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Universal Design for Learning (UDL) Implementation
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UDL in 15 Minutes with Cassie Stevens and Sara Lucero

Every learner is an expert learner

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) has us look at the current environment, identify the barriers that exist in that environment, and remove those barriers so learning can take place. What if the environment is an entire school and what if the changes you are making not only affect your school, but other schools? And, what if those changes focus on students in self-contained environments? What barriers do you remove? How do you start? That’s what Sara Lucero and Cassie Stevens discuss in this episode of UDL in 15 Minutes. Simply put, though, this is not easy work. One reason it’s not easy is because the voice of the main constituent is often not part of the conversation.

We tell ourselves a lot of stories about how we support our learners, but we mostly move from ingrained models. We move from the model of ‘knowing best’. We move from the model of our experiences. We move from models of past policies and procedures that have dictated decision-making. In some cases, those decision-making models have been around for centuries. Disrupting those models is a huge challenge, but if we’re listening the largest disruptor of these models is the voice of the student.

The students’ voice can be discredited because we believe that voice is based on the limited background knowledge they have and limited experiences we think they’ve had. Because of this, we can’t fathom asking a student who has been in a self-contained environment their opinions about being part of the general education environment. But we should. And, we should be helping them learn how to have these kinds of conversations. I’ll share two stories to illustrate my point.

If you asked me whether I would enjoy snowshoeing in Upper Canada Village, my adventuresome self would say, “Yes!” but my planning self would ask, “Am I physically and mentally prepared to do that?” How do I know to ask these questions? I’ve experienced other life events and I’ve had reflection opportunities that helped me learn to ask planning questions. The point here is two-fold: to learn these questioning skills, I needed to have (a) challenging experiences, and (b) clear opportunities to debrief and reflect on those experiences to assess my own strengths and needs. Regardless of the setting, students with disabilities need these types of challenges and opportunities for reflection so they can learn, too. There is, however, another side to building informed opinions. That side comes from missing out on something and wishing you’d been part of it.

I recall a time in elementary school where I watched some of my peers walk out of the room with another teacher. I asked my teacher where they were going. “They are going outside to work in the school garden.” My next question to the teacher was why those students were chosen. She responded, “They were selected based on their interests.” I didn’t remember any kind of survey or questionnaire, so I asked one of my friends when they came back inside. She told me that the group had talked about gardening during their reading lesson. She was in a different reading group. She was in the higher reading group.

My reading group didn’t talk about gardening. I have no idea what we talked about, but we didn’t talk about gardening. I, however, worked in the garden with my mother every day in the summer. We planted tomatoes, corn, squash, cucumbers, peppers, green beans, brussels sprouts, and lettuce. We had raspberry and blueberry bushes as well as a raised bed of Roma tomatoes. I didn’t just push a spade around, my mother and I weeded, staked, watered, fertilized, pulled old blooms and watched for insect damage. We harvested, tilled, and planted winter rye to finish out the season. There was an assumption made by the adults in my setting that because I didn’t talk about gardening, I had no interest in it, but I was given no opportunity to talk about gardening. This is the same case for our learners in self-contained environments. When are they given the opportunity to talk about the things they want to do outside of the self-contained setting? That is not a rhetorical question. That is a question I hope will spur change. And, how are we using UDL to devise ways to hear their voices and opinions? If we’re truly applying the guidelines of Perception and Physical Action, then we are providing those mechanisms and that space.

Shifting students from a self-contained environment and into the general education setting takes specific planning and time. Clear benchmarks need to be set for the adults and the student(s) participating in the shift. Agreements need to be made among the adults, with the students, and with the families. Communication cycles have to be in place and many different options for communication need to be provided (multiple means, anyone?). The transition is often slow and just like any other momentous change, it is not linear. Instead of steps forward and back, it is a winding pathway of exploration and learning for every person involved. But it all starts with the voice of the learner. It begins with valuing their experiences, both hidden and known, and learning how to hear their opinions. It is about valuing them as expert learners and providing them experiences that will help them continue to flourish. Why? Because every learner is an expert learner and every learner deserves to experience an education that will prepare them to be active citizens.