Area teachers reflect on implementation of ‘UDL’

NASHUA – Merrimack School District officials are beginning to see positive outcomes by offering flexible learning in the classroom.

Now in its second year, the district has rolled out Universal Design for Learning, which allows teachers to design learning experiences that meet the needs of all learners.

Recently, Merrimack Middle School Language Art Coordinator Nicole Diggins and Language Arts Teacher James Costa shared their experiences practicing UDL with Merrimack’s School Board.

Diggins said it all began over the summer of 2018 when she received a call from Shawna D’Amour telling her about the opportunity to join a cohort of learners from across the state dedicated to learning about UDL with the guidance of an organization called CAST.

“I knew little about what UDL meant, but never wanted to shy away from a learning opportunity,” Diggins said.

From there, Merrimack Middle School formed a cohort of seven educators, with Diggins facilitating the group.

“What drew us to CAST was two-fold,” Diggins said. “One, we are always looking for ways to grow and evolve as educators, to better serve the needs of our students. And because we recognize UDL as a means to strengthen our own instruction in order to minimize the need for intervention and reteaching, UDL seemed like a really good fit.”

Diggins also spoke of their “indoctrination into the world of UDL” which began last year at a networking meeting at the Radisson in Manchester.

“We walked into a room and there were tables littered with fidgets and we were promptly informed of the multiple ways we could access the material being presented. We were invited to sit, to stand, to pace the room, even feel free to converse with a colleague at the back of the room if we felt our convo too pressing to pause,” Diggins said. “We all sort of looked at each other with a bit of panic, asking how does this translate into a middle school classroom, where it often can feel like the slightest break in structure might cause great chaos.”

Diggins said they went on to attend two more statewide networking meetings, spent more than 18 hours after school working as a group to grow their understanding of UDL through CAST’s monthly modules and engaged in three sets of instructional rounds where they observed one another in the classroom.

“By the end of the year, we had come to realize that Universal Design for Learning is way more than fidgets and flexible seating, but rather a philosophy and approach to lesson design meant not only to help our students understand, generalize and transfer the concepts and skills we are teaching, but to help our students become expert learners in our classrooms and their lives,” Diggins said.

Moving forward, Diggins said her school’s cohort has expanded by three members. The school also is implementing a “UDL spotlight” during its monthly meeting, where 15-20 minutes of each meeting will be devoted to providing support and sharing learning with the initiative.

Language Arts Teacher James Costa shared how he has implemented UDL in his classroom.

Costa sets it up like a menu. “I set the context for them. You go to a restaurant, and does the waiter tell you what you’re ordering for dinner? No, you get to choose a little bit and it should be something you like to eat, right?” Costa said.

“By giving these options and offering this flexibility, it is allowing the kids to access the curriculum a little bit better. From what I’ve seen, even this year, it’s allowing them to come into the class and want to learn. They are excited to be there, because they get to choose a lot of things,” Costa said.

One of the first things Costa said he asks his students is what they need to learn, whether its visual PowerPoints, auditory lessons or written down notes.

“I wanted to create this culture of flexibility, and that’s not to say it’s utter chaos. … It’s very strategic, it’s goal directed and it’s very mindful of where the kids are at,” Costa said.

Superintendent Mark McLaughlin said some teachers are beginning to learn that sometimes choice itself can be a barrier for the students on occasion and a “strategic teacher” who knows his/her class knows when a little bit of a choice is appropriate and when too much choice is not.

“We’re not talking about education that’s easier, we are talking about creating the conditions for students to access it in a way that makes accessing it easier,” McLaughlin said.

“I (don’t) want to risk the opportunity of people jumping on this as an example of a dumbed down version of what we’re doing. Nothing could be further from the truth,” he added.

Grace Pecci may be reached at 603-594-1243 or gpecci@nashuatelegraph.com