Bringing Together Different Perspectives
Stevens Point is a public school district in Wisconsin whose mission is to “prepare each student to be successful.” Here, team members share their UDL story of how they brought different perspectives together to develop a more intentional and inclusive model of teaching.
‘Bring Different Perspectives to the UDL Table’
Jen Melville, assistant principal, and Aimee Burazin, school psychologist, were the first two members of the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) team at the Stevens Point Area Senior High School. They attended a UDL training session hosted by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction and brought their unique perspectives to the collaboration.
Jen approached UDL from the perspective of the curriculum, and Aimee focused on specific student learning needs. Together, they share how bringing together their different perspectives was critical for UDL implementation. “You have to find people who help you to see and understand students in new ways,” says Jen.
Jen and Aimee found that their different perspectives were important as they learned about UDL because together they could think about barriers to accessibility and opportunities to remove those barriers from the different vantage points they each had.
‘Start with Barriers’
When Jen and Aimee first heard about UDL, they thought about getting teachers to offer students choices in how they access material, tackle assignments, and get engaged. That “seemed to be the easy place to start,” says Jen.
This approach quickly became overwhelming for teachers who were learning about UDL because they worried that they had to implement all of the UDL Guidelines in every one of their lessons.
A critical turning point for them came when they saw UDL as a framework to identify barriers. “Pinpointing the barriers and addressing them from the start—that is what UDL is really about,” says Jen. Starting with barriers helped teachers see that UDL was not about implementing every guideline and checkpoint but instead meant being strategic in choosing which barriers to address first, and with which options.
“Differentiation is what the teacher does for each student. With UDL, learners choose options as part of developing expert learning skills and habits.”
—CAST Professional Learning
Learn more about the connections and divergence between Differentiated Instruction and Universal Design for Learning.
“It’s not that we don’t want students challenged—we do. We just want to be sure we are giving them the support they need to meet those challenges,” says Aimee. Teachers have learned that UDL is not the same as differentiated instruction, in which a teacher responds to individual needs as they appear. Rather UDL calls for planning and designing flexible goals, methods, materials, and assessments from the outset. UDL is about changing the environment, not plugging holes as they arise.
‘Build a Team’
After an initial UDL training, a few teachers experimented with implementation. They saw some success and engagement in student learning but these were isolated moments at first.
The Stevens Point administration made an intentional decision to build a stronger professional learning community (PLC) structure at their site. “UDL is at its best with collaboration,” says Jen. “It brings different perspectives together to help teachers better understand students.” The team explored a lot of scheduling options to support the PLCs and secured time for common collaboration to discuss how to design to meet the needs of all students using UDL as the guiding framework.
“In UDL we design to reduce barriers in the environment, not “fix” the learner. Barriers impact how learners can engage, perceive and comprehend, and show what they know. When a learner struggles, we can inventory the design of the learning experience for potential barriers to learning.”
—CAST Professional Learning
“The PLC approach was a shift for us,” says Aimee, “because now all of us were working together to remove barriers—it is not just ‘my job’ or ‘your job’ to do that.” Now, if teachers were stuck on how to reduce barriers to learning for students, they knew they had a team of teachers to turn to and the common UDL framework to use to develop ideas.
In the PLCs, the teams of teachers focused on identifying essential learning targets. Then together, they worked to remove barriers at the forefront to make sure there were equitable opportunities. Their UDL work focused on these questions:
- Who are our students? What is our population?
- How is the classroom and curriculum welcoming for all students?
- How do the classroom and curriculum ensure that all students have a place here through the design?
This simple approach had a profound impact for the students. As Aimee says, “I’m not qualifying someone to special education who may not need it, but we are working to design flexible learning experiences from the get-go.”
“Collaboration is key to applying UDL. Having colleagues to work with allows us to see many of the barriers that we may not have seen on our own. Having teachers design with multiple strategies and tools to support the variable learners enriches the learning for all.”
—CAST Professional Learning
At first, says Aimee, teachers often thought they needed permission or an “okay” from her to offer a full range of options or to use curricular materials more flexibly. Teachers would ask if it was alright to allow for extended time, even without a 504 plan or IEP. With time and collaboration, teachers became more comfortable using the UDL Guidelines to anticipate where students might get stuck. Jen adds, “Teachers start to feel more autonomy in their teaching. They start to see the barriers to learning on their own.”
‘Empathy for Our Students’
Change takes time. There is no “secret recipe” to engage all students, says Jen. “Sometimes I think we’re not far enough along on our UDL journey,” she adds, “but I can see how teachers have collaborated more on lesson design and that classes are more aligned to key learning targets.”
Jen and Aimee have seen changes to teaching and learning with UDL. “Now we are hearing teachers be more empathetic to understand students,” says Jen. “They no longer blame the student, but focus instead on the choices in the lesson.”
Teachers spend more time discussing how their lessons and classrooms allow every student to have a sense of belonging from the start. The PLC teams started focusing more on learning about cultural, neurodiverse, and socioeconomic perspectives, and there was professional learning about anxiety, attention, and engagement. Aimee says, “Each of these can be a barrier to learning, there will be variability in all of our students in each of these, and there are strategies that can be used in instruction to support students.”
Teachers have also gained a better understanding and more empathy for students, says Jen. They reframe the way they think about barriers, locating challenges in the materials and the methods they are using rather than in the students. They also work with students to understand what they need to succeed in their learning.
“UDL promotes access and agency for all learners. That is the impact UDL can have, by design.”
—CAST Professional Learning
Since teachers were often good students themselves, they can find it challenging to really understand some of the barriers students face, says Aimee. “With UDL, our staff is seeing the human component in our students,” she says. “Our staff is seeing more success while there has been more flexible design. We see students being more successful and that drives us.”
Now, Jen says, “we work smarter, not harder to eliminate barriers from the forefront. I’m collaborating with teachers to support kids right from the get-go using UDL. We are empathizing more, being more flexible, and we are seeing the difference in our students.”
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