My Journey with Universal Design for Learning
Updated: Jun 22, 2021
By Mallory Johnson
This is my fifth year as an educator. I feel that teaching has always been in my blood. Both of my parents were former educators, including my grandparents, and my older brother. Whenever I had a chance, I would force my sister to pretend to be a student, as I showed her a lesson on addition or letter identification. It’s what I’ve always wanted to, and truly, the experiences have been everything and more.
For three years I was a special education teacher in a co-taught classroom. I then decided to pursue a role as a general education second-grade teacher. I absolutely love being in this position. Those three years prepared and instilled a love of inclusion, a philosophy in access for all students, an understanding of the significance of smaller student-to-teacher ratios, and a desire to provide my students the autonomy for their own learning.
The buzzword acronym “UDL” came into my life just a few years ago. When it did, it made me reflect on my own experiences as a student in school. As a girl with generalized anxiety disorder, I felt like my “type A” personality had me soar academically and behaviorally. I did what I was supposed to do when I was supposed to do it. I rarely questioned authority. In the pursuit of pleasing my teachers and appeasing my own anxiety, I often felt misunderstood and stifled in school.
When I came into the role last year as a second-grade teacher, I came up with a list of non-negotiables for myself and my students, based on my own personal experiences. Every day, the second-grade students of Room 116 need to:
Have a voice
Feel their voices are being heard
Have opportunities to share their interests
Have at least one positive one-on-one conversation with Ms. Johnson
Leave the classroom knowing the resources that they can access with a social and/or academic challenge
When UDL came into my life, it was an easy connection for how we work with our students. We want students to take ownership of their learning. I strive to create a physical and emotional learning space that encourages students to be independent, use their voices, problem-solve with peers, ask questions (even to authority!), and learn in a way that makes sense for THEM.
I think we often underestimate the self-awareness that students carry. When I have provided instruction through choice-based learning, or self-reflection opportunities, I find that in creating a safe learning environment, our students truly know themselves best. In doing so, I have had students create projects based on an animal they are interested in, and share that knowledge in some form, whether it is a podcast, poster, or video. I constantly have my students self-reflect on their own learning, but also provide feedback to me!
My journey with UDL is not perfect, and it is certainly not over. More than anything, I have been proud to see the professional risks I am willing to take with my students, in the name of having them be the respectful, independent, responsible, self-aware learners that I know they are.
Mallory Johnson is a fifth-year educator for the Groton-Dunstable Regional School District. She began her educational journey as a special educator in a co-taught classroom, which opened her eyes to the power of small student-to-teacher ratios, the implementation of workshop model instruction, and inclusive practices. Now in her second year as a second-grade classroom teacher, Mallory uses her special education lens and her professional interests in universally-designed instruction to create a classroom that fosters community, independent problem-solving, student autonomy, and opportunities for self-reflection. Ms. Johnson hopes to continue her professional journey by researching cross-curricular second-grade content to meet the needs of all learners in her classroom while engaging them with real-world learning experiences.