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

Saturday, May 8, 2010

A Really Good Day, or What I Learned in School Today

This has been a difficult school year.  I have a particularly hard class to work with, lots of new district initiatives to spend time on, and, personally, some time-consuming projects at home to handle.  But last week, for the first time in months, we had a really good day at school.

The morning was spent on various projects, with all the children working...yes working.  I didn't have to stop them once to get them to refocus, get them quiet, or get them to stop fighting.

One of the boys, "Johnny", who has trouble working with others, was convinced by his group leader to work with someone in the group he did not want to work with.  And it was all done with him laughing about it.

One child in class, "Billy," showed two acts of kindness during one math project time.  This is not a class known for acts of kindness and to see it twice in one lesson was amazing.  

Another child, "Sally," who is known for having difficulty focusing, working, making herself available for learning, has become the ultimate student - focused, hard working, helpful to others.  And she is actually learning math and social studies, reading and writing.

I spent time going over extra credit projects for our social studies simulation.  This may not sound wonderful, but this class is notorious for NOT doing any work above and beyond what is expected of them.  And it took me almost an hour to go through all the amazing projects that came in.

When the children went out for lunch, I begged, yes begged, them to be kind and respectful outside.  And, for the first time in months, the lunch aides had nothing to tell me about someone fighting, cursing, crying, or complaining. 

I went home that night happy and energized for the first time in a loooooong time.  And now I am starting to try to figure out why this perfect day was followed by another almost perfect day.  Here's my take on it.

First, my personal project was finally completed two weeks ago.  (Some of you know what that personal project was and know it took me a year to complete.  For the rest of you, you will have to wait for the official announcement.)  Finishing the project lifted a huge weight off my shoulders.  You might actually say I am now more relaxed.  And a relaxed teacher makes for a relaxed classroom.

Second, we had a problem with Google docs a while back and had to stop all projects.  So for the last couple of months, much of our work has been teacher directed.  The children do not respond well to teacher directed lessons.  This class especially needs to move and talk and laugh in order to learn.  Teacher directed lessons do not allow for any of that.

But about two weeks ago, we started projects again.  And last week, for the first time in awhile, all we did was work on projects.  The children were talking and moving and laughing and, most important, working and learning.  It was fun.

Third, and, I think the most important, is children really do learn.  It might take them all year to learn the one lesson you are trying to teach them but they do learn.  

So "Johnny" has been working all year to learn to accept an assignment he might not be terribly happy about.  And to work with people he might not want to work with.  I think he finally learned.  My proof is that, later in the day, when he was with a different group and not happy about it, after I spent time talking with his group about their assignments, he said he'd keep his assignment because it sounded fun, and he worked....really worked...for the first time all year.  

And "Billy" has been hearing all year that we must be kind and respectful to everyone.  So have all the other children but "Billy" was ready to finally learn that lesson.  So he offered "Katie" an extra poster board he had when she ruined hers and he let "George" and "Vicky" store their poster boards with his in his special poster board bag so they wouldn't get ruined.  They didn't ask for this kindness, he offered.  I took notice, the class took notice, and "Billy" got written in the Golden Book for the day.

And all year, the children have heard from us that they have to make themselves available for learning.  We are not there to pour information into their heads.  We can help them, provide all the tools they need for success, and be their greatest cheerleaders, but if they don't meet us at least a quarter of the way, we cannot force them to learn.  "Sally" took the longest to learn this lesson but she finally did.  She is proud of her work now and proud of herself.

So for the first time in months, I praised the students for their behavior, their work ethic, their kindness.  For the first time in months, I left school happy.  For the first time in months, I went two whole days without seeing the principal after lunch.  And, for the first time in months, I enjoy what I do.  I want to hold on to this feeling. I want the children to hold on to this feeling.  And I think they will.  The next day was just as good and they are really enjoying the projects.  They actually want to work on them.

I hope next time I get a class like this, and there will be a next time I am sure, I remember that my attitude affects them, that projects are a better way to handle behavior issues, and that praise goes a long way toward changing unwanted behavior.  For now, I am going to enjoy the last couple of months of school.

Image: 'Pro

Be Kind by by arimoore

' 'Sharing some chalk