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New Hampshire Educators Pivot Easily Before, During and After COVID with UDL Network

When COVID-19 hit in 2020, educators participating in the New Hampshire UDL Innovation Network already had two years of instruction, collaboration, and training in Universal Design for Learning practices. With the disruptions caused by the pandemic, many New Hampshire teachers found UDL even more essential than ever during such uncertain times.

Photo of Frank Edelblut

Frank Edelblut, NH Education Commissioner

NH Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut said it best: “This approach to instruction was essential to helping students succeed prior to the pandemic. In the middle of the pandemic, it could not have been more critical.”

While no one ever imagined the need to plan for a pandemic during the process of forming the NH UDL Innovation Network in 2018, CAST Director of Professional Learning Jennifer Levine says she’s proud of the work done by the group to pivot quickly during such difficult circumstances.

“Who could have known that teachers would be thrown into the world of remote teaching, that students would be sheltering at home with their families, and that the world of teaching and learning would be turned upside down?” says Levine.

Photo of Jennifer Levine

Jennifer Levine, Director of Professional Learning at CAST

Levine says teachers in the network immediately reached out to their CAST Implementation Specialists to discuss the barriers to and brainstorm ideas for supporting students. Administrators figured out creative ways to support their teachers and students, and the CAST team dove into redesigning virtual support for network participants. 

“Instead of letting the pandemic slow them down, network educators ramped up their teaching, doubled down on social-emotional support for their students, and found ways to design for all students,” Levine says.

Scaling the NH UDL Innovation Network

Since March 2018, more than 650 teachers from 78 schools have participated in the New Hampshire UDL Innovation Network, a multiyear project led by CAST and sponsored by the NH Department of Education to support teachers as they learn how to design individualized learning opportunities without barriers for all students. About half of participants are general education teachers, about 15% are special education teachers, and about 15% are school or district administrators. The remaining participants represent other roles such as specialist teachers, instructional coaches, school psychologists, and counselors.

Activities include: 

  • Monthly face-to-face and virtual learning events, school visits, and classroom observations, and full-staff training sessions with CAST implementation specialists; 
  • A hands-on Learning Design Studio, where educators design lessons in an interactive “playground” designed to inspire creativity and risk-taking; 
  • Analysis of classroom videos, creating expert-learning plans for teachers’ own professional learning, and examining the concept of deep learning; 
  • Attendance at virtual workshops designed to break the traditional mold of “sit and get” presentations
  • Participation in Instructional Rounds to get inside each other’s classrooms, collect data on teaching and student learning, look for trends across the teams, and build a collaborative culture; 
  • Journey Mapping” lessons and units to uncover barriers to learning and get immersed in the UDL mindest and practice.

When schools closed unexpectedly in March 2020, the CAST team and network participants acted quickly to support students in their home environments with a variety of virtual learning opportunities. Since they already spent a year or two learning to minimize barriers to learning, a shift during the pandemic to identify new barriers and design to minimize them happened almost seamlessly.

Photo of Ari Fleisher showing off her workspace at home

Ari Fleisher, Innovation Network Manager at CAST

CAST Innovation Network Manager Ari Fleisher believes the strength of the network and the UDL framework positioned New Hampshire to perform well in a moment of crisis.

“When the pandemic hit, we spent all weekend on the phone together because we have this relationship with New Hampshire,” Fleisher says. “We put together some UDL resources that were available and then tried to figure out where those would live and how we would disseminate them. UDL turned out to be an emergency answer to the pandemic.”

Levine says the biggest surprise in going remote was not how many changes needed to be made to support a virtual learning environment, but how subtle the changes needed to be. It simply proved how dynamic and flexible the NH UDL Innovation Network model can be when learning without limits remains the top priority.

“Iteration has always been a part of our model, and the shift proved seamless and natural,” Levine says.

Photo of Melissa Sanjeh doing a journey mapping activity with educators

Melissa Sanjeh, Implementation Specialist at CAST

Melissa Sanjeh, one of the four CAST Implementation Specialists working with New Hampshire educators, says building long-term relationships with many schools in one state truly empowers everyone involved.

“We bring them together and they start to talk to one another. This school heard what that school did, and they may solve my problems. I'm going to do a very similar thing at my school, but I'm going to adjust it for my context,” Sanjeh says. “They end up with a group of people who are on a journey of instructional improvement together.

“That's what we really want to do in New Hampshire,” Sanjeh adds. “Leave with this network of people who continue to remove barriers for learners.”

Using UDL Practices to Pivot During the Pandemic

New Hampshire first-grade teacher Lauren Elliott viewed the global pandemic as just another barrier to learning that she needed to design instruction around. Using UDL best practices, Elliott, a 2020 semifinalist for New Hampshire Teacher of the Year, teaches her students to become expert learners by first showing them how to understand the barriers to learning, and then figuring out the tools they need to remove these barriers.

Photo of Lauren Elliott

Lauren Elliott, New Hampshire first-grade teacher

“We start with asking the kids, ‘What do you think a barrier is?’ And we actually build barriers. We ask, ‘What do you think an expert is?’” Elliott says. “It starts to make it concrete and put vocabulary to what we are trying to accomplish. The students take pride in being an expert and own their learning.”

When the pandemic forced students to learn from home, Elliott and her fellow teachers utilized UDL to discuss unexpected barriers.

“We started right away with what do the students need? Okay. We need to be concerned about their social, emotional wellbeing. So, we used that language to figure out what barriers are going to hit?” Elliott says. “What strategies can we give to our students to start advocating for themselves, even at home? We had the UDL lens and that's how we focused our teaching.”

UDL in Practice Inside New Hampshire Classrooms

To give readers a glimpse into how the UDL Innovation Network is transforming New Hampshire classrooms, CAST provided a few specific examples in its 2020-2021 end-of-year report. Take a look:

  • First- and second-graders are designing their “dream” classrooms as part of a larger project on budgeting and geometric designs. They are creating classroom floor plans and exploring different kinds of furniture that will best support them as learners. 
  • Second-grade students are exploring character development. They have all read books of their choice, and they are expressing how the main character changed throughout the story by representing their ideas via a Venn Diagram, recording their ideas using a digital app, or drawing before and after “cut outs” of their character.
  • Third- and fourth-graders are engaged in a “Readers’ Workshop” they co-designed with their teacher. The teacher has embedded student suggestions for increased choice and even a “fort area” where they can build themselves a reading nook. 
  • Sixth-grade students are exploring the Harlem Renaissance. They can choose to explore the work of an artist, a poet, or a musician. They are analyzing features such as mood, message, and audience as a way to better understand the context and impact of this time period. 
  • Seventh-graders are “mining” chocolate chip cookies  as a way to explore the impact of mining for fossil fuels on ecosystems.

What’s Next for NH UDL Innovation Network

In the 2021-2022 school year, the UDL Network continues to expand, adding new schools and districts across the state. Several schools are invited to act as Learning Hubs that not only intensify their scaling of UDL within their own learning environments but also host outside groups to participate in on-site learning experiences, such as Instructional Rounds and Lesson Design Studios.

The ultimate goal of the UDL Network is to teach educators to be the drivers of their own learning, to draw on their own expertise and that of their peers, and push themselves to question, experiment, and learn from experience. In turn, they share this knowledge with their students, and create a new generation of empowered, independent learners.

Supporting other organizations to continually learn is one of the best things about working at CAST, says Implementation Specialist Niel Albero.

Photo of Niel Albero presenting at a learning event

Niel Albero, Implementation Specialist at CAST

“We're helping schools tell their story along the way,” Albero says. “We convene people, talk about learning and teaching. Then we elevate their story and give them the platform to tell it, so other people can learn from it.

“What’s wonderful about the relationship with New Hampshire is there have been people from the Department of Education who are not directly tied to the work, but are coming to the trainings,” Albero says. “They want to model UDL in their communications, in their department, or in the way they run meetings. They talk about the initiatives throughout the state and how to connect them.

“So, even if they're not directly teaching UDL, they can understand where it fits in the ecosystem of the state initiatives,” he adds. “The connection to the work of key players in the state has been really powerful.”

Interested in bringing UDL to your state?

CAST partners with states, districts, and schools to build understanding, design strategies, and support the implementation of Universal Design for Learning (UDL), accessibility and inclusion, professional development, and more.

Learn more about professional learning at CAST

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