Whatever it Takes: UDL in the Classroom / Strategies for Success – Or, I Didn’t Know I Could Do That For Free!

Podcast Transcription


Hello and welcome to this podcast. I’m Mike Marotta from the Assistive Technology Center at Advancing Opportunities.

This interview was recorded during the 2011 Texas Assistive Technology Network Statewide Conference in Houston.

Karen Janowski from Simmons College and Newton Public Schools presented two sessions at the conference. Her morning session was titled: Whatever it Takes: UDL in the Classroom. The session description reads: This workshop will address the critical mandate to equip and empower every student for success and allow hands-on exploration of tools for universal design. We have tools for remediation, tools the compensate for academic struggles, tools that allow us to seamlessly collaborate with others, and tools that bypass obstacles to learning. Our goal as educators is to leverage these tools as powerful means to improve teaching and learning in our schools. Come and be inspired to immediately implement strategies for success in your school.

Her afternoon session was titled: Strategies for Success – Or, I Didn’t Know I Could do That for Free! The session description reads: Providing students with their own tools for success is essential for all who work with struggling learners. Fortunately, a wealth of free, emerging technology resources exist which remove obstacles to learning, promote independence and provide alternative ways for students to demonstrate what they know. Using the framework of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) combined with Toolbelt Theory, participants will learn about a variety of tools that promote engagement and learning for all students. Content connections will be offered to inspire swift implementation of these tools and strategies. Participants will leave with a better understanding of UDL to support the needs of all the students with whom they work.


Mike Marotta (MM): Alright, we are here talking with Karen. She presented two sessions at the conference talking about Universal Design for Learning. Hi Karen, thanks for sitting down with me.

Karen Janowski (KJ): Thanks Mike, grateful for the opportunity. I love this!

MM: Great! Can you take a second and explain to people briefly the principles of Universal Design for Learning?

KJ: I would love to because to be truthful, it still flabbergasts me how few people have heard of Universal Design for Learning. So any opportunity to share that information I love to talk about it. At its most basic form, Universal Design for Learning came from the field of architecture, what we put in place for people with disabilities benefits all of us and the perfect example is the curb cuts. We all benefit. Lever door handles for when our hands are full – from holding a child or our groceries. We hit the lever door handle with our elbow – we all benefit. They took that idea and brought it into the classrooms so it benefits our students with special needs – benefits all our kids and what it especially addresses is multiple methods. So we need to reflect, what are we currently doing and use multiple methods to engage our students in the learning process, multiple methods to present information to our students, and multiple methods to give our students the opportunity to express themselves in a variety of ways. It is engagement, it is presentation, and its expression. It’s proactive, it’s not after the fact – it is embedded into the curriculum and reaches all learners. It really is, to me, just good teaching. Some people say can you do UDL without technology? I say well maybe, but why would you even want to. There are so many new tools available it makes UDL more – it makes it easier than ever.

MM: Yeah, it really does. It’s amazing to see all the different things that are out there. What are some of the examples? What are some of the tools you’re going to talk about in your session and some of the strategies you use?

KJ: I use a lot of tools and resources just because there are hundreds and hundreds of possibilities. In the past, I always say, when we consider using technology it is not about in addition to what we’re doing it’s to replace. So think about paper for example. Paper is ubiquitous, paper for many kids is the disability. How many times the kids make so many erasures that they rip right through the page? Or they can’t read their own writing. Or, I hear a common complaint from teachers is – they have great ideas up here, pointing to their head, they can get them down on paper. So UDL tools allow us to bypass those writing challenges whatever they are and give us new ways. Some of the tools are Google Scribe for example, which is a word prediction, word completion program. There is GotIt which is for students who struggle with spelling because very often we see a discrepancy when they struggle with spelling between their vocabulary level verbally and what they show is on paper. Kids won’t take a risk and spell something they don’t know how to spell but GotIt, Google Scribe tools like that will bypass those challenges and they are universally designed tools. Text-to-speech, perfect example, we might put it into place for a student that has reading issues or writing issues but I say let show everybody text-to-speech. Everybody benefits and it helps them to edit their work. So they can listen to what they’ve read and the computer will read every word, as opposed to when we read our own work we think we are reading what’s there but we try to correct it and the text-to-speech read exactly what is there. So again all kids benefit.

Voice Thread to me is the best tool for Universal Design for Learning because there is so many ways to use it to bypass all kinds of learning challenges. WIKIs, anything digital cam reach 95 to 98% of our students and that’s what Universal Design for Learning does. It reaches 95 to 98% of our students. There are some students with severe physical issues or who are visually impaired who our universally designed materials may not meet all of their needs. They will continue to need assistive technology or more specialized equipment.

MM: It is interesting that most of the tools you described in that answer are free tools.

KJ: Yes, exactly.

MM: That always throws people off. There is such a wealth of things out there and there is no cost associated with it.

KJ: I know, it is such an important point. We need to address and show people there are a wealth of free tools and there is a Toolkit Wiki, there is the UDL Toolkit WIKI that I created with Joyce Valenza and I am showing that wiki in both of my sessions because it is a great resource. The other thing I like to model for people is I don’t give handouts. I say all you need to remember is this one Wiki address – that’s it and then it’s anytime, anywhere learning. You can come back, you can watch tutorials. It’s all right there because I want to model for them that paper is the disability. We give out handouts all the time and yes, to be truthful, Universal Design for Learning would say give the handout as one of the options but you can always go back and print whatever you need to because many times paper is the disability for kids. We can attach voice, text-to-speech, to a wiki. We can attach it to most things online as long as we have considered accessibility.

MM: It is very true- that idea of no handouts. I don’t know if you do, but every time I go to a conference I bring home this bag. I’m looking at your back from this conference right now. I may have stuff and it will sit next to my desk and I might never open that there. Ever. It might just be layers and layers of bags!

KJ: It is true and then we have to think about all of our students. Every class they are in they get handouts, whether their worksheets or whatever. I don’t know about you but I am getting a ton of referrals for executive function, especially organization. These kids – their backpacks, their desks whatever it is – they are a disaster. So it’s much easier to organize material if it is online. Those agendas – I hate those homework assignment agendas because again they are the disability for some kids. Give kids options, some kids benefit from the use of those – the paper agendas. A lot of kids are using their mobile devices, their cell phones, to keep them organized. Let’s allow them to do that. That is Universal Design for Learning. That is the other part of UDL – it’s all about choice.

MM: Yes – I have a student that I work with that they called me into the school to get him to stop using his camera phone to take a picture of the assignments on the board each day so he could read it at home. When I spoke with them I said why are we doing that? This is a perfect solution

KJ: Exactly.

MM: It is working. He knows how to do it. He does it every day consistently. Why change it?

KJ: Did they see how resourceful that was for him?

MM: They initially looked and said why is he using his phone in the class. That was the initial, obvious hook and they said wait a second he can’t take his phone out in class. And then when they asked him and said what are you doing, then he explained it and it made perfect sense.

KJ: Absolutely.

MM: And to me, that’s the accommodation. There is no other accommodation.

KJ: I have had students do that and they have done it on their own. It’s ingenious and we need to applaud that. It’s all about Toolbelt Theory, what Ira Socol talks about is – we have a moral imperative to show our students the tools that they will use beyond high school and when they come up with solutions themselves that’s tremendous. We should pat ourselves on the back that we are encouraging that and promoting that.

MM: Right – that is what we want the students to do. Now, with all this technology we put in place in the classrooms – how do you deal with the issue of potentially having staff that are afraid to embrace this technology?

KJ: That is the million dollar question. Unfortunately, we are still dealing with teachers who – not as many as in the past – we are seeing a shift. Web 2.0, Social Media is helping us see that shift. But [teachers] who are afraid to embrace it I asked them what are you currently doing, is reaching all the learners in your classroom. And when they are honest they have to say no so what can we do instead. Part of it is also helping them to see that there is, for some teachers, there is an attitude that if I’ve taught it and they haven’t learned it that it’s their fault.

MM: Right, it is on them not me.

KJ: Right, so some of it is a paradigm shift in thinking. And I think they are really an educator is all about helping a student to learn in whatever way they can. It doesn’t matter – in whatever way. So we have, again, that moral imperative to show them a variety of tools. So if they are less embracing of these technology tools then it helps to at the building level or at the grade level. Maybe you could look at what some of your peers, colleagues are doing. This is working really well for your colleagues. But also if you try something new and they see a benefits a student then they are also more willing to consider it for other kids as well. The other thing as well, the other way I get buy-in is to help them see the value of – start with their own needs. Start there and once they begin to see that this is really helpful that they can start to see that there is tools for our students. The other thing I think two is that they get overwhelmed I want them to see, again I don’t know if I said this, it’s not in addition to it replaces something else. So what can we replace it with – what can we, those worksheets you have to grade whatever is all paper-based, what if we do it on the computer in a Google Document and I can e-mail it to you. Then you can insert comments right online, e-mail it back and you don’t even have to manage paper. So, once they’ve tried it they are really impressed.

MM: Right. In addition to that obstacle, of that technophobia of staff, what are some of the other obstacles you see with the implementation of these tools?

KJ: Well, oftentimes people think it does take a lot of time. They also think it takes a lot of money. Schools typically have computer labs, they’ve got the media centers whatever, so the technology is there – the hardware is already there. But a lot of the resources that you and I use, they are all free. There are so many new media tools that are free. The UDL Tech Toolkit wiki is comprised of all free tools, across all different content areas. So oftentimes, just knowing that there are options that are free makes all the difference in the world. That deals with the money issue. The time issue – well, you are preparing lessons anyway so once you’ve created a lesson that include some of these new media tools that you’ve got it there. It’s always there and again it’s to replace not in addition to what you are doing. The ultimate goal is what helps my students learn. So if we consider putting students first and helping students achieve success, then we can’t really be worried about the time and the money, most of these are free.

MM: Exactly. You can tell us were sitting here and talking, you can tell that this technology in this area is a passion of yours and getting it into the hands of people to use it.

KJ: It is. It is a passion. I am passionate about this as you can tell Mike. It’s really, it’s all about kids. All of those obstacles we put up for ourselves they prevent us from helping kids learn. So we have to put ourselves aside and just say I’m going to do whatever it takes. And in fact that’s what my first session was called, Whatever It Takes. We have, again, we have to be willing to do whatever it takes to help our students learn. And it is a passion of mine.

MM: It’s obvious, for sure. If people want to check out the toolkit you mentioned can you give the web address for it?

KJ: Sure. It’s the udltechtoolkit.wikispaces.com

MM: Excellent. And if people want to contact you directly do have an e-mail address?

KJ: Sure. My e-mail address is karen.janowski@ gmail.com and also my Twitter name is @karenjan . And I will put in a plug for Twitter because one of the questions that I had my first session was how do you stay on top of things? Twitter for me has been the best professional development and it is instant learning, you learn from the wealth of others and the experience and the knowledge from others. Twitter makes me smarter than I really am! So it’s been great, this conference is tremendous and I’ve enjoyed having this opportunity to talk to Mike.

MM: Great – thank you very much.

KJ: Thank you. Thanks.


Thanks for listening to this podcast. For more information about the Texas Assistive Technology Network, visit the website at www.texasat.net

For more information about the Assistive Technology Center at Advancing Opportunities, visit the website at www.assistivetechnologycenter.org

The music used in this podcast is by Kevin MacLeod and is used with permission under the Creative Commons License 3.0

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