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Universal Design concept provides learners new educational avenues

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Albert Einstein once said: “If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

It is an idea that Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. educators are expected to keep in mind at all times: All students are intelligent, but some students show their abilities in different ways.

The district implemented a Universal Design for Learning framework, which helps teachers create individualized lessons that work for every student, more than 10 years ago.

In its simplest form, UDL is the idea that there is no single, one- size-fits-all solution to teaching. One student may need a physical textbook while another may do better with an interactive iPad application.

Last week, more than 150 educators — which mostly included teachers from the district but also several experts and principals from across the country — gathered at Columbus Signature Academy New Tech High School to dig into the teaching model.

Samantha Daley is a research scientist at the Center for Applied Special Technology, the organization that founded UDL, and delivered the keynote speech.

She spoke about the role of emotion in teaching and learning, and she commended BCSC on its work.

She has visited the district to observe the teaching in action, and she said she was thrilled to be invited back.

Very few districts around the nation would take it upon themselves to organize an institute of such a large size, she said.

“There is a lot of good energy and good thinking coming from here,” Daley said. “They are really dedicated to make learning work for everyone.”

Participants attended five days of sessions, ranging from small-group discussions to breakout sessions covering social issues and new technology.

Kate Edgren, an award-winning facilitator at Central Middle School’s Columbus Signature Academy, presented the UDL basics.

Meanwhile, Matt Bergman, a high school teacher from Hershey, Pennsylvania, provided an overview of the various online tools he uses in his classroom.

While the conference allowed teachers to prepare for the upcoming school year, it also gave educators a chance to reflect on the success of the Universal Design for Learning framework.

Director of Secondary Education Bill Jensen said the numbers of expulsions and suspensions are dwindling, perhaps because students are more engaged.

George Van Horn, director of special education for BCSC, has been instrumental in implementing the framework locally and was selected to champion it nationally in 2010.

“In visiting classrooms and looking at students and teachers, what I see are really, really energetic, enthusiastic teachers really enjoying what they perceive to be this newfound freedom to be creative and a little wild, if you will,” he said.

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