Access for All: Using a Universal Design for Learning Approach to Implement a Rock-Solid Instructional Core

Often our instincts are to scaffold pretty heavily so students don’t experience too much difficulty or to ignore students’ learning needs for the sake of rigor and grit. We want them to feel comfortable in class and stay as motivated as possible. But all too frequently, complex texts and challenging maths have been systematically removed from the hands of our struggling students who are overwhelmingly people of color. This is systemic racism by design in action. The consequences are stark. Many students have become very dependent learners and not provided dynamic structures and routines to build the intellectual muscle necessary to excel at the table of scholarship. Developing relevant intellectual curiosity with efficacy is core to our humanity and this intentional stymying of students’ information processing limits life opportunities.

The current response to the ongoing systemic under-educating of students of color is to purchase intervention programs that move students away from the instructional core with hopes that sprinkling them with decontextualized skill builders will transfer even though they will be further behind having missed core instruction. The instructional core includes three interdependent components: teachers’ knowledge and skill, students’ engagement in their own learning, and academically challenging and culturally relevant content (Elmore, 2002).  Instead of sorting and selecting students away from the instructional core, how about we make the instructional core really really solid! Ideally the instructional core tackles the dependency cycle by ensuring that students experience complex texts and tasks that require critical thinking and deep levels of engagement. We need to do things differently. Really differently.

Universal Design for Learning, based on concepts of providing equal access to persons with disabilities, has a great potential to guide us as we implement a rockstar instructional core. Universal Design for Learning (UDL) asks us to accommodate learning differences by planning in advance and making instruction available for more students, at lower costs, and reduce the need for after-the-fact steps such as intensive interventions and referrals to special education.  While intervention is still important, it is often too late. UDL is meant to proactively evaluate instructional and environmental needs prior to learning. The principles of UDL require making curricula, materials, and environments accessible and usable for all students in the building in all their full essence. As educators, we need to craft new ways to make education more convenient for time-pressed students, less harmful for people from diverse backgrounds, and more flexible for persons with different learning styles. If we make students’ core learning experience robust and we pay close attention to the learning, there is less need to catch kids up. Intervention support then can be based on fine-grained data and provided quickly in the moment.

So what does this look like? Highly collaborative and responsive. One way to look at this is through the lens of professional inquiry. If we have systems in place where we know students well through data, and regularly collaborate about how to address what we learn from data and have access to materials that support our plans for ALL kids ALL of the time, we can be better positioned to engage students in the kind of work that sparks the accelerated learning that UDL promises. Some students may need to hear a text aloud; some students may need extra language support, while some students may need a graphic to help them learn. All students need to learn how to organize content so they can learn content. Along with implementing UDL, an intentional commitment to every adult developing cultural competence creates a more responsive system that capitalizes on students’ identities to help motivate and sustain them in relevant scholarship. Classrooms can be designed to be noisier with more co-construction of knowledge with students. Designing spaces and learning throughways in anticipation of the humans we aim to serve goes a long way to inviting all students to the table of scholarship and keeping them there

It’s Time to Use Reading Science!

This APM Reports documentary by Emily Hanford Hard Words: Why aren’t kids being taught to read? is a really thought provoking piece about how children read and how kids and families land in the middle of the tug of war over how kids read – phonics vs. whole language still at it. We can all agree that everyone needs to learn how to read. When we examine prison populations and reading literacy rates we starkly see why. Better readers do better. Is reading natural? If we just give kids lots of books, is that enough? Where does phonics fit in? For how long? The education community does not agree.  I am a scientist at heart. I must follow the science of reading to formulate my bottom line.

Reading instruction must be dynamic and include phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and reading comprehension. Reading is natural for some but not others especially if you have a processing difference like dyslexia or are coping with trauma. Kids need support with phonics blending AND they need to learn whole words. Real tasks that use real texts across content areas to build background knowledge is essential for ongoing vocabulary development and reading comprehension.

Here are my Top 5 Reading Tips Based on Reading Science:

1. Phonics is ESSENTIAL through at least 1st grade and should continue as needed through strategic grouping.
2. Spelling instruction is important but should never hold students back from new learning or be overdone.
3. Word study or morphology with roots, prefixes and suffixes teaches kids to crack the code as they develop as readers starting in 3rd grade especially when gamified.
4. Leveled, “just right books” can limit access to and practice with complex language so beware.
5. Science, social studies, art and music build students general content knowledge and develop and even accelerate reading comprehension skills.

Need help developing your reading approach based on reading science? Let me know. I can help.

Screen Shot 2018-11-01 at 10.52.08 AMBuilding Blocks of Reading


Taking the Time for Reflection

The end of the school year is often a frenzy of activities and we all can’t wait for the summer to begin. We make a huge energetic push to get the kids and ourselves to the finish line so and the lure of sleeping in a little later and the summer adventure we have planned are naturally on the forefronts of our minds. But are we missing out if we don’t make time for some reflection on our year? Time flies and the school year ramps up and we think, “what was that system improvement I wanted to make?,” or “I know I wanted to tweak this unit but I can’t remember what I wanted to do and now I don’t have time to do it,” or “I really was never able to reach that student and I really need to do better for kids but how?” We often don’t have the opportunity to innovate or iterate because as soon as the year starts up again, the madness begins and we start our race to the finish line once again.

Taking the time to do a written reflection at the end of the school year is a powerful ritual that can go a long way to moving the needle for teachers and principals but also for the students we serve. Teachers who engage in reflection rituals often end up sharing this reflective practice with students. Same goes for school and district leaders. Self knowledge of accomplishments and areas for improvement helps our brains and the systems we create grow. Reflective mindsets are more open to collaborative inquiry and can more easily adapt and be responsive to challenges and changes and interrupt the status quo that continues to marginalize way too many students and families. The more reflective rituals are honored, the more they take root and flourish.

Here is a process for reflection that helps us be systems thinkers as we “go wide” to assess our current reality and lift that which we want to celebrate and replicate and that which we need to tweak or stop doing altogether.

An After Action Review is a high level set of reflective prompts that foster reflection in a short period of time.

Try this set of prompts:

  1. Based on your goals for the year, what was supposed to happen?
  2. What actually happened?
  3. What do you think accounts for the difference?
  4. Think of student who you had great success with. What actions did you take do you attribute to this success? What other factors in the system were at play?
  5. Now think of a student who you did not reach. What actions did you take do you attribute to this challenge? What other factors in the system were at play?
  6. What will you do with what you have learned from this reflection? Write out a list to act on.

What are some of the ways you reflect? Feel free to leave a comment.

And after some purposeful reflection…go to the beach! For real. Recharge those batteries. You so deserve it and in case not enough people said it – THANK YOU FOR ALL YOU DO FOR KDIS EVERYDAY!