Melanie Smith hit on a major theme of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) during our UDL in 15 Minutes conversation when she said,
I began to really look at the academic pieces more as a vessel to teach these essential life skills and doing that really became instrumental in creating a safe learning environment for these students and I began a journey with them of learning and figuring out where we needed to go together.
What a wonderful visualization of how to support learners. Melanie sees the academic piece as a vessel or a container that holds space to create a safe learning environment and help learners gain social-emotional skills. Instead of seeing academics and social-emotional learning as two separate components that need to be brought together, she uses the academics as a tool to teach what she called “essential life skills.” During the podcast she describes how she did that in her classroom, but let’s think about another example.
Maybe you’re a high school American History teacher and the focus of the next unit is the American Civil War. According to the teaching standards, students must be able to describe the causes and leading effects of the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the political controversies at that time. And because subject standards like History also include literacy standards, you know that your students need to author content across a variety of historical topics, from different points of view and for different audiences. How can you use your subject as a vessel to teach essential life skills?
I can confidently say that every country in the world has experienced conflict during its history and the United States is no different. Examining conflict, how that conflict is resolved and how it is not resolved is a very personal journey and can be a strategy to help students connect with a topic. A unit focused on the U.S. Civil War and Reconstruction could have the students author informed works from multiple points of view about the same historical moment and those works could be for different audiences. For example, a single battle could be chosen and the students could choose to author a piece from the point of view of a soldier, a slave, an indentured soldier, a mother or father of any race or ethnicity from the north or south, and so on. To write for different audiences, students could choose to author a personal letter, a public speech, a political pamphlet, or a newspaper clipping. And, because the standard does not stipulate writing, the students can use a variety of media to communicate their ideas.
To ensure the students are reviewing accurate and meaningful accounts from a variety of voices, you could identify vocal recordings, written letters, endorsed biographies, and verified autobiographies in newspapers, leaflets, speeches, sermons, books, etc. and could set them up to find the voices and written examples they want to emulate. You would need a rubric to clarify the acceptable language and topics as well as the academic components. Part of the assignment, though, would have students openly discuss (i.e., vocally, through writing, or artistic expression) the deep emotions the authors of these works were feeling. You could have them explore the emotions they feel at times in comparison to their character’s emotional experiences. If you want to build community and collaboration in your class, students could work on these projects together acting as creation partners. Your guidance on how to create an equitable partnership would be needed (e.g., ensuring each student has a specific and accountable role in the partnership is key), but give students space and tools to reconcile collaborative missteps. They will need these skills for the rest of their lives!
While the above is the outline of an idea that would need to be specified even more, you can see how Melanie’s idea of the content being the vessel can work at any grade level and with any subject. There are plenty of other gems in this episode, so I hope you listen to it closely. You’ll hear multiple examples of how Melanie is not just helping her students gain content knowledge, she’s helping them become expert learners.