UDL: a gateway to improving academic outcomes for ALL students

Three students and their teacher focused on classwork.

“UDL is what you want to see in any classroom: it’s strong teaching and learning, with a focus on equity, high expectations, and planning intentionally. The Framework gives us the tools  and guides us through the process of removing barriers to learning.” — Meagan Alderton, Program Quality Specialist at the Co-op

Through Demonstration Classrooms, the Co-op helps schools develop a model that will help all students in the classroom meet their academic goals by teaching to individual students instead of teaching to the middle or having expectations driven by an IEP. One Demonstration Classroom, the 4th grade math classroom at Bridges PCS, has been using Universal Design for Learning (UDL). Read on to understand what UDL is, how it works, and to see the power of implementing with fidelity at Bridges PCS, which in School Year 21-22 served 50% English Language Learners, 40% students with disabilities, and 62% percent of students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. 

What is UDL?

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a framework for teaching and learning that bases classroom practice on how the brain learns and ensures multiple access points to learning. According to the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST), UDL is about engaging (understanding the why of learning), representation (recognizing the what of learning), and action and expression (implementing the how of learning). In a nutshell, UDL is about implementing the best practices of teaching and learning so that all students can thrive.

Nakita Packer, UDL instructional coach at Bridges PCS says that UDL is “thinking, doing, and being all about students, which means creating an environment of student success with planning, instructional practices, relationships with families, and providing access to all learners.” Her co-teacher, Brandon Woodland, 4th and 5th grade math teacher at Bridges says, “It’s about being intentional and being student-centered with an individualized approach for each student.”

When you walk into a UDL classroom, it might be loud, very loud: students are interacting with one another and the teachers in the classroom. Many use manipulatives. Students are sitting on the floor, or in bumpy seat cushions, or using  assistive technology. That’s because when students enter a UDL classroom, they are empowered to grab whatever tool they want to do the task with and show mastery.

“The classroom is organized chaos,” says Meagan Alderton, program quality specialist at the Co-op and coach to the team at Bridges PCS. “We want kids sitting on the floor and maneuvering around and making noise. I’m hearing all of the kids being engaged in the work. That’s what UDL looks like because you are creating different routes toward the same destination.”

The themes of routes and directions rings true. Nakita Packer notes that UDL is like a GPS system. “The first thing you do is enter your destination, but you also have to know where you are starting from. In the classroom that means knowing what skills are missing, collecting and analyzing data, and planning instruction accordingly.”

Why UDL?

UDL gives language to strong teaching and learning and a new mindset. It’s about looking at all students and eliminating the hurdles that exist in front of students, as opposed to thinking about deficits within children. It’s about paying attention to the how of learning for all students, including students with disabilities, English Learners, and students who have traditionally struggled in school. It’s about knowing and planning for the fact that every student is a diverse learner.

With UDL, all students are engaged and no one is opting out. There are procedures and routines, and students have choice in how and where to enter the lesson. “Our classroom looks like a museum,” says Nakita. “We have anchor charts and resources. It’s flavorful with choice and fun and engagement and a space students want to be in.”

UDL at Bridges PCS

As a Demonstration Classroom with the Co-op, Bridges PCS undertook UDL in their 4th grade classroom. The school started small and with key buy-in at the leadership level and among the 4th grade teaching staff. Among the shifts:

  • Co-teaching: Brandon Woodland, 4th and 5th grade math teacher, was the content expert and Nakita Packer, then served as the special education teacher. For this duo, co-teaching didn’t begin in the classroom in front of students, but in a dramatic shift in how they spent time planning. “We started to plan more intentionally and plan together,” noted Nakita. “I’m looking from a special education lens, and Brandon is looking from a content and mastery lens.” While Brandon is coming to co-teaching to set students up for mastering the content, understanding how students learn -, and getting more comfortable with students struggling with material — and aligning all of that to content standards; Nakita is building in anchor charts, movement, and the individualized pieces. “We used to plan in isolation and tried to come together and make it fit, but now we plan together and it’s a masterpiece,” says Nakita.
  • The practice of teaching: When learning to shift toward UDL,  the required mindset and practical shifts take time. That’s why the school started with one classroom and the Co-op provided regular coaching sessions for Nakita and Brandon, along with ongoing professional development opportunities. The Bridges team notes that having instructional coaches who know UDL and can observe classrooms and provide feedback is a must, as is an ongoing commitment.
  • “This is a systemic difference for kids.” So says Olivia Smith, founder and executive director of Bridges, who committed to implementing UDL, and helped shepherd in the time and space for taking on a new approach. The shifts included building in time in the master schedule, aligning with MTSS, and having clear and concise systems for data analysis. 

What’s next

“It took us four 4 years through learning, virtual learning, and hybrid learning to get results. It was different and it was challenging with a lot of bumps and growing pains,” says Nakita. We had to learn each other’s teaching styles. We worked together collaboratively and learned that teachers and students can be a team.” Those four years paid off, this year, Bridges PCS was named a Bold Performance School and its PARCC scores for 4th graders were strong:

“The plan,” notes Olivia, “is that every classroom will eventually be a UDL classroom with support from a UDL coordinator. Right now, we have a cohort of special education teachers who are learning UDL through professional development, and this year we expanded into the 5th grade classrooms.”

Learn more about UDL by contacting the Co-op or viewing this presentation from Bridges PCS.

Olivia Smith is the founder and executive director of Bridges PCS. Nakita Packer is the instructional coach for UDL at Bridges. She previously served as a special education co-teacher at Bridges for her previous six years at Bridges. She has nearly a decade of teaching experience across DC, Maryland, and Virginia. Brandon Woodland is the math teacher for 4th and 5th grade at Bridges. He is in his sixth year of teaching at the school and has nearly 15 years of teaching experience. Meagan Alderton is the Program Quality Specialist at the Co-op. She also serves as chair of the Alexandria City Public Schools School Board.

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