UDL is a Mindset, Not a Method

variation-69470_960_720.jpgThe 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.


Remote/Virtual Learning Days


First of all, let me say this at the outset – I DO NOT BELIEVE THAT THE FOLLOWING SUGGESTIONS ARE BETTER THAN BEING IN SCHOOL ON A WINTER DAY.  I’ll probably have to say that over and over again because people challenge me over and over again on the topic.

We’ve had so many snow days this year that I’ve actually lost count and need to ask the district office for the current projected last day of school.  To make matters worse, the last two snow cancellations have been 2-day stretches; one was a Thursday-Friday combo so students were out of school for four days in a row.  Then, they came back for Monday and were out Tuesday-Wednesday.

If you’re a teacher in the middle of a unit or a book, you already understand the problem here.  That topic you started two or three weeks ago will need to be restarted.  Students have forgotten the math algorithm you were teaching because they haven’t practiced and turned it into muscle memory.  YOU probably can’t remember where you left off in that book and your students have certainly lost the plot.  And, you are thinking about the so-called “end of year” tests which are rapidly approaching.  (I say “so-called” because they test the standards to be taught by the end of the year but are given one to three months before the end of the year.)

Nothing beats the interaction between students and their teachers and peers for learning.  After all, we know that learning is a social activity and that educators create the best environments for learning.  But sometimes it simply isn’t possible or safe to be in school due to severe weather, a leaking roof, or a failed heating system.  What then?  The traditional answer has been to add missed days to the end of the year.  This does nothing to address the interruption in learning that occurs over snow days.  It doesn’t push back the state-mandated testing so that it aligns with the change in where students are in the curriculum.  It doesn’t take into consideration that most elementary schools and many middle and high schools do not have air conditioning and have miserable ventilation so that late June brings sweltering classrooms that endanger student health, not to mention learning.

A few years ago, our district attempted to take the lead in making a change.  Sadly, of the three options that were put forward, the School Committee chose the worst of the three.  Every student in grades 1-12 was given a “blizzard bag” project to be done later in the year, not during the snow days, that was meant to replace the lost time on learning from the missed days.  While the topic of the project, Bees/Pollination, was noble, the additional work was not connected to what students had been learning and was overwhelming, having been assigned on top of what students were already doing.  It resulted in a near-universal verdict that this was not how we wanted to do things.  Unfortunately, the public now equates any attempt to be innovative about school cancelations with this model.

There is a better way, which was the one recommended by teachers, and for which I continue to advocate.  Thanks to advances in meteorology, school cancelations are rarely unanticipated, so with a little preparation, teachers can make sure students have an opportunity to make progress on days when they cannot make it to school without snowshoes or an inflatable boat.

Here are some simple examples from my own experience as a fifth-grade teacher:

  • read the next chapter in our core book and answer questions about the reading;
  • write a reflection on a topic from our master list;
  • revise your current writing project for (insert focus area here);
  • practice math equations/problems (I always had extra practice sheets);
  • watch one or more of the science or social studies videos I’ve assigned through Discovery Education and be prepared to discuss when we return to school (assuming you have power);
  • Read this Cobblestone (history) or National Geographic (science) article and highlight the portions you would like to discuss or learn more about (no electricity needed);
  • Depending upon the special (Art/Music/PE) we would have on that day, do the activity assigned by that teacher;

Of course, there are always people who think this is a gambit by teachers to get out of working.  Let’s just put aside the fact that I don’t know an educator who doesn’t use snow days to catch up on lesson planning, grading, IEPs, professional development, or parent communication.  Teachers wouldn’t get the time off on a remote/virtual learning day.  Depending upon the situation (grade level, subject, available resources) teachers would provide support for students and families.  A few options could be responding to questions via email, conversation threads on Google Classroom, Google Hangouts, checking in on student work through Docs.  Obviously, if everyone loses power, then there would have to be alternatives but it wouldn’t be that difficult to work something out so that districts would feel that they were getting their money’s worth out of the teacher day.

Again, there is no question that being in school would provide a richer, more supportive, learning experience for most students.  But if we are willing to let go of the “snow day” of the past, we can not only keep students immersed in their learning, but they may even discover that learning can happen outside of the classroom.