Monday, May 31, 2010

Why Won't More Teachers Set Up a UDL Classroom?

Karen Janowski recently posted a tweet once again expressing her consternation with teachers refusing students tools for success.

This question seems to come up often with different tools.  It really got me thinking about the true reason teachers will not set up a UDL classroom.  But before I get into reasons, a little background on UDL is necessary.

UDL, or Universal Design for Learning, is, according to the National Center on Universal Design for Learning

"a set of principles for designing curriculum that provides all individuals with equal opportunities to learn. Grounded in research of learner differences and effective instructional settings, UDL principles call for varied and flexible ways to
  • Present or access information, concepts, and ideas (the "what" of learning),   
  • Plan and execute learning tasks (the "how" of learning), and
  • Get engaged--and stay engaged--in learning (the "why" of learning)"
CAST, The Center for Applied Special Technology, does a wonderful job of explaining what a UDL classroom would look like. But I am going to simplify it here.

UDL means providing all students what they need to be successful. This can be as simple as allowing the child who struggles to remain seated, to stand during class.  It can mean providing fidget toys, spell checkers, laptops, highlighters, pencil grips,  multiplication charts, etc.  It can mean finding a place in the room for children to take breaks without missing out on learning.  It can mean giving extended time for tests to all students, not just the ones with mandated IEPs.

So what needs to be in place to actually create a UDL classroom?  What prevents teachers from creating one?  In my opinion, the following needs to be there:

1. Educators must believe that they are responsible for teaching every child.  

I know that right now you are saying, "Of course.  What else would teachers do?"  But think about this.  Have you ever given a test, had a bunch of students fail, and said, "Well, I guess they didn't study?"  Have you ever taught a lesson and watched that one child who stops paying attention and then just ignored that child?  I think we have all done this from time to time.  We say all children should be successful but maybe we really mean all children who are engaged and work hard should be successful.

Once we wrap our heads around the idea that we, as educators, are 
responsible for helping every child meet with success, then we begin to examine reasons why some children aren't.    My own daughter, who is not classified and, therefore, does not have an IEP, requires extra time to take tests.  She is a slow processor (which causes me much angst when I am trying to get her to make a decision) and she is not a great test taker.  When she has teachers who give her that extra time, she is successful, getting As on tests.  When she is held to a 42 minute period, she often does not complete her exams, severely lowering her grade.  I am eternally grateful to those teachers who allow her, and other students who need more time, to come back during lunch or after school to complete the exams.  I think this should be standard practice.  Why shouldn't she be allowed to actually demonstrate her knowledge of the content instead of always demonstrating her processing and test taking skills?

Let's talk about that child who checks out during class.  Often, it has to do with a teaching style.  Maybe this child can't really concentrate during direct instruction.  A simple solution is to use CoverItLive with your class.  This chat room allows students to discuss the content being taught while the lesson is happening.  It keeps them engaged, helps them formulate the new learning into their own words, and provides them with a new way to demonstrate knowledge.  

Another simple solution - have students draw pictures for note taking during class.  Imagine the child who sits doodling during every lesson.  Make those doodles meaningful.  Instead of drawing hearts while you are teaching about the Civil War, have the student draw quick pictures of each event.  

Hopefully, you have noticed that none of these ideas changes your teaching at all.  But it allows more children access to your information.

2. Educators must teach students how to access tools and then allow them the access.

Okay, this one does take some time from your class curriculum but imagine if your students had been taught how to access tools earlier in their school career.  You wouldn't have to teach them anything.  

I also know that, in order to show students how to access tools, you need to be familiar with them yourself.  Lucky for us, Karen Janowski and Joyce Valenza created an incredible wiki to help us in this endeavor. You can even give the URL to your students and make it a homework assignment for them to explore the site and find two or three tools that would be helpful for them.  Now you have removed the time from your class and have made it clear to students that they will be allowed to access these tools as needed.

3. Educators must give up that position of power to allow students the freedom to do what they need to be successful.

In our classroom, during a typical teacher directed lesson, we might have two students on the carpet in front of the room, one student standing in the back, three students with Koosh balls rolling around in their hands, one child typing furiously on the laptop, and one child getting up to get the Franklin Dictionary to check new vocabulary being used.  It takes some getting used to.  For most people watching, it looks a bit disorganized.  The children appear distracted with all the movement but the reality is, they don't even think about it anymore.  We start a lesson and they move into position.  Who is taking notes?  Who is drawing?  Who is typing? Who is filling out a graphic organizer?  Who is standing?  Who is squeezing a toy?  All children are engaged in their own way and we can focus on the content.  

When students in our class are working, as they most often do, on projects in groups, that's when the room really hits its chaos mode.  Children who need quiet ask to work in the hall, outside by the tree, or in our breakout room (a guided study room used for anything but guided study).  Children who thrive with noise remain in the room with their groups talking, discussing, pulling out equipment, hitting our UDL drawer for tools, heading online to access more tools, etc.  To any outsider, learning isn't occurring.  But get closer and you will hear the conversations going on...the learning, the synthesizing of ideas, the discussions about methods of demonstrating knowledge.  Also within those groups are children using their own tools to access the same information.  So one child has a textbook for its resource.  One child has opened up Discovery Streaming or BrainPop to find videos on the topic.  One child is taking notes from internet articles.  And one child is moving from group member to group member, asking questions, getting data, taking it all in.

It becomes controlled chaos.  And it was very hard for me, as an ultimate control freak, to allow.  I wanted quiet.  I wanted them all to do the same thing at the same time.  But I realized quite early in my career that doing the same thing at the same time left an awful lot of students by the wayside.  

Once educators truly embrace these three ideas, success follows and every child can feel good about what they are learning in school.  Why not try just one to start?

Image: 'Hmmm


'What CAN you do in here?

'Classroom Graffiti


Paul Hamilton said...

Thank you, Lisa, for sharing these pictures of what an effective learning environment can look like. These are beautiful images because you are empowering learners and facilitating learning. --Paul

irasocol said...

This is great Lisa. I just want to add that this environment can/must cover every age of learner. And it begins with an idea called "instructional tolerance" - the realization that the "engagement form" is for the learner's benefit, not the instructor's. It includes the understanding that "gaze" (staring at the speaker) is just one cultural construct of "attention" and not a good one for many students. And it includes the understanding that there is no human uniformity ("you don't believe in uniform standards?" I was asked on Twitter this week. "I don't believe in human uniformity," I replied, "so while I have high expectations for all, I don't believe in uniform standards).

Finally, the curriculum which accepts individual learner paths is the Universally Designed Curriculum. Not every student moves from what we have labelled "A" to what we have labelled "C" through what we have labelled "B." Some need to start at "G," and visit "K" on the way, or it doesn't connect.

- Ira Socol

Anonymous said...

I agree that many teachers have trouble adjusting their vision of teaching to what you've described here. However, I think a bigger step on the way to achieving this is to support teachers in this transition. Extra time takes...extra time. Effective classroom "chaos" takes twice as much planning...or more. In the current environment, good teaching and implementation of UDL will lead to burn-out.

You're right - not all educators have embraced these ideas. But, if we support those that have embraced this vision, the success stories will spread and we won't have to convince anyone.

IEPManager said...

It sounds as if priority is given to the students who tolerate or thrive with noise and chaos while the quiet students are sent off in the corner somewhere. Perhaps that is not what happens, but I would suggest that you might ask yourself if the quiet students are also given chances to occupy the central spaces and the other students dispatched to the periphery. I'd also suggest that teaching the quiet students to be able to tolerate the chaos and the noisy ones to tolerate stillness and quiet should also be expected. In school we don't only learn to learn but also we learn to get along and thrive in various environments, as you clearly have as a teacher who now tolerates the chaos that used to bother you.

Anonymous said...

A teacher who sparks learning in young people does so not because of MTSS or UDL, but because that individual connects in a human way that can’t translate into a topic on a college syllabus.