Teacher Perspectives

Differentiate Instruction with Strategies Aligned to Universal Design for Learning

Featured Image
Lily Jones by
December 4, 2015

Teaching is amazingly challenging. Day after day and year after year, you are tasked with meeting the needs of vastly different students. This almost-impossible task can be both overwhelming and rewarding.

When I was teaching, differentiation was my biggest struggle. I dreamt about having time to design personalized activities for each of my students. But what teacher has time? I know that my experience was not unique: as an instructional coach each teacher I worked with named differentiation as their biggest area of growth.

I didn’t know about Universal Design for Learning (UDL) when I was teaching, but I sure wish I had. UDL helps teachers identify their students’ learning barriers and then use evidence-based strategies to improve access for all students. UDL is based on three principles that show how students participate in a learning activity:

  • Representation: How information is presented to students in a lesson. For example, through a written text or verbal presentation.
  • Expression: How students will participate in the lesson and express their understanding. For example, through writing an essay or giving a presentation.
  • Engagement: How students will be motivated and interested in participating in the lesson. For example, through real world connections or activities based on students’ interests.

When thinking about differentiating your lessons, consider the three principles of UDL. Where do you see students struggling? When planning to meet the needs of different students, think about if they struggle with representation, expression, or engagement (or more than one of these areas). Then brainstorm strategies that you could use to help students overcome those barriers.

For example, let’s say you’re planning a lesson where students read a text and then write a written response. A possible barrier related to representation could be students not understanding vocabulary in the text. To address this barrier, you could have students reference a vocabulary preview prior to reading. Thinking about expression, a possible barrier could be organizing writing. You could provide students with a planning page where they could map out their response before writing. Now thinking about engagement, a possible barrier could be that students don’t relate to the text. To address this barrier, you could engage the class in a discussion to activate background knowledge and encourage connections to the subject matter.

When looking for differentiation strategy, Goalbook’s Strategy Wizard is a great resource. This tool can help you come up with ways to address barriers to representation, expression, and engagement. If you select the subject you’re teaching, a variety of possible strategies will come up. You can even enter specific barriers that your students might be facing.
No matter how overwhelming it can feel, approach differentiation with curiosity. Use UDL to help guide your investigations into what is working and not working for your students. The effort you put into meet the needs of all your students will be well worth it.

Teacher Perspectives

Help Students Make Real-World Connections

Bring School to Life Through Project-Based Learning

Featured Image
Lily Jones by
September 30, 2015

This post is part of a series titled “Teacher Perspectives” by Lily Jones. You can read all of Lily’s posts here.

How many times have you heard students say, “When am I going to use this in real life?” The question is almost cliche, the hallmark of the disconnect that can exist between kids and school. Though we may understand how what we teach in the classroom connects to the outside world, kids often don’t. You can use these three strategies to increase student engagement by making real-world connections:

1) Ask Your Students

The first step to engagement is getting to know your students. This blog post describes why it’s important to build off of both your students’ prior knowledge and their life experience. Start by getting to know more about their experiences, then design your lessons from there. Use these questions to help you learn more about your students:

  • What do you like to do on the weekends?
  • What are you interested in learning about?
  • What professions interest you the most? What kind of knowledge and skills do people in these professions need?

2) Think About Both Content and Skills

Sometimes real-world connections are about content, and sometimes they’re about skills. For example, if you find that your students are really interested in learning about veterinarians, you could apparently plan lessons about different types of animals. However, students may not realize that to be a veterinarian, you also need to be able to do math when performing tasks such as determining how much medicine to give to animals. Sometimes emphasizing these real-world connections are just the boost that kids need to engage in certain subject areas.

3) Embrace Project-Based Learning

Learning through interdisciplinary projects can be a wonderful way for kids to see how their learning connects to the world outside them. In Goalbook Pathways, check out the DOK 4 (also known as “Extended Thinking”) projects that are aligned to specific standards. These projects cover a range of topics, from saving dragonflies to managing money, and are a great way to dive into project-based learning.

For more information on project-based learning, you can also check out the Buck Institute for Education. On their site you’ll find planning tools, videos, and other resources to help you dive into designing projects that meet the needs of your students.

This year, try to find ways to connect your classroom to the outside world. Make these connections explicit, and you’ll motivate your students to learn and to explore.

Teacher Perspectives

Maximize the Impact of Teacher Collaboration

People, Priorities, and Planning

Featured Image
Lily Jones by
September 4, 2015

This post is part of a series titled “Teacher Perspectives” by Lily Jones. You can read all of Lily’s posts here.


Teaching is an all-encompassing job. The job of a teacher is truly never done, but it can be made easier by collaborating with colleagues. As the new year starts, you can follow these three recommendations for making the most out of collaboration time:

1) Find People, Find Time

The easiest people to collaborate with are members of your grade level or subject area team. But that doesn’t always have to be the case! The best people to collaborate with are the people who are excited to work with you. If teachers are not motivated to collaborate, don’t push it. Find someone to work with who will match your energy; together you will come up with electric ideas.

Hopefully, your school gives you designated time to collaborate. I know that time varies — I’ve worked at schools where I got 30 minutes a week of collaboration time and at schools where I got four hours. If you don’t get designated collaboration time, make time. It may not seem appealing to stay after school, but it’s well worth it when that collaboration makes your job easier.

2) Tackle the Tasks That Matter Most

After you’ve found time, how do you make the most of it? Start with the tasks that require deep thinking and/or with things that are puzzling you. Putting heads together can make daunting tasks seem easier.

If you’re trying to figure out an effective way to teach a standard, explore Goalbook Pathways with your colleagues. Pick ELA or Math, then browse the standards for your grade level or investigate particularly challenging standards. In Pathways, each standard is scaffolded into model classroom objectives in increasing levels of rigor. Looking at the different levels of rigor can help you get a deeper understanding of the standard. Sometimes the best way to increase understanding is to dive in and explore.

3) Plan, Plan, Plan!

It’s amazing how big an impact teacher collaboration can have on students. Students learn in all different ways, and so do teachers! When teachers come together to plan, the lessons they come up with are more varied and thus accessible to a wider variety of students. More teachers’ brains = better lessons for more students’ brains.

If you’re looking for ways to differentiate lessons for your particular students, try Goalbook’s UDL Strategy Wizard. Just reading about the different possibilities can help spark ideas. Work with your colleagues to adapt and identify differentiation strategies that work for your students.

As you settle into the new year, it can be tempting to just go, go, go. However, taking time to think deeply and collaborate with colleagues can recharge you, giving you the energy and techniques you need to sail smoothly through the year.