmas Carol” is my favourite story and I would love to sit with him and watch the cheesy, but wonderful, musical version with Albert Finney. I know all the words!
George Lucas. A true visionary whose effect on modern culture can’t be underestimated. Pretty much everything I love can be traced back to him in some way.
Finally, my dear old Mam. She passed away long before I’d had success and I know she’d have been super proud of me. It’d be nice to have one last cuddle…
You have a time machine set with two trips. Where are you going to go?
I would love go back to 1980 to see eight-year-old Pete Wells’ face when I found out that Darth Vader was Luke Skywalker’s dad. I would also go to the future, to when I’ve retired, so I can spend more time writing stories during the day, as opposed to after work and at weekends. My work life balance absolutely sucks at the moment, I’d also like to see the effect that Inclusive Stories has had on myself and the profession!
What three items would you take to a desert island?
1. My iPad - I can’t live without this! I use it for writing, drawing, research, entertainment and EVERYTHING. It’s permanently attached to me.
2. My games consoles - I’m a big gamer and can absolutely get lost in a good game. Gaming is my escape where I can block out the world!
3. Sheldon the Snail and a bucket and spade. I guess the little sucker HAD to get to the beach eventually!
Tell us a secret!
Also, I’m working on a very exciting range of books that I can’t wait to share… That’s all I can say for now.
If you had a superpower what would it be?
Manipulating and stopping time. I could get up to so much mischief and steal so many pasties!
Tell me about your podcast?
The Pete Wells Sensory Stories Podcast was a real labour of love and something I’m DYING to resurrect. I have plans to do it with my good friend Carol Allen, but we are both just soooo busy.
The podcast has had thousands of downloads, and I’m very proud of it. The format was fairly simple, I would start with a little lecture about some topic of SEND, then I would interview one of my educational heroes. I had some absolute doozies on there, such as Flo Longhorn, Keith Parks and Les Staves and more. I would also tell one of my stories before breaking it down into how to deliver each section and why. I would also give a load of lesson ideas. This was very much the precursor and template for my Inclusive Stories platform.
You can download the podcast wherever you get your Podcasts!
The bedtime/hospice stories you wrote for the for NHS were beautiful Pete. Can you tell us more about these?
Thank you, it’s very important project to me! I was contacted by a teacher called Angela Dawson at an NHS hospital school in Nottingham. She asked me if I could come up with a prop-less Sensory Story for very poorly children who may be at the end of life.
Initially, this boggled my mind but I soon had the idea of using whatever was at hand when you’re in bed. This includes things like your pillows, teddy bear, blankets as well as activities such as massage or singing lullabies.
I wrote “Off to Slumberland,” a very simple story about going to sleep and going on a journey. This could be a simple nap or something more significant… I also wrote another, more classic sensory story, called “Where Will Your Dreams Take You?” about different dreams you may have - will you go underwater, or into space, to the jungle etc…
I’ve had some lovely feedback about these stories. A company got in touch with me and have had the two stories printed up into large banners that are going to be sent to every children’s ward in the country! I am going to be presenting these banners to a few of these children’s wards which I’m sure will be very emotional.
I really like this idea, and hope, when I can finally go part time in my teaching job, to write a whole book of classic bedtime stories that use your bed as props.
Are you working on any exciting projects? Tell me about Inclusive Stories!
Inclusive Stories is my dream project and my Magnum Opus! It is an online platform of my stories on Inclusive Technology’s HelpKidzLearn site that have been lovingly animated and professionally narrated by the lady who introduces The News at Ten! I love the fact that I have totally debased her, and got her to say things like ‘bum’ and ‘snot!’
The stories are written with everyone in mind, however, there is a focus on issues and topics that are pertinent to children and adults with special needs. For too long, we in the special-needs community have been adapting mainstream resources and stories, I wanted a set that was written for US!
The stories themselves can be accessed on just about any device, and more exciting for me, can be controlled using any access method. This means for children and adults who can’t speak and barely move can become the special storytellers, which is just incredible for self-esteem and independence. This was a very, very important to me, making me think of young Andrew all those years ago!
I have spent an inordinate amount of time writing extremely comprehensive guides to telling the stories and producing thousands of resources for the project. There is absolutely everything that the parent of teacher would need in the project which was my aim from the start.
I can’t begin to tell you how proud I am of this amazing resource and I’m already beginning to get incredible feedback about it. I was desperate to work with Inclusive Technology on it, as they really are my favourite special-needs company, and as expected, they’ve done a stellar job!
I am working on a couple of other projects, but I can’t talk about them yet!
What are your top five multisensory story props?
Every time I asked this question to practitioners on my podcast, they absolutely copped out by saying “Yourself.” This is bleeding obvious, and what other practitioners really want are our top tips for things to buy, so I will actually provide this!
Orbeez - I love these little water beads! They feel wonderful and are superb for hiding things in! Children and adults find them absolutely irresistible, and you can also have a lot of fun getting them to retrieve objects from a tray of them. This can be any object linked to your story, but I get a huge kick out of hiding extra items in there, such as toy spiders or fake poos. These have led to some real hilarious moments with my learners.
A blanket – I love, love, love playing hide and seek and peekaboo with the learners of all ages. Where I currently teach, my learners at aged from 19 to 47, and we have some great fun, hiding underneath the blankets, or putting blankets over the learners while I hide, and getting those learners to try and find me. There are absolutely loads of positive, developmental things that go on here, and the learners are well aware of the purpose of such games.
Blankets are also great for hugging, and have various textures, can make it dark and light and can even smell very nice!
Torches, Disco torches and finger lights – obviously, torches are visually interesting and perfect for practising skills such as tracking or highlighting items that you want your story explorer to concentrate on.
There are loads of cheap plug-in, sound activated disco lights are lovely and promote verbalisation and interaction these days which are great too. Cheap disco torches, which you can get from your local B&M, with a battery-switch adapter can be very powerful, quite a magical and highly recommended.
While we are on about things that light up, I am a big fan of finger lights, which you can buy in places like Amazon for around £10 for 100. These little lights fix to the fingers and can be used to simulate fairies, magic, look great when shone on wheelchair trays or desks and can really promote fine and gross motor movement.
Bubbles - again, bubbles are fun and irresistible, regardless of age or ability. I really enjoy having a bubble machine linked to a PowerLink switch (more on those below) and my learners really enjoy filling their environment with bubbles. Like many props, bubbles can be really handy for promoting interaction with peers, for example, “Victoria, make some bubbles for Pete!“
Airzookas - these are fantastic air cannons which, when used responsibly, can really increase anticipation for many learners. They pack a really powerful blast of air that you can use to simulate wind, a kiss, a punch, a burp, anything you like really. You can really ramp up tension, expectation and anticipation when using them. They’re great!
I’m going to cheat here and add a Sixth!
Vortex cubes from Aromaprime – Aromaprime is a company that makes smells for places such as the Jorvik Viking Centre and various theme parks. These can be pleasant smells such as chocolate, lemon, freshly cut, grass, as well as unpleasant, smells such as vomit, urine, or sprouts.
The company make Vortex Cubes, which are small little plastic boxes that contain just about any smell you need to have. These powerful little boxes last for years, and I can’t recommend them highly enough.
What are your top five Inclusive Technology items?
PowerLink or Click-On-2 Boxes - these awesome pieces of equipment allow you to plug in any appliance and make it switch adaptable. The power of this for understanding of cause-and-effect and promoting independence cannot be underestimated and every special needs setting should have many of these fantastic devices.
Battery-Switch adapters – Similar to the Powerlink Switch, these allow any battery operated toys or devices to be adapted for switch use. This means that your little story explorer can use a switch to make bubbles, switch on a disco torch, activate a toy or whatever you need them to do, fantastic!
Single switch communicators - That’s usually a BigMack to you and me. These audio switches are great for recording sounds on and getting your learners to practice cause-and-effect in your stories. However, there are a great many things you can do with these switches. They are great for facilitating emerging communication and raising self-esteem and interaction.
I wrote quite a comprehensive guide to BigMacks for this very blog, Augmentative Communication Aids & Assistive Technology in Sensory Storytelling by Pete Wells which should tell you just about everything you need to know!
Multi-Sensory Rooms – there’s been a lot of written about multi-sensory rooms throughout my career, both good and bad, but effective use of these magical places simply cannot be underestimated! While I agree wholeheartedly that the classroom should be as effective as a multi-sensory room (so blackout blinds are an absolute must!) a sensory room, when used correctly can be incredible.
Think about this – at home, you may have a giant TV screen, the best sound system you can buy and lovely comfy chairs to sit on to watch your favourite movie. However, no matter how good your home set up is, this doesn’t compare to a trip to the cinema or theatre. These are an event, featuring unique opportunities, sights, smells and tastes and should be celebrated. So by all means, go ahead and have your classroom as an exciting sensory cave of wonder, but please don’t dismiss the joy and specific benefits of sensory rooms too.
Inclusive Stories on HelpKidzLearn - but I would say that, wouldn’t I? Seriously, though, These do contain everything you could ever need.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Do what do you love doing and don’t worry about climbing the ladder. I’ve had a great career in education, however, lots of those years were spent being a senior leader, limiting my time with the kids. While I thoroughly enjoyed shaping curricula, helping other teachers and so on, it meant that I lost sight of my own classroom practice and stopped writing the sensory stories that meant so much to me.
While I still enjoy a senior role in my current job, I get to work more with the learners which helps to develop the stories I love so much. I feel like I am writing more relevant and exciting things at the moment then I ever have, and I’m really passionate about pushing the envelope for delivering stories in different ways. I really feel I am on the cusp of something big here. I wish I’d focused on this earlier. However, life is a journey and I wouldn’t of got into the position. I’m in today if I hadn’t had these various roles so it’s a bit of a catch 22 situation!
What advice would you give to new teachers?
“Enjoy your job, it really is the best job in the world!”
Yes, it can be difficult, yes, it can be stressful, but we do get to do some amazing things and make a real difference to peoples’ lives. I would urge new teachers to never ever lose sight of this''
''Be guided by your learners.''
Your children will tell you when you’re doing things right and when you’re doing things wrong
''Be grateful and thankful every day to your teaching assistants.''
Listen to them, value them and let them know that they are valued. The worth and benefit of a happy team can never be underestimated.
...and your motto Pete?
“Always be kind and have fun! “
Being kind is the number one rule in life. This is ALWAYS my classroom rule which just covers absolutely everything! Your staff and your children can always be snookered with the question ‘Are you being kind?’ if they are doing something that they shouldn’t be doing.
Having fun is imperative for every part of life. If you are having fun and being kind, then you are making a positive contribution to all those around you.
And finally, “You ARE what you want to be.”
What I mean by this is, don’t do yourself down. Don’t say “One day, I am going to be a writer!” or “One day, I am going to be an artist… a singer… a juggler… a movie star.” Change your mindset to one where you believe you already ARE these things. Think “I AM a writer, I just haven’t been published yet.” “I AM an artist, I’m just waiting for my first show.”
You’re bloody marvellous, so believe in yourself!
Thank you to Pete and to his students. (All photos printed with permission)
Contact Pete: firstname.lastname@example.org