Changing how I see my classroom: Looking through the UDL lens

The questions were raised “Think about the strengths and challenges of some of the materials and methods that you have used in your classroom, in your transition setting or in the workplace, How could you enhance those resources through a UDL lens? Who would benefit from these changes?”

I am a learning support teacher, one of two, who supervise 8 paraprofessionals who support approximately 80 students in 20 different classes (19 different career and technical programs).  Students attend out school for one year in hopes of acquiring skills and credentials for employment and/or post-secondary education following their graduation.  Our instructors come directly from industry prior to becoming teachers. Most have chosen to become teachers because they believe in their trade/career and want to educate youth to enter their field.  Once hired, they begin their coursework in Vocational Education.  Having said this, most teachers at our school teach the way they were taught.  For some this means textbook reading, answer the questions at the back of the chapter, write out vocabulary words, listen to an hour of lecture, demonstrate a skill, teach the steps through demonstration, and then have the students perform and practice the skill.  Overtime, most teachers expand their delivery system to encompass “best practices”.

My position is unique as I don’t teach a specific class. Instead I support paras and teachers in helping to convey information to students related to their career, work one on one or in small groups with students to help them complete assignments, prepare for tests, complete projects, or provide support. Often I work with students to help motivate and encourage and build self-esteem.  I help create linkages to agencies for post-school and help them apply to jobs, apply to college, or work on other issues or skills needed for future success.  So, to implement UDL within my daily work, requires me to shift my thinking a bit and actually look at a variety of avenues for implementation, from student to para to teacher. Furthermore, each program is so entirely different not only in their content, but the nature of the skills needed, the expectations of the program, and the style of the teacher, that it is difficult to provide an overview of how expanding UDL techniques in our school could impact our ability to provide successful education to our students.

In Chapter 3 of “Universal Design for Learning in the Digital Age”, Rose and Meyer point out that traditional classrooms use books and lecture as methods of instructional delivery.  These text and print and word delivery methods do not allow for flexibility in learning.  The complexity of the brain requires many skills/abilities to be able to gather information and even demonstrate knowledge which can, for some students, make barriers very evident, when only traditional methods of delivery are used (text, picture, sound).   As an instructor, I am forced to look for those individuals who have barriers and then create other methods of conveying information or assessing those individuals.  But even then, I am missing those who are not identified, but maybe could do much better with other methods of instruction and assessment!  This traditional method of instruction, from the teacher’s perspective, from the learning support teacher’s perspective and even from the student’s perspective is reactionary. In other words, I am forced to react to those who are struggling.  It’s exhausting as a teacher and unmotivating as a student.  UDL strategies can change all of this!  As an instructor, if I could employ new methods of instruction and assessment (websites, wiki’s, video, youtube, blogs, etc.), I could engage students in learning and even create it so they are becoming the learner’s driving their own education with me, as the teacher, facilitating the process!   I, as an instructor or teacher, am no long reacting to the barriers and needs of students after the fact, but preventing the barriers in many cases from taking the front seat. I am ensuring that all students have a chance to learn the material in as many ways as possible.  They are engaging in the learning process.

The student who has ADHD and tuned out during lecture/theory time, is not reinforcing whatever was missed through interaction on the website where he can replay the lecture that was recorded and corresponds to a blog where students are discussing the chapter content and the youtube videos that the students made demonstrating the skills they are learning.  Textbooks exist as supplemental material but not as the only material.  Tests are important in preparation for industry certification testing, but other assessments are used as well.  As Rose and Meyer mention, this new approach offers flexibility in instruction but also requires that educators become flexible in their thinking about instruction.

To answer the final question: who will benefit from this…EVERYONE! Teachers included – think about the time that won’t be spent reteaching and retesting or brainstorming how to support the student who fell through the cracks because the lesson didn’t include an accommodation for a specific need, or the time spent coming up with a “special assessment” for a student with a special need.  And, at the post-school level, we have helped students become learners and self-advocates and motivated and engaged!

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