Empowering Students takes Intent

I had carefully planned my 70 minute lesson. The students were to get into pairs and look at each other’s designs for the lunar lander (read: egg drop) project we were working on. This project had become a little derailed over the past week as school had been closed due to Haze and students had missed a few classes. Still, I had posted the work to be done in Google Classroom, and figured some students would have managed to do it at home.

My plan was that they would comment on each other’s designs and then come up with a final design idea that they would build together. For good measure I asked them to each draw up the new design idea (my plan was to grade this one). I figured that they could do their designs this class, which would keep us on track for building the landers next class.

Of course, nothing went as planned, and before I knew it class was almost over and we were nowhere near getting the final designs done. But I knew that the other design teachers were close to building the landers, and I was feeling some pressure to keep up, so I said:

As we have run out of time you will have to finish drawing up your final designs for homework.

It wasn’t until the students had left the class that I realised what I had done. Not only had I set up my students to potentially use their valuable home time on an unecessary assignment better done at school, but I had used my teacher power to force them to adjust to my teaching needs, instead of me adjusting to their learning needs. This was the opposite of empowering my learners.

The embarassing part is that I had only just posted to the Innovate Inside the Box Facebook Book Club that I am passionate about empowering students. Clearly, doing this successfully takes more than just good intentions. In fact, often it seems that everything about school is designed to disempower students: bells, desks in rows, tests, homework etc. These are all things done to students. To work on empowering students within these constraints takes constant effort and vigilance. This quote nicely sums it up:

Learners are not disabled. Curriculum is. Systems are. But kids are not.

So I am commiting to being more thoughtful about empowering students and thankfully I have the 3 Universal Design for Learning Principles to help me out:

  1. Provide multiple means of engagement
  2. Provide multiple means of representation
  3. Provide multiple means of action and expression

You have to be proactive about identifying and eliminating barriers that prevent inclusive learning and innovation.

Keeping the quote above in mind, here is what I did in my next lesson:

Providing Multiple Means of Engagement

This means providing options for recruiting interest, sustaining effort and persistence and self-regulation. For my lunar lander design project this meant refocusing the goals of the design work. Instead of me saying ‘you must do 2 designs because …’, I reframed it as ‘Lets all become better designers because that will help us all build better landers’. I also decided to stop worrying about making the students fit my class schedule. Instead I told them that when both partners had a working design drawing finished that matched most of the criteria (we voted as a class on what ‘most’ meant) they could show them to me and explain why they were ready to receive the building materials.

Providing Multiple Means of Representation

I changed up a couple things to apply this principle. I realised that my previous instructions had not made sense to my students, so decided to try a more visual approach.

I also created a Single Point Rubric that the student pairs could use to give each other feedback on their designs, and used our school Read&Write plugin to create a vocabulary list on the back for students to refer to. We also discussed the more difficult words in the rubric as a class.

Providing Multiple Mean of Action & Expression

Thinking about this principle I explained to students that there was no ‘right’ way to do a design drawing and that the goal was to draw something someone else could understand. We talked about how some people who can draw in 3d might choose to do that, but that others might decide to draw in 2d. I also had all the building materials on hand, and when students struggled with the abstract nature of the design task I gave them materials and told them to go try out their ideas first, and then draw them.

I would love to say that as a result of these efforts my classes were an amazing success. I can say for sure that my students were engaged and there was great energy in the room, but I certainly still have a lot to work on. When I read through Katie Novak’s UDL Progression Rubric recently I was surprised to discover that my classroom practice was only emerging for many of the descriptors. But I was also excited to have such a clear roadmap to follow in order to empower my students.

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