I grew up in a little town called Seekonk, Massachusetts. My childhood home was built on a dead end, abutting a forest perfect for a game of Capture the Flag. On summer nights, our neighborhood crew divided the woods into two territories and strategized for the ultimate prize, an old tattered towel fastened to a glow stick.
We played the game night after night, perfecting our offense and defense, getting more confident and audacious as we navigated the woods in the dark, eventually climbing trees and jumping mosquito-laden streams to reach our goals. Eventually, I’d see the porch lights flick on and off, and I’d have to head home. The routine began again at dusk the next night. The magic for me was in the collaboration, the struggle to devise the perfect strategy, and the opportunity to keep on playing, despite significant challenges.
My goal is to give teachers and administrators the tools necessary to capture the magic of that childhood game, right in their classrooms. Just imagine that for a second – an environment where every student is so committed to reaching a lesson’s goal that simply nothing will stand in their way. It sounds ridiculous, but it’s not. When we create authentic, relevant, rigorous learning experiences that matter, they will want to learn as badly as my 13 year old self wanted to grasp that glowing flag. The way we can achieve this is through Universal Design for Learning (UDL).
You may have heard of the UDL framework, but until you’ve implemented it in your classroom, you will not see its power. In UDL, you make the goals and standards clear, but then you set students free in collaborative groups to create strategies to reach those goals. In a traditional setting, teachers often provide the strategies as in, “Today we’re going to read a chapter in this textbook and then answer a text-based question using evidence from the reading.” But if you step back for a second and consider the goal of the lesson instead of the tasks, there are actually numerous ways to reach it.
When I taught 7th grade, for example, I would share the goal of the lesson. “Okay, lovelies, today you need to cite textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text. If you’re wondering why, it’s because textual analysis is important to everyday life. It can help with tasks as simple as following recipes to more complicated scenarios like analyzing research to write the School Committee a letter on an issue you genuinely care about and want to change in the school.” In this scenario, I’ve hidden the flag. As a next step, I would provide some strategy tips. “Choose a text that speaks to you and interests you. Find quotes that you can drawn inferences from and analyze. Determine how these quotes and other language fit into the overall theme of your analysis. Here are some exemplars and rubrics that may be helpful.” I would provide a couple of options of texts with corresponding questions, but I also challenged individuals or groups of students to choose a different text and ask a different question.
Together, students would pour over the anthology and search for articles on the computer or their phones. They would decide which questions to ask, and how to answer them, as in, “Can we answer the question in a rap and perform it?” My answer would always be, “As long as you can prove to me that you’ve met the standard.”
By teaching this way, I was transported back into the woods of my youth. I had the opportunity to hide the flag, but I didn’t have to hold their hands to help them find it. I could allow them to be creative problem solvers, to work together to figure out how they can personalize their journey and make it authentic, while still working in the same territory, toward the same goal.
As an educator, whether you’re a teacher or an administrator, you owe it to yourself and your learners to capture their interest so they become motivated, purposeful, creative problem solvers. Then, when the bell rings at the end of the class, they will begrudgingly end their game, but they’ll be ready to keep on playing.
For more information about Universal Design for Learning and why it’s necessary for all students, choose any of the following resources to explore in more detail.
- Read Chapter 1 in UDL Theory and Practice, Re-Envisioning Education through UDL (it’s free!). The book is a universally designed textbook, so you can read, have it read to you, or watch videos that explore concepts more deeply.
- View the TED Talk, Do Schools Kill Creativity? by Sir. Ken Robinson and consider how UDL connects to his talk. Consider specifically how he argues that schools don’t value mistakes, and as a result, they don’t value creativity.
- If you’re looking for a video webinar, I just introduced the concept of UDL for Understood.org – it was recorded for the general population of parents so it’s an accessible explanation of UDL and how it differs from Differentiated Instruction.
View how the Common Core standards are aligned to the UDL framework and how they differentiate between knowledge and skills and also cite UDL as best practice to reach them by providing students with options to learn.
And if you are interested in more ways to capture your classroom with UDL, I’ve offered lots of techniques and insight in my book, UDL Now!