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Moving Toward Intentional Design

School District of Sheboygan Falls: Expect the Exceptional logo and a map of Wisconsin

Sheboygan Falls is a public school district in Wisconsin whose mission is to “inspire each student to reach his or her full potential with exceptional educators.” Here, educators from the district share their story of how they implemented UDL in order to develop a more intentional and inclusive model for student and teacher learning.

‘Random Acts of Teaching and Learning’

Sheboygan Falls had an inclusive model for students who received specially-designed instruction with IEPs (individualized education programs). The staff worked hard to support the whole student, however teachers described that they often struggled to know how to meet the needs of all the students in their classrooms, and inclusive design seemed overwhelming. High school teacher Mark Thompson says, “Teaching was often about random acts of teaching and so was our professional learning.” 

Mark and two other coaches from their district were provided funding to attend the UDL-IRN International Summit to learn more about Universal Design for Learning (UDL). At the conference, reading coach Stacey Dippel says that they were “lit up by the passion of the classroom teachers we saw implementing UDL.”  

The Sheboygan Falls educators saw how UDL provided a framework for educators to design on the front end, instead of responding to one student at a time: UDL could be a model to support teacher planning for inclusive instruction. They realized that the framework aligned all of their disparate work and could be a unifying framework to more effectively support all of their students.

‘UDL Is All About Options, Right?’ 

Excited to share UDL with their staff, the UDL team decided to showcase UDL by modeling it with faculty and staff at a back-to-school professional development training. Instead of the traditional stand-and-deliver session, the UDL team offered many options for the staff to choose from that day, hoping to highlight how there can be more than one way to engage in learning. However, this didn’t go too well. 

The staff was confused by the choices. They were unsure about what to choose and frustrated that they didn’t understand what to do once they made a choice. This left the UDL team exhausted from trying to plan with so many options and disappointed that the teachers did not respond more positively to the choices. 

However, this was a critical moment for the team: Although UDL emphasized variability and choice, implementing UDL does not mean just offering options. Choices needed to align to a clear learning goal that learners understand and there needs to be consistent scaffolding and opportunity to make choices. “Starting with the goal is essential to UDL,” says Mark. “When you have clear goals, it makes the options purposeful.”

“The nervous system is goal directed. With a clear understanding of the goal and what success looks like, learners will know how to direct their attention.”

—CAST Professional Learning team

Understanding the power of the goals was a game changer for the teachers at Sheboygan Falls. Deep understanding of the goals allowed educators to intentionally plan options to support students and also helped the UDL team more purposefully plan options for their staff professional development training. “Of course, our district already had goals in our instruction,” says math coach Mike Nickerson, “but UDL requires that you really know the goal and break apart the standard to focus in on the skill or the content that is the focus for each part of a lesson.”

In that first year of UDL implementation, the Sheboygan Falls team developed a Breaking Down the Standards protocol and focused just on goals with the staff. They analyzed goals to really understand the skills or concepts that students were required to know or do. They worked as teams to evaluate their standards and transform those into clear lesson goals. They thought critically about their assessments and made sure that they also aligned to their goals; here is an example of the  Sheboygan’s Develop Assessment Expectations activity.

“When we are clear about our goals,” says Mark Thompson, “we can give examples and models, we are not holding back on learning. We can be sure there is not a hidden agenda.”

Once the team realized that goals were the key to designing with UDL, teachers started to:

  • provide multiple ways for students to engage and demonstrate understanding of that goal, 
  • see more clearly where students were stuck, struggling, or disengaging during the learning, 
  • have more conversations with students about how to reduce barriers, and
  • reference the UDL Guidelines to guide the options they included in their lessons.

‘Goals Drive Choices’

Mike Nickerson found that understanding the learning goals unlocked creativity in his teaching and opened up more collaboration among their staff about how to provide choice to support learning those goals. “When a lesson is about materials, the teachers are trapped, and they can’t be flexible,” he says. “But when a lesson is about the goal, then they can be flexible. That's an ‘ah-ha’ moment.”

“Access is the critical first step for ensuring all students can perceive, act on, and engage in the learning.”

—CAST Professional Learning team

To support educators  continuing to expand their inclusive planning strategies, the district provided teachers with professional learning time to apply UDL-aligned practices. 

  • They spent the fall professional development time learning about the Access level of the UDL Guidelines and discussed specific strategies that could be integrated into their lessons, such as captioning videos or text-to-speech and speech-to-text tools. 
  • They provided ample time for teachers to learn how to use the tools, integrate them into a lesson, and then share with each other about how the strategies supported their students in their classrooms. 

They could see the impact the UDL-aligned strategies were having on their students. “We saw students becoming active participants in their education and even in the educational design of their learning,” says Mike. “This collaboration transformed the culture and community in the classroom and expanded everyone's understanding of what success can look like.”

‘Learning was Given to the Students’ 

When teachers started to see the impact of UDL on student engagement and learning, their enthusiasm to implement UDL only grew. “Once I saw the impact on students, I was all in,” says Mark. 

Teachers say students were:

  • more autonomous, confident, and engaged in their learning,
  • better able to keep up while absent or when they were gone for sports, and
  • earning higher letter grades.

“Providing educators with time and emphasizing commitment to the UDL work is critical to implementation.”

—CAST Professional Learning team

Teachers describe having more time for conversations with students about learning and more time for meaningful interactions.

Now, Sheboygan Falls is no longer a district that merely reacts to the needs of their students: They anticipate learner differences and know to expect variability both in students and in teachers. They use UDL to plan for this on the front end.

This story was made possible through funding from CAST’s Founders Fund and the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.

What are your next steps for including all learners?

Let CAST help you take your UDL implementation to the next level through our professional learning services and partnerships.

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