Anniversary Book Project


An Authentic Strategy for Teaching Universal Design for Learning (UDL) Skills
By: Kathleen Gradel Creative Commons License: CC BY-ND Author contact:

Author Biography: I am a faculty member in the College of Education at SUNY Fredonia, a four-year comprehensive college in Western New York. I teach online and face-to-face courses for future educators who are working toward their certification as early childhood, elementary, and secondary teachers at undergraduate and graduate levels. In addition to literacy/technology coursework, I teach educational psychology and graduate coursework in special education. I also work with inservice teachers in local districts, as well as higher ed faculty, on strategies to use smart pedagogy-embedded technology. Activity Summary
For pre-novice teachers who have limited classroom experience, UDL concepts seem like a new language. Using both traditional and tech-based thinking and doing, preservice teachers learn the basics of Universal Design for Learning by doing it, not learning about it. This authentic writing sequence translates UDL concepts into practice, using digital story-building as the instructional vehicle. This activity outlines how preservice teachers plan, write, and then publish their first digital stories, using CAST UDL BookBuilder, while practicing a variety of information literacy and publishing skills. Class or subject area: Information literacy/literacy/Universal Design for Learning Grade level(s): Higher ed preservice teachers Specific learning objectives: • Translate content into interactive digital stories with universally-designed reading supports. • Translate 21st c. skillsets into understandable concepts for primary-aged readers. • Enhance media literacy skills. • Learn what UDL is all about by “just doing it” (to borrow from the Nike slogan).

Introduction Preservice teachers are a ready – but sometimes “tough” – audience, when it comes to using technology that resonates in today’s demanding classrooms. The general assumption that millenials are tech-savvy, since they are “digital natives,” has not been borne out, among our future teachers. Although they are connected, most have phones that they use to text and make calls, but – even with smart phones – they reach out only to those in their social circles. And – although they know “there’s an app for that,” it is unusual that they actively search for and use apps that have real impact on their current productivity, or that have potential in their future roles as educators. Most report that they are “afraid of” technology, and say that they are “not good” with it. They are Facebook- and text“addicted,” think that they need PowerPoint printouts to take notes in and understand the content of their college courses, make decisions about online source credibility too often on aesthetics, and have little experience with the richness of Web 2.0 tools or mindsets. Most are convinced that they will be able to “do” technology when they are hired in a district where they will have access to interactive whiteboards. For the majority of my students, their college experience has been in a landscape lacking pedagogy that has embedded expectations for sensible, current technology use. PowerPoint-dominated lectures, a periodic demo on an interactive whiteboard, and occasional exposure to clickers define their “tech integration” experience, along with use of a learning management system that insulates them from Web 2.0 networking and “umph.” I am not being critical of students’ interest, enthusiasm, or commitment to their future careers, nor to their entry skillsets. My intention is to give context to the climate in which this learning sequence has occurred, while highlighting the challenges inherent in helping to “evolve” these preservice teachers into smarter millennials. Learning Goals Some foundational concepts have helped ground my instruction. I have intentionally worked to not use an “app of the day” model, as I have taught the one and only “tech” course in these preservice students’ undergraduate programs. The following agenda has grounded this work: • Advocate that it is lifelong, collaborative learning with a diverse Personal Learning Network – not one course – that will impact both learning about and mastering tools and pedagogy that make a difference in their own lives…and – more important – in the lives of their (future) students (2012, Pacansky-Brock). • Tease them with tools – paired carefully with pedagogy and learning experiences – that have “generic” applicability, with an emphasis on building skills and fluency, versus “tasting” of cool apps. • Incorporate frequent “decoding” of what we do, what it takes to coordinate the learning experience, our results, and how alternate versions may work in P-12 classrooms – without being “stuck” on the specific tool(s) used. • Shape deep and frequent reflection on where they stand in the moment, as well as how they plan to build their current comfort, skill, and commitment over time, especially as they experience challenges AND as they step into new ground; bottom line, encourage resilience based on selfexamination and scrutiny of what students’ learning tells us. • “Live” differentiation, by discriminating that a tool is JUST a tool, unless it can produce student learning, and can complement a toolbox that they use to address the differential learning needs

and talents of their own students. Hand-in-hand with this, recognize that there are multiple ways to learn, and that tools and pedagogy can be mixed and matched in limitless ways. More specific objectives for this learning sequence include the following: • Translate content into interactive digital stories with universally-designed reading supports • Translate 21st c. skillsets into understandable concepts for primary-aged readers. • Enhance media literacy skills. • Learn what UDL is all about by “just doing it” (to borrow from the Nike slogan). Learning Sequence The introductory comments serve as a back-story to this learning sequence, which is helping to make a “dent” in future teachers’ skill sets, mindsets, and teaching/technology resilience. For pre-novice

Figure 1. Overview of UDL-based digital story-based learning sequence.

teachers who have limited classroom experience, UDL concepts seem like a new language. This authentic writing sequence translates UDL concepts into practice, using digital story-building as the instructional vehicle. Using both traditional and tech-based thinking and doing, preservice teachers learn the basics of Universal Design for Learning by doing it, not learning about it. A visual overview of the learning sequence is summarized as summarized in Figure 1.

Step 1: Students are assigned a “self-study” experience that takes them on a “tour” of various digital stories. This work is done independently – using a GoogleDocs template that they use as a note taker – to build background knowledge about digital story writing and their literacy supports. This experience is fairly “typical” of higher ed courses, except that – since my course is “flipped” – I rely on students’ completion of this pre-work, to set the stage for face-to-face learning. Typically, students report that they have no experience with digital stories, and just a few have used e-readers (e.g., using an e-reader devices, smart phone apps, or cloud-based tools). This tour is accomplished using a GoogleDocs digital worksheet, comprised of links to a sampler of digital stories, paired with questions to guide (a) observations while reading the stories, and (b) critical thinking about story features to support P-12 readers’ access. This exploration involves largely eyes-on/minds-on review of stories built by P-12 students, across publishing venues, with differential “power” in terms of literacy and critical thinking supports. In addition, the Self-study takes students to WestEd’s Using Technology to Support Diverse Learners (@ tdl/home.htm), where they are asked to review best practices for text and multimedia supports. Step 2: Students select their story topics, many admittedly with trepidation. Topics are preestablished, drawn directly from essential questions in the CommonSense Media digital literacy/ citizenship curriculum (Digital Literacy & Citizenship in a Connected Culture Scope and Sequence for K-3, scopesequence.pdf). Just a few topics include: • SAFETY: I can compare and contrast online friends with real-life, face-to-face pals, in terms of who they are and how I interact with them. • SECURITY: I know which information to avoid sharing online because it is private. • DIGITAL LIFE: When I am online, I am communicating with real people. • PRIVACY AND DIGITAL FOOTPRINTS: I am aware of the “digital footprint” that I leave online, and I am smart about the kind of personal information to share about myself in terms of my digital footprint. • CONNECTED CULTURE: I know solutions for dealing with cyberbullying. Step 3: Students conduct online research on their topics, to extend their own background knowledge, as they hone their own smart search skills. Using a modified “Big 6” approach (, they are guided in generating relevant questions to serve as the basis of their research. Next, they generate keywords. Surprisingly, their experience with this approach is often limited, since most of their prior school experience has convinced them that plugging a few words into Google will generate the results that they need! In addition to experiencing solid scaffolding in their own information literacy skills (e.g., via November Learning’s resources @, they are guided to choose alternative, kid-friendly engines (e.g., SweetSearch4me @ and SweetSearch @ They share via Diigo, with a focus on securing highquality, kid-friendly resources. Diigo, GoogleDocs, and EverNote are their primary curating tools, as they “hunt and gather.” Step 4: Using their start-up resource pool from their research, students build questions that are important for potential readers (Grades 3 and lower) to know and do, given their topic. This step requires self-study on Bloom’s Taxonomy, using an instructor-built structured online learning experience (again, done independently). After learning about – and experiencing – Bloom’s, they build

three to five questions representing a range of Bloom’s levels on their topic, in collaborative in-class work that helps them “amp up” the typical fact-type question to higher-level critical thinking. These questions are their first entries in their StoryBoards (which are GoogleDoc templates). At this point, authoring seems far away to these budding authors! Step 5: Since students will be building a digital story that mimics a traditional “transformation” plot structure (Ohler, 2005), reminding them that they already know something about plot is the next segue to their story. Ohler (2006) has simplified this structure in three “chunks”: (a) call to adventure; (b) problem-solving with embedded transformation; and (c) closure. Students review resources on plot structure, then outline the plot of a familiar story from their childhood; most students choose traditional fairy tales to do this. Using Google Drawing, they create a visual map of the story’s plot, outlining the key chunks of the story in short phrases. They then compare/contrast their work with colleagues’ drawings, publishing to the course blog. A sample student plot drawing appears in Figure 2.
Figure 2: Sample plot structure, built in GoogleDocs Drawing.

Step 6: After thinking “generically” about plot, students now imagine their own story “star” character, naming and describing it in their GoogleDoc Storyboard. One of the challenges for many of our campus’ preservice candidates is that they have a need to work on their writing skills, as well as limited fluency in changing perspective or tailoring their writing to diverse audiences. For that reason, this part of their work asks them to personify their character using first person. This is a frequent challenge, because their topics require personifying inanimate objects, practices, or concepts such as passwords and Acceptable Use Policies. Next, students tackle their own story line, knowing that they are authoring their stories for a real audience of first graders in a local school district (as well as a larger potential audience of readers on the Internet). Although they are asked to pre-plan it relative to a common plot structure, in class, they “think aloud” their story line, telling the story to a colleague, who sketches it into the StoryBoard document while listening. This think-aloud approach tends to help reluctant writers get a kick-start, while prompting everyone to hone their initial plans into an engaging story line. Since all production work is done in GoogleDocs, collaboration, editing, and other “show ‘n tell” activities are easily

orchestrated. Next, students independently return to their own StoryBoards, to add detail and to identify media that they anticipate using. In addition, they (a) verify that they are using a transformative plot structure; (b) check to see that their story is conceptualized in the first-person perspective of the main character; and (c) re-check to see that the story has the potential to get at the questions that they posed earlier. As needed, they fine-tune their StoryBoard. Using GoogleDocs commenting, students review each other’s work, “high-fiving” them, as well as making relevant constructive suggestions. Step 7: Since stories will be read by first graders in a local school district, students are asked to write using straightforward, engaging, reader-friendly text. What a surprise when they test their initial drafts using readability and Lexile tools! Typical results of these initial labors are stories written at the sixth grade level (or above), despite their best efforts. The budding authors now read, reflect, and revise, ensuring that both writing mechanics and reading demands are addressed. The iterative process of writing, reviewing, re-rating (for reading demands), and revising continues until their text meets the targeted readability criteria. Students work independently, using periodic instructor and peer feedback; again, emphasis is on the positive, while asking questions/making suggestions using GoogleDocs commenting…and neither peers nor instructor directly edit colleagues’ good work. This writing process is a challenge for many students, but such a necessity, given the demands of “real teachers” in “real classrooms,” writing materials for students, families, colleagues, school boards, and the wider community. Step 8: With stories authored, students copy/paste their text into the free web-based CAST UDL BookBuilder platform ( Next, they do the following, in the sequence noted below (using – as needed – scaffolds that the instructor has compiled), culminating in publishing their final work (citing their sources) to the online CAST Public Library. (See Figure 3, highlighting many of these components.) • Images for each page, ensuring that they are either in the public domain or have a Creative Commons license that allows their use/modification with attribution; they also use BookBuilder’s tools to add source, alt-text labels, and captions to their images. • Coaches, to guide readers’ thinking while reading, to prompt their use of reading strategies, and/or to tie content to their background knowledge. • Response Areas, which ask readers to respond to periodic questions at pivotal points in the story (e.g., to show that they understand concepts, to relate the story to their background knowledge). • Glossary terms, which – when clicked in the text – take readers to a vocabulary bank comprised of user-friendly, customized explanations, examples, and/or links to resources outside of the story. • Audio to reinforce story elements, glossary, repeat lines, etc. Since BookBuilder incorporates a floating Read&Write Gold toolbar (which reads aloud pages or selections, as well as translating and speaking selections in Spanish), students typically add augmentative audio, rather than reading aloud the entire text. This work is carefully sequenced, with scaffolds and structure provided, to help students to be smart about image selection, and to guide them as they generate substantive reading supports (i.e., Coach prompts, Response Areas, and Glossary entries in the BookBuilder format). Although not a brandnew “app,” this web-based tool packs a lot of “bang” in terms of reading supports for both emergent and more competent readers (Gradel, 2011).

Figure 3. Screenshot of a sample story page, annotated to highlight a story page’s reader supports in CAST UDL BookBuilder.

Step 9: With the story authored and published, what remains? Authors are asked to build a companion “guide” for their story; written for future family or teacher use in a GoogleDoc, it consists of • Introduction to the character and plot summary. • Questions that were developed at the outset of the sequence, along with supplementary resources to answer them (i.e., a list of the best websites identified as sound resources). These resources are supplied to give tools to the shepherding adults, and as options for differentiating content exploration by readers. • Readability and Lexile information. • Targeted vocabulary. • Summary of the UDL-referenced reading supports available in the story. Step 10: As a last step, links are published to a GoogleDoc and shared locally with our partnering school district. This is efficient, since each story yields two links that are friendly to district filters: (a) published book in the CAST Public Library; and (b) Story Guide (which is published to the course’s website). Using these materials, four reviews co-occur, as the book is published (not counting a larger

Internet audience that may read it at CAST): 1. Authors rate their own work, using a course rubric. 2. Peers review each other’s work, using (a) the course rubric; and (b) through discussions of the in’s and out’s of the sequence on the course blog or on a special VoiceThread for this activity. Based on colleague reviews, the instructor awards “Pulitzer” prizes in a variety of categories (e.g., most engaging plot, most innovative use of images, etc.). 3. First graders review and rate the stories, using a four-point Likert-scaled “smiley face” scale. 4. The instructor rates student work, using the course rubric. Lessons Learned This learning sequence is a bit like the book, If You Give a Pig a Pancake (Numeroff, 1998)…it incorporates the twists and turns of a cumulative tale; one thing leads to another, and the result isn’t obvious until the end. What is the end result? Students write and publish a digital story. Is that it? No…they learn at the least: • How to take a concept worth learning about, embed it in a fictionalized first-person account, and make it engaging for a reader audience. • Ways to differentiate content and universally-designed reading supports for learners. • Tools make a difference, but they cannot drive the learning experience. Rather than a traditional approach to learning about UDL, this approach translates theory to practice, while practicing UDL in an authentic experience. It extends Ohler’s (2006) notion that “Digital stories provide powerful media literacy learning opportunities because students are involved in the creation and analysis of the media in which they are immersed. When students do the hard work of marrying story and technology to express themselves to others, they can see more clearly the persuasive nature of the electronic culture in which they live” (p. 47).
References Gradel, K. (2011). Expanding accessible electronic supports to meet diverse student needs with CAST’s UDL BookBuilder. Innovative Learning, Spring, 6-7. Numeroff, L. (1998). If you give a pig a pancake. NY, NY: Harper-Collins. Ohler, J. (2005). Twenty revelations about digital storytelling in education. Retrieved 4/12 at jasonohler/twenty-revelations-about-digital-storytelling-in-education-jason-ohler. Ohler, J. (2006). The world of digital storytelling. Educational Leadership, 63(4), 44-47. Pacansky-Brock, M. (April 20, 2012). Reinventing language learning with VoiceThread Webinar.

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