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Loui Lord Nelson, Ph.D.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) Implementation
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Sometimes, simple is most effective

We all love and crave simple solutions. They just feel good. I think that’s why the mantras around this issue flow freely. One end of the continuum asserts that complex problems require complex solutions. The other end of the continuum asserts that complex problems are best solved via simple solutions. I almost always find that solutions rest somewhere in the middle of that continuum.

These solutions take into account the complexity of the issue, but break the issue down into smaller manageable parts based on a timeline and/or known and available resources. The smaller size creates the opportunity for simple solutions. At that point, the solution can seem like a straightforward, logical, and obvious fix.

In this episode, Catherine shares how her school has been a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) school for the past ten years. Early on, they adopted Google Classroom as their platform. This allowed access via the different devices, but a colleague observed that while the students could get to the Google Classroom via their device, the pathways they could take to get to those resources were numerous and it was confusing. The perceived complexity included the devices, the inherent nature of digital platforms (i.e., multiple entry points), and a large school setting of 1,200 students. But by asking the question, “what is the barrier?” the colleague saw through the complexity and offered the solution of a single or narrow list of pathways for the learners to use. The confusion the students we’re experiencing was a barrier to their participation. The solution, from the outside, looks like a simple one.

At the heart of UDL is identifying potential and current barriers. We look for potential barriers when we’re planning and thinking about the systematic variability – the variability we anticipate based on experience, knowledge about the students, and the environment. An example of systematic variability is reading. Regardless of where you teach, what you teach, or the grade level you teach, you will have variability in your classroom when it comes to reading because reading is a very complex process. The UDL framework with its options under the nine guidelines provide guidance on ways you can support and encourage that variability all while moving your students toward the goal of the lesson.

The examples of navigating to lessons and reading are very different even though they both happen in instructional environments. Are there similar processes we can use in these situations as well as others? There are, but I am going to suggest you always have at least one thought-partner. Whether this is a community of practice, a professional learning community, or just a colleague with whom you work well and can give and receive honest feedback, this will help you solve complex issues. As you read through these suggestions, I hope you think, “wait…this sounds like she pulled this stuff from the UDL framework!” Yes. Yes, I did. Good for you for spotting it!

First, use tools on hand to represent the complex issue. You might be someone who makes sense of things by talking them out, but creating a graphic can be a powerful way to enhance communication. You can write out the smaller pieces of the complex issue on notecards or sticky notes and establish an organization that helps tell the story. Maybe you connect ideas using yarn or post the sticky notes to a white board and draw lines with a dry erase marker. Whatever resources you use, you’re not trying to solve the issue at this point, you’re just trying to identify all of the components and communicate it.

Next, put on your student glasses. Look at this complex issue through the lens of your learners. Where do they experience barriers within this complex issue? Make sure you start by assuming positive intent (i.e., students want to learn). Coming into this step in any other way will directly impact the supports you design and whether they will truly helpful to your learners. As you’re identifying those barriers, add those to your visual model (e.g., extra sticky notes, write on the white board).

Third, think about those barriers from the adult point of view and the resources you have that can lessen those barriers. Look at your visual model and see if there are barriers that are closer to the “heart” or the center of the issue. You might get lucky and find a solution for other issues that are further out or down the line. In Catherine’s example, they defined a single pathway, created that link, posted it, and the communicated that to the learners. The resources used were time (i.e., time taken to identify which path, time taken to communicate that link) and their digital knowledge. This solution was more toward the heart of the complex issue (i.e., students not attending to coursework, students not completing coursework, students not logging in) and helped solve those other issues.

Finally, make sure you take time to identify how you will know things have shifted. Your graphic will help with this. By looking at the components of the issue and the barriers identified, you can create a watchlist to make sure you look for improvement and whether the supports you identified to lower the barrier(s) are doing what you thought they would do. This step is crucial. Sometimes, solutions are put in place that actually create other barriers (e.g., that time I put a tray for student work on my desk which was across the room from the door to the hallway. Students would forget to put the work in the tray on their way out the door. I moved the tray and the number of students turning in work improved instantly!). Ultimately, any solution we find should support our learners in their journey to become expert learners.

A Rubric for 1-to-1 Adoption

Obviously, I am a proponent of Universal Design for Learning. I believe the framework offers the needed guidance to help us think deeply about the supports and services we are providing to all learners. Those supports and services don’t sit within the four walls of a classroom, though. Many times, they begin outside of those four walls and technology is an excellent example of this. This is true in Bartholomew Consolidated School Corporation (BCSC). As Brenny stated during the podcast:

…Universal Design for Learning is our instructional framework. And the way that translates to the technology department is that it really guides every decision that we make, from what technology tools we put in the hands of our students, what hardware we mount on the walls, what software we use for assessments and our delivery of online lessons. UDL is really that goal that we’re all in the rowboat towards all of us are rowing towards it together and it’s all guiding us there.

Many times, the technology (e.g., hardware, software, or apps) chosen for a school or a classroom is either identified based on need or through introduction (e.g., someone sees something demonstrated at a conference). But what does your school or district do from there? Here are some typical questions:

  • Does this duplicate something we currently have or use?
  • How many students will this impact?
  • What will the trainings needs be?
  • Is this meeting an immediate need or a systematic need?

When BCSC was adopting 1-to-1 across their secondary schools in 2012, a group including the Director of Technology, two principals, department chairs, teachers, and I went to locations in North Carolina and Texas that began implementing 1-to-1 district-wide several years earlier and were recognized as leaders in that area. We, however, wanted to look at the use of the technology through the instructional lens of UDL. We didn’t want our debriefing sessions to focus on the number of charging stations or whether students were forgetting them in their lockers. We wanted to focus on how access to the devices was improving the experience of learning for all learners, so Bill Jensen, Mike Jamerson, Eva Cagwin and I developed a rubric to focus our observations and conversations. The rubric was provided in three different ways (i.e., multiple representations) to support effective use.

I’ve attached the rubric which is divided into four sections with space for observation notes. The users of the different sections are identified (e.g., teachers, admin, Mike, Loui) because of how the visits were organized.

  • Section I: Classroom use of technology
  • Section II: Scheduled/impromptu conversations with teachers, students, and administration
  • Section III: Conversations about the technology infrastructure
  • Section IV: Conversations about the technology infrastructure

The rubric represents what we felt needed to be in place for full implementation of UDL. We wanted to identify and observe these examples and then process these options and opportunities as a group. You will likely notice that some of our look-fors are pretty intense. For example, an advanced representation on page 4 for: “Going around and underneath: allowing for and encouraging innovation to create change,” is “It is recognized that reforms and head-on interventions do not create change; rather, allowing for and encouraging innovation creates change.” Obviously, this kind of evidence could only come from specific questions to several individuals, but we did our best to collect those voices.

Based on what Brenny shared, you can see that BCSC has advanced in their adoption of technology (i.e., hardware, software, and apps) and the supports they offer to their teachers, but what continues to drive all of their adoption is UDL because they want every learner to become an expert learner.

Using TeachMeet to Share UDL

Sharing information with your colleagues during the course of a normal school year is tough, much less during this time of COVID-19. Elish Sheridan’s school, though, uses a technique that has suited them well when it comes to sharing practices informed by UDL. They use a meeting style called TeachMeet.

TeachMeet is a way of sharing information via short bursts. Ranging from 2-minute to 7-minute presentations, these bursts can go quickly! Another style within the TeachMeet format is roundtables. These are facilitated, have a central theme, and last about 15 minutes. In all cases, there is a backchannel so people who are not there in person can participate (e.g., listen, respond, or post questions). None of this is firmly defined; rather, the format changes based on the number of people, the venue, and organizer preferences. Hmm, sounds like context has a lot to do with it! (for more information, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/TeachMeet).

TeachMeet got its start over in Scotland back in 2006 and it has spread around the world. Just search for TeachMeet in your browser and you’ll see lots of different examples around the world. The outcomes The Kingswood Community College have experienced from using this format have been fabulous (as noted by their UDL Tips & Ideas document).

This podcast, though, got me thinking more about UDL and TeachMeet. I started to imagine what kind of TeachMeet presentations I would want to do. That sent me back to my perpetual cycle of “how to best talk about UDL”.

We all want to share and hear about strategies. But strategies have to be rooted within a framework or system so there’s an overall direction. In the case of UDL, that overall direction is to support the growth of expert learners. We have the UDL Guidelines graphic organizer which guides our use of the principles, guidelines, and checkpoints to design learning experiences, but if we leave it there, there is the chance that some colleagues won’t understand the deeper reason as to why we make those design choices.

That growth towards expert learning can’t happen for all learners unless there is physical, social-emotional, and academic accessibility. That accessibility doesn’t happen without the flexibility of materials and our interpretation of what can and should happen in a learning environment. All of that needs to be guided by goals. And then there’s choice, which isn’t choice unless it’s rooted in accessibility and flexibility. And it’s all given that extra “umph” when we recognize that we need to provide rigorous learning if we want to really support the growth of expert learners. Usually, I use a tree analogy to talk through all of this, but now I’m thinking about it in a TeachMeet way. Little 2- or 7-minute bursts of information and then a 15-minute facilitated roundtable where currently utilized strategies and systems either align (or not) with the each of the areas I mentioned (accessibility, flexibility, goals, choice, and rigor). Could be interesting. If you want more information, I dug more into each of these areas in a previous blog. And, if you give this a shot, let me know how it goes! Of course, you know I’ll ask you to be a guest. We need to keep pushing UDL out there in quality ways because every learner deserves the opportunity to become an expert learner.

Grade/subject Guest and Topic in podcast Episode number
Kindergarten Laura Taylor – The influence UDL has even after 26 years of teaching 4
Kindergarten Karlene Warns – Executive functioning 17
2nd grade Jessie Sherman – Making arts integration even more accessible 3
3rd grade Jana Nicol – Designing the learning environment 10
3rd and 4th grade Kate Stanley – Supporting agency in learning 25
4th grade Camille Wheeler – Making assessments more flexible 16
4th – 5th grade Adria Gold – Chunking information in English Language Arts 14
5th grade Dan Schmidt – Making sure he knows his “why” when teaching math 12
5th grade Tracy Pendred and Kimberly Spears – Mentorship, friendship, & UDL 26
5th grade Shannon Van Horn – When you know about UDL and others don’t 28
5th grade Laura Christie – Improving reading and writing through UDL 33
6-12 STEM Ben Kelly – STEM, Minecraft, and UDL 9
1st – 6th grade Diana-Grace Morris, Bonni Ramage, and Catherine Wong 29
Teacher on Assignment and Elem Special Educator Megan Gross & Lisa Yamasaki – Using UDL to help others and themselves design lessons and online environments for students with disabilities 40
7th grade Dakota Hudelson – UDL and social justice 8
7th grade Monica Watson-Bedard – Choice in assessments 11
7th grade Rebecca Chappell – Using UDL to make a learning app fully accessible to all learners 19
7th grade & STEAM Christina Khatri – Using UDL when you have a brand-new curriculum 34
7th and 8th grade Rebecca Chappell – Choice and fidelity? Small shifts lead to big outcomes for these 7th graders 21
8th grade Karen Keener and Jordan Landis – Co-teaching and mindset 22
8th grade Rachel Barillari – Engagement in poetry 5
9th and 10th grade Ian Wilkins – How UDL impacted how he assesses writing and how he thinks about grading overall 35
10th and 11th grade Kelley Culp – How she uses UDL to design her online environments 37
12th grade Carrie Preston – End of the year and fully engaged 23
12th grade Amanda Hughes – Supporting the executive functions of her high school students 32
High School Dan Marsh – Using UDL and his background in designing online learning environments for today 39
High School Robin Dazzeo – Using her experiences of learning online and UDL to influence how she teaches online 38
High school Kim Babeu – Choice within Human Physiology assessment 1
High school Kim Babeu – UDL, classroom management, and SPORT 13
High School AP Biology Shelbi Fortner – Choice within AP Biology assessments 2
High School Principal Sara Soria – Seeing UDL as a pathway for the artistic expression of students and faculty 36
Higher Education Liz Hartmann – Using UDL to get high achievers to take risks 6
Higher Education Justin Freedman – Designing the higher education learning environment 18
Higher Education Beth Fornauf – How UDL changed a teacher training program focused on rural educators 27
District resources teacher Melissa Toland – Using her experiences as a 7th grade teacher implementing UDL to help others learn about it 15
Digital Literacy Teacher Melanie Acevedo – Using UDL to develop digital literacy lessons 31
Everyone A discussion guide for UDL in 15 Minute episodes 7

Blog and Resources to Support Students with Disabilities and their Families

The call for suggested resources and tools went out about three weeks ago. Then, the website, Distance Learning for Special Education, emerged. Megan, Lisa, and their colleague and friend, Jenny Kurth, launched a site that many have benefited from. What I love about this site is that it immediately recognizes that educators, students with disabilities, and students’ families need support. We’re all in this together. This is the discussion that kicked off my interview with Megan Gross and Lisa Yamasaki for this episode of UDL in 15 Minutes.

Megan and Lisa are incredibly generous and have shared additional tools and resources they have produced for parents and colleagues. I’ve listed them below.

  • Megan put together a webinar for parents of children with disabilities on how they can increase interest and attention at home through choice boards. https://youtu.be/LONV2uy2Hj8

    She also included the presentation slides and templates for the choice boards.

In the spirit of less is more, I’m going to end this blog here. There are hoards of resources floating around out there. Of course, I’m only interested in the ones that will help all learners grow to become expert learners.

The Reciprocal Classroom During COVID-19

During this episode of UDL in 15 Minutes, Dan Marsh not only shares what he’s learned from moving his brick and mortar class online in comparison to the online courses he designs for a purely online school, he shares important feedback he provided to a learner,

“Thanks for asking the questions, because it makes me feel like I’m still teaching and not just throwing things on the computer.”

That’s totally different feedback than we’re used to giving. We’re used to giving mastery-oriented feedback. The kind of feedback that guides our learners toward deeper learning. But this is feedback that says to the learner, “I am a human being who loves my work and my work is focused on helping you.” We have to remember that as teachers, we derive satisfaction and purpose from sharing information and helping others grow. When that is taken away from us, we feel lost and we feel loss. But there are steps we can take.

1. Be real, just like Dan is. Tell your students that you need them just like they need you. There’s a balance here, of course. The point is not to burden your students with your anxiety; the point is to demonstrate to them that part of your personhood is teaching. We’ve all heard the stories of how young students think their teachers live at school. These students don’t have the cognitive maturity or experience yet to understand that teachers live other lives separate from what they, the children, observe. But that model creates an impression that students carry throughout school. Unless they live with a teacher, or have a close relative or friend of the family who is a teacher, they do not understand the passion and commitment teachers bring home and into their daily lives. Students do not understand that the act of teaching is what feeds the soul of the educator and when that act is dramatically disrupted, that hurts the soul. Dan’s simple statement to his learner beautifully communicates this need. You can model your feedback after his.

2. There are many of us in the UDL community that share the Mood Meter from the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence.

High energy    
Low energy    
  Unpleasant feelings Pleasant feelings

Inside each of the colored boxes are words that students learn about and then see how those emotions fit within the spectrum of emotions. They can also begin to see how they can shift their emotions and take greater control of how they are reacting. Why do we like it so much? It is a powerful tool to help our students move toward greater self-regulation and can help them with their executive functioning. The tool, though, helps you minimize threats by giving your learners voice. In addition, if can be a tool for physical action because learners who use assistive technology (AT) as their speaking voice can be given the opportunity to point to words and then express follow-up via the AT. Emotions are also tough to learn about and understand. The Mood Meter is a fabulous tool to support your learners’ comprehension of emotions.

This quick overview offers an introduction, but this video takes you further down the path. You can use the Mood Meter to get your classes started each day and you can participate in the discussion. Remember, this is all about you communicating to your learners that the very act of teaching is part of who you are.

3. Finally, be sure you take time to think about how this shift has redefined your relationship with teaching. Each of us has a professional identity. Internationally, it is a significant topic in the research because our professional identity impacts us all so much. They tell us that our identity is part of both the product (the things we teach) and the process (how we go about teaching). Because of COVID-19, all of that has been shaken up more than a snow globe. And because the process has taken a bigger hit, you’re looking to regain your confidence in that area. But here’s what we know from UDL: (1) make sure you give yourself access. Look at the first row of the graphic organizer. You need to find the relevance, value and authenticity in how you are instructing. It has to feel right, but also give it time. You need seek ways to minimize the threats and distractions that are around you. For example, reach out to colleagues and structure your conversations around this checkpoint. Finally, your own ability to self-assess and reflect is going to be huge at this time. You have to be able to finish your week (and eventually, each day) saying, “I did well. I learned. They learned. And we all did is pretty darn well.”

None of this is pie-in-the-sky thinking. The entire UDL framework is based on research about how we learn. You are learning. Give yourself the gift of UDL in your life. We’re all in the mode of becoming expert learners.

Using What We Know

Robin, just like millions of other educators, is moving her way through this new teaching experience. As a high school English teacher, though, she’s very used to taking attendance, grading papers, and giving assessments. During this episode of UDL in 15 Minutes, Robin shares how this has shifted. But something else that she said also caught my attention:

While I don’t have a lot of experience teaching remotely, I do have a lot of recent experience as a student learning remotely. So, I’m reflecting back on what I found worked for me and what my professors offered me in terms of engagement and making sure I had access, and the like.

Robin is going with what she knows and building on that. But if you don’t have recent experience of learning online, how are you moving forward? Where are you finding your guidance?

Advice for how to teach online abounds. Good or bad, the advice has come out like throwing spaghetti at the walls. It creates an unpredictable pattern. Some of it falls off while some of it sticks. But even the stuff that sticks is based on popularity rather than quality.

Content specific ideas are intermingled with suggestions for digital teaching tools and rarely do the two align. Here’s where my thoughts come in; let’s break this down a bit using some of what we know about UDL. I call accessibility, flexibility, goals, choice, and rigor the underlying components of UDL (Nelson, 2017). Without those, you cannot meet the needs of your variable learners. Below is a mix of resources and guidance on how to consider each of these areas while designing your lessons and online environment.

Accessibility

From Monday, March 30th through Monday, April 20th, the National Center for Accessible Educational Materials is hosting free webinars on access and distance education. All of these are recorded, so you can return to them. Plus, these area ideas that should be woven into any digital environment all of that time, so bookmark these!

The website, Distance Learning for Special Education is a beautifully organized repository of resources, tips for families, tips for professionals, and frequently asked questions around the education of students with significant disabilities.

We’re all under extreme pressure right now, which means our executive functioning (decision-making, choice-making, planning, and execution) isn’t doing so well either. Where learners might not have needed this kind of support a month ago, assume they need it now (e.g., checklists, step-by-step instructions, graphic organizers, consistent check-ins, feedback that guides them, not just praises them). We all do. This is part of accessibility to learning.

Flexibility

Now that we’re all operating in the digital environment, it would be easy to assume that we’re providing flexibility to our learners. Not true. You’ll find information related to this tucked under accessibility, but just how Robin examined her own learning experiences, examine your own and build on them. Put yourself in your students’ shoes and ask:

  • If I can see text on my screen, can I also listen to it?
  • Can I magnify the text or images?
  • Can I choose the font?
  • Can I highlight the text or choose how the text is highlighted?

The difference here is that the learner has control over these things. You provided them to make the learning accessible to all learners. Flexibility comes in when learners choose how and when they are going to use the tool.

Goals

When we have all of our learners in front of us, we can read the goal out loud together and talk about it. Online learning, especially asynchronous learning, doesn’t provide that important connection, but goals are even more crucial now. Many are discovering that they need to break the overall goal down into bite-sized sections (a goal for every 15 to 30 minutes of instruction and smaller chunks for younger children or students who need more support). You can communicate more clearly what the outcome should be and they can see that the outcome is possible.

Choice

Often seen as the star of UDL, choice actually hinges on accessibility, flexibility and goals. If you aren’t providing accessibility and flexibility and aligning those with the goals of your lessons and online learning environment, then you cannot provide the level of choice necessary to meet the needs of your variable learners. Choice is the gateway to empowerment and self-determination for our learners, and learners need those skills to grow as expert learners, but that opportunity needs to be provided universally.

Rigor

Online learning can go down the tragic path of information delivery with a few quizzes thrown in here or there. From the learner point of view, there is a ton of input (what they are taking in), but the output is less and feels more like regurgitation. Give your students the time, space, and tools to talk about how they are making sense of (a) the world right now, and (b) what they are learning. That’s an incredibly important first step. Next, have them share the patterns they are discovering. Have them put on screen how they are they organizing this information (they can take a picture of something they draw or write or they can create an online representation). Those are just the first two steps Robin Jackson talks about and are the perfect way to begin your journey to developing some rigorous online learning opportunities.

Most of us are new to creating online learning opportunities and we’re doing it under extreme pressure and within a stressful environment. We also know our learners are under stress, but we are a source of consistency and promise for them. Just being there each day adds to that consistency. As you begin to find your footing, add in the above components and you will continue to move your learners toward becoming expert learners.

Video Sharing, Principal Leadership, and UDL

During this episode of UDL in 15 Minutes, Principal Sara Soria shares how influential art has been in her life and how it has become a two-pronged tool for her work. First, she models using art to connect with others (be sure to click on the Crystal Blue Persuasion link in the top right corner to hear music while you look at the slides). Second, she shares how Coalinga-Huron incorporates arts into instruction. In each case, she continues to see how this art emphasis improves student outcomes. I visually represent this two-pronged approach below and then share the specific connections to the UDL framework below the figure.

Diagram of how art can be used with UDL to improve student outcomes

Model how art is used to connect with others

For her course assignment, Sara cultivated photos and other images of art to tell her story. When designing this montage, she connected to the guidelines Recruiting Interest (minimizing threats and distractions) and Sustaining Effort & Persistence (foster collaboration and community) to gain a connection with her audience.

Model how art can influence instruction

During the podcast, Sara shares how she encourages her staff to celebrate learner variability and connect to the guidelines by showing how art can be used to represent information to learners via Language & Symbols (illustrate through multiple media) as well as Comprehension (highlight patterns, critical, features, big ideas, and relationships) and how learners can use it to express their skills and knowledge via Expression & Communication (use multiple media for communication).

Sara ties all of this to the need to be transparent as educators. She believes there is a need to show our students who we are, from where we came, and how we’ve traversed barriers. Her interview initiates the question: What stories do you share with your learners? Do you use stories from your life to show how you’ve moved beyond obstacles? How do you feel about storytelling? What are your barriers to telling your own story? Where could you start? This post on teachthought.com offers 30 tips for teachers who want to use storytelling to connect with learners and is an excellent way for you to do some reflection. The ideas can ease you into a genre that might not be familiar to you.

As Sara points out, the arts are a powerful way for teachers to engage learners, to represent information, and to provide different mediums for students to express what they’ve learned. In fact, you can return to earlier podcasts with Rachel Barillari and Jessie Sherman who also focused on the use of the arts to enrich their lessons. But just as each of them said, the power emerges when our learners begin to adopt the skillsets associated with being expert learners. So, if you are already on a journey with using the arts in your learning environments, or you want to begin, remember to take time and examine the UDL guidelines. Investigate how you are providing access to the arts as well as proving opportunities for students to use the arts in their learning. Examine the opportunities you are providing them to become purposeful, motivated, resourceful, knowledgeable, strategic, and goal-directed. The more you provide those opportunities, the richer the art becomes, both what is offered and what is produced.

Thinking about Gifted Learners through the UDL Framework

In the first bit of time what I started to learn about UDL was that it fosters an active approach to learning where I think so much of traditional ways of education, including grading and assessment are passive, where students can tend to get in the habit of kind of checking the boxes or becoming good at the game of school, as I call it. – Ian Wilkins

If you were to assess this small piece of your teaching, which would you say your students do more – check boxes or are active participants in their learning? Do your learners know how to play along with the system to just get the grade or are they invested? How do you shift them away from box checking and into investment?

The Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework’s emphasis of engagement is directly aligned with this idea mentioned by Ian during this podcast episode. And though we talk about all students when we talk about an environment designed using UDL, this blog is going to spend some time talking about the supports we provide to students who are gifted because many of these students know exactly how to play along. We need them thinking.

Students who are gifted need additional challenges to keep them simulated. Before we get into the UDL and gifted connection, this blog from Edutopia reviews the damaging misconceptions some educators have about students who are gifted and talented, but those misconceptions can be addressed through the use of the UDL framework. I’ll share a story first, though.

I was the full-time sub in an 8th grade Algebra classroom during my first year out of undergrad (I had been hired as a paraprofessional in the same building). My colleague and her husband adopted a baby and the process moved more quickly than any of us imagined. One day, I was sitting with my colleague and the principal planning the transition and one month later I was in front of her classroom.

One of my classes included a 4th grader who was dropped off by his mother 5 minutes before class started every day. She shuttled him over from the nearby grade school. I wasn’t terrified of him; I was terrified of failing him. Every day, he sat in the front row, swinging his legs, with his pencil ready and every day I went into my lessons wondering how I was going to support him.

I remember him showing me four overarching emotions/reactions: consistent curiosity, glee, shyness, and frustration. I’m pretty sure the last emotional response included my inability to give him challenging enough options and my general lack of understanding of how to support him. I wish I’d had UDL to guide my lesson and learning environment development. What would I have done differently?

First, we know that all of our learners should be given options (that’s why every guideline begins with the phrase, “Provide options for…”), but when we’re constructing our options for a learning environment, we’re thinking through the variability that is present and anticipated. I would have given all of my learners, including him, options around time, space and materials (this was the early 90’s, so there was no technology in the classrooms) to share the connections they were making between the mathematical concepts. That would have been a much more valuable conversation rather than solving math problem after math problem.

Next, I would have provided clear guidance around roles and responsibilities in group work. My 8th graders knew that if they were grouped with him, he’d do all of the work. That meant that some of the 8th graders occasionally wanted to be grouped with him but most did not. They wanted to learn, too. Just as the Edutopia blog discusses, he didn’t have the social maturity to define his own role. He and his peers needed that scaffolding to help them delineate responsibilities, self- assess their contributions, and manage resources. By giving them this guidance, it would have provided the platform for deeper learning through collaboration as well as a platform to solve more challenging problems.

Finally, I would have provided many, many more supports around executive functions for all of my learners. Though most of the learners in this class were identified as gifted, most of them had limited organizational skills when it came to managing the information given to them. They were great at learning specific skills and then applying those skills to algorhythms, but they were not skilled at taking their skills and knowledge and planning how they would use it or the steps they would take to solve a larger problem. Executive function has to be practiced and we have to provide scaffolds to support our students on that journey. This piece lays out a day in the life of a student with executive functioning issues. Though your learners might not have a diagnosis of ADHD, there are some great tips for both home and schools.

There was nothing in my mathematics teaching manual to help me see these and other holes in my lesson plans and learning environment. Throughout that period, I received help from other teachers, but only around content delivery. It wasn’t until the very end of that year that I read work by John Dewey that shifted how I approached lesson planning: “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself. Education, therefore, is a process of living and not a preparation for future living.” I began to wonder how I could connect what my students were learning to what they were living and life in general. For me, that mindset shift was part of my journey toward UDL. I began thinking about how to make the learning more real, how to connect him and his peers, and how to help them all with their planning and monitoring skills.

Our gifted students are part of the wonderful variability present in our learning environments. Their scaffolds and supports will look a little different at times, but when you provide the options suggested across the guidelines, you are giving them the guidance all learners need – guidance in how to become expert learners.

Do you hear voices?

Different teachers come to UDL via different paths, but every teacher wants students to be more engaged in learning. The principle of engagement shows us the various ways we can raise engagement, but it depends on the structures around us. For example, Christina was able to add in flexibility to her curriculum. During this episode of UDL in 15 Minutes, she shared:

So the students were supposed to write an answer to a warm up question, and then they’re supposed to read an article and they’re supposed to take some notes in a specific format, and then they’re supposed to share their notes with each other in a specific format, and then they’re supposed to answer some questions at the end. And I’ve, in the past, had a lot of trouble getting students to really engage with it as well.

Even her description makes it sound tedious. But what comes out in her story is that the structure isn’t necessarily the problem, it’s the design within the structure. She identified space within one of those steps to add in more flexible, engaging options. She had to shift her pattern.

You have patterns. We all do. It’s what humans do. We create and love patterns. Heck, our recognition networks (the neural networks behind the principle of representation) are what guide that infatuation. At the same time, we get really bored with patterns. We become disinterested and disconnected when we’re learned the pattern. We are no longer engaged. What’s an educator to do? Look to the students. Hear their voices.

Humans are wonderfully variable. That means students are wonderfully variable. That means they will have different ways to approach things, like how they will approach parts within a pattern.

While telling her story, Christina said, “So, I wanted to figure out a way to make something that had more options and people could do more in whatever method worked for them. But every time I was always going about it, it would seem like something that would take so much time and so much materials and where would you store it and this and that, and people do it at different paces.”

Before we jump to the solution, go back into her thought process – “But every time I was always going about it, it would seem like something that would take so much time and so much materials and where would you store it and this and that.” That’s a lot of truth-telling right there. When she started to think about what to offer her students as choices, her brain went on overload. It actually went into pattern mode. It was going off of previous decision-making cycles – those responsible adult patterns we follow when designing our lessons. But Christina allowed for a tiny disruption. She allowed student voice. Students shared their ideas and those ideas stemmed from what she already had in her classroom or she had easy access to. And then (and this is awesome) students were so engaged with the activity, they used materials they had at home!

Student voice and student choice are a mantra in the UDL community. If you’ve listened to any of the UDL in 15 Minute podcasts, read any books on UDL, watched videos about UDL, you’ve heard about student voice and choice, but there’s a barrier that remains. And that barrier is patterns.

Here’s what I want you to do. As an observer (not a judge), I want you to keep track of the patterns you have in your planning and in your classroom. If you think you’ll judge yourself, bring in a colleague to watch for patterns or listen to you list your patterns (just list, not change). Do this for a week. Then ask, where can you open the door to student voice? What place (e.g., folder storage, bookshelf placement), action (e.g., where they sit), or lesson design (e.g., what do they read during independent reading time) pattern can shift. Next, be open with your students. Tell them why you’re trying this. Give them ownership.

Each UDL in 15 Minute podcast is devoted to help educators understand shifts they can make to lead their students toward becoming expert learners. This is one of the most significant steps you can take. By giving students voice, letting them know why you want to hear their voice, and then using their opinions to design a lesson or your learning environment, you are positioning them to see the purpose in their learning and to build motivation. You are moving them down the path of becoming expert learners.