It has been my experience of late that, as I have begun to internalize the Guidelines for Universal Design for Learning (UDL), I find myself applying those Guidelines across multiple settings. For example, at a lunch, I couldn’t help but point out that the lack of labels was a barrier to helping people choose their meal.
On a serious note, I have recently had the privilege and exciting experience of helping my daughter think about the kind of teacher she wants to be as she transitions from doing case management in mental health to doing a job that’s partly case management and partly education. On a daily basis, her responsibilities include a check-in, check-out, and two 45-minute classes on topics that come up during the check-in. The clients attending classes are often there under duress, perhaps sent by the court or by DCF, but sometimes attending voluntarily. My daughter is very interested in using her teaching to be an agent of change; I have encouraged her to think broadly about working towards permanent, lasting, and meaningful change, which I believe can happen if she teaches in the framework of the UDL Guidelines.
Over the past week, we have designed the first few days of her work with a group of clients she is inheriting from a departing clinician. As we talked about what she wanted to teach, how she wanted to teach it, and the messages she wanted to send, I found myself firmly grounded in the Guidelines in my suggestions for her.
Obviously, there is a high need to think about engagement. As I noted earlier, many of these clients are here under mandate, which is the best possible way to guarantee a lack of engagement or to create “engagement” in the form of rebellion. On the other end of the spectrum, some of the clients experience this class as a place to have an audience. As my daughter shares what she has observed in her time there so far, she describes a culture where clients are seen as being passive recipients of information provided solely by a clinician. As my daughter said, “I think [the program staff] do think that the clients don’t know anything and that’s why the clients are there.” This leads to a great deal of teaching as full-class discussion with limited involvement by a small subset of clients in the group. As my daughter and I reimagined what could be instead of a discussion dominated by one or two, we looked at opportunities to increase choice. We also looked at opportunities to increase dignity for the participants; it may not be explicitly stated in the Guidelines, but I think it is a critical part of engaging in meaningful social work. As we created documents and developed routines for her to use, I encouraged her to consider different barriers, such as an overload of text, a lack of visuals and color, and a lack of interest in the material.
This was a fascinating experience for me. Working with my daughter forced me to take the lid off of my head and to open up both my practice and my thinking to someone who has no shared professional vocabulary with me. If I want to help my daughter understand the importance or value of a suggestion I am making, I have to be explicit. What we do share is the experience of having been teacher and student together in the same struggling middle school. As her mother, I also got to watch the school system fail her as she moved forward into High School, a student struggling with PTSD who was not available for learning most days and who internalized that as being “not-smart.”
Although it is unfortunate that much of our shared experience focuses around what my daughter did not want to do in her classroom, it did give us a common language to talk about why the UDL Guidelines are so powerful in their potential to transform education. I sincerely believe that, as my daughter grows into her practice and into some confidence as a teacher, she will have a higher chance of creating lasting change for her clients because she will be working with the expectation that they are building skills far bigger than just talking about loneliness or anxiety. If it is possible for her students to build skills around collaboration, positive decision-making, and rebounding from failure, I believe those skills will help them avoid a return to the situation they find themselves in that brings them to my daughter’s classroom.