Sunday, 27 November 2011

Part 1. The Fine Arts are UDL! (Universal Design for Learning)

  • Following the principles of UDL, I have incorporated audio, hyperlinks, graphics and large text into this blog.
here's the audio of the blog:

So now that we understand:
1.  Teachers need to know the academic and social profile of their students/class as a starting point
2.  Marginal students point the way to better instruction for all students
3.  We need to re-evaluate the general curriculum to make it more effective for all students
4.  Planning up front cannot be done in isolation - it requires collaboration between general and special education teachers,

we can then look at what kind of instructional strategies, tools and specific activities lend themselves to engaging ALL learners.  My experience is that the Fine Arts and the integration of technology are essential in that mix.  If I think back to a previous reference to Gardner's Multiple Intelligences, I am reminded of how the four main disciplines of the Arts -  Drama, Music, Dance and Visual Arts - allow for a variety of ways to engage in learning.  Once again, this aligns clearly with the UDL framework of Multiple Means of Representation, Multiple Means of Expression and Multiple Means of Engagement:

I am very passionate about the ability of the Fine Arts to activate learningNeuroscience backs this up and most importantly, so does the feedback and experience of our students.  If I think back to when I had the most FUN in school, it was around those very activities where I was moving around, playing music and creating art.  Something as simple as "Wink Murder" as an ice-breaker or acting out a vignette of a scene from a novel; these activities ingrain learning in our minds and hearts.  Furthermore, educational research tells us that student achievement increases with the integration of the arts.

Unfortunately, this powerful vehicle for learning and socialization is too often deemed as an "extra thing" that as educators, we relegate to rare moments or we limit its scope to visual art projects only.  Ironically, the Fine Arts are best served as a vehicle for learning all subject areas - integrated into daily lesson plans.  While this can rely on the talents of the teacher and their confidence in this area, the risk is worth the reward.  Not only that, there is so much potential in a school to share the talents of all the staff so that no one teacher need be responsible for all the arts disciplines.  In the schools where I have worked, we organized Fine Arts modules for this very purpose.  It entailed creating family groupings of students and included not only all the staff, but several community members sharing their talents in mini-courses that took place over three months - two afternoons per week.  Here's an example of that framework:

If you want to bring joy to learning AND improve student achievement, support and advocate for the Fine Arts in your school and district.
Have a great week.


Sunday, 20 November 2011

The Art and Science of Teaching: Planning through UDL

Here's the audio of this blog:

*  The following reflections are inspired from chapter 4 of "The Universally Designed Classroom" by Rose, Meyer and Hitchcock.  As usual, I have tried to incorporate UDL design principles into the blog itself - such as audio, larger text, hyperlinks and graphics.

Last week, I looked at the shifting paradigm of how we view students with learning difficulties.  Starting with the assumption that all students can succeed, we are compelled to re-think our expectations and most importantly, re-think our planning - with ALL our students in mind.  This is directly in line with my first blog of "finding the cornerstone" - that is having an informed academic and social profile of your class.

In my mind, the most crucial element in designing instruction for student success is that it must be done collaboratively.  More specifically, it requires a "partnership between special and general education - a partnership that embodies shared responsibility, commitment, resources, and accountability" (O'Shea & O'Shea, 1997).  This makes me think of the current structures we have in place at most schools where there is typically a cadre of general education teachers and one special ed teacher (LA).  My experience in schools is that these colleagues certainly do collaborate but primarily in the "retrofit" stage of a child's lack of success.  In other words,  lack of student success leads to a request for assessment by the LA, which then leads to adaptations or even modifications for that individual student - sometimes with little correlation to the general instructional practices happening in the classroom.

I should clarify that the skill set of the general ed. teacher and the LA teacher are not necessarily that different.  Some classroom teachers have a variety of training and pro-d around special needs students.  Most of our LA teachers come from a regular classroom and don't necessarily have the specific training or expertise in special education but are fortunately plugged into ongoing professional development.

Regardless, what I am beginning to learn is that we need to find a way to get general and special ed teachers together at the INSTRUCTIONAL DESIGN phase.  That is, as a team, start with your classroom profiles and design units and lessons that incorporate multiple means of representation, expression and engagement (the UDL principles) - thereby rendering the learning accessible for all students.  Once again, the adaptations that we consider for individual students who are struggling, would actually be good instructional design for all students - and should be incorporated in the planning stage.

Certainly, we do a pretty good job of this with our low incident students - whereby there is a transition plan from one year to the next with collaboration between the inclusion teacher and the classroom teacher.  However, these strategies tend to be isolated to that individual student and as we all know, there still exists a multitude of diverse needs in the so-called "average" group.

Easier said than done.   But in fact, as a progressive school district, we have found creative ways for teacher collaboration built into timetables at various schools.  This aligns well with our district motto, which is "Together We Learn".   However, providing this opportunity is only the first step - we need to ensure that special ed teachers are involved in that collaboration, that the planning is based upon the needs of all the students and that the collaboration itself is purposeful and structured. 

Here is a link to an article that includes an example of entire grade 5 unit designed with these principles in mind and also includes lesson-plan template:  Thematic Unit on Endangered Species

Here's the graphic of the lesson plan template:

Friday, 11 November 2011

Chapter 2: Equal Access in General Curriculum


Once we understand that our students with learning difficulties incite better instructional design for all students, we begin to see that the curriculum itself also needs to be re-evaluated - It cannot continue to be a "one size fits most" approach (Rose, Meyer, Hitchcock, 2005).

We have come a long way in the last 20 years as far as developing technologies and adaptations that allow our special needs students to access a "regular classroom".  This policy of inclusion is one of the most positive and fundamental changes I have seen in education.  There are certainly challenges to this policy and many educators still consider a learning disabled student to be a sure sign of more work and an obligation to change how they "normally" do things.  This is perfectly understandable as teaching is hard work to begin with and we don't always provide the time, resources and professional development teachers require to build a truly inclusive classroom.

In many cases in our own school district we have followed a fairly predictable pattern with any students that present with special needs or learning difficulties - send them to the LAT (Learning Assistant Teacher) put them on a modified program and develop an IEP (Individual Education Plan) with their own goals.  While this may be an improvement from the past, we are still missing a key understanding - the disability often resides in the curriculum, not the student.  For example, when we establish a Learning Outcome such as "the student will write a 500 word essay on the BNA Act", we have limited the demonstration of knowledge to pen and paper.  Why not allow for multiple means of expression for any student to demonstrate that knowledge? 

As educators, then, we sometimes succumb to the temptation to modify what a student is capable of doing and therefore do not have to report on his/her progress in relation to the general learning outcomes.  Fortunately, we are beginning to see that this is not only unfair and inaccurate, we have started to listen to parents of these special needs students who have known all along that their child can succeed with their peers.  Not only that, these parents were understandably frustrated by seeing acronyms such as "MOD" or IEP on their child's report cards, instead of grades like everyone else.

This of course bring us back to the concept of Universal Design for Learning which encompasses a variety of ways to access, express and engage in learning.   It points towards finding the right tools or scaffolds to allow all students to succeed.  Curriculum, after all, is not simply a series of factoids but rather a plan for learning.  This is particularly relevant today as we look at 21 Century learning skills that emphasize collaboration, critical-thinking and communication.

Have a great week,
Stephen Petrucci

PS.  One great way to provide scaffolds or supports for student learning is through the use of graphic organizers - here's an example of one on the topic of UDL:

Saturday, 5 November 2011

The Future is in the Margins

Last week, I introduced the concept of UDL (Universal Design for Learning) as the framework for Instructional Design once an academic and social profile has been created for a class.  Once again, this is driven by the cornerstone philosophy that student needs should drive teacher planning.

In the book The Universally Designed Classroom - Accessible Curriculum and Digital Technologies by Rose, Meyer and Hitchcock, we learn that their work in creating the UDL framework is based on the educational experiences of our struggling students.  It became clear that the adaptations in representation, expression and engagement for these students were actually exemplary practices for all students.

For example, one common obstacle for struggling students is that of printed text.  This may be due to visual impairment, cognitive difficulties or a host of other reasons.  In this case, the use of digital media has allowed not only text to speech capabilities for the visually impaired but most importantly, a whole new way to interact with content for all students.  The technology of digital multimedia has provided a content platform that is completely flexible, that can be annotated, linked, networked and customized for each individual learner (Rose).  As with many new technologies, we have only just begun exploring its educational potential and practice in the classroom.  On a more public scale, we saw the introduction of Closed Captioning many years ago for the hearing impaired but then saw its application in fitness clubs, language schools, airports, etc.  It has now become technologically and socially ubiquitous.

We are beginning to understand then, that when it comes to our struggling students, the disability is based in the interaction process with the curriculum, not with the students themselves.  I firmly believe that all students have incredible talents to share and are smart in different ways.  It reminds me of the work of Howard Gardner, who brought forward the understanding of multiple intelligences in 1983 (see pic below).  Over 25 years later, we are still not incorporating that knowledge into our instructional design, in a systemic way.

Similar to Gardner's work, the UDL framework recognizes the diversity in learning but goes even further with a highly structured and supported approach based on current brain research.  Neuroscience has identified three nerve networks in the brain that play an active role in learning - recognition, strategic and affective networks (Rose, Meyer, Hitchcock).  That is to say, the what, the how and the why of learning.  The framework then (pic below) is the representation of this knowledge through multiple means of representation (what), multiple means of expression (how) and multiple means of engagement (why).

Have a great week.
Stephen Petrucci
Director of Instruction
SD 60

Here is a representation of Gardner's work: