"Get out a sheet of paper and put your heading in the upper right hand corner.” This direction was given to my 5th grade class multiple times throughout a school day by my teacher, Mr. Mull. What happened next was a “choose your own adventure.” Could it be a pop quiz? A spelling test? Were we going to be given a topic to write about? Would that topic be The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton? If so, I had my tattered, dog-eared copy available at all times for reference. I usually sat with my fingers and toes crossed hoping that Mr. Mull did not drift toward the record player in the back of the room where “Mr. Numbers,” the recorded multiplication test, lived. I get sweaty and nervous even today just thinking about it.
This process was pretty “cut and dried” in the 80’s. Students pulled a crisp sheet of college-lined, three-holed paper out of their desks and followed directions. No one ever said, “Is there an alternate way I can do this? We BOTH know you can’t read my writing.” No one ever said, “Do you mind if I dictate this? I am a great thinker, but when I start to worry about the mechanics of getting my thoughts down on paper, it never turns out the way it did in my head.” No one ever said, “My hand gets really tired when I write, and it is a really painful task for me. Do you have a way I can type one letter and a word is generated for me to select?” Everyone took out a piece of paper and tried to fulfill the request.
My note paper was always a disaster. I was fortunate enough to be able to hand write assignments, but organization was not my forte. My desk looked like it had been ransacked by gerbils obsessed with building a “dream home” out of shredded tissue. Somehow, my loose leaf paper always seemed to turn gray in my desk, and I often found sheets of paper by closing my eyes and hoping that a fairy godmother had somehow waved a wand over my desk, rendering it organized. Still, I managed to smooth out creased pages, wipe away remnants of melted Hershey Kisses and write my name on the upper right-hand corner with my classmates. I remember my jealous amazement when I looked over at Kimberly B., the queen of unwrinkled paper, adorable handwriting and what-are-we-going-to-learn-next smiles.
Others in the class were lost. Really lost. Mr. Mull was the kind of energetic, dedicated teacher who would have accommodated for any learning difference if he had had the tools or the knowledge in the 80s. He was exactly the kind of person and fantastic teacher who would have embraced the principles of Universal Design for Learning in his classroom and made sure everyone was learning the way that made the most sense.
Today is an exciting era when teachers are starting to arm themselves with this knowledge. So many resources are available for teaching the principals of the UDL framework. Strategies to make sure each student has a personal way of expressing and receiving information are not even expensive. Those who take time for proactive planning can make a huge difference in the learning experiences of children.
As a former classroom teacher, I know how I felt about anything that was presented as “one more thing” added to my heaping plate of tasks to do at night. Now, as a person who trains teachers, I want to say, “But thinking about learning strategies up front makes everything that follows easier and more attainable.” It is definitely a shift in mindset.
Flip back to my 5th grade class (PLEASE, for my sake, erase Mr. Numbers from the picture all together). Think about what the picture would look like with multiple means of expression and allowances for organization.
Mr. Mull says, “All right class, get ready to express your viewpoints on The Outsiders.” Students automatically move to their preferred mean of expression. Kimberly B. pulls a fresh, crisp piece of paper from her neatly organized desk and looks at Mr. Mull expectantly. Gretchen W. takes out a small Chromebook with word prediction software already loaded so she can type one letter and have a list of words generate in a helper box. Heidi P. glances at a word wall in the classroom for extra reminders and help. Ann H. moves to her seat, equipped with a ball instead of a chair because she knows she writes better when she can also regulate her movement. Billy C. picks up a thicker pencil that really helps his grasp and allows him to write legibly. Buddy H. pulls out a blank comic strip and begins to draw, since he has found illustration a better way of getting his ideas across. I pull out my laptop and search through my organized folders for a fresh document — sans the Hershey Kiss stains and gray hue.
On this day of being thankful, I turn my thoughts to the promise of a brighter future for students who in the past have been left in the dust. I give thanks to the teachers across the state who are taking every student into consideration — no matter how much work it is — and I am forever indebted to excellent teachers, like Mr. Mull, who shaped my life and learning. Happy Thanksgiving!