I am teaching summer school at the Adult Learning Center in Lawrence, Massachusetts, this summer; classes start tomorrow, so, by the time this post is available, it may already be outdated! It has been a few years since I taught summer school that wasn’t a graduate course for Universal Design for Learning (UDL). It has been even longer since I taught adults test prep in Spanish for the new HiSET test, an alternative to the GED.
I am using this summer as an opportunity to do some deep thinking about UDL, since, if UDL is truly universal, then it should be applicable to my teaching in Lawrence as much as to my work in Groton. As I prepare to meet my students tomorrow, I am thinking about what I see as barriers and the whole experience is reminding me that the things that are hard about this for me are similar to what my colleagues at work or students in my graduate courses experience as they begin their journey into UDL.
In order to do choice, you have to have resources.
As I have written about in other blog posts, we usually start in UDL with the idea of choice. That was certainly an early message for me when taking graduate courses with Dr. Katie Novak in our district. Although I think the work now for me is to move beyond just choice into empowerment, I still think introducing choice is a great starting point for both students and teachers.
It was easy for me to bring choice to my 7th grade math classroom because I have been teaching 7th grade math for almost 20 years and I have a lot of “stuff”–workbooks and programs and manipulatives and notes and worksheets. One of the joys of working with UDL is that it has allowed me to focus my work on the standards and be selective in the materials we are using to teach them, rather than being locked into a page-by-page, day-by-day curriculum. I have been able to bring a lot of materials out for my students to explore with as they work to understand the content.
But I find myself without resources in my summer school teaching, as there is literally one text, and only one text, that appropriately teaches HiSET (not GED) and in Spanish. Much like a new teacher who is starting from scratch, I know that I will need to find resources while also not falling into the new teacher trap of using all available resources for teaching, which leaves nothing to use for standardized assessment.
In many ways, outside of HiSET, this is a great time for most teachers to be looking for resources, since the internet brings so much directly to us. For example, if I were starting new in 5th grade math, I could use Khan Academy, Zearn, and Duane Habecker or EMBARC for videos. Students could use paper lessons from Illustrative Math and Engage NY/Eureka Math, all without paying anything. I remind myself that adding choice does not mean adding choices, as simply having one more option means we have taken a step forward in UDL because we now have choices to offer, even if only two.
Moving from Teacher-Provided Choice(s) to Student-Driven Options
My access to Spanish-language resources is limited, so I am going to use a strategy I was recently reminded of while reading Learning to Choose, Choosing to Learn: have the students do the work or, as the author writes, “provide a few options for students and have them self-differentiate” (pg. 12). In my case, I would like to have my students bring in Spanish-language text of any kind: newspaper articles, food packages, medication pamphlets, books, magazines, anything. Since the HiSET tests students on their ability to work with both fiction and non-fiction text, having students bring in text will be a legitimate way to can expand my collection of resources. I also think this is an example of what Jo Boaler calls a “low floor, high ceiling” exercise, where students all have a way into the assignment at their own level, but there is no limit on the complexity of text they can use from there–bring on the Neruda!
I am also considering having students create their own set of questions and answers based on the text(s) that we begin to collect. I hope this will create engaging homework that’s low-stakes and doesn’t derail the next day’s class if not completed, as well as potentially providing options for students who finish early.
Deepening my Practice
I believe that doing this work at the Adult Learning Center will force me to deepen both my practice and my understanding of UDL. If I can empower students in this situation–limited resources, limited time, lots of competition for student attention, multiple languages–then I think it should feel that much more possible to do it with a group of students more in my comfort zone!