Principles of UDL (and Home Adventures in Plumbing)

It was the wobbly toilet tank I noticed first.

I was balanced on a step stool with a paint roller in my hand, adding a fresh coat of paint to the upstairs bathroom. As I moved the roller along the wall, I nudged the tank–and it shifted. Noticeably. With a steady “drip, drip, drip” of water on the linoleum tile.

“That can’t be good,” I thought.

I have zero background or experience with plumbing beyond jiggling the handle in a desperate attempt to avoid calling a plumber. I was alone in the house and had two options: 1. Pretend I didn’t notice the rapidly deteriorating situation and hope it would miraculously fix itself. Or 2. Roll up my sleeves and take a look inside the tank. No one was coming to save me. This was going to take some courage.

I didn’t really want to look. I wasn’t sure what I’d find once I took the lid off the top–and even when I did, how was I supposed to tell if the widget sprocket was properly attached to the doohickey? Even if I could tell what was wrong, that didn’t mean I had the skills or the tools to fix it. I hesitated and wondered if I ought to just call in an expert and stand aside. It struck me in that moment that this was a feeling I recognized in myself and in my students. I was afraid to fail.

Facing Uncertainty

As a teacher, I am used to asking my students to embrace uncertainty–and to revel in the struggle that goes hand-in-hand with learning. Just this year I had encouraged my classes to “lean in” to what we called the mushy-middle of the learning process, that icky, uncomfortable feeling we get when we’re not sure if we understand something well enough. The road to developing the dispositions of an expert learner is paved with bricks of uncertainty and discomfort. Without the struggle, there’s no lasting learning. For me, that meant I was going to have to face my discomfort if I planned to solve my current problem. I had come face to face with the first principle of Universal Design for Learning: Engagement.

When it comes to education, the term engagement often triggers images of students actively participating in and enjoying a task, but that’s not the whole picture. When we dig a little deeper into the UDL guidelines in the area of engagement, it becomes clear that engagement is an orientation to learning that allows a learner to persist in the face of difficulty and approach challenges with a growth mindset. For me, in taking the lid off the tank, I was committing myself to fully engage with this problem. I was going to need some persistence and the ability to self-regulate in the face of my discomfort.

Taking Action

When I removed the lid, the next step was to figure out my strategy. What was wrong? What would it take to fix it? How might I go about solving this problem on my own? I was now in UDL territory for Action and Expression. Like many of my students, since I wasn’t sure where to begin, I started by experimenting. I noticed a couple of rusty blobs evenly spaced at the bottom of the tank and decided to poke one. It promptly disintegrated into a cloud of grime and I now heard a metallic “thunk” accompanying the ceaseless dripping as the remains of a threaded bolt spiraled across the floor.

A quick mop-up and a few web searches later, I had diagnosed the trouble. The tank bolts (Who knew there was such a thing?) had corroded and I would have to replace them along with the rest of the worn-out parts governing the toilet’s operation inside the tank. My next step was to do what I want my students to do; I made observations, consulted my resources, and sought expert advice. After a quick trip to the hardware store for the necessary tools and supplies, I was ready for the next step.

Scaffolding, Mentor Texts, and Exemplars

In the classroom, I’m used to sharing materials to support my students through a UDL lens. Not every student needs the same supports, but I provide a wide variety to all my students and give them the freedom to choose the level of support they need. When it came to making my repairs, I definitely needed the final UDL principle: multiple means of Representation. Since I’d never done any plumbing repairs before, I bought a kit that included specific step-by-step instructions as well as a QR code link to an installation video. I looked up diagrams and used pictures to check each step of the process as I worked. I was grateful for the video support because it meant I could watch (and rewatch) the same step as much as I needed until I got it right and could move to the next one.

Experts vs Expert Learners

I wish I could say that simply following directions meant that once I turned the water supply back on that there were no more issues and everything worked just right. Instead, I discovered mistakes in my installation that required going back a step, reviewing the supporting materials, and trying again (and again.) How many times do my students find themselves in this situation–whether it’s encountering feedback on a writing assignment or looking over an assessment for right and wrong answers? I was getting feedback with every sputter and drip of a misaligned seal. It wasn’t personal. I needed the feedback to ensure my work was correct.

After a couple of hours, I was able to put my tools away, turn off the bathroom light, and move on to another home improvement project. I’m by no means a master plumber, but this experience reminded me what’s at stake for my students and their learning experience in the classroom. Bringing UDL into the classroom means I can leverage my content to help students develop into lifelong learners. I recognized the skills and dispositions of an expert learner in myself as I took on the repair work–skills and dispositions I want my students to develop so that when they are faced with a problem outside the classroom, no matter what situations they encounter, they approach those challenges as an expert learner.

Your Turn

What does engagement look like for you? For your students? How can we help students find feedback meaningful (and necessary) for learning? Explore these resources if you’re ready to take on your own classroom improvement project and leave a comment if you have your own story or insight to share.

Although I couldn’t find any other exciting videos about home plumbing repairs, I did want to share this video of American Ninja Warrior Jessie Graff completing her course. Jessie exemplifies someone who is thoroughly engaged in a task in spite of the effort and strain it takes to complete.

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Embracing “Icky” as a Learning Stage

comfort-zone-quote

I’m attempting a more Universally Designed approach to reviewing and deepening my students’ understanding of the essay and that means more up-front prep for me, but then it’s in my students’ hands to Choose their Own Learning Adventure.

I established a bank of resources–videos, texts, graphic organizers, and images–and then sat back and allowed my students to take control of their learning instead of simply recording and repeating my one unique presentation on the topic. It has been a good challenge for me to let my students be responsible for their own learning and make meaning for themselves.

I watched as students took their time, selected options, watched and rewatched short video lessons, took textbooks and reference materials from the shelf–and struggled productively to make sense of the concept of a thesis.

Half -way through the process, we talked together as a class to share our emerging understanding of thesis statements. This allowed me to help them consolidate their learning as well as to eliminate any misconceptions. The class then had an opportunity to practice identifying strong and weak thesis statements, finally constructing an example to share with the class.

While we talked, I asked my students to give me a “show of thumbs” which is one of the formative assessments we use to check-in with our understanding. Most students were in what I call the “icky-middle”: not entirely confident, but not utterly lost.

confusing spirals.jpg

I encouraged them to embrace the icky middle–because that middle ground is what learning feels like when we encounter something new. Some students laughed, some grimaced and wanted to push the icky feeling away. For all of us, it was a good opportunity to stay in touch with the messages our body gives us about how we learn. Confusion and productive struggle feel like a physical threat. It can elevate stress hormones and cause anxiety. By naming that feeling as part of learning something new, my hope is to empower students to lean into the struggle and not fear the discomfort. If they can recognize the feeling and not fear it, then the struggle becomes a companion and not an enemy; it becomes a signal for real learning, and not something shameful to be avoided.

My Students Say Thank You

I don’t remember when I first noticed it. A student here or there would pause on the way out my classroom door, turn to me, and say, “Thank you, Mrs. Leung.”

It’s new to me.

When I was in middle school, it never occurred to me to thank my teachers for opening doors and windows in my mind or for believing in me. I never said thank you for the corrective feedback and coaching on writing assignments. It never crossed my mind that my teachers were anything more than gatekeepers of right and wrong.

So that’s why it struck me. Those thank yous stopped me in my place with the power of gratitude: Thank you for teaching me. Thank you for today’s lesson. Thank you for listening. Thank you for challenging me. Thank you for the feedback.

Thanks so much Ms. Leung for the feedback. I will use your feedback.

Student comment on feedback. The response came one minute after I posted.

I’ve been teaching fourteen years and I’ve never had so many students say thank you so often. In a way, I think it’s a function of the ease of electronic communication. If I leave a comment in a Google Doc or in Classroom, many students see the note pop up on their personal screens. It’s a way to say, “Hi. I saw your work. I notice your skills.” How can that not lead to stronger teacher-student relationships? But that can’t be the only reason. This generation of children I am fortunate to know has a keen understanding of valuing relationships.

When I feel frustrated at the lack of civility that seems to permeate public discourse, I think of my students and am so grateful. If a student understands the power of thanks at the age of twelve, that is a person who will grow into a grateful adult who can accept constructive criticism and use it to better herself.

These remarkable people are growing up fast. Keep your eyes open. When they start appearing on the horizon, you’re going to be dazzled by how much they’re going to change the world.

The Bubble and the Pin: A Teacher Contemplates Bacon’s “Of Youth and Age”

Forest Bubble by ecstaticist on Flickr

Several, two students approached me after school to talk about their ideas for our school’s theater program. They hoped to create a student-run equivalent of the existing program and were eager to get started with script writing as soon as summer vacation began.

They laid their plans on my desk–a notebook with scribbled pages and bullet points. I loved the idea, but there were too many problems that had to be addressed. Who would ultimately be in charge? What would be my primary role? How would we ensure that each person does what she commits to do? How would my students manage to find time to write, direct, rehearse, and perform when the school’s auditorium schedule was already filled?

They spoke with enthusiasm and certainty. This was their dream and they knew they could make it happen. As I listened to their ideas, I remembered feeling that way. I remembered thinking that I saw all the answers and simply needed someone who was willing to listen and give me a chance. Half way through their pitch, one student apologized for his unchecked idealism.

Then I remembered reading Francis Bacon’s essay “Of Youth and Age.”

Young men, in the conduct and manage of actions, embrace more than they can hold; stir more than they can quiet; fly to the end, without consideration of the means and degrees; pursue some few principles which they have chanced upon absurdly; care not to innovate, which draws unknown inconveniences; use extreme remedies at first; and that which doubleth all errors will not acknowledge or retract them; like an unready horse, that will neither stop nor turn.

These students had passion, creativity, and a thirst for more ways to learn about the craft of theater. What they didn’t have was an understanding of what it was they hoped to accomplish. Bacon reminded me: it is the nature of Youth to create and make messes, and my responsibility to help them find the balance between their boldest ambitions and the constraints of time, space, and human frailty. I couldn’t be an advisor for this project because I had too many responsibilities of my own already, but I didn’t want to crush their enthusiasm. I went back to Bacon and read this:

Men of age object too much, consult too long, adventure too little, repent too soon, and seldom drive business home to the full period, but content themselves with a mediocrity of success.

Erin Popping a Water Balloon by davidjlee on Flickr

Ouch. I knew what Bacon meant, and I wanted to avoid becoming one of those teachers–content with mediocrity, spinning my wheels in a world of “maybe someday.” The more we talked, the more I think they saw how impossible it would be to create the type of student-run theater they wanted.  They could think of no one else who could act as a club sponsor other than me. I would have to teach a year-long theater class and use class time if we were to make all of their ideas work, and even at that, there were no guarantees that their schedules would allow enough room to take such a class.

Then I offered an alternative, an idea I’d toyed with for a “Ten-Minute Film” Festival of student-produced films. A lot of the responsibility and creative elements would be in their hands, and that’s what they wanted (and needed) most. I’m glad my sharp pin of reality didn’t completely dissuade them and that I found a way to combine their ideas with my perspective.

Certainly it is good to compound employments of both; for that will be good for the present, because the virtues of either age may correct the defects of both; and good for succession, that young men may be learners, while men in age are actors; and, lastly, good for extern accidents, because authority followeth old men, and favor and popularity youth.

Working in partnership with my students–giving them voice–makes the best of both our efforts.

More Than Technically Engaged

We’re at the end of our poetry study and my students have written some amazing poems. I structure the unit so that as we examine each feature of craft, we practice that feature and focus on it, while building each layer. It unlocks the reading process and helps demystify the moves poets make.

In the past, I’ve asked my students to revise a poem based on all the craft features and use it to demonstrate what they have learned about poetry. For some reason, this ability to look closely at their writing and make revisions on creative writing never seemed to gel when the work was on paper. This time I took a different approach and brought in a few digital tools.

The poetry project asks students to revise all five poetry assignments and choose how best to share them with a larger audience. We’re using flipsnack, Google Story Builder, and WeVideo to transform their typed documents into digital books with flipping pages and images, living poems, and photo stories. What’s been exciting for me is that in the process of creating their digital products, revision becomes more attractive to my students. They read, reread, reflect, and consider their poems carefully when choosing which lines to add to a page and which images to include. The digital product options also encourage them to consider how the poem might “speak” to a viewer best and it hones their media literacy eyes.

When we opened our Chromebooks today, my students dove deep into their work. They drafted, revised, reformatted, tried again–and kept experimenting. The room was nearly silent at times as each student focused on her (or his) poetry so intently that there was no temptation to drift away from the work. Every now and then I would hear, “You’ve got to see my sonnet,” or “What do you think of my rhyme scheme here?” As I circulated through the room, student questions allowed me to teach them computer literacy skills like keyboard shortcuts, design tips, eyeflow, and even terms like PDF.

I’m looking forward to their final projects and on Friday we will celebrate their artistry by setting up the Chromebooks to display their poems in a digital gallery, ready for comments, laughter, and appreciation. The best part for me are the many ways their performance on this assessment shows me what they have learned deeply and much more meaningfully than a traditional unit test.

Cross-posted on Sanderling.

Bud to Bloom

I read a post on Edudemic written by Patrick Larkin called “How Staying Uncomfortable is the Key to Success.” The post got me thinking about all the different ways we make learning comfortable or uncomfortable for ourselves and our students.

These were the last roses of the season on our rose bush.

These were the last roses of the season on our rose bush.

I don’t know who has a harder time dealing with discomfort: students or teachers. On the one hand, some of my students demand easy answers and rote assignments. They want to know precisely which details are worth memorizing or what one-right-answer can be found in the textbook. They like the comfort of worksheets with predefined limits. They demand “study guides” that are little more than veiled versions of the test. It takes us a while to move away from this mindset toward the open fields of intellectual risk, argument and counter argument, and original creations. More than once this year, a student has said to me, “Just tell me what to write. Just tell me how many sentences. Just tell me how many pages.” These students are stuck between anxiety and their own comfort zone.

On the other hand, teachers can be too quick to judge themselves and their practice, sticking to the safe paths already marked and traveled. It takes courage to experiment with new methods and when we fail to meet our own expectations, the sting can take a while to fade. When it comes to technology integration, it can feel like there is so much to know that even the smallest change feels like walking into a minefield. Doing things the way they have always been done feels safe and soothing. To upend our curriculum, examine our pedagogy, confront new research about how students learn best: all of these things can send a wave of panic in motion. No one who loves teaching wants to think of the work we do is less than our best, but often that’s what we are left to conclude. It’s even worse if we work in an environment that feels punitive or makes us question our own competence. Self preservation can make staying comfortable feel like our best option. It’s a fatalistic version of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Just as students need to know they are safe to step outside the boundaries of what they know and find familiar, teachers need that support from one another and from our leaders if we are ever going seek a little discomfort over staying comfortable. Any learning endeavor has a curve. Many times it starts with a goal that seems daunting or just too far away. It demands patience, practice, and persistence for us to achieve it.

Just when the flower feels snug in the bug, it's only holding back the bloom. Gotta keep blooming and show your colors.

Bud to Bloom

As for me, when I first read the title of the article, it made me think of a rosebush. As the stem develops a bud, the flower develops inside a nice, safe, protected place, but it only fulfills it’s purpose once it splits open into a blossom. If we allow ourselves or our students to stay only where it feels safe and comfortable, we keep from blossoming to our full potential.

Practitioner or Wannabe?

As a teacher of English Language Arts, I do my best to write alongside my students. If I ask them to brainstorm, I “write live” and project it for them to see my thinking in action. I haven’t always taught this way because it took time for me to find the courage to show my process. Many of my students struggle with creative writing because they believe it is something one is born having and not something one can develop over time through practice. It’s the constant tension between writing and “righting”–as in “Is this right? Am I right? Did I do this right?” I save and share my brainstorming in a folder on Google Drive so that by the end of the day, there are four different takes on any given exercise.

Still, there’s only so much courage in a bubble. My students write and share with me and their peers, but for me, who can be my peer to give me feedback? There’s not as much to risk if I don’t practice what I ask my students to do: to write broadly and brazenly; to work on an idea through iteration and revision; to share their work and put it into the world for others to comment, correct, and question.

So when I saw Chris Lehman was hosting an online workshop for #TeacherPoets, I was filled with a mixture of enthusiasm and apprehension. What a great way to renew my writing spirit and push my boundaries with real peer feedback!

It’s not enough to read and write as preparation for my classes. If I want to be an effective teacher, I have to be an authentic practitioner of my art.

Consider joining the Teacher Poets community on Google+ or form a writing community of your own around a kitchen table. Practice your practice and grow your voice.

Oh, and here’s my practice–to be added to the Poetry section of the blog:

“Tenderness”

(for my grandparents, the greatest love story I know)

she was receding
the ocean’s depth of her memory
evaporating like steam
Alzheimer’s
hid her crossword puzzles
lost her crochet hooks
stripped her photo albums
ravaged her appetite

when she left a roast smoking in the oven
he cut off the gas for good
took her to the Ponderosa buffet

she clung to his arm
their independence
as unsteady as his shuffling gait
he led her gently to a booth
then made his way to the
salad bar

breathing hard from the effort
legs numb from neuropathy
he leaned against the soup stand
dipped a ladle into the brine
fished for carrots until he had filled a plate
with soft orange slices
tender enough for her to eat
with ill-fitting false teeth

sighing, he sat and reached across the table
her frightened, clouded eyes seemed to clear
and for a moment
this pair, alone in the restaurant
in dirty clothes and unwashed hair
held the universe
in their hands