The other day, I was discussing how we could better address the needs of our ELL students in the elementary classroom when the administrator gave me an eye-roll and a dismissive, “yeah, I know, UDL fixes everything.”
Well, no, it can’t fix everything, but a Universal Design for Learning (UDL) approach to teaching and learning addresses a far wider variation in learning profiles than our current Tier 1 instruction. The conversation continued to roll around in my mind until I came across this article on UDL and ELL by Katie Novak in my newsfeed today.
I don’t know why the advocacy for UDL has fallen flat in our district. Perhaps it’s just a knee-jerk reaction to those of us who are trying to advance the conversation – we tend to be pretty vocal on a variety of pedagogical issues and, because we are overwhelmingly female, are probably seen as “pushy.” Perhaps it’s because you can’t order UDL in a box from a publisher, complete with workbooks, teachers’ guides, and an assessment program. Perhaps we simply haven’t been able to explain UDL well enough for the central office to have the “aha” moment that so many of us have experienced when we learned about UDL.
UDL isn’t a packaged product, curriculum program, or anything else you can buy and push out with bundled training hours from the publisher. UDL is a mindset, a lens through which teaching and learning is planned, executed, and reflected upon with the needs of all learners taken into consideration. UDL opens up learning options that address many learning strengths and barriers for students whether they have learning challenges or not.
Think about the person you sat next to in your last professional development session. Chances are, neither of you have learning disabilities that required specially designed instruction or even accommodations. And yet, do you learn best in exactly the same way? You may be excellent at decoding, but would prefer to listen to the material provided than read it. Your neighbor may find that not interacting with the written text on paper would result in learning/retaining less of the information. As an adult, you probably know which method works better for you because at some point, most likely NOT in during your PreK-12 years, you had the opportunity to try both and determine whether a trip to the local bookstore or a subscription to Audible would suit you best.
Through my work across the state, I’ve had the great privilege of meeting and working with educators who apply UDL in their teaching. Unsurprisingly, a number of them work in the Groton-Dunstable Public Schools, where Katie Novak is an Assistant Superintendent. The one comment I hear repeatedly from these educators is that UDL is a way of looking at everything you do, but it doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Start small, plan for variation not just disability, and realize that this is a journey that will continue far into the future as new opportunities arise.
But first, educators need to have the support to take the first step. Schools and districts need to think deeply about what it means to teach all students, articulate their vision, and start to propagate a UDL mindset.