Question: “Now that you know more about universal design for learning, what should be the headline for teachers?”
Answer: “Step one: empathize, see schools through your students’ eyes.”
This was the one of the questions posed and responses given during a powerful activity at a recent session of the Essex County Learning Community’s Universal Design for Learning (UDL) Professional Development Series. Over the course of an introductory webinar, which took place in September and exceeded capacity for participants, followed by three in-person professional development (PD) sessions happening this fall, teachers will be able to deepen their knowledge, beliefs, and practices around UDL by putting themselves in the place of learners with diverse assets and needs.
This month, over 75 K-12 teachers in the Essex County Learning Community (ECLC) gathered to kick off the series’ face-to-face learning sessions on universal design, and discuss the core principals, practices, and barriers to UDL: a framework for flexible instruction that serves students across learning differences. The UDL Series is co-led by Dr. Gabbie Rappolt-Schlichtmann, Executive Director and Chief Scientist at EdTogether, and Sharon Grady, founder/educational consultant at Guide + Grow, Educators Advisory Council member at Understood, and Advisory Board Member at the Universal Design for Learning Implementation and Research Center.
Following the September webinar, which introduced the basic concepts of UDL and helped ECLC district teams get prepared for what they could expect, the PD series then kicked into high gear with October’s Session 1: Creating Innovative and Inclusive Learning Environments. Gabbie and Sharon opened the session by sharing personal stories of how they had each been impacted years ago by the lack of universal design as children, which is still typical for most school settings. This moving introduction set the stage for one of the day’s main themes: building empathy for students.
Gabbie, who had previously shared her own struggles as a learner with dyslexia during the webinar, now spoke at Session 1 about how this experience impacted her as a parent. Next, Sharon led teachers in a reflective process called River of Life and Learning. This activity helped participants to think about learner variability in the classroom, and how their own experiences and identities as learners have affected their decision-making as educators. After listening to Sharon’s story of her journey and the adults who had supported her, teachers mapped out what their journeys as students had looked like and discussed what their assets and barriers to learning had been along the way.
In addition to our esteemed guest faculty members Gabbie and Sharon, Session 1 also included a mini presentation by ECLC’s very own Emma Hensler, English Teacher at Rockport High School (pictured below with Gabbie). Emma discussed her path to becoming more UDL-informed. Her reflections included several ah-ha moments that led her to open up empathy and space for students with learning differences, who she sees are just as capable and in need of support in various ways. Emma talked about her efforts to implement UDL strategies in the classroom by pushing herself outside of her comfort zone to truly understand her students’ needs.
Highlights of Session 1 also included the screening of a short film clip featuring Shelley Moore, a student and researcher at University of British Columbia, who uses the video to explain that teaching is a lot like bowling – the ball is the lesson, the pins are the kids, we aim for the middle, and those pins that are left standing are the kids that need the most support and the kids who need the most challenges. According to Shelley, “We end up choosing one, and the other one is left standing.”
These impactful lessons shared by Gabbie, Sharon, Emma, and Shelley were just some of the many activities and artifacts that explored universal design throughout Session 1. The explorations will continue this fall with Session 2 of ECLC’s UDL Series taking place in November and Session 3 in early December. Both will focus on more practical ways for educators and administrators to create innovative, inclusive learning environments for all students.
Based upon the tremendous amount of engagement among teachers and school leaders who made Session 1 a success, we know we have much to look forward to in the coming months during this series. We are excited to continue on this journey with all of our ECLC partners to continue the rich learning on UDL planning and implementation. Stay tuned for more updates and resources!