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How Universal Design for Learning Creates Culturally Accessible Classrooms

By Joni Degner — November 15, 2016 6 min read
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I spend much of my time working with teachers to improve learning environments in ways that reach all students. In my current position as a universal design for learning (UDL) facilitator, I support teachers by providing professional development for the UDL framework and culturally responsive teaching. Last week’s results of the presidential election and the reported instances of bullying and intimidation that immediately followed in schools around the country have added urgency to these professional conversations around culturally responsive teaching practices and how to implement them.

When I work with teachers, the question that most often comes up surrounding teaching strategies is “What should this framework look like?” Teachers understand the power of modeling and want to see a successful model of student engagement or a teaching strategy that they can use in their classrooms.

UDL is a proactive framework created by the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) in Wakefield, Mass., that optimizes teaching and learning through three educational principles: providing multiple means of 1) engagement, 2) representation, and 3) action and expression. This instructional approach banishes the notion of designing instruction for the average student and seeks to provide all students with equal learning opportunities—including those with the greatest needs—by presenting learning content in a variety of ways and allowing students multiple options to demonstrate understanding. UDL practitioners try to anticipate barriers in the learning environment and design flexible solutions to remove them.

Many states are writing UDL, which is endorsed in the Every Students Succeeds Act, into statewide initiatives and improvement plans and are seeing subsequent improvements in student success. At Bartholomew Consolidated School Corporation in Columbus, Ind., where I have taught since 2008, UDL is the driving force in the district’s value system. In fact, when Indiana sought to revise teacher evaluations several years ago, my school district went out on its own and created a teacher evaluation system that tied in UDL implementation.

Competency for the Classroom

I first started thinking about culturally responsive teaching eight years ago when I was still a high school English teacher. A conversation with a supervisor conducting my classroom observation made me question how much I really knew. I scored three out of four on a section on cultural perspectives and wanted to know how I could improve. My supervisor and I tried to define culturally responsive teaching, and in retrospect, struggled because we were only talking about ethnicity.

As committed professionals in our field, we knew that talking about culture in such limited terms both oversimplified and complicated the matter. There were so many other pieces that didn’t relate to skin color, country of origin, and flags on the wall. After all, there is no signifier for free and reduced-price lunch, mental illness, parental divorce, addiction, and so many other factors that make up the world our students live in every day. I walked out of the conference knowing I had a lot of work to do.

As I began to grasp how deep and wide culture is, and as I looked to authorities on cultural responsiveness—such as University of Washington-Seattle professor Geneva Gay, author of Culturally Responsive Teaching, and Christopher Emdin, an associate professor of science education at Teachers College, Columbia University, who wrote For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y’all Too—I began making vital connections between culturally responsive teaching and the UDL framework.

I have learned that every part of our lives is affected by our own cultural perspectives. Everything we see and how we choose to see it, every conversation we have and the ones we choose not to, are controlled largely by culture.

Building Understanding

As educators, we can foster better collaboration and community if we get rid of old ideas about what collaboration should look like. In some cultures, it’s considered rude to be the person who speaks up in a group and assigns roles and workloads. Sometimes collaboration is the student who quietly gathers the resources for the group, who handles the project design, or who fact-checks research. We can offer better options for language if we know what students want to talk about and how they want to talk about it. We can help students find greater self-worth if we know what they value. We can help students plan and strategize by engineering opportunities for them to discover their own ideas.

So, how can we as educators use UDL to create culturally competent classrooms?

Find regular opportunities for students to co-design lessons, activities, and grading rubrics. This can be done by posting a question on the board and asking students to give input through a chalk talk, a poll, or by pulling a few students together for a 15-minute conversation. What’s working? What’s not working? What are their classmates talking about? What would they like to learn about? How do they want to learn it? Gather their input and use it. By doing so, we can create learning environments that are not only flexible and accessible, but ones with which our students can culturally identify. We can create learning environments with windows that give our students insight into other cultural perspectives and mirrors where our students see themselves reflected.

Give students room to tell their personal stories. This allows them to make connections with one another. I cannot overstate how critical this is in the wake of a national election that has left our country so deeply divided. Students from marginalized populations are feeling the squeeze of anxiety and uncertainty, while others are feeling emboldened by the divisive language they’ve seen modeled in the media and on the national stage. Teachers are on the frontlines, and we must create learning environments that foster not only a deep connection to education but to one another. We must engineer opportunities for our students to discover that we are more alike than different.

Don’t let teachers be the lone cultural resource in the classroom. Putting that responsibility solely on teachers moves away from culturally responsive teaching. Because culture is so tightly woven into our perspectives, it can be difficult to step out from behind our own cultural screen. Our students are our best cultural resources, and if we want learners who are knowledgeable and resourceful, we must show them that we value their knowledge. Asking students for input gives them the power to tell their own stories instead of allowing our assumptions to do so.

A Culture of Connection

Our students are growing up in a world in which much of the national conversation is dominated by the language of division. They routinely hear about “which lives matter.” They are steeped in the language and media of a two-party political system. As educators, we must create culturally competent learning environments through UDL and other helpful frameworks that allow students to make authentic connections to education and to one another so that they can move toward a future that rejects divisiveness and embraces connectedness. We must create classrooms that grow expert learners and agents of change who don’t answer to either/or, but who stand together and emphatically say, “All!”


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