Universal Design–Some Tips and Tools for ELLs

1. Provide Options for Comprehension

  • Sticky Stories–This technique got it’s name from helping content stick in kids’ heads! Tell a story about yourself that has to do with a concept in class. The teacher can model how to use a sticky story to remember a vocabulary word, a character from a story, etc. and then students can try and think of an example on their own. Sticky stories can be added to word walls or posted around the room throughout a unit for students to reference later.
  • Pictures and Video–If there is a concept in a book that students may know about, but need to be reminded of, show it to them. I’ve shown brief videos to my students about events stories such as baby chicks hatching, bee keeping, and how to make compost. More often then not, students made connections to something that they had learned in their other lessons and were able to “bring it with them” to my lesson.

  • Graphic Organizers–There are many quick and easy ways to visually organize information for students. This can be done on the SmartBoard, on a worksheet, in groups, on a poster, or any other way imaginable. Venn Diagrams are a great way to help students compare and contrast concepts, KWLs can help students register what information they’ve learned, cause and effect charts can help establish relationships. Graphic organizers can also be used across curriculum and are good for helping students visually transfer their thinking.
  • Act it Out— A great way to get students to remember what happens in a story is to get them up and doing it. It requires a close reading and re-reading of the text to understand what each character is doing and saying. It’s a great way to reach all types of learners while still engaging their language input and output. Creating the mini dramas in groups can help students teach each other the content and evaluate their own understanding. Bring in costumes, take photos and video and post them on the class website for students to watch at home.

UDL Examples and Resources | National Center On Universal Design for Learning. (2012, August 10). National Center On Universal Design for Learning. Retrieved July 18, 2013, from http://www.udlcenter.org/implementation/examples


What Does Gee Have to Say?

James Paul Gee’s book The Anti-Education Era: Creating Smarter Students through Digital Learning befuddles many readers. Even the title alone is a bit befuddling. What does he mean by anti-education, and what is this book really about? Basically, Gee sets out to answer the question, “Why are humans so stupid?”

It’s easy to see how this book can be offensive to people. Gee basically writes over and over and in so many words that people are dumb, and they do not even realize that they are dumb. When discussing this book during class, one MAET alumni made a great point; this book is written for Gee’s cheerleaders. Only people who agree with Gee, and who are reflective and open-minded will find any value in what he says. Otherwise, people will just think of him as offensive and up on a high horse.

For example, in the first chapter, Gee raises the point of socialized health care (or lack thereof) in the United States in relation to abortion. “We demonize as traitors those who disagree with us. We call ourselves ‘pro-life’ because we oppose abortion and yet oppose universal health care and thus let thousands of children and adults die because they lack health insurance” (Gee, 2013, p. 3). While this point is highly radical and controversial, it illustrates his point. Humans are dumb because we focus only on the things that go against what we believe, and therefore, never learn anything new. We also become offended when others disagree rather than try and understand them. In other words, our problems will never be solved if we only address the problems that we care about or agree with.

There are many limitations that humans face when grappling with a giant problem with a clear-cut solution. I think that more often than not, people expect a tidy solution to things like taxation, war, privacy protection, etc. and become surprised when people don’t agree with their solution. Gee points out that people do not understand complicated social problems because of they are too busy taking offense. “[…] people seek out and remember information that supports their beliefs and ignore the information that does not” (Gee, 2013, p. 2). How can we expect to understand a problem if we do not take in all sides of it? Thus the cycle of stupidity continues.

Gee does not spend the entire book bashing and criticizing. He often brings up the point of collaboration as a means of casting off stupidity, “We often cannot discover what constitutes as a good result or a fruitful path of action all by ourselves” (Gee, 2013, p. 159).

The Internet should be a basis for us to achieve this collaboration, but in many ways, the opposite has occurred. In a Huffington Post article, Dr. Andrew Weil once stated, “to be clear, I worry as much about the impact of the Internet as anyone else. I worry about […] the potential for coarsening discourse as millions of web pages compete for attention by appealing to our base instincts” (Weil, 2010). The Internet is full of bias and unfiltered, inaccurate information. According to Gee, and I agree with him, people are not “smart” enough to wade through this online bog intelligently. If I were to put this idea into my own words, I would say that people choose to access the news and information that fits with what they believe. I realize that my stance on this may be as harsh as Gee’s. However, reflection on our own as well as others’ ideas is a vital part of being intelligent and wise. Do I do this all the time? No…my personal politics and values often cloud my understanding. I appreciate Gee for calling this to people’s attention.

It’s easy to get up on a soapbox about the way other people argue and act. People have come a long way from having intelligent discussions about their opinions. In fact the whole foundation of America was built on being able to say what we feel without being villianized for it. In the words of Benjamin Franklin, “without Freedom of Thought, there can be no such thing as Wisdom; and no such thing as public Liberty, without Freedom of Speech.” Discourse is the means to understanding, not demonizing and blatant disagreement. Gee wants to remind us of that.

Gee, J.P. (2013). The anti-education era: Creating smarter students through digital learning. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.

Weil, A. (2010, September 24). Fortunately, ‘corn sugar’ has become a sticky pr mess. Breaking news and opinion on the huffington post. Retrieved July 14, 2013, from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/andrew-weil-md/fortunately-corn-sugar-ha_b_738324.html

Google and The World Brain

Yesterday, we took a field trip to the Galway Film Fleadh to view Google and The World Brain. This documentary examines Google Books and the steps that were taken by many authors around the world to protect their copyrights from unauthorized digital scanning.

The film began by exploring the ancient idea of a world library; a collection of all of the world’s knowledge through text in one place. I find this idea fascinating. I am in the school of thought, much like Google, that access to information should be easy and free. However, the documentary furthered my thought process. Is it fair (or safe?) to have all of that knowledge in one place. By the end of the movie, I was not so sure that was a good idea.

Having a hard copy of every single text all in one place is one thing. A physical book cannot record personal information. It can be read, analyzed, and placed back on the self. The author will always get recognized for having written the book because his or her name will always be printed on the front. No one gets hurt by a library book. Digital books present an interesting problem. While Google Books set out to create an online library without the intention of infringing on copyright law, digital books can be used to any user’s discretion, legal or not. Whats more is that Google can start tracking their readers and never disclose what they use that data for.

I began thinking if the differences between a physical library and a digital one. Why were the authors who protested to the scanning upset? Their book was already in many libraries around the world, and the library was just making digital copies of a book that the library already owned…what’s the difference with having it online instead of just on a book shelf? I think I’m still grappling with this question. Anyone can walk into a library, pick up a book and read it, just like anyone online can click on a link and read it, so why is everyone so up set? I haven’t landed on an answer yet, but what I do understand is that Google was (even if unintentionally) monopolizing the information market.

Create a digital world library that anyone and everyone can access for free. The idea is harmless, right?

Not so fast…

If knowledge is power, then what exactly is Google compiling?

Consolidation of knowledge into one corporation could, in fact, defeat the purpose of a free, accessible, word library. Said corporation could potentially monopolize the books. Who’s to say that this was actually Google’s intention, but the idea of such power is not something that can go unchecked. When it was discovered that Google was scanning books that were still in copyright, many of the affected authors fought back. This caused Google to draw back and only release keyword based snippets of books.


An example of a ‘snippet’ created by Google Books. (photo attributed to http://www.futureofthebook.org/blog/archives/copyright_and_copyleft/index.html?page=3)

My favorite part of the movie was a Japanese author who explained “the America concept of ‘snippets’.” Google would show a piece of a page from a book based on a keyword search. In a Japanese book the characters are written length-wise on the page, unlike in an English book, where the pages are written left to right. Google did not consider this when creating snippets of Japanese books, so the snippets were rendered useless. The author, even thought his book was pretty much unreadable, still battled Google in court to halt the scanning process.

I understand why libraries would want to work with Google to create this database of texts. I find the idea of a World Brain hugely empowering and inspiring. On the other hand, the fact that it could be so abused makes me sad for humanity. It reminds me of Gee and many of the points that he makes in his book, The Anti-Education Era: Creating Smarter Students Through Digital Learning. People are not very smart about taking care of each other. We all want a lot of things for ourselves, but when it comes to the common good, there is very little that we are really willing to sacrifice and this makes us stupid (Gee, 2013). It makes me sad that there is not enough faith and trust amongst humans to built such an amazing tool. Even though I believe that Google’s initial intention was not to hurt anyone by scanning books, other people villianized the process.

Gee, J.P. (2013). The anti-education era: Creating smarter students through digital learning. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.


Since beginning my teaching career three years ago, I have to admit, I haven’t spent a lot of time or energy making sure that my students have creative outlets. Sure, I plan activities where they can draw a picture or create multimedia presentations. But for the most part, it’s not something that I actively seek to incorporate into my lessons. Now, though, I have a new sense of motivation to update my practices.

My lessons, readings, and projects that I have been working on here at MAET Galway have been largely centered around creativity. I have been reminded how rewarding it is to create something rather than just produce the product my teacher wants me to produce. I feel refreshed and ready to provide my students with more chances to express themselves creatively.

I think part of the reason that I ignored (in a way) creativity in my lessons prior to this was because I feel like I have to be careful when dealing with students’ creativity. A large part of my job is providing fair, defendable grades for their work. I have  many parents on my roster who would not hesitate to call or email about a grade they do not agree with. So, how should I mark a creative assignment?

On the flip side, my students rarely have any creative outlet. They have ten lessons a day that are all geared towards preparing them for an intense test. They hardly ever get to create or explore their own thinking, and they do not have very good problem solving skills. My students loath days without an art, music, or PE lesson because that means that they sit in the same room all day long, in rows, facing forward, listening. I want to be one of those lessons that they feel is a “break” from the norm, but where they can still learn a great deal.

At this point, I honestly feel like my desire to enable my students to be creative far outweighs my concerns about grades.

I’ve made a running list of tweaks that I can make to current projects and assignments in the hope of providing more open-ended, creativity-fostering  activities. I’ve been thinking of things like riddles, how-to videos, surveys and data analysis, and various types of journal assignments that could lead to more than just prescriptive paragraph writing. One of my problems is that I have a lot of ideas, but many of them are never seen to fruition because I try to take on too much all at once. I need to remember that I cannot create a creativity-enhanced classroom overnight!

I think, over time, on this journey to changing my teaching approach, I will occasionally re-watch this video shared with our class by Marci Lewis (thank you Marci!) It speaks volumes about the type of students that we as teachers are producing. I know what kind of teacher I want to be, and I have a refreshed sense of motivations now.

Segev, Elad. (2013, May 9). When there is a correct answer: excessive in creative thinking. [Video File]. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=9TskeE43Q1M


Remaking My Class: My Dream Learning Space

One of the main focuses of our lessons here in Galway has been creativity. How do we encourage it? Foster it? Inspire it? In the words of Punya Mishra, “Creativity cannot be taught” (Mishra, 2013). Creativity is inherently in us, and must be drawn out and called to attention in some way shape or form. One way schools can accomplish this is through intelligent design of the learning space.

In her article What Schools Can Learn from Google, IDEO, and PIXAR, author Melanie Kahl explains that creativity-based companies are innovating not only their fields of trade, but the offices they do it in. With wide open spaces intended for collaboration and fostering creativity, these work spaces are inspiring schools to rethink their own designs. Many schools across America are turning to open concept design and raw spaces to enable students to be creative and fill it with whatever they want it to be. So long to stuffy, dark classrooms and rooms designated for one purpose. Schools, teachers, designers, and students work together to make their learning space what they want it be (including the ability to change it in the future) (Kahl, 2011).

One of our classroom activities was to rethink and redesign our own classrooms. At first I thought about this assignment within the actual parameters of where I teach. I don’t have my own classroom, and I share a small office with 6 other teachers. The students remain in one crowded room all day and the teachers rotate from lesson to lesson. The only lessons the students switch classrooms for are PE, art, music, and computer. Our school has only one computer lab, and with the addition of one-to-one iPads next year, finding space for charging stations will be a challenge.

However, thinking about trying to remake my actual teaching space sounded to confining. So I began to imagine my dream classroom. I drew a floor plan of my imaginings.


Hey…I never claimed to be an artist.

But I am quite proud of my ideal classroom.

It’s a very large space, with a curvy glass wall separating the room. One side of the room is the classroom, complete with a SmartBoard, and iPad charging station, and lots of storage. I made sure to include big windows and a bulletin board for displaying students’ work. On the other side of the glass is the computer lab. There are 10 desktops and a printer. I also put my desk in this space, because, hey, I have to get some work done at some point. There is another bulletin board in here, more windows, as well as some comfy chairs for students to sit on while working.

I imagine this space being very open and airy, with lots of bright colors, pictures, things hanging from the ceiling, and maybe even some plants. I don’t think it feels like a typical “classroom” but can still function as such when need be. It’s a space where students can have some freedom, space, and work time (either collaborative or alone). I would love to have a classroom like this as a teacher, as well as a student.

Kahl, M. (2011, November 22). What schools can learn from google, IDEO, and pixar. The Creativity Post. Retrieved July 5, 2013, from http://www.creativitypost.com/education/what_schools_can_learn_from_google_ideo_and_pixar

Mishra, P. (Director) (2013, July 8). Creativity and NEW Ideas. MAET Overseas Cohort Year One. Lecture conducted from Michigan State University, Galway.

Check out these articles that describe the work spaces at Google and Pixar!

What Is Learning?

During my undergraduate career, in one of the first education classes that I took, we learned a small amount about neuroscience and how the brain forms synapse when new information is taken in. Short-term memory is turned into long-term memory is turned into understanding. Knowing what you want your students to learn is one thing. But how will they actually learn it?

Considering the actual learning process is an important step when thinking about students and teaching. First, we have to consider how we define “learning”. Do we think of learning as remembering facts, or rather, a deep understanding of a topic? Most teachers would say that they strive for the latter. In the book How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience and School, learning is described as making connections to prior knowledge and understanding the relationships (Donovan & Bransford & Pellegrino, 2000, p. 9). So as described before, one brain synapse literally connects to another. There in lies the challenge of activating that background knowledge, making sure that knowledge is correct, and guiding students to making those lasting connections. These rich connections will then enable students to transfer their knowledge and understanding to other subject areas and problems (Donovan & Bransford & Pellegrino, 2000, p. 51).

It is critical for teachers to examine which methods will facilitate learning in the best way. In his article Why School? TED Ebook Author Rethinks Education When Information is Everywhere, blogger Jim Daily (2012) interviews author Will Richardson. Richardson explains that there is a shift from teachers being the conveyers of knowledge to being the facilitators of learning. “Schools were built on the fundamental premise that teachers and knowledge and information were scarce. That is no longer the reality” (Daily, 2012). Teachers should no longer expect to stand at the front of the class and lecture facts, but rather, provide the coaching and the tools that can enable students to find the information on their own. This mindset and practice puts kids in charge of their learning and the connections they are making. Running a learner-centered classroom hand in hand with the technology at our disposal can help foster metacognitive students who are positive digital citizens. (Daily, 2012).

In this new age of understanding learning combined with abundant and accessible information, educators should take a step back and consider the best 21st century way to teach and help students attain deep understanding a topic. When deep understanding is achieved and connections are understood, students are well on their way to mastering a topic. We refer to this as conditionalized knowledge. “Experts’ knowledge is ‘conditionalized’—it included a specification of the contexts in which it is useful” (Donovan & Bransford & Pellegrino, 2000, p. 43).  Simply stated, conditionalized knowledge means that this understanding can be easily applied to any problem or question, at any time, without having to rack one’s brain. Donovan et al point out that many forms of curricula do not enable conditionalizing because they do not facilitate making connections to the material, “students will fail to conditionalized their knowledge because they know which chapter the problems can from and so automatically use this information to decide which concepts and forms are relevant” (Donovan & Bransford & Pellegrino, 2000, p. 43). Teachers must step up to supplement this missing piece of their curriculum.

For example, teaching writing can prove difficult when students don’t have conditionalized knowledge about a writing technique. Let’s say that a 3rd grade teacher gives a lesson on how to write an accordion paragraph. That teacher then gives the students several activities over the next few days to practice writing an accordion paragraph. However, a few weeks later, the teacher notices that many of the students only write an accordion paragraph when required to do so. They do not apply their knowledge to writing at other times when “accordion paragraph” is not specified in the directions. It’s not that the students are lazy per say—it’s that their knowledge of writing an appropriate accordion paragraph is not conditionalized. They are not experts. They don’t know that this style of writing can be useful in all of their paragraphs. Having the understanding of an accordion paragraph and being able to write one when directed to do so makes these students novices. They can be called experts when they automatically apply their writing skill to any writing that they set out to do.

Technology is creating different types of learning, which means we need different types of teachers (Knobel & Lanksher, 2006). It’s key to remember that even though students interact with knowledge in different ways, the way they learn is still the same. Teachers need to keep in mind that even though students can create beautiful projects on the computer doesn’t mean that their knowledge is conditionalized. Facilitating metacognition and connecting those brain synapses remains of utmost importance, even if the means of achieving it are constantly changing.

Daily, J. (2012, September 14). Why School? TED ebook author rethinks education when information is everywhere. TED Blog. TED Blog: Further reading on ideas worth spreading. Retrieved June 30, 2013, from http://blog.ted.com/2012/09/14/why-school-ted-ebook-author-rethinks-education-when-information-is-everywhere/

Donovan, S., Bransford, J., & Pellegrino, J. (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience and school. Washington, DC: National Academy Press. Retrieved from http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?isbn=0309070368

Knobel, M. & Lankshear, C. (2006). Discussing New Literacies. Language Arts, 84(1), 78-86.  Retrieved June 11, 2011, from Research Library Core. (Document ID: 1135586201).


IMG_0033As a fairly new educator, I feel as though my thoughts and mindset surrounding teaching are still very much in the formative stage. Throw in a new facet like technology, and I’ve got a whole new set of foundations to set.

During one of our lessons in the first week of our course in Galway, we were asked to read the views of several educators who have published their thoughts on the role of technology in the classroom. I explored the fascinating and somewhat blunt musings of education blogger Will Richardson. When I first began reading, I wasn’t sure that I would appreciate what he had to say. He seemed rather extreme. However, I realized that he is right. His whole premise of students having unlimited access to information is true. Teachers are no longer needed as human encyclopedias, as students can access information on their own…this is the mindset that has to change. Teachers are now needed to facilitate learning, not deliver it (Daily, 2012). His extremism is, in a way, necessary…calm writers and speakers generally don’t get a lot of attention. In order to create even incremental change, one must push for radical change.

During the lesson, my classmates and myself performed a round-robin activity called chalk talk. We walked around the room and silently wrote our answers to five different questions in the new mindset of our reading. I have used this method in my own teaching to great avail, and I will forever find it useful (however low tech it may be). It was a great, quick way to get the gist of everyone’s readings without having to create full presentations on them.

I love learning from other teachers…it’s amazing how many great educators there are in this world. After completing the chalk talk, we shared out many of the ideas, questions, and insights that were written on the papers around the room.

My classmates had some really good insights about learning and the role technology plays in the 21st century classroom. The most powerful part of this lesson for me was not the chalk talk itself, but the post-discussion. Our instructor wrote a brainstorm on the board of all of the “mindsets” that teachers need/have in regards to technology in education, shown in the photo at the top of this post. You can see how many thoughts were buzzing around in my head just by looking at the brainstorm.

After the lesson, I have to admit, I felt a bit intimidated. The technology is changing faster than the classrooms! How can we possibly keep up with it all? There are so many tools that I am dying to try in my classroom…what is the best way to go about it? Do the tools support the learning? Are we trying to incorporate technology just for the sake of technology?

However, after my moment of feeling infinitely small in against an infinitely large technological world,  the purpose of the lesson sunk in. It’s the mindset that needs to change first, not the teaching practice. I don’t have to use as much technology as I can get my hands on to have a great lesson. If my mindset is centered around students learning, and understanding they learn differently because of technology, then I can relax a bit about finding the right tools. That part can come later. I can walk with baby steps to incorporate technology into my classroom. Adjusting my mindset is the first step.

Daily, J. (2012, September 14). Why School? TED ebook author rethinks education when information is everywhere. TED Blog. TED Blog: Further reading on ideas worth spreading. Retrieved June 30, 2013, from http://blog.ted.com/2012/09/14/why-school-ted-ebook-author-rethinks-education-when-information-is-everywhere/