Updated: Jun 22
By Shannon Schultz
This was a question that we found ourselves asking in the Spring of 2015 when we learned that our local school district was eligible to receive a grant to study and implement the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL).
What is UDL?
Well, that’s not exactly true. Our first question was, “What is ‘UDL’?” Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is “a framework to optimize teaching and learning for all people based on scientific insights into how humans learn” (CAST).
It is built upon the premise that by mindfully planning teaching and learning experiences using multiple means of engagement, representation, and action/expression, we will reach and connect with all learners, including learners who may be identified as gifted/talented or learners identified with a special educational need.
Our curriculum director selected two instructional coaches to pursue UDL training. I was excited to be one of the coaches chosen for this learning opportunity. In April of 2015, we began our UDL journey with a two-day professional learning opportunity in our state (Wisconsin) capital of Madison. Other participants included representatives from additional local districts eligible for this grant. (Note: this grant was offered to the 20 largest school districts from our state.) Two UDL implementation specialists from CAST presented to our group of eager educators.
I was completely hooked! As a learner and within my assignment as an instructional coach, I prefer to show and share (UDL principle of action/expression) my understanding and knowledge in a way that highlights my creativity. Creating a slides presentation with graphics, video clips, and opportunities to interact with others is one of my most rewarding professional tasks. My personal engagement (another principle within the UDL framework) is high as I am motivated to work on this type of task, and I understand the purpose (informing and teaching others) for this type of work. Creating slideshows and presentations also challenges me to ensure that I am providing a variety of options for representation (the third principle within the UDL framework) for those attending my session. Therefore, I include options such as video clips, reading short passages, and opportunities for interacting with other participants as options to learn more about the presented topic.
I am also aware that I have colleagues that do not find the same tasks to be fun and engaging. I also know that if my high school-aged sons were asked to complete an assignment that required them to create slides and present to others, there would be some (or significant) resistance. What one of us finds motivating may not be motivating to another. This is just one example of the variability that exists within my colleagues and within my family. This highlights why UDL makes complete sense. This is why I was so eager to bring UDL to Fond du Lac. To provide equitable learning opportunities for all students, we must recognize the variability that exists within each of our students.
Bringing “it” was easier said than done. “What is this UDL stuff?” “Why are we the only ones doing this?” “Aren’t we already ‘doing UDL’?” “Another new initiative?” These were the most frequent questions to which I found myself responding. Our teachers are extremely busy. Our teachers are charged with knowing so much more than just their curriculum. Teachers are challenged to meet academic standards for each student. Teachers must respond to the social, emotional, and behavioral challenges that exist within some of our students. The workload is demanding. The workload can be overwhelming.
In my head, the question always was, “Why aren’t people as excited about UDL as I am?” I see UDL as a means of tackling some of the challenges that we face each day in our schools.
Fast forward through our first three years of implementation trials and tribulations. There were changes in instructional coaching personnel and coaching responsibilities. District-level administration, building leadership, and teaching staff changed. A new curriculum was rolled out to teaching staff. Part of facing adversity and challenges is the learning that occurs as a result.
As a result of our experiences, we have learned that there are four key components to growing and advancing Universal Design for Learning: Administrative Belief, Understanding, and Support for Implementation, School Readiness, Ongoing Professional Development, and Support within the Professional Learning Community.
Administrative Belief, Understanding, and Support for Implementation
Prior to the 2018-2019 school year, we met with Principal Mike Mockert from Rosenow Elementary, along with members of his building leadership team to offer instructional coaching support to implement the principles of UDL. Mr. Mockert and his team felt that they were ready to embark on their own learning journey. During the 2019/2020 school year, we continued to “scale up” in Fond du Lac, this year at Chegwin Elementary. Principal Kari Saunders is an eager learner who believes that all students deserve and should have access to the most high-quality learning opportunities. Principal Saunders actively participates in staff development sessions, and highlights/celebrates UDL in action in her building.
As the 2019-2020 school year has progressed, we have continued to support Chegwin on their UDL journey. We also are future-focused and are in the process of considering where (which school) we should provide this support for the 2020-2021 school year. We know that other principals within our community may be on board.
How will we know if the staff is ready to begin this journey? Our Pupil Services Director, Katie Moder, encouraged us to create a Readiness Rubric so that we can make the most informed decision. The Readiness Rubric measures four categories: Principal Support, Teacher Support, Teacher Retention, and Other Building Initiatives.
Principal Support is measured using these four indicators.
Designating professional development time outside of the school day.
Participating in Professional Development with their staff
Designating PLC (Professional Learning Community) meeting time for reviewing data and discussing instruction.
Willingness to hold staff accountable for implementation
Teacher commitment is measured based on these elements.
General education teachers believe that an inclusive environment is what is best for ALL students.
Special education teachers believe that an inclusive environment is what is best for ALL students.
Teachers understand that a “one size fits all” lesson plan is not an option in 21st-century classrooms.
Teachers are willing to explore and implement new strategies to support student learning.
Within our rubric, we are considering teacher retention as a factor. We are measuring retention based on the percentage of staff returning to individual schools.
90 – 100% of teachers are returning teachers.
80 – 89% of teachers are returning teachers.
70 – 79% of teachers are returning teachers.
Less than 70% of teachers are returning teachers.
Finally, we ask our interested schools to identify other new initiatives that will occur concurrently.