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An Educator’s Aha Moment: The Importance of Choice and Voice

June 12, 2018 / by Katie Novak

When I was a little girl, I loved to line up my dolls and play school. I stood in front of my class and read books, wrote on my chalkboard, and gave tests. The dolls didn't have to interact -- why would they? The game was all about me!

If I’m honest, when I first became a teacher my classroom wasn't so different from my childhood playroom. I was often at the front of the room, presenting information and giving tests. In my classes, I made an effort to engage my students and designed creative projects, but I assigned the same project to everyone.

Sometimes we designed posters, sometimes we wrote poetry, and sometimes we worked in groups -- but it was always determined by my plan book and not student choice. It’s important to note that in those first years of teaching, I loved my classes and was proud of my craft. I taught a lot of students about English and connected with them personally, but I didn't teach them all how to learn.

I didn't realize that, however, until I learned about Universal Design for Learning (UDL). UDL changed my lens and allowed me to transform my teaching practice to foster student choice and voice. Since UDL is now endorsed as best practice in federal legislation, it’s time that every teacher has the “aha” moment that I had when I learned about UDL.

UDL is a framework that aims to teach all students how to learn.

This statement may not seem transformational, but it is. The purpose of schooling for a long while was the mastery of knowledge. In my English class I was focused on students learning narrative structure, not how to set goals. I wanted them to analyze Shakespeare. I didn't focus on self-regulation strategies. Teachers, like me, were content experts who designed lessons to transfer this knowledge to students. In looking back, some of my students were probably no more excited to learn than the glass eyes and porcelain faces looking back at me in my playroom.

Overhead view of students working together at a table with books, notebooks, and an iPad.

Even with the best intentions and a great passion for learning, many teacher lesson plans result in every student in a class doing the same thing. The problem is that not all students are the same. They are as unique as their fingerprints.

Fostering Personalized Learning with UDL

By using the UDL framework to design and deliver your lessons, you can foster personalized learning and guide students to become expert learners. The following steps will help you to reflect on how choice and voice are the cornerstones of UDL lesson design.

  • Start with the why. Specifically, why are you teaching this lesson? Identify that standard.
  • Determine all the possible ways that students can show mastery of the standard. What choices can you provide for assessments so students can express this mastery in accessible and engaging ways?
  • What do students need to know in order to achieve the standard and be successful on their chosen assessment? Are there multiple ways for them to learn content or skills? What choices can you provide them for what and how they learn?
  • As students are working to learn and apply the content, what choices will they have to monitor their progress, seek support and feedback, and challenge themselves so they can build authentic engagement?
  • Once the lesson is complete, how will you provide options to collect mastery-oriented feedback from students to foster reflection, honor student voice, and improve future lesson planning?

When educators ask these questions, it helps to transition from a “one-size-fits-all” model of education to a personalized education that empowers every student to meet rigorous standards.

Topics: Professional Learning, Project Based Learning

Katie Novak

Written by Katie Novak

Katie Novak, Ed.D., works for Chelmsford Public Schools in Massachusetts as the K–12 reading coordinator, Title I director, and ELL director. With more than a decade of teaching experience (including postsecondary), Novak continues to teach and also designs and presents workshops nationally and internationally focusing on teacher implementation of UDL. If you have questions about how to implement UDL contact Katie at katienovakudl.com.

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