I have been teaching and consulting - from primary school through adult education - since 1996. Currently an education consultant with la Commission scolaire de la Seigneurie-des-Mille-Îles in Montreal, Quebec, I believe that sharing our stories is the key to getting better together.
Digital Action Plan. New courses. New partners. New projects. New people.
It has been a busy year and if there is one word to describe the past 180 days, it has to be collaboration.
Collaboration in education usually invokes images of smiles and people getting along while working on projects. When we say collaboration, maybe this is the picture we have in our head. And when we don’t want to collaborate with people, maybe it is because we think that it will be really difficult to attain that image with the particular people involved – if not impossible.
I think collaboration needs to be so much more than getting together (smiling and getting along) to achieve a pre-set something – whether it be a learning resource, an evaluation situation, a video, a set of ideas, a workshop, or an article.
Years ago, I read an article that I keep coming back to, Conflict amid Community: The micropolitics of teacher collaboration by Betty Achinstein. Her research demonstrated that, too often, what was missing from collaboration and community was conflict. (Not the yelling at each other and fighting kind of conflict, the opposing viewpoints kind of conflict.)
Now, we might think that to be a good thing. But, really, it is not. Conflicting opinions exist in community. When we ignore that, when we think there is only one way to do things, then we get into dangerous territory of privilege and oppression. When we focus on only one way of doing things, then we lose out on a diversity of ways of doing and being that, when put together, become something new, something great.
And that is what Betty Achinstein found. That when teachers collaborated on various projects, they very often met with conflict. The knee-jerk reaction to conflict is to make it go away – to smooth things over, to concede to something that we may not agree with, or to choose to exclude diverse viewpoints from the conversation. But, when conflict was allowed to happen, when teachers listened to each others different points of view and worked together anyways, they were able to achieve great things. Together. And the community got stronger. And individually, people felt better because they were heard and together they were contributing to the betterment of their community.
This year, I worked on many projects with many different people. Our Adult Education RECIT team in the English community doubled in size, beyond that, the RECIT network more than tripled in size. There was a demand for more resources to support the English network and so I have been starting to work with more people across it – from the youth sector into the adult sectors – and we each have our ways of doing and being that become part of our collaboration process.
And so of course – conflict occurs. When it is talked about and worked through and accepted as a part of the process, I believe that what we are working towards is better. Universal Design in education is steeped in empathy – the designing of learning environments and products with the greatest possible potential users in mind. How can we do that without listening to, considering, and integrating opposing viewpoints?
Each year around this time, as I start to think about the year to come, I ask myself – how are we getting better? When my ideas were challenged this year during collaboration, the end results were always better because they included multiple points of view. It wasn’t always easy for me and sometimes it took longer than I wanted, but it was always better. So my wish for next year, is that we continue to challenge each other so that we can continue to get better. Together.
I have been thinking and talking a lot about accessibility this year. As teachers, we want our students to be successful in our classrooms, in our schools and centres, in whatever their goals are. But how do we do this? Concretely, what do we do to ensure that this happens?
For many, the quick answer is through differentiation – when we tailor instruction to meet the individual needs of our students.
With differentiation, we get to know our students needs and/or learning styles so we can create lessons, activities, or environments that cater specifically to those needs.
Focusing solely on differentiation can be problematic on a variety of levels:
Where does accessibility come in? Well, it doesn’t. At least, not right away. In fact, I’d even argue that with differentiation, we are looking more at accommodation than at accessibility.
When we train our focus on accessibility, we can use frameworks like Universal Design to anticipate possible obstacles to learning in our lessons and environments and then design them away before the students can encounter them.
I think that both universal design and differentiation have similar motivations:
Their differences lie within their approaches.
With differentiation, we respond directly to individual needs. But we have to wait until these needs are presented to us in order to respond so it is a reactive approach.
With universal design, we anticipate obstacles and get rid of them so that the largest number of people can access the learning. It is not directly focused on the individual but on the collective, yet in a way that honours the individual.
I found differentiation exhausting as a teacher. Mainly because so much of the work had to happen once I met my students. When I started to move my focus towards creating learning environments and situations with multiple access points from the get-go, before I even met my students, I found that I was actually better at meeting individual needs than when I was working so hard trying to differentiate based on them! It was still a lot of work but much of the work could happen before I was ‘live’ with the students, which made things much easier.
As I wrote at the top, I have been thinking and talking a lot about these ideas lately. How we widen access to learning – especially in a context like adult education where we may only be with our students for a short while – is becoming increasingly important for me and the people I work with. I see accessibility being directly tied to empathy and, ultimately, respect for our students and their learning experiences.
Here are two videos I made recently based on some workshops I gave this year, some on my own and one with my colleague Sandra Laine of the RECIT service national, domaine des langues.
Part 1 answers the question Why Universal Design for Learning?:
Part 2 answers the question What is Universal Design for Learning? And it addresses some differences between UDL and Differentiation.
These videos were originally created for an article I wrote with Emilie Bowles, RECIT regional service to general adult education, for a special edition of the Carrefour FGA newsletter on Universal Design for Learning (pp. 11-13)
For more discussion about UDL and Differentiation:
About a month ago, I was invited to speak about Universal Design for Learning (UDL) at an online conference during the Semaine de la Formation à Distance, organized by FADIO. That week is happening this week and I presented yesterday.
As you can see in the tweet below, I presented in French. I called my presentation La CUA et la FAD: tenir compte de l’humain à travers l’écran (Loosely translated as UDL and distance education: considering the human through the screen. Link to tweet: )
I had two goals:
I actually had a third goal – it was to not explicitly present the frameworks in detail. I wanted to allow participants to experience learning that was designed using the frameworks. I decided that anyone could go read the frameworks if they wanted more detail and so I included them as extra resources.
I used a website to house all of my materials as well as the instructions for the experiential parts of the presentation. Those activities were sandwiched in between different parts of my presentation and feedback conversations.
So, how did it go?
First off, I was out of my comfort zone on a few different levels.
To add to that, there were two uncomfortable moments:
I didn’t manage those conversations well. I think that working entirely in French on an unfamiliar platform didn’t help. Luckily, they didn’t last all that long and I don’t think they detracted all that much from the rest of the session.
Back to how did it go?….I received verrrrrrrry mixed reviews!
Ranging from – this remains very superficial. Where are your schema and frameworks? Do you have any meat to add to your presentation? To this:
(Loose translation: The presentation and activities that Tracy proposed offered us different ways to sustain participant engagement, to act and express ourselves, and to access information. A true demonstration of UDL. Link to tweet)
Much of the response I received was positive and there were also others who left during the presentation.
So. What do I take away from these mixed responses?
I believe that the best way to learn about new classroom practice is to experience new classroom practice. I have seen how this kind of experiential learning can have an impact on practice many times. But that does not mean that is the only way I need to interact with participants.
I could say, oh well, you can’t please everyone. BUT. Actually, that wouldn’t be very UDL of me, would it?
For some people, they need to see those frameworks before experiencing them in order to experience them and make connections. For others, they make the connection to theory through the experience. And for others, they might make the connection to theory afterwards. All of this lies in the area of motivation and engagement- the Why am I learning this? principle of UDL.
I had placed the frameworks in an extra resources section of the website and included the option of visiting the extra resources section when participants completed activities but did not offer them as a specific choice during one of the activities.
In my presentation, I talked about how the teacher’s task is to create an environment where instruction of content is well-balanced with learner needs. I discovered that I didn’t quite do that here.
Each time I work with teachers and other educators, I learn something new. In the future, I am going to explicitly offer detailed views of frameworks as a choice during the small group activities.
(And I am also going to reflect on managing uncomfortable conversations, regardless of the setting.)
Over the past two weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to work in stations in three very different environments:
During each of those occasions, I was reminded of why I feel so strongly about working in stations. Before (and beyond!) flexible learning environments, is my relationship with the learners in my classroom…or in my conference room. Stations allow me to work closely with students and teachers at one station while they work closely with each other and learning resources at other stations.
As a teacher, when I work in stations, I am closer to my students. It is no longer me vs. a mass. It becomes me with the individuals in each small group. In stations, I can talk with each of my students during a class period and, more significantly, they can talk with each other in small learning groups. Conversation is how we make sense of the world together and talking with each other in small groups is a safe way to test out our sense-making – much safer than when we talk in large groups.
As a consultant, when I work in stations, I am closer to the participants in a workshop. I get to talk with each person and find out their needs, their ideas, their dreams for teaching. They also get to talk with each other and share their expertise with each other. Teaching can be lonely and we may question what we do on a daily basis but finding out that others have similar experiences and shared ideas is liberating. Conversation is how we make sense of the world together.
Even online, where I tested out virtual stations for the first time on November 20, 2018, I experienced conversation – whether through the chat box or the open mic, we made sense of things together. I sat in a ‘teacher station’ virtual room where small groups of participants rotated in to talk about selfies and different art forms and I learned from each group. It added a very human element to the online webinar format that I intend on continuing to explore.
In each case, I was able to speak with (almost) each of my participants and I learned through those conversations. When we talk to each other we are sharing our stories and stories are what make us, us. I learned new ideas and new approaches, but most of all I learned about who we are as people. It is these stories and conversations that enable me to keep my work interesting for me and, hopefully, relevant to those who I am working with at any given time.
So, yeah, teaching in stations is still the bomb and I still love it.
A place for everyone.
I taught a multi-level French Second Language course a number of years ago. The students were following a mix of Pre-secondary through Secondary five programs – and I had one student studying math. The students were part of a special program offered through Tewatohnhi’saktha and Nova Career Centre and they had one morning of French class a week. The work was immense. And there was one French class a week.
When I think about multiplying the work 3, 4, or 5 times a week, I start to shake. Yet this is what many teachers in Adult Education in Quebec do on a regular basis. The longer I work in Adult Ed, I am seeing that individualized classrooms are more the norm than the exception. I am humbled by teachers like Janie Lamoureux and Karine Jacques (and so many more!) who strive to make their classrooms work for all of their students, regardless of level, background, or course they are taking.
…& they do this through flexible learning environments.
But of course, flexible learning is SO much more than just a pretty space! And this is what Janie & Karine spoke about at the first après-cours for individualized teachers of the year, November 6, 2018.
Avi Spector, Véronique Bernard, and I decided to create an online community for Individualized teachers so they could have a place to meet with others and talk about the unique challenges and opportunities that come with an individualized classroom.
The theme for the first meeting was changing things up in the classroom and I think the best thing we did was to hand the content over to two master teachers – Karine Jacques & Janie Lamoureux. They spoke about how their flexible classroom environments help their students as well as their teaching. The meeting was completely bilingual and it was great to see the chat box blow up in both English and en français!
Their presentation/conversation was nothing short of inspiring. Below is a video of the meeting and some links to other resources from the après-cours. Enjoy – and I hope to see you at our next meeting! We will announce the date soon.