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A digital classroom created by Micheala Junkins, a first-grade teacher at The Bancroft School, using the Bitmoji app. 

Access to instruction for all

Photos courtesy of Amy Brown, Christa Davis and Tina Knotts | Image courtesy of Micheala Junkins

Center for Disabilities Studies training for Delaware educators promotes flexibility, inclusion   

Whether educators return to the classroom or conduct lessons online, hundreds of them expect to be better able than before the pandemic to connect with and engage their students.

Tina Knotts is a fifth-grade teacher at Lulu M. Ross Elementary School. 
Tina Knotts is a fifth-grade teacher at Lulu M. Ross Elementary School. 

Educators like Tina Knotts, who team-teaches a class including students with and without disabilities at Lulu M. Ross Elementary School in Milford, and Christa Davis, a New Castle County Vo-Tech District reading specialist.

This spring, Knotts, Davis and more than 300 others trained in Universal Design for Learning (UDL), an educational approach that promotes flexible learning environments designed to accommodate students’ individual learning differences. Hosted by the Adapting Curriculum and Classroom Environments for Student Success (ACCESS) project, a collaboration between the University of Delaware’s Center for Disabilities Studies and the Delaware Department of Education, the seven-week workshop series focused on applying UDL in remote instruction.   The Center for Disabilities Studies is part of UD’s College of Education and Human Development.

Now, with fall classes commencing, several hundred more teachers are expected to take part in a new round of training as ACCESS reprises its spring offering. The first session took place Sept. 3. 

Knotts found in the spring that UDL can give students voice by offering new avenues of expression. Using online education tools she discovered through ACCESS’s training, “some of my students that would have not previously engaged … they [engaged],” she said. 

Christa Davis is a New Castle County Vo-Tech School District reading specialist. 
Christa Davis is a New Castle County Vo-Tech School District reading specialist. 

Davis, who was a literacy coach and English department chair at St. Georges Technical High School in Middletown when she attended the webinars, found that the weekly UDL webinars encouraged her to “think about how we were engaging our students and how I was engaging the other teachers I collaborate with,” she said. “What is embedded in me now is that you don’t stop UDL just because change is happening. You pause and consider how you’re applying those principles to your classroom and your lesson.” 

MaryAnn Mieczkowski, the director of the Department of Education’s Exceptional Children Resources, said UDL is helpful in different circumstances.

“UDL is valuable because it allows access to instruction … for all kids,” even in remote environments where gaining that access can be more challenging, Mieczkowski said. UDL also “opens up even more opportunities when we get back in our regular brick-and-mortar environment. That’s good for all teaching staff, and it is absolutely essential for all students.”

In the spring 

ACCESS Instructional Coach Amy Brown said the spring webinars were designed to benefit educators with UDL experience and novices alike. Each hour-long session included discussion of how educators can use UDL to help students build learning skills such as effort and persistence, expression and communication, comprehension and executive function, in the ways most suited to their individual learning needs. Brown and Instructional Coach Kristi Fry also demonstrated an education app every week connected to the skills being discussed. 

ACCESS Instructional Coaches Amy Brown and Kristi Fry as they appeared to Delaware educators tuning in to their webinar series on Universal Design for Learning in remote instruction. 
ACCESS Instructional Coaches Amy Brown and Kristi Fry as they appeared to Delaware educators tuning in to their webinar series on Universal Design for Learning in remote instruction. 

Regardless of the class setting, Brown said, “the UDL principles are the same. We just need to give educators the means to apply them.”   

Said Fry, “We’re just trying to add more tools to teachers’ toolboxes, because you never know when [one] might work for a student.”   

Knotts attended the webinars to find online tools “so that I can reach my students now and when we get back to school,” she said. She discovered new resources like Flipgrid, a video discussion platform, and Thinglink, which allows educators to make images into interactive graphics.    

She also found that there was more to software she was already using, like Read&Write for Google. “I didn’t realize all of the tools that were in that particular app,” she said of the text-to-speech and speech-to-text G-suite add-on. “As we move forward that will be really big for my students trying to memorize vocabulary.”   

Davis was looking for ways her teachers could keep students concentrating on reading for comprehension — difficult enough in normal times, she said, let alone during a pandemic. In one webinar, she learned about Edpuzzle, a platform that enables educators to make interactive video lessons. A teacher could record herself reading a text, then insert stopping points with questions for students to answer before they could continue listening.     

“Bingo,” said Davis. “That’s the sort of engagement we’re looking for.” 

In the fall   

Brown said the upcoming training series will feature several new resources, including tools for teachers working with pre-kindergarten students and students with disabilities.   

She and Fry will also “infuse discussion around equity” in each webinar, she said, focusing educators on the “many environmental factors that [can’t be] controlled” — everything from students’ access to technology and high-speed internet to their feeling of safety — when instruction happens outside a school building.     

One such variable is how students regulate their emotions and behaviors. In physical classrooms, teachers often have calm-down corners or other spaces for students feeling frustrated or overwhelmed. When students are attending class from their own living rooms, however, there is no obvious alternative.   

After participating in UDL coaching with Brown and Fry the previous year, Micheala Junkins of The Bancroft School in Wilmington created an alternative herself. Junkins, a first-grade teacher, will share her digital calm-down corner as a guest presenter during one of the fall webinars. She used Bitmoji, an app that allows users to create personalized digital avatars, to build a virtual room linking students to breathing exercises, yoga instructions, online coloring and other relaxing activities.   

Junkins said she was initially skeptical of UDL because “it seemed like a lot of extra work.” That was then. Now, she said analyzing her upcoming lessons, anticipating challenges her students might face and brainstorming ways around them “just comes so naturally.     

“It’s a part of what teaching is anyway,” she said, “because you want what’s best for your students.”   

Educators interested in attending the live training series can find registration information on the Teaching Remotely with UDL informational flyer.   

Recordings of the spring training series are available to educators on Schoology.     


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