Universal Design for Learning and What Teachers Need

Two friends stitched on a quilt on a quilt display at the Oregon Trail Museum in Montpelier, Idaho.

I had lunch with a dear friend this week. We’ve known each other since junior high and have shared experiences ranging from editing our student high-school literary magazine, to attempting to sleep under the stars at church youth camp in what turned out to be a night of downpour and lightning, to helping our own children navigate school in spite of barriers and special circumstances.

Our careers have taken roundabout pathways, and we have both found our passion in teaching—especially in research-based, effective pedagogy.

Over lunch we started talking about Universal Design for Learning. I love this topic and wasn’t surprised to find that my friend had made it the topic of her master’s thesis!

What is Universal Design for Learning?

It’s easiest to understand if you think first about Universal Design for architecture. Remember the days before wheelchair ramps were readily available? Doors were not automatic. It was difficult for anyone with physical limitations to get where they needed to be.

The Americans with Disabilities Act changed things for the better. Older buildings had to be retrofitted with wheelchair access, automatic doors, etc. But sometimes that meant adding a wheelchair ramp on the back side of the building! Not very inviting to someone in a wheelchair.

Newer buildings are built with Universal Design—an idea that includes everyone and gives everyone equal access to a building and its amenities. Architects and interior designers plan from the start so that anyone, no matter their age or physical limitations, can equitably use a building. Ramps, where needed, are incorporated into main, front walkways. Doors are automatic. Sinks and paper towels are also automatic.

Once put in place, these accommodations have added benefits beyond social justice and inclusion. For example, automated doors and sinks limit the spread of germs.

Universal Design for Learning is also inclusive. As the architect of my lesson plans, I can predict in advance what types of needs I will be trying to meet in my classroom. I know before I ever see my rolls that in a class of 35 students, I am likely to have about 4 students with an IEP, about 5 students with a 504 plan, 1-2 English language learners (that number would be higher in other schools where I have worked), and 1-2 students with food allergies (which is important, because I teach foods units). I will have kinesthetic learners, learners who don’t want to work with peers, and learners who need creative challenges, among others.

Because I can predict the types of students I will have in my classroom, I can plan beforehand to meet all their needs. I can offer accommodations to all students that help them feel safe, respected, and honored in my classroom. Students who don’t need or want accommodations don’t have to use them, but for those who need them, they never have to ask. These accommodations affect both the classroom environment and my lesson planning.

Flexible seating is one small step in classroom environment for Universal Design. Personalized Learning with lots of choice is important in lesson planning. Activities with a variety of ways both to access information and to demonstrate learning include all students.

Thinking in terms of Universal Design sounds at first like it makes my job more complicated, but in the long run, it saves me a lot of time and stress. My students are happier because they feel understood. They are more likely to be on task and engaged and less likely to exhibit behavioral problems.    

I loved having lunch with my friend this week, not only because it’s great to catch up, but also because of the way we can provide positive support for each other as teachers. This is a valuable friendship to me.

I’ve noticed something over the last year when I’m on social media. Almost every time I’m scrolling through a feed, I see articles with titles like, “Teachers are Leaving Schools in Large Numbers,” and “Teacher Shortage Crisis Deepens.” Some of the titles hint at toxic positivity in schools or point to the things that are exhausting teachers.

And guess what?! I don’t need someone to point out the flaws in education. I think most teachers can figure out on their own what is sending them home each night exhausted. We know why we went into teaching. We know why we love it. We know when it’s hard. And it is hard.

Seeing article after article about why teachers are leaving can have a detrimental effect on teachers and the teaching profession. It sends this message to teachers: “Oh, people are getting out? Maybe I should look at getting out too.” That’s not a productive message to send.

There are a few things that keep me going as a teacher. One is having the opportunity to collaborate with other strong teachers. When we get together and share solutions, I feel like I can go back to my classroom better equipped to do what I need to do.

Another thing that keeps me going is the kids. I can see when I’m doing good for them, and it makes me happy. A few times every year, I get thank-you notes with sincere and specific messages. Sometimes they come from students and sometimes they come from parents. I keep those notes and refer to them when I need a boost.

I’m fortunate to have supportive administrators and good friends in education. I believe in what I do.

No doubt legislators could do more to support teachers and keep them in the classroom. Increase pay and benefits. Decrease class size and workloads. Avoid legislation that overburdens teachers.

The fact is that if nothing happens, there will not be effective and well-trained teachers in our children’s futures.

Meanwhile, I have a request for those of you writing articles about education.

Give me more positive education articles and stories to read about.  

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Teacher Dreams, Collaboration, and Personalized, Project-Based Learning

I remember sitting in a class for pre-service teachers when the head of student teaching asked us this question: “What do teachers dream?” Each of us in the class threw out our best, most sparkly teacher dreams: “I want to touch young lives.” “I want to have a big impact, especially on marginalized populations.” “I want to share content I’m passionate about.” Our list was optimistic and focused on shaping the future. The professor listened patiently, nodded, smiled, and then said, “What I meant to ask was, what do teachers dream about?”

Ask any teacher, and you’ll find that teacher dreams are outlandish, uncomfortable, and even frightening! Mr. Coray finds himself teaching in an L-shaped room where he can only see the front half of the class but not the students in the part of the classroom that faces the corner. Teachers dream of obstacles that prevent them from attending class or keep them from being on time. They dream of unannounced observations when things are crazy in the classroom. They dream of teaching in their underwear. They dream of being expected to present stellar lessons in spite of the impossible. Leave out the underwear nightmare, and many teacher dreams have truth on some level, which may be why they are so memorable and so haunting. Mr. Coray does not have an L-shaped room, but many CTE teachers have situations where some students are working in a lab while others are working in a classroom. Covid, quarantines, and other health-related issues may have prevented us from being with our students when we wanted to be there. Sometimes we feel like we have to make the difficult choice between meeting our own health needs and being present in class every day for our students. Observations rarely occur during our best teaching moments. As the list of demands on our time grows, we do find ourselves doing the impossible. No wonder our minds play out our fears in our sleep!

Yet sometimes I think our minds are simply working on solutions. I had been waking up from teacher nightmares for a few days straight as I planned some new lessons I’ll implement in the fall. As part of a team effort with the other CCA teachers in my school to strengthen our CCA curriculum, I decided to take on a couple of areas I haven’t taught before. I want those areas to be just as hands-on, dynamic, and personalized as the rest of my curriculum, and I wasn’t sure what direction to take things.

One early morning my teacher dreams were especially intense. I was teaching 3rd grade, which just happens to be one grade I have not taught in real life. We were supposed to be leaving on a field trip. I was wondering if we were really going to be able to make it on the train all the way across the Canadian border and back as planned before the end of the school day, and I suddenly realized that I hadn’t packed myself a sack lunch as I should have. That meant going from room to room in the school asking if anyone had any bread or peanut butter I could borrow. All the while, a third-grade teacher from my former school, and one I greatly respect, was following me around and asking me questions that all started with, “Don’t you think you should. . . .” I knew that I had left my own third-grade class unattended, and I felt apprehensive about that. And I kept running into my principal from the junior high where I currently teach. He is one of the most supportive administrators I have ever had, and in my dream, I didn’t feel he was judging me, but I was conscious that he would be disappointed if he knew I had left my class alone.

Crazy as that dream was, when I awoke, I knew exactly how to personalize the unit I was working on and turn it into a project, mostly by pulling in ideas from projects I have already done with students in the past. Having a source to draw from gave me a starting place. I put together that unit, and I haven’t been bothered by teacher dreams for a couple of weeks.

No matter where you are on the path to personalized learning or project-based learning, there has to be a starting place somewhere, and maybe even more than one starting place. There’s no shame in being at a starting point, and it’s ok to go through that door slowly. I hope that when you come to a door that opens to opportunity, you don’t pass it by in favor of a more familiar path.

Last week I promised to give more ideas in answer to the question, “What would you say to teachers who feel that personalized learning is ‘just one more thing’?”

First, I think it’s important to validate teachers’ feelings of exhaustion. In the last two years, we have been asked to do more than ever—to be more creative, more resilient, more high-tech, more compassionate—really to do more of the impossible.

Second, I think it’s ok to recognize that some teachers are not ready. Let them come to the door on their own timeframe.

However, many teachers are ready to take on personalized, competency-based learning, project-based learning, or a combination of PCBL and PBL. How can we make these possibilities feasible without burning out talented teachers who are already doing their best?

This is an exciting problem to dream about. Here are just a few ideas:

At the district level we need people who are connected to effective PCBL and PBL that is happening in classrooms within the district. Some of the best professional development I have ever attended has been taking the opportunity to visit other classrooms with district leaders who knew where to see what I was hoping to implement and to observe. I may not adopt every practice or project I see, but I can take back what works for me and adapt it for my classroom. This means having the opportunity for paid substitutes and time away from the classroom for teacher observations.

When small groups of teachers move successfully and excitedly toward PCBL in a school, other teachers will follow. Administrators can look for those small groups who will take initial steps forward and can provide resources and support at the school level. This could include the offer of time to observe in classrooms where PCBL is the norm. It could also include other paid time for professional development. Or it could include access to books or workshops geared toward PCBL and/or PBL. Most of all, it could include paid time and the opportunity to collaborate.

Collaboration could be the biggest key to unlocking our PCBL future. In CTE, we teach 21st-century workplace skills—communication, collaboration, teamwork, etc. Yet teachers often work in isolation, each creating their own lessons or versions of lessons. This independent creation and re-creation of the wheel is part of what exhausts us. To be fair, even when we’re handed lessons out of a box, it takes hours and hours to become familiar enough with what we’ve been given to be able to present it to others in meaningful ways. But what if we didn’t have to re-create what has already been done? What if we had sources to pull from—sources that gave us strong starting places or even a head start? What if we could all rely on team members to help make our jobs easier rather than harder?

Building effective collaborative teams can be a challenge. I’ve seen this happen in our district, where we’re given time to collaborate and a content team to collaborate with, and every meeting is the same conversation as the last meeting, none of which has to do with PCBL. Yet I’ve worked with non-assigned, informal teams that have energized me and given me rocket-booster ideas for my projects. This year I ate lunch with English teachers, art teachers, and a special ed teacher. We all looked at issues from different angles, but because we shared students, we were able to help each other find useful solutions when needed.

After presenting about a foods project I do with my classes, the Spanish immersion teacher approached me to ask if I would be willing to extend the project so that shared students could learn relevant Spanish vocabulary within the framework of my project. How powerful is that? What if we could step out of our isolated boxes and figure out how to help each other succeed at the common goal of PCBL?

I love to create projects. Wrapping my brain around a project energizes me from first combing through the standards to figuring out assessments and grading to building activities in between. I know not everyone feels the way I do, but I am happy to brainstorm with anyone who wants to brainstorm. I would love to build, expand, and extend my own projects with cross-curricular activities happening in multiple classrooms. What if my efforts at teaching sustainability and helping students create “sustainability projects” were echoed in science classes? What if students wrote about their research and project results in their English classes? What if they had to perform grade-level math calculations to solve problems connected with their projects?

Organized, intentional collaboration could supercharge our PCBL efforts.        

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Building Blocks for Effective, Personalized, Project-Based Learning

Sandwiches might be the most versatile food on the planet—easy to personalize. Start with the bread, for example. Do you want white bread, wheat bread, sourdough, focaccia, flatbread, pita bread, rye bread, or even a nice wrap? Maybe you’ve decided on the no-bread version. There are endless combinations of breads, veggies, meats, cheeses, and condiments. Each sandwich can be exactly tailored to the person eating it.

Projects are like sandwiches—easily customized. What are some other benefits of project-based learning? Besides personalization, projects allow for inclusion. I’ve seen students who normally struggle in school but who can thrive when a project is part of the equation. Projects increase engagement and foster collaboration and teamwork, creativity, critical thinking, and other essential 21st-century workplace skills, all while building student self-efficacy.

I’ve heard of several stumbling blocks or misconceptions connected with projects, and I’d like to address a few. First is that everyone completes the same type of project or creates the same type of product. If everyone ends up with the same or similar results at the end, that’s a recipe, not a project. Second—projects must be done individually. While projects can be done individually, they offer excellent opportunities for teamwork and collaboration. Teachers can grade individually as teams of students complete their work. Some worry that projects are difficult to grade, especially when each completed project or product may be different. Projects are not so hard to grade when there is a strong and clear rubric in place. Let students know exactly what elements you are looking for. You will be able to see those elements in a successful project no matter what form the final product takes. That might mean a mindset shift if you are used to grading with points—2 points for a solid introduction and thesis, 2 points for correct spelling and grammar, 2 points for turning in everything on time, etc. Most likely, the points aren’t really telling you what you want to know. Does the project meet the standards? Set basic criteria and let the students choose how to meet those criteria. Finally, I hear teachers say, “I teach a unit, and then we do a project at the end.” I find that my projects are far more successful and engaging when they are tightly woven into the unit. Projects may occur at the end (although they don’t have to), but the final product can’t really be separated from the whole, and all along, I’m letting students know how their product is connected to what we are doing and what we are learning.

What are the building blocks of effective, personalized, project-based learning? First, start with objectives connected to standards, and think about this carefully. You can get the most bang for your buck if you can incorporate multiple standards and objectives into one project. That should become clear as we look at the other building blocks, and it might be helpful to go back to our sandwich analogy. Think of your standards and objectives as the bun or the bread, and don’t go keto on this one! Knowing what standards you’re including is essential for you and for your students.

The other building blocks have no prescribed order. You can include them as you feel best and in the order that makes the most sense to you. I find it helpful to come up with a driving question or a big problem. Compare your problem to the onions on the sandwich. Does slicing those onions make you cry? That’s a sensation you notice. Be aware when something bothers you in your community or society at large. Usually, the ideas for the problems come to me while I’m away from school, maybe watching news, but more often just talking to friends or family, taking a walk, reading a book, or visiting a museum or local business. Students get more engaged in a project when it is connected to a real-world problem.    

Next, you’ll want to include skill-building activities into the project or unit. This is where you bring in your standards and objectives. Compare skill-building activities to the lettuce. You can have as many lettuce leaves on your sandwich as you want. What skills do students need to have to be able to meet State or district standards and complete their project? Those skills can be incorporated at different times and on different days over the course of an 8-12-day project.

Offer students an opportunity for a “dry run.” I think of this one as the cheese on the sandwich. You could probably get by without it, but just as cheese adds unique flavor, a dry run is helpful in showing you whether the students have the skills they need to complete their project. For example, if their project is related to using the foods lab, it’s helpful to have them do a simple foods lab before completing their larger project so that I know that they know how to find their equipment, follow procedures, etc. If their project is more academic, or traditionally academic, an activity like a storyboard makes an excellent dry run. Be specific about using the same elements in the storyboard that they will use in their final project. Tell them exactly what you are looking for. You could even use a similar rubric to the project. Have them draw pictures and write text on a storyboard matching the content they will include in their project. You can see very quickly whether they have the elements you are looking for, and you can give feedback that will allow them to adjust for their final project before they spend too much time on it.

Projects are the meat of the sandwich, the heart of the unit. For full-strength project-based learning, every student or team will choose their own way to show proficiency with the standards and objectives. You might offer suggestions such as creating a video/commercial, marketing campaign, podcast, song, Power Point, children’s picture book or board game, Minecraft world, or formal letters to business leaders or legislators, etc. Then let students choose their product. Set parameters so that the product will meet the standards and be accessible to you. For example, I tell my students that if they build a Minecraft world, they must also walk me through their Minecraft world and show me all their signposts along the way. I don’t live in that world and won’t find the information on my own. Often when I offer suggestions, students will come to me with their own idea. If their idea meets the parameters, I know it will work, and that’s when things get exciting, because I know the students are taking ownership of their learning.

Presentation to an authentic audience: This is your tomatoes, and there are no rotten tomatoes here! Sometimes presenting to peers is enough. Sometimes you can bring in other classes, school leaders, or community members who could make decisions based on the project. Students are more engaged when they know that an authentic audience will view their work. They should also know that it’s ok if the project doesn’t turn out exactly as planned. I think it’s helpful to talk to students about engineering design, so that they recognize that having to readjust, revise, and sometimes start over is a part of the process.

Student self-reflection builds growth. If you’ve ever had a sandwich without any condiments, you know how bland that can be. You’ll eat the sandwich, but you don’t enjoy it. Giving students a chance to self-reflect adds flavor and improves the texture. Students benefit from meaningful opportunities to reflect on their growth and discuss what they would improve in the future.

How do I use these building blocks in a real classroom setting? I’ll give two examples from my CTE classes and then I want to share an example from Mr. Coray’s classroom (yes, my husband is also a teacher). CTE classes are made for project-based learning, but projects may seem less intuitive in traditionally academic settings, which is why I will include the third example.

“The Big Event” is a 7-day unit or project I do with my college and career awareness classes in 7th grade. If you teach CCA, you can find this unit on the Canvas commons, because I shared it as part of our FCS State Conference a few years back. Day 1 of the project is called “medical mysteries.” I give each of 8 teams a list of symptoms for a fictional family member. Teams research the symptoms (one of our standards is using relevant and credible sources) to try to find a diagnosis. We talk about using relevant and credible websites for research, and the students start searching. I give them feedback, letting them know if they are off track, and they can ask me questions to get back on track. By the end of the class period, teams have found 8 different diagnoses and learned about the various medical professionals who would diagnose and treat those diagnoses. As they compare what they have learned, they are able to identify what each of these 8 diagnoses have in common—they are all connected to diet.

That sets us up for the next class period when students learn about the role of a dietician, MyPlate standards, and research what their fictional family member could eat and what that family member should avoid. Over the next several days, students learn about food safety, foods lab procedures and expectations, and they make a healthy snack (the “dry run” for this project). Then I give them the “problem,” which is that 4 of our fictional family members will be attending a big family event. Each team needs to plan a menu that would accommodate for each of those 4 family members’ dietary needs. The menus must fit within budget constraints, and the time constraints for 1 class period. Teams present their menus to the class. The class votes on a menu for our “Big Event.” The winning team(s) send me their recipes. I go shopping, and the students get to make the menu they voted on. I never know for sure what they are going to come up with, and it’s exciting to see how many different ways my classes have been able to solve this problem. Often, students who are slow to complete traditional work are able to shine and even take leadership for their teams with this type of collaborative project.

“The Sustainability Project” is another CCA project or unit. Students learn about fast fashion and about how the way we create and consume fashion is not sustainable. They learn a little about textile science and why we don’t/can’t simply recycle used clothing. They learn about textile waste and how the ultimate end for any piece of textile is the landfill. Students participate in skill-building activities to learn to properly use the sewing equipment and follow safety standards. Then they bring in used clothing that would otherwise go to thrift stores and ultimately find its way to the landfill. Students take their used clothing items apart and turn those items into something else. I don’t give them any patterns. They figure it out. Many of my students make basic square pillows, but some of my students blow me away with the complexity of their designs. I often find this true for students who are typically not engaged in the classroom, but they wake up when they are allowed the creativity of a project.  

One example of a great 7th-grade design that required some challenging engineering.

Mr. Coray took on a challenging project this year. After many years of having taught other classes, he went back to teaching junior English, and he wanted to include Huck Finn, in spite of political conditions that struck fear into many teachers when it came to teaching this particular novel. Rather than narrowing the focus of the novel to one specific issue, Mr. Coray’s class looked at Twain’s theme of social conditioning vs. natural morality. In other words, what does society expect, vs. what do you believe? The project included a variety of skill-building activities, all required for junior English students, but when it came time to choose a project, they had already shown their skill with writing and mechanics in a variety of ways. Each student chose their own way in which social conditioning was at odds with their natural morality. And each student completed a 2-step project, meaning that they had to both research facts about their topic and then either collect data on a survey, through interviews, etc., or write letters or start some type of awareness campaign. Students could choose how to complete their two steps and how to show they had completed their two steps, whether with a poster, pamphlet, flyers, letters, annotated art portfolio, charts showing survey data, etc. The finished products he got were as varied as his students. Students researched numerous problems—many Mr. Coray would never have thought of. One of his favorite examples was from a student who spent most of the semester just trying to pass the class. When it came to this project, the student took charge. He researched the need of high schoolers to fit in with their clothing and then interviewed his mom about whether she still feels that she needs to fit in with clothing. She told him honestly how difficult and uncomfortable it is for her always to feel like she has to fit in, even in middle age. Her son, who rarely turned in assignments, was able to complete a successful project and improve his grade at the same time.

My husband and I presented our steps of personalized, project-based learning last week at our district summer conference. I was asked how we can make project-based learning not seem like “just one more thing” for teachers. With not a lot of time to think, I answered what I honestly feel, and that is this:

I must be joyful at work. Project-based learning helps my students be engaged and happy with learning, but it also gives me a lot of room for creativity, and it helps me be joyful. Because it helps me be joyful as a teacher, project-based learning is what I naturally want to do.

I recognize that my answer does not meet the needs of all teachers. So next time I post, I’ll try to share some other ways that we can make project-based learning not seem like “just one more thing.”

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What Does Learner Centered Mean?

I had the opportunity this week to share ideas on a panel with Learner Centered Collaborative: https://learnercentered.org/

I love the ideas on their website. Kelsey Payne from Learner Centered Collaborative moderated the discussion, and she had sent me the questions in advance. The conversation was fantastic. If you ever want some great PD, spend some time collaborating—really listening and accepting ideas from other teachers who are embracing innovative, learner-centered practices.

During the discussion I was unable to take notes, so I’m not going to share the ideas the other teachers shared and risk misrepresenting their ideas, but because I had the questions in advance, I had taken time to write some notes for myself, and I would like to share what learner centered means to me.

Learner centered means that any student can access what is happening in my classroom, regardless of ability level, background, English-language-learner status, struggles with anxiety or ADHD or other disabilities, etc. It is fully inclusive.

Why is it important to set that tone at the beginning of the school year?

Setting the tone of learner centered is like creating an unwritten pact with my students. It tells them that I see them individually and will honor their needs. It invites them to trust me and stay with me, even when learning is hard, because I offer them a safe space to explore, to challenge themselves, and to make mistakes.

What are some concrete examples that put learners at the center right from day one?

Small things in the classroom environment let students know they are at the center right from the start. These include flexible seating options and choice in where and with whom to sit. My classroom policies and procedures are inclusive and compassionate. That includes bathroom and break policies. I don’t require students to give up a “ticket” or points or lose citizenship for going to the bathroom during my class. I tell them, “You know what your physical body needs, and I don’t. However, if you need to go, please wait until I’ve finished talking, and please let me know you’re going. After all, I’m responsible for you when you’re in my classroom.” I also let them know that if they ask to go at the same time every day (just as we’re getting to work), then that’s a different need and a different discussion. I’ve had 7th and 8th graders act surprised that I allow them so much freedom. I think I am simply allowing them their dignity and humanity. Students should be free to take care of their physical needs.

I also find that it’s beneficial to use universal design for learning. In any class I might have 5-7 students with IEP’s, and another handful with 504’s. I know that I also have students with undiagnosed anxiety, ADHD, sensory integration issues, and other needs. I have a child of my own with an IEP, and although I know that accommodations can help, I know that my child will never ask for accommodations. I have had other students with IEP’s and 504’s tell me that they do not want special accommodations, which would make them look different from their peers. Instead of making accommodations awkward and targeted to specific students, I offer the same accommodations for everyone—extended time, breaks as needed, breaking large tasks into smaller tasks as needed, using visual representations or hands-on, kinesthetic activities, collaborating with team members, etc. Students who don’t need the accommodations don’t use them. However, by making the accommodations available to all my students, I am not hurting anyone, and those who can benefit from the accommodations will benefit from them. Providing accommodations allows me to have high expectations for students while letting them know that I am on their side.

What advice do I have for others who are shifting to more learner-centered practices?

It’s ok to start small and build slowly. There’s no shame in being at a starting place. But find a place and start. Examine your practices and ask yourself questions like, how can I be more inclusive? How can I offer more choice? How can I provide multiple entry points for students to access the curriculum? And how can I allow students unlimited ways, or their own best ways, to show what they know and can do? Most of all, how can I allow students the joy of showing creativity as they also show competency? I hope I continue to look at my practices every year and keep improving in ways that bless students and honor their needs.

The last question Kelsey asked was how can administrators help? I love this question! I think administrators can send a clear message that learner centered may not be what we’ve done in the past, but we’re celebrating it now. During my first year of teaching, I was a 2nd-grade teacher at a Title I school with some strict schoolwide policies on what things should look like in a classroom. We had rules and expectations about what it looked like for students to be engaged, and those expectations included what the teacher was saying and how the students responded. In fact, observers were trained to count student responses—how many per minute, whether those were call-backs, thumbs up for understanding, or just keeping their eyes on the teacher. It wasn’t effective, and it wasn’t engaging. But it was ingrained in us. One day my students were working on a math assignment after I had taught a lesson. An administrator came in to observe, and I knew what was expected, so I re-taught the lesson with the students bored and bewildered about why we were doing the same thing again. I knew it was a waste of precious time, but I had to meet that standard. Several months later, a coach was in my classroom and had finished her lesson and started the kids on some work when her supervisor came in to observe her. I watched as the coach did exactly what I had done, repeating the lesson she had already taught. And I was saddened again to see this happen.

Fast forward seven years. I had gained a lot of experience and confidence with my teaching skills and abilities as well as my own beliefs about what I value in teaching. We were at the end of a trimester, and my students were finishing their final sewing projects. As class started, I saw my administrator enter the back of the room. “This is going to be chaos,” I thought, “But I only have time to do what I know we have to do.” I told the kids this was the last day, and I knew they were all in different places with their projects and final work. I told them that I would go quickly down the roll and tell them exactly what I needed from each of them. They listened while I quickly told each of them my expectations for the day. Then I said, “Ready, Go!”

Students jumped out of their chairs. Some got supplies. Some lined up to ask questions and get guidance. Some started working on their computers, completing missing assignments.

After 20 minutes, my administrator left. The observation report from that day was one of my best and most complimentary ever!

I would tell administrators to verbally let teachers know that they want to see learners at the center in the classroom. That will build teacher confidence in this type of teaching.

At one of the State trainings I attended last week I heard a presenter say that the best compliment a teacher can receive is to have an administrator walk into a classroom and say, “Where is the teacher?” I’ve had that happen several times as I’ve been sitting and working with one small group of students while others were working independently or in collaborative groups.    

Kelsey ended the panel discussion with encouragement to be willing to show up and be brave. I didn’t catch the exact quote, but the idea was that those who are willing to show up and be brave, not perfect, are paving the way forward for others. There are days when I am honestly terrified, but I believe I’m doing what is best for students. I’m happy there are other teachers who are willing to join me.

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It’s Not About the Sewing

I’ve spent the last 3 days at state Career and Technical Education conferences. These are always some of my favorite teacher trainings of the year. The conferences are a chance to network, spend time with old friends, meet new friends, and participate in engaging, hands-on activities we can replicate in our own classrooms. Not surprisingly, we heard a lot this year about PCBL—Personalized, Competency-Based Learning, which is one of my favorite teaching topics. I’m happy that more teachers are getting involved in personalizing, which I truly believe helps all students succeed.

Probably my favorite workshop this year was “Sewing is Not About Sewing,” taught by Kayla DeCoursey. This was a fabulous, engaging, hands-on, personalized, project-based workshop that highlighted many vital, 21st-Century workplace skills. Kayla described how she designed this workshop as a rebuttal to a fellow teacher who said that teaching sewing was no longer valuable or relevant. She pointed out the skills students learn from sewing, such as visual-spatial awareness and reasoning, small-motor skills, measurement, and creativity. I would add to those skills the skills of problem-solving, grit, endurance, critical thinking, engineering design, and proper use of tools and care of materials, as well as the potential for collaboration on projects with others.

Collaboration, communication, dependability, responsibility, respect, empathy, cultural awareness and acceptance, creativity, resilience, grit, problem-solving, and critical thinking could arguably be skills that are needed in the workplace and in life more than any of the other content we teach. Information is abundant. Students can find it anywhere. What they do with that information will make the difference between solving difficult world problems and sinking under unsustainable practices of our society.

How does Kayla foster these skills in her classroom, and how did she engage teachers in using these skills? She set out 32 half-size dress forms and let us go to work. We had each brought a yard of fabric and our own creativity. We had 3 hours to draw, drape, and construct a dress from scratch. Every teacher met this challenge from a different skill level, just as every student would in the classroom. There were teachers who didn’t want to accept the full challenge, and that was ok for a teacher workshop, but Kayla doesn’t let her young students off the hook. She shows them some drawing and draping techniques, and they keep going until they figure it out.

I found the challenge instantly engaging and wanted to put my best into it. That’s the magic of personalization with project-based learning. It wakes up students’ imaginations and tells them it’s ok to play, to get creative, and to push themselves at the same time. I drew a sleeveless dress with contrasting waistband, circle skirt, and high-low hem. Yes, the bodice is lined. Yes, the seams are finished. And yes, I had the dress sewn and hemmed before the three hours were up. But just before.

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In Translation: I’ve Never Been So Proud of Any Class

Friday I had the kind of teaching experience that makes pre-service teachers want to teach and keeps in-service teachers in teaching.

On Tuesday I learned I was getting a new student–a refugee student who speaks no English. I immediately felt my own inadequacy as a teacher, but I tried to brush that aside with ideas for how I could include this student in my classroom and help him participate in our lessons.

If I’m honest, Wednesday wasn’t stellar. I see my students every other day and decided I could make Friday better. I planned to incorporate a Power Point with pictures into the lesson plan, and then I used the translator feature in Microsoft to translate the text from my Power Point into the student’s native language. I know that electronic translators have flaws, but I figured this was the best hope I had of communicating with my new student, who, by the way, is pleasant, alert, bright, and trying his best to make sense of his new world.

On Friday, I put up the Power Point with an explanation in English and the student’s language explaining to the class why I was using this additional teaching method. I told the class I wanted the whole class included in our conversations. I explained that the translation I was using was not perfect and might at times be confusing for our new friend, but it was the best we had, and we needed to try it.

My classes are currently mid-way through a project-based-learning unit I call “The Big Event.” They start by researching a variety of medical conditions that affect diet. We learn about MyPlate as well as safe food handling and kitchen safety procedures. The students make a healthy snack in the lab, and then I introduce the problem: We’re planning a large family party for a group of fictional family members, several of whom have specific medical conditions. The students must plan a menu that meets the needs of those family members as well as other criteria. On the last day of the unit, they get to cook some of the items from their chosen menu.

On Friday, the goal was for each team to make a list of healthy foods their fictional family member can and should eat, as well as a list of foods that person should avoid.

I told the class with the new student that even though I typically expected nothing more than a presentation of a list from each team, for this class, I was hoping they would also include pictures, which might help our new student feel connected to the content.

That’s when the magic happened. As teams started to research and build their lists, they began to pull me aside with questions like this: “Mrs. Coray, can we use the translator feature and make Power Points with pictures and translations of what we are talking about?” The whole class was a buzz of excitement. I was showing some teams how to use the translator feature in Microsoft, and other students were showing me how to make it better, and there was this whole-class, synergistic, collaborative effort that brought me almost to tears! Each team seemed eager to include their new friend in the conversation.

Our new student’s own team went even further. They pulled out their computers, pulled up translator apps, and began passing their computers back and forth as a way to communicate. One girl on the team with artistic talent drew elaborate pictures as they made their list in regard to their fictional family member, Uncle Jake, who was recently diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. As the team made their list, their art specialist drew a page depicting soda, candy, and baked goods, and another page with fruits, vegetables, lean meats, and foods made from whole grains.

I got an even bigger surprise when that team asked me if they could use the translator app to allow their new friend to speak when their team presented their list to the class. They would have him read his part in his native language with another student standing by as interpreter to read that same part in English. It was fantastic!

The team presentations were amazing, and more than I could ever have hoped for!

Just before the bell rang, one student on the new student’s team asked if he could also use the translator app next time we’re in the foods lab as a way to help his new friend participate with cooking.

Junior high students are often careless with their belongings, and I find all kinds of things left after class in my classroom. They never take papers with them if the papers do not affect their grade. I noticed as the bell rang how those beautiful drawings were left behind on the table. I also noticed how my new student carefully scooped up those drawings and tucked them in with his things.

It made me happy!

Flexible Seating on a Budget in a Junior High Classroom

Flexible seating is just one way to help students feel safe, wanted, and respected in the classroom, but how do you make it work in junior high, especially when funding is limited? I’ve used flexible seating for several years, both in elementary and junior high school. If you want to try flexible seating I would say, just like with everything else, start simple.

One of the easiest ways to start is with a few yoga balls. Along with other items, these have gone up in price over the last few years, but you don’t need many of them to get a start on flexible seating. I get mine on Amazon. If you’re a Utah teacher, you can use “Class Wallet” money to buy them. Right now I have 6 in my classroom. They will need to be replaced from time to time, but having just a few makes buying and replacing them manageable. The 65 centimeter size is a great size for junior high school.

Not all teachers like yoga balls. The up-and-down or swaying movement makes some teachers dizzy. That’s another great reason to start small until you know if this option will work for you. If you are going to use yoga balls, you have to set up some rules, and you’ll also have to be careful how you present the whole thing to students. Junior high boys will snicker if you get the wording wrong. When I share my expectations with the kids, I always talk about “yoga seats.” That helps avoid problems. And here are the rules. Yoga seats are on a first-come, first served basis with no saving and no fighting. Yoga seats are seats, not toys. They should not be dribbled or thrown. It’s ok to get movement on a yoga seat, but it’s not ok to distract others. Yoga seats are not for doing the “Superman,” or rolling under the table and kicking your neighbor. If someone is sitting on a yoga seat, nobody else should kick that seat. If you are sitting on a yoga seat, you can’t bang it on the sides with your hands or otherwise make noise with it. If any student has difficulty meeting my expectations with a yoga seat, I will ask them to put it away. The kids understand my rules, and I’m consistent in enforcing those rules.

Not all students like yoga balls, which is another reason to start small. I have a handful of students in every classroom who can benefit from the movement that comes with sitting on a yoga ball, but many students are irritated by that movement. I’ve added other options to my seating to allow all students to find something that matches their personality.

Most of my students choose to sit in traditional student chairs at one of my 7 classroom tables where students work in teams. Each team usually has 5 students, but I have some larger classes where I have to have 6 students on some teams. I can lower the size of my teams by moving a few students to my soft seating area. I always have students volunteer for these soft saucer chairs, which are quite comfortable, and which I also found on Amazon. This is a great seating area for students who want less movement or want to be away from distractions.

The “tall table” is another option. I can almost predict the personality of students who will choose to sit at the “tall table.” Some will be rowdy or more likely to need redirection to stay on task. Often these kids are independent and creative thinkers.

For a few years my tall table was a regular classroom table on risers, just like the kind you could use to raise up a bed. The table was less stable that way, and even on risers, it wasn’t tall enough for me to use as a cutting table when I’m cutting fabric. This year my principal agreed to purchase a 36″ Nasco cutting table for my classroom. I absolutely love this cutting table! It saves my back when I have to cut fabric, and it’s a great surface for students working as well. The Nasco table has a larger surface area than the other tables in my classroom, and because some students naturally gravitate to that tall table, I often have 6 students seated on 24″ stools there.

I let students choose their seats on the first day of class with the understanding that if there is a problem, I will change their places. I also change their seating from time to time if I need to adjust teams for various projects. When I do adjust seating, I try to keep student preference for types of seating in mind.

Last week we started our third and last trimester of the year, which means that I am meeting four new classes of 7th graders for the first time. I have one student who came to class on the first day anxious and unsure about staying. I noticed how this student swayed and rocked while talking to me and asked the student if it would be more comfortable to sit on a yoga ball. The student lit up. Sometimes students have needs that I can easily meet by providing legitimate movement, and I’m happy to be able to do so. Every student can succeed. My challenge is to find a way to make that success possible.

3D Community Building

The title of this activity is a play on words, because students will be building community with their team, but they are also building a 3D community out of paper at the same time.

Many courses have strands and standards that involve teamwork and collaboration. For Family and Consumer Sciences Exploration in Utah, this activity works well with the following strands and standards:

  • I can explore the importance of employability skills (Strand 4 Standard 1) including the following:
    • Effective communication
    • Problem solving
    • Teamwork
    • Critical Thinking
    • Dependability
    • Accountability
    • Legal Requirements/Expectations

For Utah College and Career Awareness classes, this activity gets even more bang for the buck, meeting the following standards:

  • I can discuss the benefits of strong workplace skills and the negative consequences of underdeveloped workplace skills. (Strand 2 Standard 1)
  • I can complete tasks on time. (Strand 2 Standard 2)
  • I can exhibit self-motivation and self-discipline. (Strand 2 Standard 2)
  • I can show respect for others. (Strand 2 Standard 2)
  • I can be responsible for my own actions. (Strand 2 Standard 2)
  • I can demonstrate strong work ethic. (Strand 2 Standard 2)
  • I can explore various methods of communication and can use effective and appropriate communication for the given situation. (Strand 2 Standard 3)
  • I can identify and demonstrate effective collaboration and teamwork skills. (Strand 2 Standard 5)

3d Community Building takes minimal preparation and supplies but provides a lot of engagement. Students love this activity!

Here’s what you need to have ready in advance for each team or table.

  • 4 pieces of cardstock
  • 1 tape dispenser
  • Colored pencils
  • Scissors

And here are the rules for the activity which you can also find posted on the Canvas Commons as “3D Community Building.”

Your teacher will give each team 4 pieces of paper or cardstock and will allow you to use tape, glue, colored pencils, and scissors. Each team will have the same amount of time to create the following 3-dimensional items:

  • At least 1 building
  • At least 1 vehicle
  • At least 1 tree, shrub, or other plant
  • At least 1 person
  • Any other elements of a city you would like to build

All items you build should match each other in scale and should be similar in style. That means that as a team, you should choose a theme for your community so that the items look like they belong together. When we finish building, each team will share their work and their process with the class. 

As I am explaining this activity to students, there are a few things I make sure they are clear on. The first is that they will only get 4 pieces of cardstock! If they have 5 people on their team—4 pieces of cardstock. If they have 3 people on their team—4 pieces of cardstock. They can’t ask for more cardstock. Using their supplies effectively is part of the requirement. If they come to me in 15 minutes and tell me that they made a mistake and need more paper to start over, I tell them that they need to figure out how to problem solve with the mistakes they made and the supplies they had.

We talk about what it means to make their items 3-dimensional. I do allow for paper people to be flat, as long as they can stand.

We talk about scale, and how a car should not be smaller than a person or taller than a house.

And we talk about choosing a theme. I have seen all kinds of creative themes chosen for this activity—old Western towns, alien towns, New York City street scenes, vacations on the beach, campsites, “under the sea” scenes, scenes from shows and movies, and the list goes on. I look forward to 3D community building because the kids often surprise me. Just last week, I had students create a pop-up beach scene. It was delightful! And yes, I do allow boats to count as vehicles.

Once students start working with their team, they need approximately 40 minutes to build their scene and feel ready to share with the class. Some teams go a little faster or a little slower. When a majority of teams have mostly cleaned up their scraps and mess and are ready to share with the class, I have a spokesperson from each team share what they made. After every team has shared, we have a class discussion using both pair/share with students at tables as well as whole-group sharing. The discussion is how I make sure we have met the day’s objectives. I tell students that as long as they have participated effectively and respectfully in both the building activity and the discussion, I can see that they have met the standards for the day, and I can give them points for this activity and its objectives based on their participation. That makes this activity quick to grade, even for a large class!

These are some of the questions I typically ask during the class discussion, and I believe these questions connect well to the standards, but you can use your own questions, depending on the objectives for the activity in your classroom:

  1. How did your group split up the various responsibilities, meaning, did you share in various responsibilities or did specific people do specific things, such as leader, architect, artist, object designer, builder? Were formal assignments given or did the responsibilities just happen?
  2. What made communication most effective for your team? 
  3. What are some real-life workplace skills you used as part of this activity?
  4. What are some of the things that your group did that helped the group cooperate and be successful?
  5. What did you learn about decision-making in a work or teamwork environment?
  6. What were the positives and negatives of working with a group?
  7. What are some things you could have done to work together better as a team?

I hope you love this activity! If you use it with your classes, I’d love to get some feedback on how it went. Also, what would you change to improve the activity? I can always make improvements to my own lessons!

Below is one of my favorite ever 3D communities. The 4-person team that made this creation was incredibly in sync! The figure standing on top is Willy Wonka on a green hill of candy trees over the top of a chocolate river. The vehicle is a violet, Viking-style boat floating on chocolate inside the chocolate factory.

Personalizing Clusters, Pathways, Concentrators, and Completers

Say the phrase, “Clusters, Pathways, Concentrators, and Completers,” and your students will look at you with a sort of dazed look. The words mean nothing to them. And yet, if they understand the meaning of this phrase, it can give them a powerful tool to take charge of their education throughout high school. The objectives for this lesson, based on the Utah State standards for Family and Consumer Sciences Exploration are as follows:

  • I can identify the 6 Family and Consumer Science career pathways and the associated clusters. (Strand 1)
  • I can define the difference between career pathways and career clusters and how they are related. (Strand 1, Standard 1)
  • I can define a CTE pathway concentrator and a CTE pathway completer. (Strand 1, Standard 1)

There could be multiple ways to introduce the vocabulary and meet the standards for this lesson, but I find that it is most meaningful to personalize, which means going a little beyond the standards. To start, I explain clusters and pathways. I talk about how clusters are groups of things that go together, just like all the cereals go on the same aisle at the grocery store, even though Grape Nuts and Cap’n Crunch are quite different. For CTE, clusters are groups of jobs or fields that go together, even though they may not seem closely connected.

Then we go to the Utah Clusters and Pathways page so the students can see what I’m talking about. Here’s the link for the USBE website: https://www.schools.utah.gov/cte/pathways

Once students are on the USBE website, it’s important to click on the current school year. Otherwise, they won’t be able to find the information they need. This is January 2022, so the correct school year to pick for this year would be 2021-2022.

After clicking on the correct school year, students will find the “Utah CTE Career Pathways” page. Below is a screen shot of the current year page for illustration, but when you are on the current year page on the actual website, each line is a live link. All the headings in blue are clusters. The pathways are listed in black.

I ask the students to find a pathway they are interested in, and invariably, I have students ask why there is no pathway for pro football. I have learned not to argue about whether they are going to become pro football players. Instead, I point out that this list is a list of career and technical pathways, and they can all choose a pathway from this list, even though their pathway may not be connected to sports. For those who tell me they want to be famous game designers or famous YouTubers, I point out the Broadcasting and Digital Media pathway. Just about every student can find a pathway they are interested in, and from there we can look at the classes in their pathways and learn about concentrators and completers.

Pathways represent lists of courses available in high school for students interested in that field. Generally, concentrators complete 1.5 high school credits in the pathway, and completers finish 3 credits. To find out for certain how to become a concentrator or a completer in a given pathway, students click on the pathway. A page will appear that shows all high-school classes in the pathway and gives specific requirements for concentrator or completer status in that pathway.

What’s the advantage of becoming a completer? Students who complete a pathway get a special cord to wear with their robes at graduation. But more importantly, students who complete a pathway can include their completion status in their resumes. There are some businesses that will hire completers straight out of high school. In fact, some career and technical fields have such high demand that companies will not only hire completers in entry-level positions but will also help pay for college so that students can move up into positions with higher demand and responsibility.

Now that students understand clusters, pathways, concentrators, and completers, the fun part begins. I tell students how much I love Disneyland.

That sounds like it’s way off topic, but there’s a purpose behind it. I absolutely love Disneyland, but I suffer from motion sickness and rides make me sick. What I love in the “Happiest Place on Earth” is the set design—the Imagineering that turns an ordinary spot of ground into a whole new world—that makes something so banal as garbage cans disappear into the background and brings the textures, smells, sights, and sounds of distant and even imaginary places to the forefront.

My students relate to the idea of a favorite vacation spot, and they relate to the idea of having a souvenir that helps you remember something important to you. Once I’ve planted that idea into their minds, I ask them to make a souvenir, somehow connected to a theme park or a favorite vacation, and I ask them to put their pathway on their souvenir. They need to include the classes necessary to become a completer in their pathway. For each student, the chosen list of classes could be different, even if they choose the same pathway. I tell them that I hope they will use their creativity with their souvenir, and I hope they will keep it, so that as they register for 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th grades, they can let their counselor know what classes they need to take to finish their chosen pathway. We talk about course options in their high school and in our local technical colleges. Technical colleges, such as Davis Technical College, provide excellent opportunities during high school for moving forward with career and technical education.

My students make all kinds of souvenirs—maps, signs, menus, t-shirt and mug designs, stuffed-animal and bobble-head doll designs. I even got an impressive song! With permission from the student who created it, I’ll include the song here, along with some of the other fun souvenirs I’ve seen.

Students thrive when they can choose to submit work that showcases their own personality.

Choice as the First Step in Personalization

For several years I had a custom sewing and alterations business in a home studio. I put emphasis on the magic of a perfect fit. Clothes that fit well are flattering and build confidence in the wearer. When we teach interior design, we help students understand that effective interior design begins with understanding the needs and wants of the client. In the food-services industry every restaurant offers a menu with choices that will meet a variety of needs and tastes.

It makes sense that if we want students fully engaged in the process of learning, we need to offer them choice with opportunities that are precisely tailored to their needs. Student agency must be built into everything we do. Choice is not only the first step to personalized learning. It also provides automatic differentiation, which, in turn means inclusion for students from varied backgrounds and abilities. Choice allows us to offer our students the magic of the perfect fit. That, in turn, builds confidence, and isn’t that what we’re trying to do?

Teachers know that we should always begin lesson planning with the end in mind. Activities and assessments should align with objectives. That’s Teaching 101, and I’d like to go beyond that here. Keep all your effective, research-based best practices! Activities and assessments should still align with objectives. But when I’m lesson planning, I now add the element of choice whenever I can. Choice is the scale or measure I hold up to each new lesson plan. Students respond in amazing ways when they can make the activities and assessments meet their needs.

It’s important not to go crazy with personalization. If I could give one piece of advice, I’d say, “Start small. But do start.” Pick one or two lesson plans you’re already familiar with and see if there’s a way to add more choice into what you’re already doing. Once you feel steady with one or two lessons, reflect on what you’ve learned and build from there.

What does adding choice look like in the classroom? Here’s just one example.

My 8th graders have several State standards they need to meet in connection with sewing and textiles. These standards include using equipment properly and following safety requirements as well as using specific industry sewing techniques. In the past, we’ve met these standards over a 12-day unit with most of those days in our sewing lab. After two days focused on how to use equipment properly and safely, students create a drawstring backpack that incorporates all the techniques required by the State standards. Once students finish the backpack I have always let them work on optional projects in the sewing lab. However, this year, I was limited on the number of days my students could use the sewing lab because I have a class that meets during the same period as our ninth-grade full-semester sewing course. The teacher for that course was kind enough to arrange her schedule to give me nine days in the sewing lab so we could complete the backpacks. I knew my students would want more sewing, so we moved our sewing to the regular classroom with exclusively hand-sewing techniques and supplies.

Before we got started on projects, I let my students know what supplies and tools I would make available to them and asked them to submit a plan for a project they could complete using hand sewing. Some students found patterns online, and some students designed their own creations. I had all the necessary hand-stitching tools, embroidery thread, stuffing, small zippers, buttons, and beads. Fortunately, I also had several boxes of all types and sizes of fabric that had been donated to the school. My classes worked on their hand-sewing projects the last three days before Christmas break (usually among the most chaotic days of the year in junior high). And yet things were relatively peaceful in my classroom.

Not everyone will agree with me on this, but I feel that slow sewing has a calming, meditative effect. It was fantastic to look at my classes and see both boys and girls hunched over embroidery hoops or using other tools to hand make gifts, ornaments, or other small items. Each student chose what to make, which meant that the chosen project most likely fit each student’s ability level. Students were joyful and helpful as they worked. Most of them seemed excited to share what they had created.

The slow-sewing days were low stress for me, and I will likely incorporate them into future sewing units, even if the sewing lab has a higher availability. As always, when I reflected on these days there are things I would change for next time. Students had to wait in line to get a hand needle from me, partly because I wanted to make sure they got the right size and type of needle for the project they were doing, and partly because I wanted to keep an eye on the needles and make sure I got them all back at the end of class. Getting all the needles back was the trickiest part, as a few needles inevitably fell out of sight and ended up on the carpet every class period. Although I believe I found them all, I might incorporate a check-out system next time around—a trade-your-phone-for-a-needle option. They can get their phones back when their needle is safely returned.

Students also waited in line for embroidery floss if they wanted it, because I knew I needed to show them how to separate strands in the skene without making a giant, tangled mess. I would keep that process in place, but I would also streamline it by having the thread colors coordinated and wrapped on cardboard in advance. Overall, I’m happy with how the hand projects turned out, and even happier that I was able to allow my students so much choice with this activity while still meeting the standards with sewing techniques. Here are some examples of finished student work.

Each project showcases student personality!