Project-Based Learning and UDL Strategies at Work

Let us begin by introducing ourselves…Shari Bithell (Go Beyond) and Krystie Bithell (AdaptEd 4 Special Ed). Though we are separated by some 450 miles, our hearts and teaching approaches remain close! Shari teaches 6th grade in Southern California, with students ranging from SDC, RSP, RTI, and GATE, while Krystie is in Northern California, teaching moderate to severe SDC (generally working at 1st-2nd grade level) in the high school setting. We are a mother-daughter team of teachers, excited to share our most current teaching adventure with all of you. (Thank you, Rachel Lynette, for this opportunity!) We are hoping you will join us! Read on, and let us know if you are in!

Universal Design for Learning, or UDL, is an instructional framework that promotes flexibility and individualized support for students. Learn how this mother-daughter duo is presenting a project-based learning activity using UDL strategies to their two classes of students of different ages and abilities!

According to the National Center on Universal Design for Learning,

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a framework that addresses the primary barrier to fostering expert learners within instructional environments: inflexible, ‘one-size-fits-all’ curricula. It is inflexible curricula that raise unintentional barriers to learning.

That is to say, Universal Design for Learning (UDL) helps address the reality of learner variability, rather than focusing on the imaginary “average” student. A great number of our students represent learners in these margins, such as students with disabilities, students with focusing and/or listening problems, and even our gifted and talented students.

Okay, we hear your thoughts… “That sounds like a lot of theory to me – I need practical ideas that I can implement in my classroom now!” Hang in there with us! We just have to let you know that there is sound science behind this approach, which was developed using the works of some of the greats, like Vygotsky and Bloom!

We want you to know that the UDL framework encourages creating flexible designs with customizable options, which allows all learners to progress from where they are (not where we imagine them to be), and that’s precisely what we plan to do!

So, UDL breaks down learning into three “networks:”

  1. Recognition Network – The “what” of learning
    • As teachers we should use a variety of techniques to present the information.
      • Visual means
      • Auditory means
      • Printed text
  2. Strategic Network – The “how” of learning
    • As teachers we should provide multiple means of action and expression.
      • Physical action (play acting)
      • Verbal expression
      • Written expression
      • Slide presentation with images
      • Drawing, building, and creating
  3. Affective Network – The “why” of learning
    • As teachers we should use a variety of techniques to engage and motivate students.
      • Working independently, small Group work, or partner work
      • Spontaneity and novelty vs. strict routine
    • The important thing here is to provide students options to obtain engagement.

With these networks UDL focuses on a simple, intuitive method to engage student learning. Instinctively you are probably already doing a lot of these things! That’s rather validating, isn’t it? The important thing here is to use these strategies to motivate and support all learners to meet high expectations. That’s the key!

UDL provides a blueprint to support flexible, inclusive instruction that can be customized to meet individual needs. We want to adjust the presentation, the means of expression, and the techniques to achieve student engagement, rather than modify the expectations for learning! That’s not to say that all student products will look, sound, or present the same but rather that all students can complete the same assignments with flexible approaches to their individual needs.

With all of this theory to support us, we are ready to dive in and give a UDL-designed PBL project together. Yes, with 450 miles, students of differing ages, and unique learning needs separating our respective classrooms, we are going to have our students redesign the North Pole to meet the specifications of the elves, the reindeer, and the Clause family. Of course, some of these various requirements may clash a bit, so they will need to do some problem solving to meet all of their needs! But that’s part of the fun (and the high expectations), right?

Recognition Network (The “What” of Learning)

Since our classes are so different, we will need to use a variety of presentation strategies to serve the needs of our individual students.

All students will receive a letter from Santa requesting their help to save Christmas for all of the children worldwide! You see, there has been a terrible earthquake at the North Pole (yes, we know there is no actual land there!), and everything has been destroyed. With written requests from the elves, the reindeer, and Santa himself, they must work fast to create a new design of the North Pole to ensure Christmas Eve deliveries for children worldwide. These designs, coupled with Santa’s magic, will make it happen!

Shari’s class will receive their instructions in writing. No additional supports will be required, as the project is highly engaging. Krystie’s class will need many more visual supports to help her students engage with the reading materials and increase their reading comprehension. In addition, many of her students will use some free assistive technologies, such as the Read and Write Google Chrome Extension to read the text aloud, offering them greater access to the reading assignments.

Strategic Network (The “How” of Learning)

Shari’s class will be using Google Docs and maybe even Google Draw to collaborate with another student in a partner teacher’s class. Rather than sitting together to create their initial design, they will be collaborating online, using the comment feature and working concurrently in a document from their respective classrooms. Although the students are familiar with using the Google Apps, they have not worked remotely in this way, so this approach will offer a means to greater engagement.

Krystie’s class will have the ability to choose if they would like to complete this project alone or with a partner. Rather than struggling with creating their own imagery, students will use teacher-provided visuals to create the scene using poster boards. Another layer of support will be provided through the use of peer tutors to make it happen. These typical peer tutors will read aloud, one line at a time, and carry on a one-on-one discussion with the students. What does that mean? What should that look like?

Affective Network (The “Why” of Learning)

Each of our classes will have quite a bit of choice in both the Strategic and Affective Network areas. Once their initial design is approved, the students will decide how to create/build their designs. Shari’s students will no longer work remotely at this point but rather will sit down with their partner to create their designs. Krystie’s students will continue to work with their peer tutors.

They may create a drawing on poster board, build a model, or even use technology to develop their design representation to support their oral presentation to Santa, the elves, and the reindeer. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it? We’d love to have you join us!

We are issuing a challenge to other classrooms to dive in with us and give UDL a try! All participating classrooms will receive emails from another class somewhere else in the country/world sharing their ideas. These emails can include pictures, videos, slideshows, or any other presentation format that you choose. You will share a little about your city/town, your school, and your class. Won’t your students love hearing from another class that has completed the same challenging project as them?

All you have to do to get started is to follow this link to pick up the project: Imagine It, Design It, Create It. Then, send us an email HERE to let us know you are in! We will have you fill out a Google Form to give us more information, and then we will send you an email address for the class with which you will be sharing. Please CC us on those emails, as we don’t want to miss out on any of the fun! Take lots of pictures along the way!

We really hope you will join us! The more the merrier! And, after all, we really do need to save Christmas Eve deliveries for children everywhere!

Shari Bithell (Go Beyond!)
Krystie Bithell (AdaptEd 4 Special Ed)

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