Our goal was to overhaul the traditional approach to teaching middle school math in an attempt to excite students about the subject and engage them in new ways of thinking about mathematical ideas.
It had been Bia’s idea for us to team up in the classroom. We’d worked together before and had dreamed of a chance like this. When Bia asked the principal if the two of us could revise the math curriculum and redesign our teaching practices, the principal said yes.
Whoa. This was a wonderful moment. Also a little terrifying. It was one thing to believe in the work to be done. It was another thing altogether to actually sit down and do the work.
I’ve recently been thinking about that work with Bia. In small but significant ways, I liken the process of our mathematics instructional overhaul to the process of implementing Universal Design for Learning (UDL). Although our focus was specific to the learning of mathematics, the work we did required an architectural redesign and a big mind shift.
I wasn’t aware of UDL at that time. Resources such as the UDL guidelines (CAST) would’ve been invaluable.
First of all, just getting started was a big obstacle for me. We relied on guiding principles and research about mathematics education, but began this work primarily with a collection of standards, topics, lesson ideas, and a head full of very strong convictions. The process of sorting out big ideas, key concepts and content standards was painstaking; organizing those things into some kind of cohesive teaching flow felt like an impossible feat.
Secondly, the primary goal of our work was to engage students in mathematics. Thinking about access, what it would mean for all students, how to ensure it, and how to make it the rule rather than the exception was at the crux of all of our conversations. We relied heavily on visual representations of ideas, and problems that were embedded in story. However, it would have been amazing to utilize additional strategies, technologies and materials that help lessen or eliminate barriers to educational content.
To note some specifics about UDL (UDL at a Glance):
- It’s an approach to curriculum, not a prescribed formula to be followed.
- It’s about honoring all students and their unique ways of learning and based on brain research.
- A primary goal is to minimize barriers and maximize learning for all students.
- It necessitates the curriculum be designed for access from the very beginning.
- The design process must go beyond access to ensure appropriate support and challenge.
The middle school students (gr 6-8) with whom Bia and I worked were not grouped by age, grade or ability, and inclusion students were a part of each class make up. We wanted to ensure every student would have an entry point to every mathematical task, and that every student would have the means to share his/her thinking about any given task.
Our approach included making subtle changes to the classroom routine and physical environment to give students more choice and responsibility. These changes also enhanced opportunities for small group discussion, hands-on exploration and individual pacing. We implemented contextually rich mathematical investigations that were relevant to the student population we served.
While this was a continually daunting endeavor for us, one thing I can say for sure is that small, purposeful steps make surprisingly huge shifts in the desired direction. Surely the same is true with respect to UDL. The shift will be gradual, but it can happen nonetheless.
A podcast I listen to, “Akimbo” (Seth Godin), is described this way:
"Akimbo is an ancient word, from the bend in the river or the bend in an archer's bow. It's become a symbol for strength, a posture of possibility, the idea that when we stand tall, arms bent, looking right at it, we can make a difference.
Akimbo's a podcast about our culture and about how we can change it. About seeing what's happening and choosing to do something.
The culture is real, but it can be changed. You can bend it."
I love that phrase “posture of possibility.” I love the vision of standing in a "posture of possibility" and choosing to make a difference. Akimbo!
(If you’re reading this, you’re likely already aware of PATINS’ no-cost services, including our UDL support and resources. Let us know how we can help!)