UDL in Practice · Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

Where to Begin?

clock-1274699_1920.jpgFor many of us in New England (or at least in Massachusetts), today was the first full day of February vacation.  I’m looking forward to a week of being able to plan my days a bit more on my own schedule, to sleeping in well past my usual 4:15 wake-up, and to moving my head out of kid-world into teacher-mode for a few days.  I have some books ready to read….some grading to catch-up on for the online course I am currently co-teaching with Dr. Katie Novak in our district….and some serious thinking to do about the inspiring work in that course.  As always, my colleagues push me and inspire me to always be aiming higher in my own practice!

I was recently asked about how to start implementing Universal Design for Learning (UDL) in math.  I’ve written about first steps in UDL before on this blog (Baby Steps #1: Options for Instruction, Baby Steps #2: Changes to Assessment, Baby Steps #3: Adding Options, and Baby Steps #4: Resource Sheets), but, as always, coming back to the question today makes me rethink my response from a few months ago.

Replacing Yourself

people-2557396_1920.jpgThis year, I have dedicated myself to reducing/eliminating full-class instruction.  Instead, I teach in small groups.  (See blog post.)  I love it.  I get to spend so much time really connecting with my kids, both as people and around the content.  I have a stronger sense of who they are as students and I’ve seen some of my most challenging, most disruptive students become the first ones to ask if they can work in a small group with me.  There have been no complaints about how hard Eureka is, limited behavior concerns, and measurable growth.  Have we taken MCAS yet (our state test) for me to reference that data?  No.  But the iReady scores in January were good, for people looking for that sort of data.  For me, the real litmus test came when I felt obligated to return to full-class instruction for a day, to review the conditions that form a unique triangle, and I HATED EVERY SECOND OF IT.  The kids were disruptive and distracted, I was mad at all of them, and it was a total waste of time.  I am never happier than when I am sitting at my side table surrounded by kids, rocking on their stools or perched on chairs, hashing out problems.

Replacing Myself with What?

If I am not going to do full-class instruction, how will all of the kids get access to the material?  First of all, I think it’s important to remember that having kids have access to the material doesn’t mean they have to access it at the same time or in the same way.  I think the easiest way to increase access for students, especially with new or challenging material, is to lean on videos.  Why?  Because you can use them as a second teacher in the room, dividing the kids into a group working directly with you while the other kids are using the videos, if they need instruction, then rotate.  If students need more time to understand a concept, they can see it twice, once with a teacher and once via the video, which also allows them to slow/pause/rewind the teaching in a way you don’t get even in small group.  If students benefit from a preview, they can come to small group first, then go to the video (or vice versa) and maybe even return for a third group (time permitting or on the next day).  Students can also use videos to keep up with the material when absent; Special Education teachers and paraprofessionals (and parents and tutors) can use them to ensure a common language and approach.

There are so many good video resources available these days that I don’t think teachers need to feel that they have to create most/all of the video resources for their classes.  I’ve blogged about EMBARC, Duane Habecker, ASSISTments, and other resources.  I use videos that I made two years ago while I was still doing full-class instruction–we make those videos available for all students in 7th grade, regardless of who their assigned teacher is.  If you can’t find a video you like or if you want to make something specific for your students, you might split the work with another teacher–one teacher creates some paper resources (more about this below) while another teacher makes some videos, then share.

Paper Resources

steel-scaffolding-1569598_1920.jpgOne of the things that has stuck with me from an early course with Dr. Novak was the idea that students need to be able to use resources and vet resources, not to memorize information.  The focus of Professional Development in our district this year is on scaffolding and I led a short session yesterday with 7th and 8th grade math teachers on scaffolding in math.  We talked about providing some supports at the start of each major concept in a unit, especially vocabulary and notes (which are rarely given in our Eureka curriculum), and then providing a teacher-created graphic organizer, which we call a template, that students can access throughout the unit and on the final assessment.  The focus and expectation then become that students will use these paired resources to tackle the challenging work, since they are not doing it alone–they have these resources and supports available to them, plus the videos, even when teachers are working with other students and/or on homework.

Goin’ Big

Dr. Novak always reminds us that UDL is standards-based.  We teach the standards; we do so using UDL.  I don’t remember exactly when we made this shift, but I think it was when we started working with the “By the End of” documents, changing from thinking in terms of what we teach day by day to thinking about the overarching concepts and standards we wanted students to learn by the end of a given amount of time.  How much time?  That varies by topic–three days for cross-sections, six for area and composite area, etc.  How do we know how much time?  We’re on our fourth year teaching Eureka and we keep track of how much time we spend each year, tweaking as needed to reflect student performance/need and all the things that interrupt teaching (fire drills, lock-downs, snow days and delays, etc.).  I didn’t think about the impact of writing the “By the End of” documents, but, from the teaching side, I now think I would highly recommend it.  Why?  It helps us think in larger sweeps of content, less overwhelming than trying to plan every, single, individual day.  In that sweep of days, I can pick out a key problem or two to teach in small group or to make a video for, knowing that I will see the kids MORE THAN ONCE over the sweep of days.  That takes some of the insane pressure off of “getting it done” day after day.


The “By the End of” thought process also means that I can bring in a variety of resources, both from my core curriculum and from other sources, including materials I’ve used over the years, material students might choose to access from earlier years to support their current understanding (that you might not want to teach the entire class), etc.  Since the goal is to teach the standard, not a given sequence of material, I have more flexibility to think about resources to help students, while not lowering the expectation(s).

What next?

Oh, I have a list and a half!  For all that I love how working with students in small groups is going, I’m not doing project-based learning with the kids.  Or a half-dozen other powerful things.  The beauty of this job is that it’s never, ever the same experience twice.


Thanks to Mike Fischer for getting me thinking about this blog.

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