One of the responsibilities of my job at the CMSCE at Rutgers University is to offer sustained professional development in Universal Design for Learning (UDL). Some of the districts that I have been working with are part of a grant through the NJ Department of Education called the INCLUDE grant and some of them have taken it upon themselves to begin to embed UDL principles in their curriculum. In either case, I get the opportunity to develop a rapport with the teachers, work with them over a sustained period of time, customize the professional development to their needs and the needs of their students and in some cases have the opportunity to go into their classrooms and co teach with them.
One of the topics that we spend a large chunk of time talking about in our professional development on UDL is removing barriers from our lessons, curriculum and classrooms so that more students can reach the objectives of the lessons. We show teachers all types of digital tools that help students decode directions using text-to-speech tools, highlighters and even something as simple as just making fonts larger. We talk about using mind maps and imagery to help visual learners. We offer the concepts of allowing students to represent that they have met the objectives of a unit by a means of their choice versus a single choice assignment or assessment.
I urge educators that are involved in UDL to make use of social bookmarking. I share my Delicious and Diigo bookmarks with them and encourage them to explore the “tag” for UDL. I try to show them the power of collaboration not just with the teachers they are working with, but with other teachers in the state and the nation that are also embracing these same techniques in their classrooms. We join conversations in the UDL4ALL Ning and look for other schools and educators that are implementing these same principles in their classrooms to share their experieinces with us.
During one of my recent UDL sessions, I invited my friend, and UDL guru, Karen Janowski to Skype in with us. When I had first met the group of teachers they told me they were “just not getting UDL”. I talked to them for about an hour and made some suggestions about how I might help them move forward and then explained to them that I don’t learn alone. I learn from and with others. I asked them who they had learned from and they mentioned Karen’s name and her Toolkit. I indicated that I would ask her if she was available for a Skype with us and it seemed as if it was a completely new concept. (Many of the folks in my PLN wouldn’t think twice of video conferencing with someone who had the answers to some of the questions they had.) I explained to the group that by making this connection, the answers might be a bit more meaningful to them. They would see Karen’s toolkit not just as a list of valuable links, but as resources from a thoughtful educator from Massachusetts that took the time to speak with them.
Karen gave us some great suggestions after we told her we were still looking for ways to increase our Activity Toolkit. We talked about general tools to help remove barriers for different types of learners and specific ways to make accommodations in our classrooms for the three Brain Networks. Since these teachers were part of the INCLUDE grant and had a focus specifically on middle school math, she suggested Mathcasts and MathPlayground as resources for activities to integrate with the curriculum.
Then the conversation went down a different road. One of the teachers brought it back to a topic we had been discussing before Karen had joined us on Skype. The teacher spoke of three specific barriers that they felt could not be removed from the situation.
The Three Barriers:
- Teachers cannot count on support from home. Most students go home to older or younger siblings and do not see parents until much later in the evening.
- These are classified students, ELL students and students that tend to not test well. We can’t change that.
- Time. There is never enough of it and they are told to get through the curriculum by the end of March so that all content is covered before the State testing. Then after testing they can go back and redo anything they feel needs reinforcement.
After the teacher laid it on the line so clearly, there was really nothing Karen or I could say that was going to bring her back to what she COULD do. These barriers are the realities of her challenges.
What are the realities of your challenges? Karen and I both commented that we might be idealists…
Yesterday I shared these three barriers with the group of teachers I am working with in another NJ district. In this group, there are some non-public school teachers that join our sessions. This made for interesting conversation, since a non-public school might make different requirements for its teachers than a public school with its union teachers.
He offered his districts answers to some of these barriers:
- Each teacher is to offer “Office Hours” once a week. These are to be the same day each week from the end of the school day at 2:45 until 3:45. Students are to make appointments and parents are to arrange for transportation. These hours are designed so that students that need help from their teacher outside the typical school day, can get it.
- Each teacher is to make themselves available to help students during their recess time. (Recess in this school is held before lunch time.)
- In this particular non-public school, the text book guides the curriculum for mathematics. Get done what you can.
I have yet to find anyone who has all the answers. But collectively, we do a pretty good job. I don’t know if I’m an idealist or an optimist. I know there are at least two sides to every story. Really, what are the realities of our challenges in the classroom? Are you the teacher that throws up barriers or walls or excuses at every accommodation that is suggested or are you this teacher? Thanks Chris Craft – you had perfect timing today.