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Going Deep: Leveraging Universal Design for Learning to Engage All Learners in Rich Disciplinary Thinking in ELA


by Jenna W. Gravel - 2018

Background: Educators and researchers have long emphasized the need to engage students in disciplinary thinking in order to develop rich, discipline-specific practices and habits of mind. Yet, these opportunities are often under-nurtured in today’s classrooms and are especially limited for students with disabilities. Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is one promising avenue for supporting all students to engage in disciplinary thinking (ways of knowing, reasoning, and doing specific to the discipline). This framework for teaching and learning suggests embedding options into curricula in order to expand learning opportunities for students with and without disabilities. Researchers have yet to investigate how UDL and disciplinary thinking can complement one another.

Research Question: This study explores the following question: How, if at all, do teachers working within a school that explicitly promotes the UDL framework use UDL to prompt students’ disciplinary thinking in English Language Arts (ELA)?

Setting: The study was conducted in a fifth grade classroom of an inclusive elementary school in an urban district in the northeast United States.

Participants: Participants included two fifth grade co-teachers and their class of 21 students with and without documented disabilities.

Research Design: This qualitative case study spanned a 10-week ELA unit. Data were gathered via videotaped observations, collection of instructional materials, interviews with the co-teachers, and collection of student work. CAST is a nonprofit education research and development organization that works to expand learning opportunities for all individuals through UDL. The analytic framework joined CAST’s UDL Guidelines and common themes distilled from the literature that characterize disciplinary thinking in ELA. This framework was used as a starting place to code the co-teachers’ practice and students’ thinking. An open coding strategy was applied to capture emergent themes.

Findings: Data reveal that the co-teachers used specific strategies to create opportunities for all students to engage in disciplinary thinking. First, particular UDL guidelines/checkpoints were applied. For example, to support learners in “reading like writers,” the co-teachers applied strategies consistent with Guideline 6: “Provide options for executive functions,” encouraging students to develop the planning and organizational practices of expert readers and writers. Second, particular UDL guidelines/checkpoints were used in ways that are not explicitly suggested in the UDL Guidelines. For example, to support students in “reading for meaning” and “reading like writers,” the co-teachers’ strategies were generally consistent with Guideline 3: “Provide options for comprehension.” Yet, the co-teachers moved beyond “comprehension” by empowering students to construct their own sophisticated, disciplinary analyses.

Conclusions: The co-teachers’ instructional moves and the richness of students’ thinking offer important implications for future iterations of the UDL Guidelines and suggest that all learners can and should be challenged to engage in discipline-specific practices and habits of mind.



A small group of students huddles around a laptop and listens intently to an audio recording of the poem “Camel” by Lillian Fisher. The students instantly recognize the familiar voice reciting the poem—the voice of their teacher. Ms. Nichols reads the lines with emotion and musicality: “A camel is a mammal,/A most extraordinary animal/Whose appearance is a wee bit odd . . .” Gradually, each student begins to move his or her body to the rhythm. Jasmine and Haley clap their hands, and Kevin places his hands under his desk to covertly clap along. Sam and Darron snap their fingers, while Nick lightly taps two pencils on his pencil case as if playing a drum. Tyler remains still, and Ms. Nichols gently places her hands over his in order to pat out the rhythm on his desk. As Ms. Nichols circles around to other students, Haley reaches her hand over to Tyler’s desk to offer support. Soon, the students’ bodies begin to synchronize, and the plodding rhythm of the poem is now seen, heard, and felt.


Yet, the ending of the poem disrupts the students’ collective movements; the recording ends among asynchronous claps, snaps, taps, and pats. Experiencing this disruption sparks Ms. Nichols and the students to question why the poet breaks the rhythm so abruptly. “The camel is stopping” declare Sam and Kevin in unison. “He [the camel] is at the end of the poem, so it’s like a goodbye,” suggests Nick. After more discussion, the students return to the final lines, “Is found at the zoo/Where he’s happy, it’s true./But—/Deep inside—desert is best.” When asked where he thinks the camel is most content, Tyler asserts, “Desert.” Kevin then offers, “The animal, it does its natural, like, thing—it’s walking and being. And then in the zoo, it can’t walk that fast so the beat was just stopped there.” Ms. Nichols beams with satisfaction. “Whoa. See, you guys are going deep. You are going deep.”


In this moment, a diversity of fifth-graders with varying strengths and weaknesses are engaging in the practices of the discipline of English Language Arts (ELA)—they are uncovering the relationship between meaning, rhythm, and their own bodies, and they are examining the poet’s use of specific strategies and the effects those strategies have upon the reader. This moment is reflective of the kinds of rich, disciplinary thinking that Ms. Nichols and her co-teacher, Ms. Reynolds, promote among their diverse students. Ms. Nichols and Ms. Reynolds teach in an inclusive elementary school that embraces a framework for teaching and learning called Universal Design for Learning (UDL). By drawing from the principles of UDL, these fifth-grade co-teachers are able to encourage challenging, discipline-specific thinking in ELA among students with and without disabilities.  


Educators and researchers have long emphasized the need to engage students in moments such as these—moments that move beyond basic understanding and rote memorization and support students to acquire the unique ways of thinking specific to a discipline (Buchmann, 1984; Moje, 2008; Schwab, 1964; Shanahan & Shanahan, 2008). By delving into the practices of the disciplines, students have the opportunity to develop the sophisticated ways of thinking and expressing ideas that will empower them as future learners and leaders (Gardner, 2000; Jacobs, 2014; Rainey & Moje, 2012; Shanahan & Shanahan, 2008). The release of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in English Language Arts/Literacy and Mathematics, the College, Career & Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards, and the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) signals a renewed focus on developing robust disciplinary thinking among students. Yet, supporting students to develop rich, discipline-specific practices and epistemological commitments is often under-nurtured in today’s classrooms: for many students, the opportunities to learn about a discipline far overshadow the opportunities for them to actually do the discipline themselves (Gardner, 2000; Langer, 1992; Moje, 2008; Rainey & Moje, 2012). Unfortunately, the kinds of disciplinary engagement in ELA taking place among Ms. Nichols and Ms. Reynolds’s students are atypical in today’s classrooms. And, these opportunities for deep disciplinary thinking among students with disabilities are especially limited (Jorgensen, 1998; Koppenhaver et al., 1991).   


One promising avenue for expanding all students’ opportunities to engage in disciplinary thinking is UDL. The UDL framework suggests embedding options and supports into curricula in order to expand learning opportunities not just for students with disabilities but for all learners (Rose & Meyer, 2002). This framework has recently gained attention at the district, state, and federal levels: schools throughout the country are embarking on UDL initiatives in order to reach the needs of students in both general and special education (Rose & Gravel, 2013), and the 2008 Higher Education Opportunity Act provided the first statutory definition of UDL. UDL is now defined and endorsed in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) of 2015, marking the first time that UDL has been incorporated into legislation that governs general K–12 education (CAST, 2016). Further, UDL is now emphasized in the 2016 National Education Technology Plan, a plan that articulates the role of technology in all students’ learning (CAST, 2016). These endorsements have contributed to the bourgeoning interest in UDL among general and special educators alike. Despite this momentum, however, research on UDL implementation in classrooms is only beginning to emerge.


Examining how UDL and disciplinary thinking can complement one another is an apparent gap in the literature. Yet this gap does not seem to exist in Ms. Nichols and Ms. Reynolds’s inclusive fifth-grade classroom. These co-teachers leverage the synergy between UDL and disciplinary thinking on a regular basis as they apply UDL in unique and specific ways to engage their diverse learners in the practices of ELA. Much can be learned from Ms. Nichols and Ms. Reynolds’s pedagogy, and this article offers a window into their classroom. This article explores how teachers use UDL in ways that encourage disciplinary thinking in ELA by examining the specific instructional moves that Ms. Nichols and Ms. Reynolds employed and by offering examples of the rich student thinking that emerged. The paper concludes with suggestions for strengthening the principles of UDL based on the co-teachers’ discipline-specific application of the framework and for expanding notions of what it means to challenge all learners to “go deep” into the discipline of ELA.


UNIVERSAL DESIGN FOR LEARNING


Traditional, “one-size-fits-all” curricula present unintentional barriers, and UDL offers a framework for designing curricula that provide all students opportunities to gain the knowledge, skills, and motivation necessary for learning (CAST, 2011). The ultimate goal of UDL is to develop “expert learners” (Rose & Gravel, 2009, p. 5), students who “are, each in their own way, resourceful and knowledgeable, strategic and goal-directed, purposeful and motivated” (Rose & Gravel, 2013, pp. 82–84).


UDL is situated among several pedagogical approaches that seek to enhance learning opportunities for diverse learners. For example, there are overlaps between approaches such as differentiated instruction—an approach where educators seek to customize learning according to students’ individual “readiness, interest, and learning profile” (Tomlinson, 1999, p. 11)—as well as between adaptive teaching—an approach where educators stay closely attuned to individual learner differences and the social subtleties of the classroom in order to continuously assess student needs and respond with real-time adjustments (Corno, 2008; Randi & Corno, 2005). What sets UDL apart is the emphasis on the need to design instruction with a range of embedded options and supports from the very beginning of the lesson planning process. Thus, UDL lessons are “designed from the outset to meet the needs of all learners, making costly, time-consuming, and after-the-fact changes unnecessary” (National Center on UDL, 2015). Applying UDL to the initial design phase can support the creation of flexible, responsive learning opportunities that do not require the ongoing, individual-level adjustments that are needed with approaches like differentiated instruction and adaptive teaching. By designing for difference from the start, teachers can focus their real-time adjustments on responding to student thinking without having to focus simultaneously on responding to unintentional barriers in the design of the curriculum.


Further, UDL is unique in that its theoretical basis stitches together three distinct areas of research that have historically been disconnected. Like approaches such as differentiated instruction and adaptive teaching, the framework is influenced by seminal work in the learning sciences and in cognitive psychology that highlighted variability among learners (Vygotsky, 1978; Piaget, 1952; Wood, Bruner, & Ross, 1976). Yet UDL also draws heavily from neuroscience research that reveals individual differences among three brain networks: the recognition network, the network responsible for perceptual functioning and how individuals categorize information; the strategic network, the network responsible for motor functioning and how individuals organize and execute tasks; and the affective network, the network responsible for emotional functioning (Meyer, Rose, & Gordon, 2014).  


Drawing from the emerging science of these three brain networks, the UDL framework is built upon three principles: (1) multiple means of representation to ensure that learners can access information, (2) multiple means of action and expression to allow students to act on and express what they know, and (3) multiple means of engagement to motivate students (Rose & Meyer, 2002). CAST’s UDL Guidelines were developed to more fully support instructional designers and educators in applying these principles to practice. The Guidelines consist of 9 guidelines and 31 checkpoints that offer concrete strategies for increasing learning opportunities for diverse learners (CAST, 2011). The top row of the Guidelines represents the “access guidelines,” the strategies to ensure that students have physical access to the learning goal. The arrows pointing downward from the top row represent the subsequent guidelines leading to the ultimate goal of developing “expert learners” (Appendix A).


These Guidelines were intentionally designed to support learning among students across content areas (CAST, 2011). However, in this effort to make the Guidelines applicable to any domain, specificity in terms of how to apply the Guidelines to achieve particular disciplinary ways of thinking is lost. Although the Guidelines emphasize the importance of applying UDL according to particular learning goals, support in defining meaningful, discipline-specific goals is not captured in the Guidelines. Thus, many educators often equate UDL with the top level of the Guidelines—with providing students access to content—without considering how the Guidelines can be used to create discipline-specific “expert learners.” Rose, Hasselbring, Stahl, and Zabala (2005) revealed that it is common for educators to associate UDL with assistive technology and to conceive of UDL as a framework for providing students with disabilities the technologies that they need to access and participate in the classroom. This attention to applying UDL to increase access marks a necessary and valuable start in terms of more fully meeting the needs of diverse learners. Yet, Rose et al. asserted that the goals of UDL reach beyond accessibility; the authors argued for a “shift from a focus on access to a focus on learning” (pp. 516–517). Thus, more research that explores those educators who are engaged in this “shift” and who are using UDL for both access and for deep, discipline-specific aims is needed as more and more general and special educators begin to apply UDL to their practice.


DISCIPLINARY THINKING IN ELA


Beginning in the mid-1960s, researchers began to emphasize the disciplinary nature of learning. Bruner (1960) and Schwab (1964) underscored the unique ways in which disciplines are organized. Schwab stressed that each discipline has its own “syntactical structure” for gathering evidence, measuring quality, forming interpretations, and drawing conclusions (p. 14). He asserted that supporting students to develop these varying “modes of enquiry” were “almost universally overlooked” in the classroom and encouraged educators to engage students in disciplinary practices (p. 24).  


The call for disciplinary thinking grew louder in the 1980s. Researchers emphasized the need to not only build students’ basic skills but also to develop students’ understanding of discipline-specific practices and epistemological commitments (Buchmann, 1984; Shulman; 1987). To accomplish this aim, researchers underscored the importance of supporting teachers’ disciplinary knowledge (Anderson, 1988; Ball, 1988; Buchmann, 1984). Shulman (1987) asserted that teachers must “understand the structures of subject matter, the principles of conceptual organization, and the principles of inquiry” unique to their discipline and support students in developing these disciplinary understandings as well (p. 9).


As described above, researchers continue to advocate for disciplinary thinking today (Gardner, 2000; Langer, 1992, 2011; Lee & Spratley, 2010; Moje, 2008; Shanahan & Shanahan, 2008). Despite this strong emphasis on disciplinary thinking, coherence around identifying the particular practices specific to each discipline varies across domains. The hard sciences have traditionally offered the strongest consensus, as this field upholds clear structural and methodological aims (Donald, 2002). The recent release of the NGSS and their focus upon disciplinary practices is reflective of the domain’s shared epistemological commitment (NGSS, 2014). The field of history has also progressed in defining what it means for students to engage in “historical thinking” (Boix-Mansilla, 2000; C3 Framework, 2014; VanSledright, 2004; Wineburg, 2001). Yet, consensus unravels when looking to ELA. The CCSS and the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) offered a start at distinguishing specific disciplinary practices but fell short in collectively articulating the art of thinking within the discipline. Donald (2002) referred to a “dearth of collective coherence” within ELA (p. 237) and contended that “diversity is a hallmark of the field” (p. 236).


Given this variability, I conducted a review of the literature in order to begin conceptualizing what it means to actually do ELA beyond the basic competencies of reading and writing as well as to begin characterizing disciplinary thinking in ELA in ways that can be applied to the classroom. Although considerable diversity exists, four common themes emerged. These four themes are intentionally broad so as to embody a range of disciplinary practices in ELA. They are not meant to suggest that they are the only practices, habits of mind, or epistemological commitments in ELA; instead, I intend that the themes offer a starting point to the field as to ways one might begin to codify how students engage in the discipline of ELA.


First, many ELA scholars underscore the importance of developing an identity as a writer and supporting students to feel like confident, capable writers (Gee, 2007; Smith, 1983; Wearmouth et al., 2011). Smith (1983) encouraged educators to support students in understanding that they can gain “membership in the club of writers” (p. 564). Second, the notion of supporting students to “read for meaning” resonates across the literature (Axelrod & Cooper, 1999; Herber, 1978; Rainey & Moje, 2012). When students “read for meaning,” they move beyond basic comprehension; they “actively construct meaning from a text” (Axelrod & Cooper, 1999, p. 3) by engaging in practices such as tapping background knowledge, assimilating new knowledge, formulating opinions, and considering connections (Axelrod & Cooper, 1999; Rainey & Moje, 2012; Rainey, 2016). Third, supporting students to “read like a writer” appears throughout the ELA literature (Axelrod & Cooper, 1999; Rainey & Moje, 2012; Smith, 1983; Story & Sneddon, 2008). With this type of discipline-specific reading, students explore the “author’s craft” and uncover techniques that authors use to evoke meaning and to guide readers (Axelrod & Cooper, 1999; Rainey & Moje, 2012; Story & Sneddon, 2008). Finally, the literature calls attention to the relationship between “reading like a writer” and ultimately developing the skills of “writing like a writer” (Browning & McClintic, 1995; Smith, 1983; Story & Sneddon, 2008). By closely attending to the author’s craft, students can begin to weave these strategies into their own work (Story & Sneddon, 2008).


Unfortunately, researchers’ and disciplinary experts’ emphasis upon the value of disciplinary thinking has not successfully translated to practice. Today’s classrooms offer minimal opportunities for students to develop discipline-specific practices and epistemological commitments (Gardner, 2000; Langer, 1992; Moje, 2008; Rainey & Moje, 2012). With the current emphasis on high-stakes assessments, many students’ days are spent memorizing facts with little opportunity to strengthen their “disciplinary muscles” (Gardner, 2000, p. 125). Students may be developing academic competencies, but they are not developing deep, disciplinary knowledge within specific subjects.


Additionally, opportunities for students with disabilities to develop disciplinary thinking are especially limited. Too often, educators focus on functional skills without challenging students with disabilities to engage in meaningful learning within a content area (Causton-Theoharis et al., 2011; Jorgensen, 1998; Koppenhaver et al., 1991). For students with significant disabilities, even instruction in reading and in other academic content areas is generally minimized (Browder et al., 2007; Kliewer, Biklen, & Kasa-Hendrickson, 2006). The need to engage a diversity of learners in disciplinary thinking is clear. Thus, this article examines the question: How, if at all, do teachers working within a school that explicitly promotes the UDL framework use UDL to prompt students’ disciplinary thinking in English Language Arts (ELA)?


METHODS


THE SCHOOL


I used a purposive sampling strategy (Palys, 2008) in order to explore the research question in an environment where teachers draw from a UDL framework and attempt to engage their students in challenging ways of thinking in ELA. The Campbell School1, a K–5 elementary school in an urban district in the northeast United States, offered an ideal setting in which to conduct this study, for two reasons. First, Campbell is a full inclusion school, and all teachers have been trained in the UDL framework in order to serve students with a wide diversity of strengths, weaknesses, cultures, and backgrounds. Of the 240 students enrolled during the 2012–2013 school year, 30% of students received special education services, a percentage considerably higher than the national average of 13.0% (National Center for Education Statistics, 2015). Thus, Campbell offered a unique place to study the ways in which UDL is used to support the learning of students with and without disabilities. Second, although Campbell teachers incorporate UDL across content areas, the school was focused on integrating UDL into ELA instruction at the time of this study. This disciplinary focus, as well as my own prior experience as a middle school ELA inclusion specialist, guided me toward selecting ELA as the focal discipline for this study.


The school also uses a co-teaching structure to ensure that all learners’ needs are met; each class is co-taught by a teacher who is certified in general education as well as a teacher who is certified in special education. 2 While highly dependent upon factors such as developing a strong relationship between each co-teacher and preserving opportunities for common planning time, a co-teaching model has the promise of more fully facilitating the learning of all students in inclusive classrooms (Friend, Cook, Hurley-Chamberlain, & Shamberger, 2010). 3


THE CLASSROOM


This study focused on ELA instruction in Campbell’s one fifth grade classroom—a classroom co-taught by Ms. Nichols, a general educator, and Ms. Reynolds, a special educator. I recruited these teachers given their strong reputations among administrators and colleagues alike, their expertise in applying UDL to practice, and their commitment to challenging all learners. Ms. Nichols and Ms. Reynolds co-taught together for the past eight years and boasted close to 40 years of combined teaching experience. They have developed a close personal and professional relationship over the years. Ms. Nichols notes that her “big picture” way of thinking about lesson design and Ms. Reynolds’s methodical, step-by-step approach is a key to their productive co-teaching relationship. Both teachers had previously participated in professional development on UDL; they described their use of UDL as an internalized, organic process given their extensive experience supporting diverse learners and embedding UDL principles into their practice. As described above, many teachers view UDL as a framework for providing students with access to the curriculum; yet, Ms. Nichols and Ms. Reynolds reported that they use UDL as a way to ensure that all of their students can engage with learning objectives in meaningful and challenging ways. Thus, these co-teachers’ focus on both UDL and creating rigorous learning opportunities made their classroom a fitting environment in which to explore how they might leverage UDL to encourage their students to engage in disciplinary thinking in ELA.


Ms. Nichols and Ms. Reynolds’ class consisted of 21 students. Of these 21 students, the co-teachers reported that 12 identified as white, five identified as Black, two identified as Asian, and two identified as multiracial. Seven students received free/reduced lunch, and four students were either English-language learners or former English-language learners. Eight students in the class were students with disabilities; students’ disabilities included mild language-based disabilities to more complex disabilities such as autism and Down syndrome. Of these eight students, six students were labeled as having significant intellectual disabilities; they worked with a modified curriculum and used accommodations such as communication devices and symbol-based-text. Additionally, the co-teachers reported that three students displayed signs of depression, although not officially diagnosed.


The co-teachers used a station-based teaching approach. For ELA, groups of five to six students rotated among several stations during blocks that ranged from 50 to 80 minutes. The format of each station varied among those facilitated by a co-teacher, collaborative work, or independent work. The groupings constantly evolved based on formative feedback and could be heterogeneous, homogenous based on students’ certain strengths or weaknesses, homogenous based on students’ material preferences, and more.

DATA COLLECTION


In order to examine approaches to merging UDL and disciplinary thinking, the co-teachers and I identified one ELA unit to study from start to finish. We selected the unit given the co-teachers’ hope that it would offer numerous opportunities for students to engage in the practices of the discipline. The unit spanned 33 schooldays over a 10-week period from April to June of 2013, and I collected data each day. I gathered data on teaching strategies through classroom observations, semi-structured interviews with the co-teachers, and the collection of unit-related materials. I also gathered a wealth of student-driven data through the classroom observations as well as through the collection of student work.


Observations


I conducted a total of 33 observations, totaling approximately 59 hours. During these observations, I paid particular attention to specific teacher moves, to the instructional goals and objectives, and to the details of instructional activities. These observations were documented through extensive field notes using “thick description” (Geertz, 1973) and were also videotaped to create a rich archive of classroom footage.


Semi-structured interviews. I conducted a joint, semi-structured interview with the co-teachers before, during, and after the unit in order to uncover the co-teachers’ beliefs and intentions with regard to UDL and disciplinary thinking. Each interview lasted from 45 to 60 minutes and was audio recorded and transcribed. During the first interview, the co-teachers and I discussed their background on UDL; we explored topics such as the ways they apply the framework to their teaching and their thoughts on the pedagogical benefits and drawbacks of using UDL. The co-teachers and I also reflected on the kinds of thinking and habits of mind that they believe are important for students to develop in ELA. We also considered the kinds of thinking in which their students engaged during their ELA periods and whether or not the co-teachers were satisfied with students’ current abilities. Finally, we explored the co-teachers’ lesson planning process and how, if at all, the UDL framework and notions of disciplinary thinking come into play.


Throughout the two interviews during and after the unit, I employed an approach known as “stimulated recall” (Calderhead, 1981): the co-teachers and I viewed and discussed specific moments of video footage taken during classroom observations in order to elicit comments on their processes and realities (Jordan & Henderson, 1995; Roth, 2007). During these interviews, we discussed teachers’ perceptions of the kinds of student thinking taking place during these moments as well as the strategies that teachers employed to generate this thinking. For example, when viewing a video clip of students exploring the poem “Camel” described in the opening vignette, I asked questions such as: “What kinds of thinking were students doing when they were exploring movement in this poem?” and “How did you ensure that all learners were able to engage in this moment?” This “stimulated recall” approach provided a window into how the co-teachers intended to leverage strategies consistent with UDL in order to cultivate specific disciplinary thinking in ELA among their learners.


Collection of instructional materials. I also collected (or copied/scanned) all of the instructional materials associated with the entire unit: lesson objectives for each of the 33 days, 32 handouts, nine books, two websites, three teacher-made models, and four videos.


Student-driven data. Finally, in order to understand if these teacher moves did in fact encourage disciplinary thinking in ELA, it was essential to collect a wealth of student-driven data. During each classroom observation, I looked for evidence—or a lack thereof—of students engaging in the four themes of disciplinary thinking. I captured students’ questions and discussions through the thick description of classroom observations and through video footage. I also engaged with students and questioned their thinking through informal conversations throughout the unit. Finally, I gathered all of the artifacts generated by the students throughout the unit: graphic organizers, planning templates, worksheets, blog posts, and poetry journals, as well as drafts and final products of students’ writing. A total of 326 artifacts were collected, with an average of 15.5 collected for each student.


This range of data summarized in Table 1 below—classroom observations, classroom video, field notes, interviews, instructional materials, and student work—created a rich archive of instructional moves, student thinking, and teacher beliefs. Further, these varied data offered multiple opportunities for triangulation and ensured a comprehensive exploration of how these co-teachers leveraged UDL to engage their students in “going deep” into the discipline of ELA.


Table 1. Data Collected Throughout the Unit.

Data

            Amount

Classroom Observations

33


Hours

59


Hours of video footage

44


Teacher Interviews

3


Unit Related Materials

83


Lesson objectives

33


Handouts

32


Books

9


Websites

2


Teacher-made models

3


Videos

4


Student-generated artifacts

326


Average for each student

15.5


 

            

ANALYTICAL FRAMEWORK


The analytical framework for this study joins CAST’s UDL Guidelines and common themes distilled from the literature that describe what it means to engage in disciplinary thinking in ELA. CAST is a nonprofit education research and development organization that works to expand learning opportunities for all individuals through UDL. To identify the UDL strategies that the co-teachers used to promote disciplinary thinking in ELA among diverse learners, I drew from the UDL Guidelines. To identify disciplinary thinking in ELA, I drew from the four broad themes distilled from the literature described above: identifying as a writer, “reading for meaning,” “reading like a writer,” and “writing like a writer.”

ANALYTIC STRATEGY


Data analysis was ongoing throughout the data collection phase and beyond. During the data collection phase, I wrote reflective memos immediately following each observation and interview. In these memos, I reflected on my initial impressions in terms of how the co-teachers were using UDL to encourage students to engage in deep thinking in ELA. I reflected on the co-teachers’ specific instructional moves and how these moves did or did not align with UDL. I also considered the kinds of thinking the co-teachers attempted to generate among their students and how these ways of thinking aligned or did not align with disciplinary practices. In addition, I reflected on students’ thinking and how their actions and work products did or did not align with disciplinary practices.


In order to begin organizing all of these initial impressions, I created a spreadsheet listing the date, time, video file name, objectives, materials, a summary of my thoughts with regard to the co-teachers’ moves, and a summary of my thoughts with regard to student thinking. This spreadsheet helped me to keep track of all of my observations by date and allowed me to easily reference the associated field notes, memos, and videos when needed. Further, this strategy helped me to identify particular instructional moments—moments when the co-teachers seemed to be successfully encouraging students to engage in disciplinary practices, moments of rich student thinking, and so on—to analyze with the co-teachers during the “stimulated recall” interview activities described above.


Upon the conclusion of the data collection phase, I dove deeply into analyzing the wealth of data collected. To analyze the co-teachers’ instructional moves, I coded field notes and video from the classroom observations as well as the instructional materials using a set of etic codes based on the UDL guidelines (e.g., codes such as “UDL Guideline 1: Provide options for perception”) as well as a set of codes based on the four themes of disciplinary thinking in ELA (e.g., codes such as “reading like a writer”). I also used emic coding to uncover productive teacher moves that were not fully captured by the UDL Guidelines. Several categories of codes emerged using this method, for example: codes pertaining to teacher beliefs (e.g., “epistemological beliefs” and beliefs that students labeled as having the most significant intellectual disabilities can engage in challenging learning opportunities in different ways or “shades”) and codes pertaining to instructional practice (e.g., “student creation” and “station-based teaching”) (Maxwell, 2013). To analyze the co-teachers’ behind-the-scenes thinking, I coded the teacher interviews according to this same combination of etic and emic codes. Again, this strategy proved beneficial as the co-teachers revealed a sense of why they employed particular strategies not included in the UDL Guidelines and how they believed these strategies served to promote disciplinary thinking. Finally, to analyze student thinking, I coded students’ questions and comments from the observations/video and all of the student work using the etic codes of the four themes of disciplinary thinking as well as emic codes to capture any kind of disciplinary thinking in ELA that did not fit into the four themes. (Please see Appendix B for example of field notes/video transcription linked to specific codes.)


Alongside this coding process, I created an analytical matrix based on the UDL Guidelines and the four broad themes of disciplinary thinking in ELA. The matrix also included “other” columns in order to capture the productive teacher moves or elements of disciplinary thinking that were not encapsulated in the Guidelines or in the four themes of disciplinary thinking (Maxwell, 2013). This matrix supported me in organizing my data in terms of the pedagogical moves used and the kinds of thinking that emerged and assisted me in surfacing patterns in the data. For example, the teachers’ use of strategies consistent with UDL Guideline 6: “Provide options for executive function” seemed to connect frequently to supporting students to “read like a writer” and “write like a writer,” while the co-teachers’ emphasis on preserving space for students to create and generate their own ideas kept falling into the matrix’s “other” column as this pedagogical strategy did not connect neatly to the UDL Guidelines.


VALIDITY


Maintaining this openness to categories outside of the predetermined UDL Guidelines helped to ensure the validity of this study; as described below, the open coding strategy allowed me to make discoveries beyond the UDL framework (Maxwell, 2013). I also conducted consistent “member-checks” (Lincoln & Guba, 1985) with teachers to elicit feedback on emerging interpretations during the interviews and during informal conversations throughout the unit. Furthermore, the triangulation of data from multiple methods enhanced validity, as my findings were not compromised by the biases of a single method (Maxwell, 2013). Finally, I challenged myself to sustain awareness as to how my identity influenced this research (Peshkin, 1988). As a researcher at CAST, I played a role in the creation of CAST’s UDL Guidelines. This prior position proved advantageous as I was able to recognize specific UDL strategies in practice; yet, I recognized that my commitment to UDL also posed a threat to my impartiality. Thus, I engaged in several “peer debriefings” (Lincoln & Guba, 1985) with colleagues in order to gain outside perspectives on my interpretations.


DESCRIPTION OF THE UNIT


The ELA unit selected wove together three strands: 1) poetry, 2) fables and parables, and 3) the Maasai community in Kenya and northern Tanzania. The unit culminated with the students creating their own fables/parables and poems about the Maasai using an online bookmaking tool called Shutterfly.


The unit began in early April and concluded in late June. In the first half of the unit, the ELA block was divided into two sections: Readers’ Workshop and Writers’ Workshop. In Readers’ Workshop, students explored different forms of poetry and poetic devices. In Writers’ workshop, students explored the structural elements of fables4 and parables5 through the work of Aesop and other authors. Students also explored the unique culture of the Maasai. The school has a partnership with an inclusive primary school in Kenya, and the co-teachers had visited the school and the surrounding Maasai community two years before. The visit inspired the co-teachers to develop this unit that enabled students to learn more about the Maasai through the photographs and videos taken during their travels.


The co-teachers referred to the second half of the unit as the “production phase.” In Readers’ Workshop, students created their own poetry. Each student developed a Poetry Journal, a space to experiment with the different types of poetry that were explored in the first half of the unit. In Writers’ Workshop, students created their own fables and parables. They chose a moral from Maasai culture and developed either a fable featuring animals from their fourth-grade study of Kenyan wildlife or a parable featuring Maasai community members. During this portion of the unit, students engaged in each phase of the writing process: planning, drafting, revising, and publishing. Students created their final product using Shutterfly and uploaded photographs taken by the co-teachers as well as their own artwork. Students also added a poem to summarize their fable/parable. Thus, the Shutterfly book reflected learning from all three strands of the unit.


FINDINGS


The analysis of classroom observations, teacher interviews, and student-driven data reveals that the co-teachers provided opportunities for students to identify as a writer, “read for meaning,” “read like a writer,” and “write like a writer” throughout the unit. A total of 66 stations were observed, and evidence that students were in fact engaged in disciplinary thinking was observed in 42 stations. Of these 42 stations, each of the four themes of disciplinary thinking in ELA was observed. Interestingly, the goal of the station and the type of disciplinary thinking generated among students generally aligned to one of the four themes. Yet there was some overlap with “Reading for Meaning” and “Reading Like a Writer.” Below, I describe the ways in which the co-teachers were able to engage their diverse group of fifth-graders in the practices of the discipline by highlighting an instructional example for each of the four themes of disciplinary thinking in ELA.

 

IDENTIFYING AS A WRITER: REFLECTIVE BLOG POSTS


Researchers and educators believe that assuming an identity as a writer is key to engaging in the discipline of ELA. There were several moments throughout the unit when the co-teachers created opportunities for students to self-reflect, and these reflection opportunities encouraged students to begin seeing themselves as budding poets and authors. The reflective blog posts that students developed at the end of the unit is representative of the ways in which the co-teachers supported students to begin developing identities as writers.


In order to encourage students to reflect on their learning over the previous ten weeks, the co-teachers asked students to blog about one of the following prompts: 1) What have you learned from having this experience? 2) Looking back on your blog post from April 22, what thoughts do you have now that you are at the final stage of your Shutterfly Book Project? 3) Now that you have seen your Shutterfly book in print, what thoughts or reflections do you have? Several UDL “access guidelines” were used to reduce periphery challenges not associated with the learning goal and to support students in self-reflecting:


UDL Principle

UDL “Access Guidelines” in place to reduce barriers and to increase access to learning goal

Multiple means of Representation

Prompts were offered in text and read aloud (UDL Guidelines: “Options for perception” and “Options for language and symbols”)

Multiple means of Action and Expression

Students could type on a laptop or an iPad, which allowed them to use tools such as spellcheck and word prediction (UDL Guidelines: “Options for physical action” and “Options for expression and communication”)

Students with motor or language processing disabilities were encouraged to partner with a peer/adult who could act as a scribe (UDL Guidelines: “Options for physical action” and “Options for sustaining effort and persistence”)

Multiple means of Engagement

Students could choose from three different prompts (UDL Guideline: “Options for recruiting interest”)

 

An analysis of the students’ posts reveals self-reflection among students in terms of their developing identities as writers. Parker emphasized the pride and ownership he felt as a result of the unit, and posted, “After seeing my book in print, I think it’s amazing. At the beginning, it was just a draft and now it’s a published book with real pictures and illustrations and with my own poem. It is my own work in print and I am really really really proud.” Alana expressed similar feelings of achievement with regard to her published work. She posted,


Now that I have seen my Shutterfly book project in print, my thoughts are I’m very happy that I accomplished making the Shutterfly book project. I’m also very proud that I now have my book and to see all my hard work in the book and my story that I wrote.


Other students’ posts showed signs of emerging identities as writers. As described above, several options for expression were embedded into the design of the activity. Liam, a student with a label of Down syndrome6 who has difficulty formulating his thoughts through writing, took advantage of the option of a scribe to express his reflections. He posted, “Now that I have seen my Shutterfly book in print, I feel good! I like how the illustrations look, and the photos look cool. I like reading the other fables by my partners… I feel like a real author!” Haley posted, “I am so excited that I saw my story in the published stage. It really gave me the feeling [that I] can be a real author when I grow up and it just made me feel great.” William, a student with a label of autism who prefers to organize his thoughts orally, also chose to work with a scribe and expressed, “I love seeing my book in print. I feel like a real author. I feel like I’m the new Aesop.”

“READING LIKE A WRITER”: REVISING FOR WORD CHOICE


As described above, the ELA literature also reveals that the ability to “read like a writer” is an essential component of doing the discipline. There were several moments throughout the unit when the co-teachers employed strategies to develop students’ metacognition in an effort to encourage this type of thinking; students read the work of other authors as well as their own work “like writers” in order to develop their planning and self-monitoring skills. The students’ experience of revising their fables and parables to enhance their use of language is an example of the ways in which the co-teachers guided students to begin “reading like writers.”


At the “Word Choice Station,” students re-read drafts of their fables and parables and replaced any “weak” language with “stronger,” “more specific” words. They were encouraged to draw from an “Improve Your Writing” handout that offered more descriptive synonyms for “weak” words such as “nice,” “very,” and “said”; an online thesaurus; or their own ideas. Again, several UDL “access guidelines” offered a range of options that opened up opportunities for disciplinary thinking for all learners:


UDL Principle

UDL “Access Guidelines” in place to reduce barriers and to increase access to learning goal

Multiple means of Representation

Support for finding “stronger” words: “Improve Your Writing” handout or digital thesauruses that offer text-to-speech and support for definitions (UDL Guidelines: “Options for perception” and “Options for language and symbols”)

Students labeled with significant intellectual disabilities had access to “stronger” words in symbol-based-text (UDL Guidelines: “Options for perception” and “Options for language and symbols”)

Multiple means of Action and Expression

Students using symbol-based-text could glue a new word over the old one as opposed to writing (UDL Guidelines: “Options for physical action” and “Options for expression and communication”)

Ms. Nichols modeled the process by projecting one student’s draft and working as a group to identify a “weak verb” and to think of a replacement (UDL Guideline: “Options for expression and communication”)

Multiple means of Engagement

Students were in charge of identifying weak language and researching alternatives (UDL Guideline: “Options for recruiting interest”)

Students could choose to work with a peer (UDL Guidelines: “Options for recruiting interest” and “Options for sustaining effort and persistence)


An exploration of the students’ comments during this station as well as their revised drafts reveals the deep level of self-monitoring in which students engaged. For example, Maya, a student who often struggles to maintain focus given her enthusiasm and high energy level, picked up on the repetition of a certain word throughout her fable about a mean crocodile who threatens to eat a zebra and a wildebeest that are trying to cross his path. She chose to use the “Improve Your Writing” scaffold as well as her own ideas to make revisions. Maya explained, “I said ‘said’ two times, so instead of saying ‘said’ two times, I said ‘gabbed’ and ‘hollered.’” She went on to reveal, “It’s hard for me . . it’s like a habit . . . sometimes you say ‘I, I, I’ or ‘and, and, and’ . . . it’s hard to catch up . . . that’s why we always check back like one or two times.” During the remainder of the station, Maya found other instances in her draft where she used the word “said”; she marked up her typed draft with a pencil, crossing out instances of “said” and adding in replacements such as “hissed,” “screamed,” and “announced.”


Tyler is a student with multiple disabilities who has cognitive delays and weaknesses in expressive communication. He, and other students labeled as having significant intellectual disabilities, had support in writing their fables with symbol-based-text, a method by which printed words are complemented with their associated symbols in order to increase comprehension. Prior to the station, the co-teachers anticipated some of the words that the students might want to revise in their drafts. To create an alternative option for expression, Ms. Reynolds printed out various new words using symbol-based-text and cut them out so that students could glue them on top of the original word. Ms. Nichols worked with Tyler to improve the word choice in his fable about a wildebeest named Willy who needs to take medicine in order to stay healthy and strong. They focused on the sentences, “Now he looks like other wildebeests. He is able to be active day and night looking for grass and water,” and they paid particular attention to the phrase “looks like other wildebeests.” Ms. Nichols put the symbol-based-word for “acts” and the symbol-based-word for “protects” in front of Tyler and read the line aloud with the two different options: “Now he acts like other wildebeests or protects like other wildebeests?” Tyler pointed to the symbol-based-word for “acts” and glued this stronger verb over the original word “looks.”


Maya and Tyler’s experiences with the revision process are illustrative of the multiple ways in which students engaged in disciplinary thinking; during this station, a diversity of students read their own work “as writers.” They became self-editors, identifying weaknesses or “habits” and making adjustments. Interestingly, the students’ disciplinary thinking in this station was more pronounced in the process as opposed to the end product. As a product, Tyler’s sentence using “act” does not necessarily reflect discipline-specific thinking. Yet, the co-teachers created a scaffolded experience that allowed Tyler to engaged in a metacognitive process that represented his own disciplinary thinking in action. Furthermore, it is arguable as to whether all of Maya’s replacements for “said” did, in fact, enhance the quality of her writing. Replacing “said” with “screamed” in the sentence “The mean crock said NO” is a contextually relevant improvement; however, replacing “said” with “gabbed” in the sentence “. . . Zoe said once again, ‘Can me [sic] friend Willy cross your river to get to the other side?’” does not serve to enhance the meaning. Yet, Maya nonetheless engaged in a discipline-specific thinking process as she developed her self-monitoring skills. When reflecting on this station, Ms. Reynolds was especially proud of Maya’s careful attention to detail given the fact that Maya has difficulty self-regulating her energy. Ms. Reynolds stated, “To slow someone like Maya down, to be able to catch repetition, that’s huge.” She continued, “This isn’t an ‘in the moment’ moment—this is a life moment. This is something that they are going to bring forward with them.”

“READING FOR MEANING” AND “READING LIKE A WRITER”: FEELING THE RHYTHM IN POETRY


The co-teachers encouraged students to “read like writers” when revising their own work. Yet there were other stations at which the co-teachers supported students in exploring texts not only through “reading like a writer” but also through another aspect of disciplinary thinking in ELA: “reading for meaning.” In these moments, the co-teachers used strategies to develop students’ discipline-specific analytical skills by examining author’s craft (the techniques that authors use to evoke meaning and guide readers) and constructing their own interpretations of the text. The introductory vignette above describes students feeling the movement in Fisher’s poem “Camel.” This example exemplifies the many opportunities Ms. Nichols and Ms. Reynolds provided to students to develop their ability to “read for meaning” and to “read like writers.”


In this station, students were “reading” Fisher’s poem with a range of senses in order to access the meaning at a sophisticated level. A range of UDL “access guidelines” were employed to reduce barriers and to provide options to allow students to reach this analytical level of thinking:


UDL Principle

UDL “Access Guidelines” in place to reduce barriers and to increase access to learning goal

Multiple means of Representation

Students could access the poem via text or an audio recording created by Ms. Nichols (UDL Guidelines: “Options for perception” and “Options for language and symbols”)

Students were encouraged to move their bodies along with the rhythm (UDL Guideline: “Options for language and symbols”)

Multiple means of Action and Expression

Students could move to the rhythm in a range of ways: snapping, clapping, stomping, and tapping (UDL Guidelines: “Options for physical action” and “Options for expression and communication”)

Hand-over-hand support for students with motor weaknesses to move along with the poem (UDL Guideline: “Options for physical action”)

Multiple means of Engagement

Students were encouraged to discuss their ideas with a peer (UDL Guidelines: “Options for recruiting interest” and “Options for sustaining effort and persistence”)


An exploration of student comments during this station reveals that students assumed an active role in discovering how the rhythm of the poem contributed to the meaning and how the poet employed specific strategies. To achieve this goal, Ms. Nichols guided students through several steps. First, after just listening to the audio recording of the poem, Ms. Nichols asked, “What did you hear?”

 Alana replied,


It’s almost like she’s [Ms. Nichols’s] kind of singing it but she’s not. So it’s like “A camel is a mammal” [moves her arm in a zig-zag motion] . . . She didn’t sing it . . . it’s hard, it’s hard to explain. She didn’t sing it, but she said it. And, it had rhythm.


Eden, a student labeled with a language-based learning disability who has difficulty accessing printed text, seemed to benefit from the option of hearing the poem read aloud; as she listened, she suddenly began moving her hands and her upper body to the rhythm. During the discussion, she remarked, “Well, at the end of each sentence—line—there’s like a rhyming word and like, when it’s all together it’s like, I don't know, like a flow [moves her hand like running water].” Other groups picked up on this “flow” as well. Kevin stated, “It has like this pattern to it. It’s kind of like a song . . .” Nick thought of it as “a slow rap,” and Darren added to Nick’s idea by offering “a slow river.”


Ms. Nichols then played the recording again, asking students to move some part of their body to the rhythm. As described in the introductory vignette, students clapped, snapped, tapped, and patted along. For students who had difficulty in feeling the rhythm, Ms. Nichols or a peer provided support. This second round of both listening and moving sparked students to investigate why the poet breaks the rhythm at the end. The introductory vignette offers a glimpse of the rich, discipline-specific conversations that occurred in one small group, and this depth of discussion occurred across the groups. When another group considered the break in the rhythm, Alana suggested, “Maybe if they [camels] get taken out of their desert, it’s not best anymore and they can’t do their flow.” As Alana offered this interpretation, she stood up from her seat and moved her body in a graceful flowing motion. “So that’s why it says ‘Deep inside—desert is best.’” Peter, a quiet and thoughtful student who often experiences moments of sadness and anger, contributed an idea in a hushed voice. Ms. Nichols responded,


You should say that with a little bit more confidence, [Peter]. [Peter] said maybe they’re trying to communicate that the camel misses the desert . . . that was a great thought [puts her arms around his shoulders] . . . Have confidence in that.


When reflecting on this station, Ms. Nichols revealed that she did not originally plan to have students move their bodies to support their understanding of the rhythm and meaning. It was Eden’s spontaneous movements during the first reading of the poem that gave her the idea. In this moment, approaches like UDL and adaptive teaching can be seen as mutually reinforcing; the options and flexibility embedded into the design of the lesson allowed for Ms. Nichols to make real-time instructional decisions to push student thinking. Ms. Nichols revealed,


The whole movement of the camel is communicated so much through the rhythm of the poem . . . Really understanding that rhythm can be used to communicate something other than what the words on the page said . . . all of a sudden . . . I was like, “Oh my gosh—that's going to be a great way for them to understand that deeper level.”


The students’ comments suggest that Ms. Nichols’s expert guiding, both planned and unplanned, did in fact enable students to reach “that deeper level.” They were “reading for meaning” as they discovered the relationship between meaning, rhythm, and their own bodies and connected to big ideas about zoos and natural environments. And, they were “reading like writers” as they uncovered the poet’s use of specific strategies and the effect these strategies had upon the reader.

 “WRITING LIKE A WRITER”: CREATING FABLES AND PARABLES


The ELA literature reveals that developing students’ ability to transfer what they learn from “reading like a writer” to “writing like a writer” is another essential component of disciplinary thinking. Throughout the unit, the co-teachers offered space for students to create and apply their learning, and the data reveal that these creation spaces led to deep, discipline-specific thinking. The experience of writing their own fables and parables is reflective of the ways in which students took up “writing like writers.”


Throughout the first half of the unit, students spent a great deal of time analyzing the structural elements of fables and parables. At every fable/parable writing station, numerous UDL “access guidelines” were again in place to provide options for entry into this creation space:


UDL Principle

UDL “Access Guidelines” in place to reduce barriers and to increase access to learning goal

Multiple means of Representation

“Figurative language toolbox” handout to remind students of the various literary devices they could weave into their poems. Handout displayed in print, on white board, and read aloud (UDL Guidelines: “Options for perception” and “Options for language and symbols”)

Multiple means of Action and Expression

Options for fable/parable creation: handwriting, typing, symbol-based-text, or scribe (UDL Guidelines: “Options for physical action,” “Options for expression and communication,” and “Options for sustaining effort and persistence”)

Incorporation of photos and students’ original artwork to convey meaning (UDL Guideline: “Options for expression and communication”)

Access to print/online dictionaries and thesauruses (UDL Guideline: “Options for expression and communication”)

“Fable frame” to support students in creating the structural elements of the fable: moral, problem, resolution, setting, characters (UDL Guideline: “Options for expression and communication”)

Planning and revision stations described above (UDL Guideline: “Options for Executive Functions”)

Graphic organizer to support students in selecting a fable or a parable, specific characters, Maasai morals, etc. (UDL Guideline: “Options for Executive Functions”)

Multiple means of Engagement

Choice of a fable or a parable (UDL Guideline: “Options for recruiting interest”)

The overall content needed to connect to their study of the Maasai and the animals of Kenya, but students were free to choose all other details (UDL Guideline: “Options for recruiting interest”)


An analysis of the fables/parables reveals that students put to use the wide range of story elements and author’s craft that they had discovered in the first half of the unit and began to “write like writers.” Two students, Jasmine and Rebecca, wrote fables that are reflective of the disciplinary thinking in which all learners engaged.


Jasmine’s fable “Friends” tells the story of a lion that invites a lonely cheetah to join his peer group. But the lion soon feels as though the cheetah has stolen his friends. The lion and the cheetah realize the importance of including everyone and reveal the moral: “Make new friends but keep the old. One is silver and the other gold.” Jasmine’s developing ability to exercise her skills of “reading like a writer” and “writing like a writer” is reflected in this fable. Her use of figurative language, most notably alliteration, is evident throughout her writing. For example, she describes the “jolly jokes” told among the friends, how the lion “was looking very lonely lounging by the lake,” and how the “lion lamented” that his friends no longer considered him “the best buddy of the bunch.” Her use of alliteration contributes to a storyline replete with imagery and sound. Interestingly, Jasmine had explored alliteration through the poetry strand of the unit, and the co-teachers acknowledged the creative way in which she applied this poetic device to a different genre. Ms. Nichols stated, “On almost every page—almost every sentence—[Jasmine] used alliteration not in her poem but in the context of her fable.” The co-teachers described how Jasmine struggled to put forth her own ideas earlier in the year; they explained how “she didn’t have any ownership for her own learning” and how she “didn’t have a voice.” The co-teachers saw signs of remarkable progress when examining Jasmine’s thoughtful and intentional use of language in her fable. As her skills of “writing like a writer” began to emerge, so too did her own “voice.”


Rebecca’s fable is representative of the disciplinary thinking among all students during this fable/parable creation. Rebecca is a student labeled as having significant intellectual disabilities and communicates with a communication device. She worked with Ms. Reynolds to create “Ostrich Teaches a Lesson,” a fable based on one of Rebecca’s favorite stories, The Little Red Hen. In her fable, Ostrich finds some maize and tries to recruit her friends to help her make it into a porridge called “ugali.” Her friends refuse to help, so Ostrich teaches them a lesson: “Those who fight among themselves do not produce cows, and in our case, those who fight among themselves do not eat ugali!” The co-teachers and other specialists who work with Rebecca strategized a plan to support her in learning the characters and plot of her fable. As a first step, they laminated pictures of the characters, the maize, and the ugali and worked with Rebecca to identify them.


To support Rebecca in moving beyond basic identification and to engage in applying author’s craft, she was responsible for creating illustrations to portray the sequencing of the storyline. Taking advantage of the many options for expression embedded into the design of the fable/parable creation stations, Rebecca created a visual depiction of the story using a combination of the co-teachers’ photographs and her own watercolor paintings. For example, the text on the first page says, “Once upon a time, there was an ostrich who found some maize (a type of corn) that a farmer had dropped from his cart while traveling home through the Massai Mara in Kenya. The ostrich picked up the maize in her beak and ran it quickly back to her nest.” To illustrate this scene, Rebecca used watercolors to paint a long dirt road surrounded by vibrant green grass. She depicted a farmer pulling a cart full of bright yellow maize toward the end of the road and three pieces of dropped maize toward the beginning of the road. Beside the dropped maize, Rebecca inserted a photo of an ostrich. The depiction of the pieces of maize left behind by the cart is evidence of Rebecca’s conceptualization of the passage of time and her ability to represent a storyline through a static image. To an outsider unaware of Rebecca’s strengths and weaknesses, this may not appear to be disciplinary thinking. Yet, the fact that Rebecca was able to represent the strategies that authors use to develop and sequence a narrative through painting is reflective of the kind of “writing like a writer” in which she engaged.


During this fable/parable writing portion of the unit, the co-teachers provided a creative space in which students could test out their abilities to “write like writers.” Students actively used their knowledge about text structures and crafted a strong beginning, middle, and end for the fables/parables. They developed characters and events to reveal the moral. Finally, they incorporated figurative language and word choice to craft meaning, create imagery, and evoke feeling. When reflecting on the students’ fables and parables, Ms. Nichols and Ms. Reynolds felt strongly that the final products reflected the extensive disciplinary thinking in which their diverse students were engaged. Holding one of the Shutterfly books, Ms. Nichols stated,


I think that people say a lot of time, like “Oh, doesn’t inclusion keep so and so back?” or “How are you really able to meet his needs?” And, I think what constantly surprises even us, and I think it’s evidenced in here, is that we may have rigorous expectations for all students, but to see them exceed those expectations and to see students do things that even us, even we, didn’t expect them to do is mind-blowing.


In sum, the co-teachers created numerous moments for students with varying strengths and weaknesses to engage in the practices of the discipline: students were identifying as a writer, “reading like a writer,” “reading for meaning,” and “writing like a writer.” Yet, as the data reveal, the disciplinary thinking that occurred in these instances was as diverse as the students themselves; students accessed, interacted with, and expressed disciplinary thinking through varied modalities. Tyler’s scaffolded experience with revising for word choice and Rebecca’s exploration of plotline through images are examples of multiple ways in which all learners were challenged to engage in disciplinary thinking. When reflecting on the rigor of thinking during the unit, the co-teachers used an analogy of “surface plants growing roots.” To an outsider, it may appear as though students labeled as having significant intellectual disabilities grew “tiny roots” compared to the “deep roots” of other students in the classroom. Yet, Ms. Nichols explained, “If you take that and restructure that in a different way and look at the students as individuals, then you’re going to see extremely deep roots for each student.”


DISCUSSION


The findings reveal that learners with varying strengths and weaknesses were engaged in disciplinary thinking at numerous moments throughout the unit. As noted above through the use of the charts, many UDL “access guidelines” were in place to reduce barriers and to increase access to the learning goal in these instances; yet it was the use of particular strategies that proved key in supporting students to engage in the practices of the discipline of ELA. Analysis of these strategies reveals three general themes with regard to how the co-teachers created these opportunities for disciplinary thinking among their students:


1. Specific UDL guidelines and checkpoints were used in particular ways that promoted disciplinary thinking.

2. Specific UDL guidelines and checkpoints were used in novel ways—ways that are not suggested in CAST’s UDL Guidelines—that promoted disciplinary thinking.

3. Specific strategies not explicitly suggested in the UDL Guidelines were used that promoted disciplinary thinking.

UDL GUIDELINES THAT PROMOTED DISCIPLINARY THINKING


“Develop self-assessment and reflection.”


The data from this study reveal that the co-teachers created opportunities for students to self-reflect and that these reflections encouraged students to begin identifying as writers. The co-teachers’ strategy of encouraging self-reflection is consistent with UDL checkpoint 9.3 “Develop self-assessment and reflection.” This UDL checkpoint emphasizes the importance of supporting students “to monitor their emotions and reactivity carefully and accurately” and suggests that educators embed opportunities for students to reflect on their own learning (CAST, 2011). With the stations that encouraged students to “identify as writers,” the co-teachers applied various strategies consistent with the UDL “access guidelines” to reduce barriers to the learning goals. Yet, it was the use of strategies consistent with “Develop self-assessment and reflection,” applied with a discipline specific lens, that encouraged this type of disciplinary thinking. For example, the blog post prompts encouraged students not to reflect generally on the unit but to reflect on the unit from the perspective of their emerging identities as authors. The data reveal that “developing self-assessment and reflection” as writers can be a powerful way to promote deep disciplinary thinking in ELA.


“Provide options for executive functions.”


The findings also reveal that the co-teachers employed strategies to develop students’ metacognition and that these efforts supported students in reading the work of other authors as well as their own work “like writers.” The co-teachers’ emphasis on planning and self-monitoring is consistent with UDL Guideline 6: “Provide options for executive functions.” This Guideline suggests supporting learners to “set long-term goals, plan effective strategies for reaching those goals, monitor their progress, and modify strategies as needed” (CAST, 2011). When the co-teachers’ supported students in reading their own work “like writers” during the revision phase, various UDL “access guidelines” were in place. However, it was the teachers’ particular use of strategies consistent with “options for executive functions” that prompted students to engage in “reading like a writer.” Again, the co-teachers used a disciplinary perspective, encouraging students to develop the executive function skills of expert readers and writers. For example, instead of embarking on the revising phase with general goals of improving the draft, the co-teachers supported students’ “capacity for monitoring progress” (checkpoint 6.4) through discipline-specific strategies. Students engaged in the kind of self-monitoring in which expert writers engage: critically reading their drafts and making specific improvements with regard to word choice. The data reveal that “providing options for executive function” through a disciplinary lens can be another powerful way to support students to engage in disciplinary thinking.

UDL GUIDELINES THAT WERE USED IN NOVEL WAYS TO PROMOTE DISCIPLINARY THINKING


“Provide options for comprehension.”


As described above, the co-teachers used specific strategies to facilitate students’ disciplinary analytical skills, and these strategies prompted students to “read for meaning” and “read like a writer.” The co-teachers’ emphasis on developing students’ understanding and interpretations of various poems and fables/parables is consistent with UDL Guideline 3: “Provide options for comprehension” on a general level. This UDL Guideline suggests supporting learners to “transform accessible information into useable knowledge” (CAST, 2011). Yet, when exploring these poems and fables/parables, the co-teachers used strategies consistent with several checkpoints associated with this guideline in new and unexpected ways.


Checkpoint 3.2 encourages teachers to “highlight patterns, critical features, big ideas, and relationships” by incorporating strategies such as “using cues and prompts to draw attention to critical features” (CAST, 2011). And, Checkpoint 3.3 suggests that teachers “guide information processing, visualization, and manipulation” by offering options such as “customized and embedded models, scaffolds, and feedback” (CAST, 2011). Yet, in the moments when students were “reading for meaning” and “reading like writers,” the co-teachers’ “guiding” was not simply to support “information processing.” In these moments, the co-teachers challenged their students beyond “information processing” to deep levels of disciplinary analysis. This variation on the “guiding” checkpoint led to another valuable finding: the students themselves responded with “highlighting patterns, critical features, big ideas, and relationships” and more, as opposed to the teacher or materials doing it for them, as checkpoint 3.2 implies. For example, when analyzing “Camel,” students actively engaged in understanding the poet’s use of rhythm and how it contributed to the overall meaning. This led students to feel the movement in a poem and to connect their learning to broad themes such as the controversy over zoos. The data reveal that moving beyond the “information processing” suggested in checkpoint 3.3 and inverting checkpoint 3.2 to the responsibility of the student is effective in eliciting robust disciplinary thinking among diverse learners. These novel applications offer implications for future iterations of the UDL Guidelines and are discussed below.

STRATEGIES NOT INCLUDED IN THE UDL GUIDELINES


Analysis of the instructional strategies that the co-teachers used to support students in “writing like writers” reveals an interesting gap in the UDL Guidelines. In these moments, numerous UDL “access Guidelines” were in place to allow students to access to the learning goal. Yet, these “access guidelines” reduced barriers to higher-level learning goals that are not captured in the current version of the UDL Guidelines.


Hawkins (1974) highlighted the value of providing learners with the opportunity to “mess about” and to engage in “free and unguided exploratory work” (p. 67).  There were numerous moments throughout the unit when the co-teachers were doing just this–providing space for students to develop their own understanding, to construct, and to explore. In these creation spaces, students were able to transfer their knowledge of “reading like writers” to “writing like writers.” For example, after exploring authors’ use of plot, voice, word choice, characterization, and morals, students again had the chance to tinker with and refine these strategies when drafting their fables and parables. Students’ practice in “reading like writers” supported them in producing writing that reflected remarkable complexity. In this creation space, students were doing the discipline and becoming budding poets and authors.


The ultimate goal of UDL, to create “expert learners,” suggests the importance of empowering students by providing creative space for students to “mess about.” Yet, these strategies are not explicitly stated in the UDL Guidelines themselves. Principle II, “Provide multiple means of action and expression,” suggests that students be provided with a range of opportunities to “act” on their knowledge and to “express” their ideas (CAST, 2011). The “expression” piece of this principle is fully developed; the Guidelines suggest a range of options for expressing thinking in multiple ways. Yet the “action” piece of this principle appears underdeveloped; there are no guidelines that articulate the importance of providing students with opportunities to act on their knowledge, to develop their own understandings, to create, and to explore. The value of these types of learning opportunities is well documented in the literature (Duckworth, 1987; Hawkins, 1974; Piaget, 1952). Additionally, the data from this study reveal that this very “action” piece proved central to promoting students to “write like writers.” Thus, this finding offers important implications for future iterations of the UDL Guidelines that are discussed below.


IMPLICATIONS AND FUTURE RESEARCH


The findings from Ms. Nichols and Ms. Reynolds’s classroom have the potential to more effectively support educators who hope to enhance disciplinary thinking in ELA among diverse learners. The data point to important implications for future iterations of the UDL Guidelines and to new ways of characterizing disciplinary thinking.

IMPLICATIONS FOR THE UDL GUIDELINES


The findings from this study have potential to help inform a next generation of the Guidelines, a version that could be more useful to educators by more fully capturing the particular use of specific strategies that promote disciplinary thinking. First, the guidelines and checkpoints that were leveraged to move beyond access and to promote disciplinary thinking should be emphasized in future versions. Articulating the ways checkpoint 9.3 “Develop self-assessment and reflection” can be applied to support students in identifying as writers, and the ways Guideline 6 “Provide options for executive function” can be applied to support students in “reading like writers” would support ELA educators who wish to create rich, meaningful opportunities for disciplinary thinking in their own classrooms. Furthermore, it would be useful to explore how these guidelines and checkpoints might align and promote specific disciplinary thinking in other content areas as well.


Second, the novel ways in which the co-teachers used Guideline 3 “Provide options for comprehension” offer important implications. The success of moving beyond “guiding information processing” and charging the students themselves with exploring content suggests that this section of the UDL Guidelines could be enhanced to more effectively promote disciplinary thinking and empower learners. The term “options for comprehension” itself seems to undershoot the kinds of thinking that students can and should be doing in the classroom. Instead of the lower-level skill of “comprehension,” more complex thinking that includes disciplinary applications of analysis and habits of mind should be the aim.


Third, the co-teachers’ moves that encouraged disciplinary thinking that are not articulated in the UDL Guidelines offer valuable implications. The findings reveal that creating spaces for diverse learners to construct and apply knowledge supported students to “write like writers.” It is true that these types of opportunities are somewhat implied in the Guidelines’ goal of developing “expert learners.” Yet, explicitly incorporating opportunities for students to construct and create into the Guidelines would support educators in encouraging disciplinary thinking and would further enhance alignment with the stated goal. This change would more fully articulate the role of the student and not just the teacher.


Finally, the discipline-specific ways in which the co-teachers promoted disciplinary thinking suggest the need for further development of discipline-specific applications of UDL. Convening experts from a range of content areas to articulate the discipline-specific ways in which the Guidelines are most effectively applied, as well as discipline-specific strategies that are currently missing, would offer tremendous support to the field. The Guidelines began as a set of strategies to support educators in addressing the needs of diverse learners, and a next generation of the Guidelines presents the opportunity to more fully support educators not only with diversity among learners but with diversity among disciplines (D. Rose, personal communication, August 22, 2013).

EXPANDING NOTIONS OF WHAT IT MEANS TO ENGAGE IN DISCIPLINARY THINKING IN ELA


As described above, the term “disciplinary thinking” in ELA is a nebulous term as it connotes different habits of mind, practices, and epistemological beliefs. By distilling four broad themes of disciplinary thinking in ELA, this study offers the field a start at demystifying the notion of what it means to engage in the discipline as well as an attempt to define it in ways that educators and researchers can use in classrooms. The data point to the particular kinds of thinking, types of action, and ways of exploring unique to the field.


Yet, in this effort to concretize, the findings also reveal the nuance, complexity, and possibility of disciplinary thinking among diverse learners. A diversity of learners, including students labeled as having the most significant intellectual disabilities, engaged in disciplinary thinking in varied ways throughout the unit. The literature reveals that students labeled with significant intellectual disabilities have historically been denied opportunities for disciplinary thinking, and these findings suggest that all learners can and should be challenged to engage in discipline-specific practices and habits of mind in their own way. How might we create a more fully developed and nuanced way of conceptualizing disciplinary thinking? How might we support educators in ensuring that all students have opportunities to engage in the practices and habits of mind of the discipline?


CONCLUSION


The call to cultivate deep disciplinary thinking is growing stronger than ever, and UDL can offer a framework for providing diverse learners with opportunities to gain the specific ways of thinking and knowing within particular content areas. In an effort to explore the relationship between UDL and disciplinary thinking in ELA, this study uncovers the range of strategies—both articulated in the UDL guidelines and not—that support students with varying strengths and weaknesses to develop deep, discipline-specific practices and epistemological beliefs. These findings offer valuable implications for creating more robust learning opportunities for all learners to “go deep” in ELA.


Notes


1. Pseudonyms for the research site, teachers, and students are used throughout this paper.

2. This description of the school is intentionally broad in order to protect participants’ confidentiality.

3. Although the case presented in this article is within a co-taught context, co-teaching is not considered a prerequisite to applying UDL to the classroom. Campbell educators believe that collaboration between teachers with varying pedagogical strengths supports their ability to more effectively apply UDL to practice, yet there is nothing inherent in the process of designing learning opportunities from a UDL perspective that requires two educators.

4. Stories that include anthropomorphized animals as characters and reveal a moral.

5. Stories that include human characters and reveal a moral.

6. I struggled with the decision of whether or not to include students’ disability labels. I am uncomfortable with describing students solely by their “label”; within each disability category there is remarkable diversity in terms of students’ unique strengths, weaknesses, and interests. Further, disability labels imply that the disability resides within individual students and not within inherent barriers in the curriculum and in the environment (Baines, 2014; CAST, 2011; Kliewer, Biklen, & Petersen, 2015). Yet, I decided to include the labels in order to highlight to readers that these students with disabilities—students who have historically been held to low expectations—engaged in rich, sophisticated ways of thinking throughout this study.


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Appendix A

CAST’s Universal Design for Learning Guidelines:

[39_22092.htm_g/00001.jpg]

CAST (2011). Universal design for learning guidelines version 2.0. Wakefield, MA: Author.


Appendix B


Example of field notes with embedded video transcription that are linked to specific codes.


Codes used in this example:


UDL access

UDL strategies that are used to provide students with access to the content or activity

UDL Guideline 1

Teacher moves that align with the UDL Guideline 1 “Provide options for perception.”

UDL Guideline 2

Teacher moves that align with the UDL Guideline 2 “Provide options for language and symbols.”

UDL Guideline 4

Teacher moves that align with the UDL Guideline 4 “Provide options for physical action.”

UDL Guideline 5

Teacher moves that align with the UDL Guideline 5 “Provide options for expression and communication.”

UDL Guideline 6

Teacher moves that align with the UDL Guideline 6 “Provide options for executive function.”

UDL Guideline 7

Teacher moves that align with the UDL Guideline 7 “Provide options for recruiting interest.”

UDL Guideline 8

Teacher moves that align with the UDL Guideline 8 “Provide options for sustaining effort and persistence.”

DT, RLW

(Disciplinary thinking, Reading like a Writer)

Moments when students are engaged in the disciplinary thinking theme of “reading like a writer.” Students explore the “author’s craft” and uncover techniques that authors use to evoke meaning and to guide readers (Axelrod & Cooper, 1999; Story & Sneddon, 2008)

Shades

Ms. Reynolds described how I would see different “shades” of students engaged in disciplinary thinking. Students labeled as having the most significant intellectual disabilities can engage in challenging learning opportunities in varied ways.



Tuesday 6-4-13, Writer’s Workshop


Objectives

Content: I will revise my fable, focusing on figurative language and word choice [UDL Guideline 6] [DT, RLW]


Language: I will read my fable and rewrite or add to my draft


Station #2: Revising for Word Choice

[UDL Guideline 6] [DT, RLW]


I come over to this station as Ms. Nichols is facilitating a small group to support students in revising the drafts of their fables for word choice.


Ms. Nichols: Read your fable and look at the words—specifically verbs since we want to have strong verbs that you can replace and put a stronger word or verb into. [UDL Guideline 6] [DT, RLW]


Ms. Nichols explains that they can use their reference sheet—“Improve Your Writing”—to help them choose which words they think they would like to improve. Digital thesauruses are also available. [UDL access, Guideline 1] [UDL access, Guideline 2] [UDL access, Guideline 5] [UDL access, Guideline 7]


Ms. Nichols uses Tyler’s fable as an example and projected it using the smartboard. [UDL access, Guideline 1] [UDL access, Guideline 5]


Ms. Nichols: So instead of just “looking for grass”—what is a better word for “looking”?


Parker: Finding?


Haley: Scavenging?


Emma: Scouring?


Ms. Nichols: Tyler, what do you think? Is Willy Wildebeest “protecting” for grass to eat or “hunting” for grass to eat? [Holds up the symbol-based-text for “protecting” and “hunting”] [UDL access, Guideline 1] [UDL access, Guideline 2]


Tyler: Hunting [DT, RLW] [Shades]


Ms. Nichols: So we would just go ahead and substitute that word in there for something that is a little bit more specific and stronger.


While Ms. Nichols works with Tyler to glue in “hunting” to replace “looking,” [UDL access, Guideline 4] [UDL access, Guideline 5] students begin working independently or can choose to work with a partner to revise their own writing [UDL access, Guideline 7] [UDL access, Guideline 8]. Ms. Nichols continues to work with Tyler.


Ms. Nichols: So Tyler, I want to talk about this phrase here [points to phrase] “looks like.” Here’s a verb “acts” and “protect.” Now he “acts” like the other wildebeests or “protects” like the other wildebeests? [Holds up the symbol-based-text for “acts” and “protect”] [UDL access, Guideline 1] [UDL access, Guideline 2]


Tyler: [Points to “acts”] [UDL access, Guideline 4] [UDL access, Guideline 5] [DT, RLW] [Shades]


While Ms. Nichols continues to work with Tyler by supporting him to glue the word “acts,” [UDL access, Guideline 4] [UDL access, Guideline 5] I chat with other students.






Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 120 Number 3, 2018, p. 1-40
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22092, Date Accessed: 9/29/2020 1:24:41 PM

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About the Author
  • Jenna W. Gravel
    CAST
    E-mail Author
    JENNA W. GRAVEL is the Director of Research and Curriculum for Professional Learning at CAST, a not-for-profit education research and development organization that works to expand learning opportunities for all individuals through Universal Design for Learning (UDL). She works to connect research and practice by supporting educators to apply UDL to the classroom in order to engage all learners in rich, sophisticated learning opportunities. Specifically, Jenna’s research explores the intersections of UDL and disciplinary thinking in English Language Arts (ELA) and the ways that these intersections can promote diverse learners’ engagements in discipline-specific practices, commitments, and habits of mind. She studies these themes by drawing from approaches that emphasize partnerships between researchers and practitioners in order to examine interventions through iterative cycles of inquiry.
 
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