Arts & UDL in the Classroom, Part One: Meeting Diverse Learners | Richard Jenkins

In the fall of 2009 I found myself in a 3rd grade ESL (English as Second Language) classroom in South Boston. I work as a cartoonist and visual storyteller and I was contracted to guide the students through a cartooning and story making activity. I was excited but also nervous about effectively reaching and engaging what was a very diverse group of students.

Three students came from the Special Needs classroom, each one with individual strengths and learning challenges.  Their teacher informed me that they all loved art making and had well developed social skills.  Two of them had expressive and receptive language issues.  The third had auditory processing and auditory memory issues. Expressing themselves through writing words was very difficult and frustrating for them.

Also present in this classroom were nineteen children who were ESL learners, many of whom had recently emigrated from Cape Verde.  Seven of these students were not yet fluent in English and required much translation in order to participate in the classroom learning.  All twenty-two of the children already enjoyed making art and performing plays, and many of them had well developed social skills.  I was excited about the rich learning potential in such a group, my own learning included.

I would be there for eleven weeks, one day a week for 45 minutes. The ESL classroom teacher would be present to provide translations and assist me. During our initial planning meeting, I began to wonder:

What is it like for a young person to come to a new and unfamiliar place and meet new people?

The teacher and I agreed that it would be interesting to have the students explore the “first meeting” experience of an immigrant person and a native person, and what that experience might look like from each perspective. They would do so by creating a fictional “Outer Space Alien” character with his or her own set of traits and customs, and then eventually create fictional narratives about their character meeting a child from Earth.

The Big Idea: People come from different places and have their own ways of interacting with the world and with each other.

As I began thinking about possible art activities, I asked myself:

How do I get all of these diverse learners to engage with the activity and their learning? 

What adjustments do I need to make in my own lessons and pedagogy in order to meet the students where they are, given their strengths and challenges?

 How can I do this do this in a way that is inclusive for all of these students and challenges them to reach for and to meet the established learning standards?

Seeking answers to these questions, I turned to brain science and UDL (Universal Design for Learning).  In future posts, I will share what I learned and how I applied it to teaching this diverse group of learners.

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