Earlier this school year, I had the honor of working with colleagues from a different district through a series of visits to observe our 7th grade math classrooms. A comment from their math coach got me started thinking about how to help educators take first steps into Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and I wrote a series of blog posts in the spring about my thoughts (Options for Instruction, Changes to Assessment, Adding Options, and Resource Sheets).
Now, as we head into summer 2018, I’ve been having lots of conversations about how to start with and continue with UDL. I decided that the process my colleague, Irene Witt, and I have followed worked in the following cycle:
We began by generating choice for students. We did this in small bites, such as offering choice in review, when we felt there was more flexibility to have students make their own decisions. From there, I moved to choice in instruction, allowing students to decide if they wanted to watch an electronic version of my lesson rather than, as one student put it last week, listening to me “drone on and on.” (Ah, yes, the joy of seeking student feedback!) Finally, by the end of the year, Irene and I were both offering choice in our “By the end of class” approach, where students were given an essential question and some required work, but the path to that goal was all theirs to choose.
Each adult student in the courses I am teaching this summer, and in courses I have taught and hope to teach in the future, is at a different place with choice. That’s all fine–thinking about adding choice is a great place start taking on the challenge of revamping one’s practice.
Getting out of the front of the room
The next step for us was to take ourselves out of the front of the classroom. By removing ourselves from that place, we created time in the day to spend having one-on-one and small group discussions with students. When teachers spend time “lecturing,” they are giving away the time for small instruction. As Irene and I have moved away from the front of the room, probably the hardest thing to acknowledge has been that 100% of the students will NOT need direct instruction on any given topic. I believe we are taught to think that students know nothing until we fill them knowledge, as in Paulo Freire’s “banking” model of education. Our every school experience tells us this, even when we are not engaged in Freire’s critical pedagogy, so it’s no wonder it drives us as teachers. The truth is that every student knows something about something and, given opportunities to gain knowledge about things they know less about, they will accrue more. We don’t need to stand in front of the room to build our students’ knowledge.
This is not to say I don’t “teach” or provide direct instruction. On the contrary, I might end up talking more, since I’m repeating core instruction with multiple small groups, for example. Or I might require every student to either listen to my instruction or show their current understanding to be excused from extended direct instruction. I control the contact I demand from students–giving choice does not mean giving up contact with students. If anything, I think it leads to deeper and more engaging work.
Be explicit about choice
When I meet with students, I use the time not only to discuss content, but also to talk about choices. Sometimes that is in a small group; sometimes it’s an individual discussion with a student about how a choice he or she made turned out to be ineffective, as measured by observation or assessment. There is NO time to have these conversations in a classroom dominated by a talking adult!
(See Mike Anderson’s Learning to Choose, Choosing to Learn for more information about ways to effectively support bringing choice into the classroom.)
Provide feedback through assessment
Irene and I also assess frequently. We give small, lower-stakes “quizzes” that can be retaken to a 90%. We provide direct, small-group, targeted reteaching in between the first try and the retake; we don’t assume students can self-correct. In a teacher-driven classroom, there is little to no time to provide reteaching, forget to provide teaching to different groups of students on different aspects of the material. We are trading the “but I taught it to them” mentality for a more personalized, direct experience with our students.
Empowering Students–Be Explicit about the End Goal
Two places where Irene and I are working to expand our work are in the areas of empowering students and being more explicit about the end goal, which go hand-in-hand. As we worked this week in June, Irene was revising rough drafts I had put together of “By the end of” sheets for our Rational Numbers Module. (Since we started using the “By the end of” sheets in fourth quarter, we didn’t have any written for our Fall Modules.) I had written rough drafts sorted by major topics (i.e., adding and subtracting integers; multiplying and dividing integers) and I had dumped into these drafts everything we had used in previous years–links we liked, work from our curriculum, material we wrote ourselves, etc.
As Irene went through the drafts, she frequently ended up rewriting the essential questions, making them more targeted and explicit as well as more precise. We look forward to using those essential questions, which we also post on our agenda boards, to provide students with a road map that provides guidance as they are making their choices. We want to empower them to know where they are, where they are headed, and what remains for them between the here and there.
To summarize, here are the steps I think we have organically ended up using in our work to bring more UDL into our shared practice:
- generate choices
- take yourself out of the front of the classroom to create time
- use time to discuss and model choices
- use assessments to measure impact of choices
- empower students to use the data to make more effective choices
- be explicit about end goal/where the students need to be–measure their work and choices in relation to that end goal
These “steps” are not even cyclical in that any one of them connects to any one of another; any step can be a first step. Enjoy the journey!