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.

In Defense of Poetry

My employer, my state, the world demands: teach your students how to read and write. Teach them how to cite their sources, dig deep into ideas, learn and compare and contrast and make Meaning. Teach them how to argue with logos and facts as their foundation. Leave the ethos and pathos to pretty speech-makers and politicians. What we need are citizens who can think dispassionately, reason clearly, and (for heaven’s sake) write using proper spelling, grammar, and punctuation.

So I have. I do all of these things. These bloodless, starched-shirt, bureaucratic things. I tell my students these skills are valuable. I tell them these abilities matter. And I mean it.

For the most part.

What I don’t tell them, and what tears inside me like a growing ulcer, is that this is not the epitome of what makes a successful human being, or a dispassionate citizen, or a college-and-career-ready life. At best, these lesson amount to training in marketable skills in the business world. At worst, it’s a lesson in conformity. It subtly implies the only writing and thinking that matters is the writing and thinking we do when we work for others, when someone tells us what to do, when it’s our job and not driven by curiosity or passion or even basic interest. Cite your sources, please. Don’t think about being your own source.

Instead, in quiet defiance, I teach poetry. That fluffy-bunny writing that will doom you to a life on welfare and living in your parents’ basement. No one makes a living writing or reading poetry. Or stories. (Unless those stories become blockbuster novels turned into films. But, hey, not all ball players make it to the majors, so you’d better focus on that business degree when you’re twelve, ok?)

Poetry. The realm of dreamers and dissidents. The writing that’s “for girls not boys.” The kind of writing only nerds and flaky artistic-types understand, right? In the classroom it can mean opaque symbolism and a coroner’s quest for meaning through autopsy. Line by line, excavating, making note of figures of speech, counting the syllables, and hauling away adjectives and alliteration into neat, tidy, standards-based piles of UNDERSTANDING.

The Standards say:

  • Cite several pieces of textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
  • Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of rhymes and other repetitions of sounds (e.g., alliteration) on a specific verse or stanza of a poem or section of a story or drama.
  • Analyze how a drama’s or poem’s form or structure (e.g., soliloquy, sonnet) contributes to its meaning
  • By the end of the year, read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poems, in the grades 6-8 text complexity band proficiently, with scaffolding as needed at the high end of the range.

I am aware that these are worthy goals and “standards aren’t curriculum” but as the distance grows between what will be tested and what can never be tested, I find myself fighting to keep poetry as a vital part of what I teach and what my students learn. I feel pressure to keep it short and move on to “more important” things.

I don’t teach poetry because it’s cute or pretty or cultured. I teach poetry because it is one of the best ways for the truth and honesty of human experience to find expression. I teach poetry outside of surface measures and seek-and-find literary device games.

We read and write for real, and the work my students produce takes my breath. Instead of limp and dull, though technically proficient poems, what they write when we study poetry sends electricity up my spine.

Like this:

only In–

our dreams             when the world is wish-

magnificent the things

we wish were reality

 

fly high      and        free

 

and the princeandprincess live

happily ever after and

do the unimaginable

but we’re dreaming

 

when the world is journey-magnificent

 

the plans we’ve

held captive inside us escape

then come to be

and we hopeandpray to never wake up

 

from imagination and perfection

 

we’re

dreaming

and

                    the

                                     frightening

things real life holds make us

wish

we

weren’t

 

Or this:

Grade 7–

 

a Time where everything is Group–Separate

nerds and JOCKS as well as

those who are world–unaware

 

the crude Talk in the

room–

the Alliances and Enemies

 

the Numbers and the TEACHERS–

 

a Place that is experiment–fearful

the Whispering

                     the Giggling

                                          the “Secrets”

to think it is all bricks

caging the Mayhem–

even the labyrinth

has never been so twisted–

 

everyone has to but

eventually will

                                                forget

a place where the odds may be ever in your favor

Or this:

in Science–

where everything is lecture-boring

and the science man

goes on

and  on

and

on

sapping every bit of interest    out

 

when life around you is snail   –   speed

the distant mumble of speech

droning on — forever

endless

meaningless

 

a standardized test

the monotonous article

that puts you to sleep

at a single glance

 

everpresent is the interest

lurking

creeping on the edge of existence

living in a deep   dark slumber

searching for a time to awaken

 

but that time

has yet to come

I hear their voices clamoring to make sense of the world they find themselves in, struggling to understand how they are to become whole people in the midst of conflicting expectations and misdirection. I want to tell them that sometimes there are no arguments that make sense, no sources to answer the questions they ask, and that pushing against their fears with a poem might be the best self-defense.

For Those Keeping Score at Home

Today was the big composition test and in the words of my students, “It was the dumbest prompt EVER, Mrs. Leung.”

Maybe that’s a bit hyperbolic, but I am quoting twelve year-olds.

Despite the “dumbest prompt EVER,” they did it. They told me they felt capable, that it felt like they’d accomplished something. Instead of feeling lost and unsure of what to write, they told me how they broke apart the prompt, used a brainstorming tactic we’d discussed in class (be still my heart!), and even took advantage of the classroom dictionaries. A few said they were proud enough of their work that they couldn’t wait to get it back…

Oh yeah, and they were disappointed to learn that not only would I not get to read their work, but they would also never see their essays again.

“Why did we have to work so hard if we can’t even see it again or show it to our parents?”

Great question, kids. This is why I am so proud of you. Never stop asking great questions.