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.” (Definition obtained from CAST, Center for Applied Special Technology, website)   

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.

School Readiness

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.

  • UDL implementation is a top priority initiative.
  • UDL implementation, along with one additional new initiative are the priorities.
  • UDL implementation is one of three new initiatives for the school.
  • UDL implementation is not a priority due to multiple initiatives.

To view our rubric, go to http://bit.ly/fdl_UDL_readinessrubric.   

Ongoing Professional Development

As one of the original coaches who attended UDL training, I find that I am continuing to learn and grow each school year. It is extremely satisfying to share my learning with my colleagues. Through ongoing professional development, I am able to share my learning with my colleagues so that they are able to grow in their understanding and implementation of the principles of UDL.    

Principals Mockert and Principal Saunders designated staff development sessions for ALL staff members to engage in this learning. As coaches, we are mindful of the phases that our new teachers cycle through during their first years of teaching. And while seasoned teachers may have years of experience under their belts, we often see these teachers cycling within these phases. Ellen Moir, Santa Cruz New Teacher Project, identifies these phases that occur throughout that first year (and, in our opinion, the years following): Anticipation, Survival, Disillusionment, Rejuvenation, Reflection, and back to Anticipation for the next school year. We ensure that our professional development is aligned with teachers’ mindsets during these phases. To see a glimpse of our professional development, visit our UDL website at http://bit.ly/CardinalFamilyUDL.

Support within the Professional Learning Community

Rick DuFour identified four essential questions that should guide our work as a professional learning community.

  1. What do we want our students to know? (Learning goals and expectations)
  2. How will we know if they have learned? (Assessment)
  3. How will we respond if they haven’t learned? (Intervention)
  4. How will we respond if they already know? (Enrichment)

During the school’s UDL implementation year, we provide instructional coaching support within grade-level team meetings. Our role in supporting teachers to respond to the essential PLC questions consists of us supporting teachers to identify barriers to learning, supporting teachers to identify options for representation, as well as supporting teachers to identify options for action/expression and engagement.

By identifying these four key components, we are able to continue to “scale up” our UDL implementation in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. We also are in the process of creating a systemic plan to provide ongoing support beyond the implementation year. To view a template of our implementation plan, go to http://bit.ly/fdl_UDLimplementationtemplate. Special shout out to Katie Novak, whose design team created this beautiful template of our implementation process.  

As one of the originally “UDL trained” coaches, I am immensely proud of our UDL implementation process. I am proud that in my role as an instructional coach, I am able to support our staff in building their understanding and implementation of the principles of UDL. I am proud of my school district, the Fond du Lac School District, who challenges me as a teacher and coach to continue to grow with the ultimate goal of providing equitable learning opportunities for ALL students.

image of Shannon Schultz and her family

Shannon Schultz is an instructional coach in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. As an instructional coach, Shannon supports the teachers and students of the Fond du Lac School District through collaboration, professional development, mentorship, and instructional support for colleagues and administrators. Shannon is also the proud mom of two Fondy Cardinals, Alex (junior) and Max (freshman).

Photo by Tachina Lee on Unsplash