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UDL in 15 Minutes with Jess Lombardi: The follow-up

During this episode of UDL in 15 Minutes, Jess Lombardi describes how she sets her students up to successfully lead their own conferences. There is no need to present an argument for this kind of design because there is no downside. We need to empower all of our students to identify goals based on data, track their progress toward those goals, and support them to create a portfolio that they present and that demonstrates their growth and reflections across the year. As Jess shares, parents are always amazed, the students are proud of themselves, and the students learn extremely important skills that align with the UDL description of expert learners. So, why don’t more teachers establish this expectation and build this system into their year?

First, some teachers might not be familiar with the idea. If you don’t learn about it when you’re in teacher prep courses, your administration doesn’t promote it, and you don’t have colleagues who prepare their students in this way, then you don’t have that connection. How do we help these educators?

You’re likely reading this blog because you’re an educator. Because you’re an educator, I assume you know other educators. I’m presuming “Birds of a feather” and all of that. Here’s what I propose: the next time you’re in a discussion about education with those friends, ask if they design their environment to support student led conferences. Even if they teach middle or high school, do they design their environment for student led conferences? If they do not, suggest that they listen to this podcast. Suggest that they go to this set of articles from Edutopia that lay out the process and offers tips, checklists, and even printables.

Second, some teachers might think this takes too much time. Honestly, you can do some looking and probably replace one structure with another. Here’s what I mean. My middle school did not promote student led conferences. We were a traditional middle school with back-to-school night at the beginning of the year and report cards. Calls home were mostly for discipline issues, though some made calls that shared a student’s exceptional skills or grace toward another student. I was special education teacher, so I led Individual Education Planning (IEP) meetings, but I wanted my students to take more of a lead in their conferences. There wasn’t a lot out there when I was in the classroom, but there are a plethora of resources now. While others who share their experiences about student let IEP meetings see time as a barriers, I managed to do some swapping to address that time issue.

For example, I was pretty sure that my 8th graders had not been expected to keep track of their own growth related to their goals, so we started small. They chose one goal to keep track of. Next, I knew that I was going to need to prompt them each week to reflect on their growth toward that goal and identify any kind of results that would show movement (whether there was movement or not). So, instead of having them fill out their assignment notebooks on that day (which was a requirement of the 8th grade teams), I had them work on those reflections and I or the paraprofessionals wrote in their notebooks. To them, this was an awesome trade. To me, it was an awesome trade. And what about those students who either did not write independently or who communicated using echolalia? Number 1, I presumed competence. Number 2, I sought ways to help my students communicate their thoughts to me whether that was through one-on-one interviews, paying close attention to their actions, offering them other ways to communicate (e.g., typing their thoughts, drawing their thoughts, physically pointing things out to me). I won’t say that it was perfect 100% of the time, but the expectation was set and my students certainly worked at it.

Universal Design for Learning is all about helping learners gain skills that lead them to become more purposeful and motivated, resourceful and knowledgeable, strategic and goal-directed. When I think about the prep, the action, and the outcomes related to student led conferences, that process is a homerun when it comes to helping learners continue down the pathway to becoming expert learners. I hope you’ll join Jess and the many others who build student led conferences into their practice. It will definitely help you set the stage for the development of expert learners.