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Enhancing instruction - for all

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Universal Design for Learning enables delving deeper into subjects

General education teacher Leslie Aden prompts Morgan Reed in a lesson on compare and contrast.

Leslie Aden was leading her fifth grade students in a class discussion on the book Bridge to Terabithia.

“Who were the main characters?” she asks. Hands shoot up. Names come bellowing out. Aden jots each answer down carefully on the whiteboard.

“Let’s compare them, their physical features – even their families,” she continues. “Miss Bessie the cow? Will we learn much about her character? No, because she is a cow.”

It’s a lesson in compare and contrast. Now students must offer proof of their observations.

“What’s another word for proof?” Aden asks. “That’s right – evidence.”

Now the students are asked to pick up graphic organizers of their choice.

“Pick out graphic organizer that works best for you,” Aden says. “If you have larger writing, you may want to use the organizer with larger boxes, they enable you to stay within the boxes. If you are a person who likes to elaborate, you may want to use the organizer with lots of boxes.”

Some of the students get to work right away. Others need a bit more prompting.

Morgan Reed is engaged in the reading of Bridge to Terabithia.

“Sometimes it helps me to close my eyes and visualize,” Aden said. “In your mind, you all have a vision of what each character looks like. Show me your thinking. Use your book for evidence.

“You can compare things like finances, hobbies, abilities, gender. You can compare a lot of different things.”

Even the casual observer can see this general education classroom at Pocahontas Elementary School in the north central Iowa town of Pocahontas is engaged. Less obvious was Aden’s tactics: Asking open-ended questions, giving students choices on characters to examine, writing words down on the whiteboard. In a nutshell: Aden was demonstrating Universal Design for Learning, known as UDL.

UDL is a framework for planning lessons that removes barriers to instruction, allowing all students to have access to learning and the curriculum. UDL gives students choices on how to express what they have learned, how they access what they need to learn, and how they are tied to their learning by choosing topics that interest them.

In her class lesson, Aden said later, enabling students to choose which character to compare and contrast – as well as choosing what to compare and contrast – is critical.

“This enabled students to learn in an area that they may be more observant,” she said.

Of course, none of that matters to fifth-grader Morgan Reed. What matters to this student on an Individualized Education Program was that she was with her peers – and learning.

Her favorite character? Leslie, hands down.

“She has a dog and I like dogs,” Morgan said. “She also is kind to others.”

Peggy Fitzgerald’s class accesses class material in different ways.

Later in the day, Morgan sits in Peggy Fitzgerald’s pull-out class for students on IEPs. Fitzgerald’s lesson plan reinforces that of Aden’s, a product of the two collaborating to ensure lessons are seamless from class to class.

After a refresher on looking for main ideas in stories, the students are sent to choose a book – and choosing whether to read, watch or listen, the latter two incorporating various technologies.

“Choice is huge,” Fitzgerald said. “Students can choose whatever book, any theme, any type of difficulty.”

The key is that students can choose books that are interesting to them. In turn, they can present the information they learned in a manner most conducive to them – whether it is writing or oral.

“What I see is that it translates into a much deeper understanding,” Fitzgerald said.

UDL, she said, isn’t really a different way of teaching.

“When I started the UDL class last year, I thought to myself, ‘We have been doing these things in special education all along,’” she said. “However, I have gained new ideas and available resources through UDL training. It just provides more depth to the lessons. It fits in nicely with everything else we have learned in our professional development such as differentiated instruction, cognitive complexity, conceptual units, and higher order thinking skills.”

From Fitzgerald’s point of view, some of the greatest impacts on the special education students are that they are offered choices for their learning: Their learning is built upon their interests and learning styles. The students, subsequently, gain confidence.

“I utilize UDL strategies, practices, and resources every day, with every student, in every classroom setting,” she said.

Principal Aaron Davidson

UDL wouldn’t even be a conversation at Pocahontas if it were not for Principal Aaron Davidson.

“When I got the call from our Area Education Agency asking if I would be interested in having Pocahontas Elementary be a pilot school for UDL, I jumped on it due to the fact that as a district we had taken two years of professional development time to focus on learning and experimenting with Differentiated Instruction (DI),” he said. “I looked at the UDL framework as another resource for our staff in implementing DI with fidelity.”

For Davidson’s team, UDL has been a game changer.

“The staff says we are not just differentiating anymore,” he said. “It’s changing your curriculum. That’s because teachers are forced to focus on how they teach – to all kids. We delve a lot deeper into subjects. It’s been fantastic.”


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Printed from the Iowa Department of Education website on May 23, 2018 at 5:27pm.