Having arrived at the end of this residency, I was still struck by the broad diversity of learners who participated in these activities. The students’ needs required a heavy amount of observation, planning, and responsiveness on my part. With three special needs students with a variety of learning challenges, seven non-English speaking students, and twelve additional students, it was a delicate task to design activities that would be accessible and engaging to all of them. So, I turned to Universal Design for Learning. With UDL I looked at my teaching through the lens of the three major brain networks: Recognition, Strategic, and Affective.
Representation: The Recognition Network
This network focused my attention on how I presented any content, information, or instructions. Clearly, providing translation of my instructions was essential for the ESL students. No matter their level of fluency in English, all of the students were able and eager to participate in the activities.
As I worked closely with the special needs students, I began to understand what their teacher meant by “receptive and expressive delays.” These disabilities were impeding the students’ capacities for the intake and output of ideas and knowledge. Given extra time for processing and expressing information and understandings, these students were able to more fully engage with the activities and curriculum.
Action & Expression: The Strategic Network
This network focused my attention on the options that I provided for the students to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding of the content. Making use of three art forms (drawing, drama, and writing) proved to be successful in creating broad student accessibility and engagement with the activities. Creating characters through drawing, a form of expression less dependent on words, made it accessible to both the ESL and students with disabilities. Creating character action and dialog through dramatic improvisation, made vocabulary generation accessible, fun, and engaging for all of the diverse students.
Providing the students with disabilities the option to dictate their stories and then transcribe them was also a very effective strategy. The Special Education instructor later told me that her students continued to talk about their experience in the activities after the close of each session. She remarked at how much more eager her students were to practice their writing when it was about their time in art class drawing their outer space immigrant characters, or acting them out. So, she seized the opportunity to have her students create regular oral reflections and then practice writing them down- which extended the students’ learning beyond the initial art activity and into the classroom.
UDL Options for Character Creation Activity:
Engagement: The Affective Network
This network focused my attention on how I challenged the students and how I promoted their sense of autonomy. I encouraged them to add individualized details to their character designs. I pushed them to create unique sounds, gestures, and expressions for their fictional greetings. Students understood that they needed to created stories with a beginning, middle, and ending. But their stories had to be unique, showing individual choices for narration, character actions, and dialog. All of the students responded with eagerness to these challenges.
As the residency progressed, the ESL teacher observed and commented about how highly engaged her students were in the activities. Even though they were given the option to create their stories in their primary language, many of the ESL students were anxious to share their ideas in English. One student in particular, who only arrived in America a few weeks prior to the start of the residency, insisted on reading his story aloud in English. And he did well in his reading. The teacher was surprised at how comfortable he and others were with reading their stories in English. It became quite clear that these activities had created a highly personal motivation for the students to master their skills.
Throughout this residency, UDL proved to be an effective tool for identifying what I was doing that was working, to discern why it was working, and to identify areas that I could improve my pedagogy. I was able to deepen my knowledge and understanding of specific cognitive and learning disabilities. I learned new responsive strategies for a variety of learners, in order to help them best engage with the content and curriculum. And I witnessed how the use of different art forms broadened my “net” for catching and engaging diverse learners. I will be able to carry all of this into my future teaching experiences.