Universal Design for Learning

At the beginning of this school year, my students spent some time thinking about and discussing the challenges they face and the strengths they possess when learning new material, skills, and concepts.

As you might imagine, the challenges and strengths were wide-ranging and as unique as my students. Many of my ELL (English Language Learner) students struggled with language barriers. Some students had engaged in “online writing camps” over the summer and were way above grade level in that area. Other students lacked the background knowledge needed to tackle the science articles and historical documents I had planned to use.

As I looked for resources to help me plan and help my students learn, I came across Universal Design for Learning (UDL). In a nutshell, UDL is a framework for designing curriculum and instruction. The UDL guidelines provide step-by-step “checkpoints” that, if followed, go a long way in helping the teacher create a learning-focused, student-centered classroom environment that enables all students to learn. This year, for example, I have been able to improve the feedback I give my students by offering “mastery-oriented feedback” that encourages perseverance and emphasizes improvement.

udlIf you are interested in learning more about UDL, visit the National Center on Universal Design for Learning website. I also recommend the book Universal Design for Learning in the Classroom: Practical Applications edited by Tracey E. Hall, Anne Meyer, and David H. Rose. While it is a title in The Guilford Press’s What Works for Special-Needs Learners, the book is helpful for general education teachers as well.


K.J. Wagner, Education Oasis

Professional Learning Communities

The teachers here at Education Oasis have recently been discussing professional learning (formerly known as professional development). We’ve noted that during the past decade there has been a lot of talk about professional learning communities (PLCs). Indeed, PLCs are often the primary component of school districts’ staff development plans.

School-based learning teams have the potential to increase student learning and achievement as well as empower teachers. They also have the potential to be a huge waste of time and devolve into gripe sessions. In our conversations with one another and with teachers across the United States, we noted three factors common to PLCs that worked.

PLCs work best when they are formed and grow organically based on the needs of those in the learning community. As one teacher noted, “It’s difficult to plan with a colleague who is there because he is forced to be and has no intention of contributing to the process.” (We were surprised how often this sentiment was expressed.) “Top down” mandates rarely work unless there is “bottom-up” buy-in.

PLCs work when the group has clearly defined goals. It’s not enough to be told by a principal, “You need to meet as a team and talk about the benchmark test data.” The most successful learning teams have an agenda with a specific goal in mind that has been agreed upon by the members ahead of time. For example: “We will meet to create an authentic, common formative assessment for Common Core State Standard ______.” Or, “We will meet to examine student work on _____ and discuss teaching strategies to help students who have not mastered _____.”

PLCs promote teacher growth and thus student growth when they focus on the “learning” aspect. One comment from teachers that we heard over and over was, “I don’t feel as if our group engaged in any deep learning.” Some questions we ask ourselves in our own PLCs are: Does our group engage in shared inquiry? Are we willing to take risks and try new approaches, new ideas? If not, why not? Successful communities spend time thinking not only about their students’ learning but their learning as well

There is a plethora of books, articles, and online resources about PLCs. Here are two online sources we recommend:

For a brief primer about PLCs, visit edglossary.org

For a list of articles about PLCs visit Solution Tree’s All Things PLC site.

Classroom Discussions

My students and I recently read a personal essay by a teen whose father is in prison. The author, Justin Burl, wrote movingly about how the incarceration of a parent affects loved ones. He also discussed how his life changed for the better when he found a support system—an organization that works with incarcerated persons and their families.

I knew the essay had the potential to spark deep and meaningful classroom discussion. I also knew that in order to propel the discussion in that direction, I would have to ask questions that went way beyond the text. The typical, comprehension-type questions just wouldn’t cut it.

When reflecting on the lesson, a tiny built of guilt nudged its way into my thoughts. Had I squandered time I could have spent getting students ready for the high-stakes, end-of-grade test they would take in June? I had definitely strayed beyond the “four corners of the text.” I had not focused on “text-dependent questions.” We did not talk about “text structure” or “objective summaries” or “word choice.”

We did, however, engage in a wide-ranging discussion about facing your fears and finding your voice and loss and love and empathy. My students did gain a real understanding of the problems families face who have loved ones in prison. There was a meaningful exchange of ideas and a lot of critical thinking taking place.

This experience was a terrific reminder for me that sometimes we need to go beyond the text. Sometimes we need to allow students to explore issues in depth by simply discussing them.

K.J. Wagner  Education Oasis

Keeping Students on Track During Group Work

For me, one of the pitfalls of group work is that some students stray off task and end up talking about Saturday’s football game or the latest rumor they heard. This year I stumbled upon a way to redirect them that worked well.

As I am circulating and notice that student discussion has veered off track, I hold up my hand, ask for silence, and say, “Goal Check! Right now, each of you think about what you plan to do, say, think, and/or write in the next 15 minutes.”

This is their signal to refocus on the task at hand, determine what they—individually and as a group—need to do in the next 15 (or 20, or 30) minutes, and create a short-term goal. The length of time they have to complete the goal is, of course, dependent upon the assigned task and the time remaining for group work.

In order to make sure each student has a goal in mind, I randomly and quickly call on a few students and ask them what they plan to accomplish in the next 15 minutes. I require their answers to be extremely specific. Typical replies include: “We need to finish finding the central idea of the article.” Or, “I need to figure out how the metaphor in paragraph two affects the reader, and Aaron is going to complete the list of similes.” Or, “We need to finish our discussion of the main character’s motivation.”

I’ve used the technique for a few months. Now that my students are used to the routine, they are able to quickly determine what needs to be done and verbalize their goals. In fact, I’ve seen quite a few students use the technique without prompting. I knew for sure it was a successful strategy, however, last week when one of my, shall we say more “challenging” students, raised his hand and said loudly, “We need to do a goal check!”

K.J. Wagner  Education Oasis

What’s the Big Idea? Active Learning

While perusing my favorite professional books yesterday, and I came across a well-worn, dog-eared copy of James Burke’s What’s the Big Idea? Pink, purple, and green sticky notes stuck out everywhere. On page seven, I found this gem:

“All genuine learning is active, not passive. It involves the use of the mind, not just memory. It is a process of discovery in which the student is the main agent, not the teacher.”

With this in mind, I wrote three questions at the top of my monthly planner:

  1. Is the student actively learning?
    2. Does this lesson involve the mind (not just the memory)?
    3.  Is the student making discoveries  about the topic or concept?


My goal for the remainder of the month is to look at each lesson through the lens of these questions and try to answer each in the affirmative. I’ll let you know the results next month. Why not give it a try? Let me know how it works for you.

K.J. Wagner  Education Oasis