Engaging Diverse Learners: Arts & UDL in the Classroom, Part Two

I found myself in a classroom with nineteen ESL learners in South Boston.  Our task was to guide the students through the creation of fictional characters with individualized traits and customs and, finally, to create fictional narratives about these characters.  Seven of these children were not yet fluent in speaking or understanding English.  Also present in the room were three Special Needs students, each with their own cognitive and developmental challenges.

Looking for ways to engage the broad range of learners that I would encounter in this classroom, I turned to UDL (Universal Design for Learning). UDL is a teacher-planning tool, developed by CAST, which incorporates and applies the latest brain and learning science in order to teach and engage the wide diversity found in today’s student population.

Brain science and technological advances have allowed us to see inside the brains vast and intricate nerve networks while learning is occurring.  UDL focuses the teacher’s attention on the three major networks: recognition, strategic and affective. 

1. The Recognition Network (Representation)
The Recognition Network is the “what” of learning, how our brains receive information.  Seven of these students were not yet fluent in English. My instructions would be in English, and thus would be a barrier for their engagement with the learning activity.

UDL helps educators identify potential barriers in the representation of content, so that they can be removed during the planning stages of the residency. The goal is to create the most successful learning environment for all of the students. So I planned accordingly; the ESL teacher would always be present to provide translations of my instructions.

2. The Strategic Network (Action and Expression)
The Strategic Network is the “how” of learning, how we organize and express our ideas. The three Special Needs students had great difficulty expressing their thoughts in written form, so writing character details and stories would be a barrier for their engagement with the learning activity. Writing in English would also be a barrier for the seven ESL students not yet fluent in the language.

In my planning, I sought options for these students to express their ideas not solely dependent on spoken or written English. The Special Needs students would be allowed to dictate their ideas to the instructor who would then write them on the board. The students would then copy their words from the board. The ESL students would be allowed to use their first language in writing their character traits and stories.

Also, I planned learning activities using diverse art forms: drawing, improv, and drama.  Already imbedded within these art processes lie options for the students to express their knowledge, ideas, and understanding.  For instance, writing was a barrier to several of the students, but they had ample story ideas, and enjoyed creating and drawing characters. So, they could communicate their character and story ideas though their drawings.

3. The Affective Network (Engagement)
The Affective Network is the “why” of learning, how students stay motivated and engaged in their learning. UDL guided me in identifying strategies to make the activities relevant to the students, to find ways to instill a sense of autonomy and ownership in their learning, and to find ways to keep them motivated.

For example, I continually encouraged the students to make their characters more unique and personal by adding distinguishing visual details (lines, shapes, patterns, and colors) and narrative ideas (unique character name, home planet, and outer space cuisine). The goal was to build the students’ autonomy; that is pretty simple and it’s something that most of us teaching artists already do!

As a teaching artist, I have had many experiences creating a wonderful and exciting art activity that I had to later modify in the middle of a residency in order to meet a specific student’s needs or to help them conform to my original plans. Sometimes, I even had to change my assessment criteria for those students. I often felt like I was teaching two different groups at the same time.

UDL assumes that the student diversity is the norm, that educators must prepare a flexible curriculum and pedagogy that meets all of the diverse students’ needs. The end result is a learning environment with high expectations for all learners.

For this residency I planned four art activities. In my next posting I will share how I applied Arts & UDL in the first lesson, Outer Space Immigrants, a cartooning activity in which the students would create fictional characters.

For more information about UDL go to: http://cast.org/index.html

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