Final Project: Universally Designed Writing Center Practices

All students come to sessions with a variety of differences, and so what tutors do with a student with a disability should be no different from what they do with any other student.”—Kiedaisch & Dinitz, 2007, 50

In many ways, the space of the writing center is already universally designed. Writing centers have historically been known for engaging with alternative pedagogies; supporting students with different and multiple ways of learning and composing; and valuing students as valuable creators of knowledge. If the resources (e.g. funding) is available, writing centers also tend to be spaces that encourage flexible practices with multiple rooms, different furniture arrangements, and mobile furniture. Despite these great advancements in both practices and spaces, we often default to tutoring practices that are framed for students with particular abilities.

The above video is an example of a standard writing center session (Enter the center, sit down, read aloud, discuss). Who does this standard privilege? Who may be excluded from this space or these practices?

The standards for writing centers are F2F (face-to-face) interactions and the read-aloud model. That is, a student enters a writing center with a written text, meets one-on-one with a tutor, and reads their text aloud—stopping every once in a while to comment on particular points in the paper. These two standards assume a number of things about the bodies that enter a writing center. First, the F2F standard assumes that the best environment for students is in physical, face-to-face environments. Some students may have trouble physically getting to a writing center, and—like the students with Asperger Syndrome (AS) that I discussed in Project 1—some students may be uncomfortable with such close, intimate settings. Second, the read-aloud model privileges able-bodied students who hear, speak, can focus for 30- to 60-minute periods of time, and learn best through listening. Students who do not respond to these practices, then, are treated differently. With increasing numbers of students with documented (and undocumented) disabilities, we must recognize inaccessible tutoring practices and universally design new standards that are accessible to wider student populations.

How Can Universal Design Help?

In order to truly support students’ different bodily experiences and embodied writing practices, writing centers must be pedagogically accessible. Enter Universal Design for Learning (UDL).

UDL offers a way to apply the equitable and flexible spatial principles of Universal Design to writing pedagogies. According to CAST, UDL pushes against a “single, one-size-fits-all solution,” advocating instead for approaches that are flexible, multiple, and adjustable. The principles of UDL—multiple means of representation, multiple means of actions and expression, and multiple means of engagement—can help expand our perceptions of students’ learning and composing practices. These principles can also positively affect tutoring practices.

Tutoring Practices Get a UD Makeover

A major step in universally designing tutoring practices is moving away from the standard read-aloud model, which values print texts. Jody Shipka argues for a broader understanding of texts, expanding the definition to include print and digital texts, embodied performances, photographs, videos, physical objects, and repurposed or remediated objects (p. 300). This definition speaks to the multiplicity of UDL and allows for a richer understanding of pedagogical accessibility: if students want to compose essays, collages, videos, or webtexts, these all fit within multimodal pedagogies. Similarly, if students with disabilities are limited to particular modalities—e.g., a blind student who relies on auditory or sensory modes to write or a deaf student who relies more heavily on visual modes—universally designed practices can more easily adapt to these needs, incorporating rather than accommodating or retrofitting them.

Concept Map of a Writing Center Session: Suggestions for how to Universally Design Practices

Concept Map of a Writing Center Session. Suggestions for how to Universally Design Practices: “What are you working on?” vs. “What are you struggling with?”

Expanding our sense of texts allows for a more realistic representation of what students are working on when they come into a writing center. In the graphic above, I included one of the main questions tutors ask students: “What are you working on?” Most often, a student is working on a paper, which requires working at either a table or a computer. Reading aloud a paper is certainly an option, but outlining main ideas or just having a discussion about struggles and strengths can be just as useful. Sometimes, students need help with non-traditional texts, such as presentations, videos, or oral presentations, and the standard read-aloud does not work as well. For these particular projects, reading aloud doesn’t suffice.

Often, talking through a text could be more beneficial than reading it word for word. McKinney (2009) encourages talking—rather than reading—as a way to interact more holistically with all features of a multimodal text (p. 39). This practice is useful for texts that consist of more than just alphabetic text, but it could also benefit students with disabilities. For example, reading a paper aloud for errors may not be as effective when working with deaf students, students with ADHD, or students with pragmatic language impairment (PLI). Students with PLI may struggle with reading and expressing themselves, which can affect listening comprehension (Babcock, 2011 p. 7). By talking about a text, students have more opportunities to engage with the text in ways that reflect overall comprehension and understanding of their particular rhetorical choices.

This is a small but useful adaptation of the read-aloud model. Another way to begin universally designing tutoring practices is to add another question to the initial meeting between tutor and student: “What are you struggling with?” This is often a question that is asked, but it is generally for the tutor to consider while reading the paper. A more universally designed practice encourages tutors to ask students about their writing struggles in order to co-construct the student as a leader in the discussion. It also opens up opportunities for students to decide how they might address that struggle, helping to “provide options for recruiting interest” by optimizing “individual choice and autonomy” (CAST 2011). By determining what students are struggling with—starting the project, focusing, connecting ideas, grammar/spelling, seeing the “big picture,” etc.—both tutors and students can work together to better meet the students’ needs. I call this process developing a “multimodal toolkit.”

Developing a multimodal toolkit involves developing rhetorical strategies that push against fixed communicative interactions and present more opportunities for students. The idea is not to max out all sensory options but to provide flexibility. Konstant (1992) suggests being flexible and using multiple channels: “Try ways of reaching the student through more than one channel at a time. Use combinations of visual, auditory, and kinesthetic techniques—the multisensory approach. Say it and draw it; read text aloud; use color to illustrate things” (p. 7). Konstant (1992) takes an early cue from UDL when she argues that everyone has learning practices that work best for them (p. 6). Similarly, Dunn & Dunn De Mers promote using a “variety of visual, aural, spatial, and kinesthetic approaches to tap into the intellectual chaos that goes into writing.” This means pushing against singular notions of how to interact with both students and texts, and it requires a negotiation between tutor and student. In her work with deaf students, Babcock (2008) suggests explicit dialogue: “Most of all, try to find out what the deaf person needs and wants out of the session, and gear your tutoring toward that” (p. 35). Although most students have more nuanced understandings of their composing processes than we often realize, some students may need a bit more help. If students are unaware of what they want or need, knowing some multimodal practices can be useful.

Both multimodality and UDL ask us to acknowledge that all students have multiple ways of learning and knowing and to be flexible to those different needs. Dunn & Dunn De Mers (2002) suggest flexible practices such as multimodal reading logs, discussions, talking through a draft, and sketching-to-learn. The second graphic is meant to represent some of those multimodal options. For example, if a student is having trouble getting started with their project, the tutor can suggest looking at models of similar projects (e.g. assignment sheets and sample structures of similar genres), organizing the notes the student has on the topic, reading more sources, or writing a letter to a friend explaining the project’s importance. All of these provide ways different from simply reading aloud that can help generate ideas. Similarly, if a student is having difficulty focusing, the tutor can suggest writing in a new mode, setting small deadlines, working on two main goals within the tutoring session and outlining goals that the student can work on later, and getting up and moving around to get re-focused. All of these point to the guidelines outlined by CAST for multiple means of action and expression, providing learners with options for how they navigate particular learning environments.

Universally Designed Writing Center Practices for Students with AS

In project 1, I focused on accessible practices for students with AS because of the highly social and intimate nature of FYC, combined with an increasing number of students with Asperger Syndrome (AS) in postsecondary settings. Like first-year composition (FYC), writing centers are expected to serve diverse student populations, and because of their focus on individualized instruction, they can also be highly social and intimate environments. It is useful to revisit some of the challenges and strengths that students with AS may share in order to gain a better sense of how more universally designed tutoring practices can meet their needs.

Common Challenges that Students with AS Face and UD Tutoring Practices that Address Them

Common Challenges that Students with AS Face: How UD Tutoring Practices Can Begin to Address Them

As seen in the second graphic, students with AS are often challenged by nonverbal communications and following social conventions, which makes peer interactions difficult. Though not something I’ve discussed much with practices, space is a major issue of UD that can affect practices. If there are multiple rooms in a writing center, a tutor can suggest meeting in a quieter section. At the Syracuse University Writing Center (SUWC), there is a small room of cubicles at the center’s entrance that can be used for quieter sessions, which could benefit students with AS, students with ADHD who need help focusing, or any student who may prefer to be in less populated areas. Students also have the option to work in a large open room where there are multiple tables, chairs, and computer stations arranged for tutoring (the videos above show a visual representation of this space). Adreon & Durocher (2007) also list “academic content, organization, time management, and study skills” (p. 274) as issues that students with AS often struggle with. Some UD practices that may support these challenges are providing clearly outlined instructions, setting mini-deadlines within sessions, practicing different writing strategies, and using different modalities to talk about the text.

Also important to mention is the possibility of creating Online Writing Labs (OWLs) or Electronic Writing Centers (EWCs). Though this is not possible for all writing centers, creating online spaces where students can interact with tutors can be beneficial—not only for students with AS who may feel uncomfortable meeting F2F in one-to-one sessions, but for a number of students who may be unable to physically access the center or may just be more comfortable interacting online. The SUWC, for example, offers an EWC where students meet with a tutor through iChat or AIM to discuss a paper. The most important thing to remember with such a solution is its flexibility: students have the option to choose what they are most comfortable with.

Conclusion

As we continue to see advances in technologies, changes in educational practices, and increases in disability diagnoses, writing center practices must be more accessible to students of all abilities. Universally designing tutoring practices can make writing centers more accessible to the diverse student populations that they seek to serve. Providing students with the resources to communicate within different modes, to practice and learn new literacies, and to harness their rhetorical abilities should be the goal of all writing centers. When we adopt universally designed pedagogies that support these resources, we acknowledge two things. First, all students have different abilities and knowledges. Second, all students can benefit from engaging with texts in different ways—visually, aurally, and kinesthetically—and in different contexts. Applying the flexible principles of UDL can make writing centers more pedagogically accessible, allowing us to better prepare students to become effective twenty-first-century communicators.

And as Kiedaisch & Dinitz (2007) remind us, employing UD allows writing centers to model multiple, flexible, and pluralistic approaches to learning:

[W]e acquire a new avenue for rethinking and redesigning our writing centers so that they become places where considerations of identity are woven into the fabric of every session, places open to being changed by their constant and varied encounters with diversity, places that are not only examples of but also agents for instituting a pluralistic approach to education. (p. 57)

References

Adreon, D., & Durocher, J. S. (2007). Evaluating the college transition needs of individuals with high-functioning Autism Spectrum Disorders. Intervention in School and Clinic, 42(5), 271-279.

Autism Society. Asperger’s Syndrome. Retrieved from http://www.autism-society.org/about-autism/aspergers-syndrome/

Babcock, R. D. (2011). When something is not quite right: Pragmatic Impairment and compensation in the college writing tutorial. The Writing Lab Newsletter 35(5-6), 6-10.

—. (2008). Tutoring deaf students in the writing center. In C. Lewiecki-Wilson and B. J. Brueggemann (Eds.), Disability and the teaching of writing: A critical sourcebook (28-39). Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s.

CAST. (2011). The National Center of Universal Design for Learning. Retrieved from http://www.cast.org/

Dunn, P. A., & Dunn De Mers, K. (2002). Reversing notions of disability and accommodation: Embracing Universal Design in writing pedagogy and web space. Kairos (7)1. Retrieved from http://kairos.technorhetoric.net/7.1/binder2.html?coverweb/dunn_demers/index.html

Kiedaisch, J., & Dinitz, S. (2007). Changing notions of difference in the writing center: The possibilities of Universal Design. The Writing Center Journal 27(2), 39-59.

Konstant, S. B. (1992). Multi-sensory tutoring for multi-sensory learners. The Writing Lab Newsletter 16(9-10), 6-8.

McKinney, J. G. (2009). New media matters: Tutoring in the late age of print.” The Writing Center Journal 29(2), 28-51.

Shipka, J. (2005). A multimodal task-based framework for composing. College Composition and Communication 57(2), 277-306.

Accessibility in the Classroom

Access should not be viewed as a constraint on architectural design but should be conceived of as a ‘major perceptual orientation to humanity’ (Davies & Lifchez, 1987, 49).

The above quotation comes from Rob Imrie’s article, “Oppression, Disability and Access in the Built Environment,” and it frames this week’s readings on physical barriers. Goldstein, Imrie, Strange, and Wilson and Lewiecki-Wilson all address physical barriers that range from inaccessible campuses and classrooms to disablist environments to limiting perceptions of disability itself. By positioning access as an orientation to humanity rather than a retrofit—a component that is added to an already-built space—the authors articulate a number of ways to make classroom (and other social) spaces more universally designed and accessible for students.

Crippen accessibility cartoon, "Polling": Staircase retrofitted with two planks of wood to create an "accessible ramp."

"Polling" (via crippencartoons.co.uk): A building retrofits a staircase with an "accessible ramp," while the man talking symbolizes a disables attitude toward accommodation.

Elisabeth Goldstein argues for the importance of implementing UD in higher education because of the diverse group of people that access campuses: “a widely diverse group of people (students, faculty, administration, alumni, visitors), with varying ages and physical and sensory abilities, makes up the campus community” (199). Goldstein considers a number of places that would benefit from UD, including building entrances, classrooms, furnishings, and sound and lighting. I am particularly drawn to her discussion of building entrances. She describes a building entrance as “the first impression one has of the site and orients the visitor the spaces within the rest of the facility” (200). If a building entrance is inaccessible to particular bodies, then, those bodies are marked as disabled—as unable to use these naturalized features in the ways they were intended (which, I think most of us agree, were ill-intended). Even if a classroom inside an inaccessible building is inclusive and welcoming, the message received from the building itself—Some bodies were not intended to use this building—can impact how a student engages within the classroom.

Rob Imrie argues that this received message, the idea that some bodies simply are not considered, is indicative of a larger “able-bodied” society (129). Imrie writes, “This has led some commentators to regard the built environment as disablist, that is, projecting ‘able-bodied’ values which legitimize oppressive and discriminatory practices against disabled people purely on the basis that they have physical and/or mental impairments” (129). Inaccessible buildings and classrooms reinforce this disablist environment. When Imrie discussed the able-bodied workforce, I immediately thought of how that translates to the college campus environment. Many campuses still create barriers for students with disabilities because college campuses were originally designed for able-bodied students.

This is where Universal Design can begin to play a role in creating built spaces that are more flexible and more accessible. However, UD cannot necessarily change the disablist attitudes Imrie discusses. UD cannot only influence physical environments: it must also affect attitudes. If a space is redesigned to be more accessible, this change inevitably has to reflect some changes in attitude and thinking, as well, because if a space is redesigned without critical understanding and respect of persons with disabilities, I’m not sure it could successfully be universally designed.

Carney Strange acknowledges the importance of understanding, arguing that instructors need to understand not only students with disabilities but also the larger social and physical conditions of the larger environments they inhabit (20). This is not a passive understanding, though. Strange argues that, through understanding, we can begin to create environments that are safe and inclusive, promote involvement, and offer full membership in the “community of learning” (23). Necessarily, this shifts away from acknowledging the inaccessibility of physical environments, moving toward a broader understanding of the inaccessibility of spaces and policies and practices. Spatial inaccessibility, then, becomes tied up in larger social structures.

Though Strange briefly mentions policy and practice, James Wilson and Cynthia Lewiecki-Wilson take them up in more detail. They describe disability law as a marker: “[T]he law writes on particular disabled bodies, no two of whom have the same needs, a generalized grid or map labeled ‘disabled student’” (298). Wilson and Lewiecki-Wilson argue that this is a homogenizing attitude, that instructors must do more than what disability and accommodation laws can provide. For them, this seems to come down to flexible pedagogical practices that require instructors to be comfortable discussing difference, to understand the many differences between students with disabilities, and to “be willing to assist each (disabled) student to coconstruct the best individualized learning relationship” (300). That is, supporting students with disabilities in the classroom moves away from legal accommodations to constructing and negotiating a collaborative plan for what that student wants and needs.

Crippen accessibility cartoon, "Homework": Teacher asks blind student to read chalkboard.

"Homework" (via crippencartoons.co.uk): The teacher asks a blind student to read the chalkboard, an example of how accessibility is also pedagogical.

I appreciate this shift in accessibility from the physical to the pedagogical, because, as Wilson and Lewiecki-Wilson argue, instructors often cannot change the physical environments. However, instructors can make their classrooms more accessible through their pedagogies—through adaptation, flexibility, and open discussions of disability. Addressing accessibility as implicated within larger structures—physical environment, social construction, policy, and pedagogy—becomes more critical and holistic. Depending on how much power we have over the physical design of our classrooms, it also becomes more action-oriented because we can address accessibility through the choices we make within our classrooms.

 

 

Goldstein, Elisabeth. “Applications of Universal Design to Higher Education Facilities.” Universal Design in Higher Education: From Principles to Practice. Ed.  In Sheryl E. Burgstahler and Rebecca C. Cory. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2008. 199-212. Print.

Imrie, Rob. “Oppression, Disability and Access in the Built Environment.” Ed. Tom Shakespeare. The Disability Reader: Social Science Perspectives New York: Cassell, 1998. 129-46. Print.

Strange, Carney. “Creating Environments of Ability.” New Directions for Student Services: Serving Students with Disabilities. Ed. Holley A. Belch.   San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2000. 19-30. Print.

Wilson, James C., and Cynthia Lewiecki-Wilson. “Constructing a Third Space: Disability Studies, the Teaching of English, and Institutional Transformation.” Disability Studies: Enabling the Humanities  Ed. Sharon L. Snyder, Brenda Jo Brueggemann, and Rosemarie Garland-Thomson. New York: MLA, 2002. 296-307. Print.

Multiple Means of Action and Expression

Strategic Networks and Multiple Means of Action & Expression

Strategic Networks and Multiple Means of Action & Expression via UDLcenter.org

Following up on last week’s focus on Principle I, this week’s readings addressed Principle II: Multiple Means of Action and Expression. Like the first principle, Principle II has three separate guidelines: 4) Provide options for physical action; 5) Provide options for expression and communication; and 6) Provide options for executive functions. Whereas Principle I coincides with recognition networks, or the “what” of learning, Principle II matches up with our brain’s strategic networks and the “how” of learning. (CAST)

Though Guidelines 4 and 6 make important points about optimizing physical access and helping students make choices that support their long-term goals, Guideline 5 seemed to receive the most emphasis, and it is the one that resonates most strongly for me within the context of writing classes. Providing students with options for communicating is broken down in different components: composing in multiple media, using social media and interactive web tools, and using multiple tools for composition (CAST). I think about these suggestions often while trying to implement a multimodal pedagogy.

In her book, Pippa Stein argues that “multimodal pedagogies acknowledge learners as agentive, resourceful and creative meaning-makers” (122). In this regard, multimodal pedagogies stand in opposition to the “standard” teacher conception that Bain discusses—the idea that “teaching is something that instructors do to students, usually by delivering truths about the discipline” (48). By promoting the use of different modes to create texts, multimodal pedagogies encourage students to take learning into their own hands. In writing classrooms, this could mean having students choose their own inquiries, delving into multiple media to do research, and encouraging the use of multiple modes—essays, videos, photographs, websites, blogs, music—to find the best mode of expression for a particular student (and context).

David Rose and Anne Meyer, while also working within UDL’s major principles, frame strategic networks slightly differently. They claim that in order to support diverse strategic networks, we must provide students with 1) flexible models of skills performance; 2) opportunities to practice with supports; 3) ongoing, relevant feedback; and 4) flexible opportunities for demonstrating skill. I found these ideas really useful for thinking about how I teach, too.

First, it’s important when assigning multimodal projects (or any project, really) that students have a variety of models to gain knowledge about what their options are and how different media affect their arguments. If students are used to writing traditional term papers, assigning a multimedia essay would be overwhelming without strong models. Second, if we expect them to learn to communicate with new media, students need to know that they can experiment without failing. Many comp courses (and others, I’m sure) require a reflection accompanying any major projects so that students have the opportunity to explain their learning. Third, students need feedback at multiple stages of the composing process. Particularly with peer review, I like to try out different forms of feedback—sometimes students handwrite feedback; sometimes they type out comments through Word’s track changes/comment functions; sometimes they provide oral feedback and the writer jots down what the reviewer is saying; sometimes I join the peer review etc. Finally, it’s important for students to have multiple opportunities to showcase their work! If they spend six weeks working on an exciting, audience-based, multimodal project, and I’m the only one that sees it, I’m not creating the natural and critical environment that Bain promotes. Final presentations (in whatever mode students choose) are a must in my classrooms, and these are often preceded by informal research updates, online class discussions, or blog posts.

This is an example of a comp student’s multimodal presentation that I found on YouTube. How does this video use multiple media to create an argument that is different that a written, text-bound argument? What do students gain from this mode of expression?

 

Bain, Ken. What the Best College Teachers Do. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2004. Print.

CAST. “UDL Guidelines – Version 2.0: Principle II. Provide Multiple Means of Action and Expression.” National Center on Universal Design for Learning. CAST. 2011.Web.

Rose, David H., and Anne Meyer. “Chapter 6: Using UDL to Support Every Student’s Learning.” Teaching Every Student in the Digital Age: Universal Design for Learning.  Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. 2002. Web.

Stein, Pippa. Multimodal Pedagogies in Diverse Classrooms: Representation, Rights, and Resources. New York, NY: Routledge, 2008. Print.

Multiple Means of Representation

Recognition Networks and Multiple Means of Representation

Recognition Networks and Multiple Means of Representation via UDLcenter.org

Universal Design for Learning has three major principles (Provide multiple means of 1) representation, 2)  action and expression, and 3) engagement). This week, we focused on Principle 1, which has three separate guidelines: 1) Provide options for perception, 2) Provide options for language, mathematical expressions, and symbols, and 3) Provide options for comprehension. (CAST)

In many ways, the classes I teach—undergraduate composition & rhetoric—are designed with these guidelines in mind. Since Paul Briand wrote about using multimedia tools to teach composition in 1970, comp instructors have been engaging with multiple media within their writing classrooms. This becomes the norm as technology advances: many comp instructors teach in tech classrooms, use web resources, and prepare lessons that involve technology (e.g. creating PowerPoints to introduce new material, playing video clips from YouTube for students to analyze, and using resources like wikis, Google sites, and BlackBoard platforms to organize class materials and assignments).

In “Why We Need Flexible Instructional Media,” David Rose and Anne Meyer write, “New classroom media, liked digital text, sound, images, and the World Wide Web, can be adjusted for different individuals and can open doors to learning.” The idea behind this, of course, is the flexibility of new media, which moves beyond the barriers of individual modalities. New media can affect our recognition networks, those neural networks that allow us to comprehend new ideas and concepts.

According to Rose & Meyer, the benefit of presenting a new concept using speech helps us to emphasize significant points, to sharpen impact, and to interact with our audiences. However, speech requires a great deal of memory, which can bog down listeners as we present new and complex concepts. This leads to text, which helps to support memory and comprehension by presenting a physical artifact that students can revisit. Again, text has its downfalls, particularly when individuals must decode meaning from dense text. Images (or iconic representations) present ideas immediately and can connect with viewers on more personal levels. But as Rose & Meyer note, images fall short of conveying conceptual and abstract information.  Using any one, and only one, of these modalities is limiting. For example, relying on images to convey information places students with low vision at a disadvantage, while a dependence on text could limit students with LD or students with different larding styles.

Rose & Meyer present the advantages and disadvantages of these three modalities as a way to build up to their recommended communicative modality: digital media. Implementing digital media within the classroom allows for flexibility and versatility. This can be seen in a typical PowerPoint presentation. Presenting information via PowerPoint automatically combines multiple means of representation—text, visuals, occasionally video and audio. Presenting a PowerPoint also combines speech (someone certainly has to present the information!) and sometimes text (it’s super easy to print the slides or notes from your PowerPoint to pass out as handouts). The flexibility of this medium combines all of the modalities that Rose & Meyer discussed (speech, visual, text, digital media) to try to reach the widest audience possible.

Though I don’t use PowerPoints (mainly because of their lack of interactivity), I can appreciate the medium and the combination of different media to communicate and try to aid student comprehension. What we can see from PowerPoint’s critics (e.g. it’s teacher-centered vs. student centered, passive vs. active) is the importance of combining all principles of UDL, not just choosing one (multiple means of representation) and dismissing the others.

 

 

Briand, Paul. “Turned on: Multi-Media and Advanced Composition.” College Composition and Communication 21.3 (1970): 267-269.

CAST. “UDL Guidelines – Version 2.0: Principle I. Provide Multiple Means of Representation.” National Center on Universal Design for Learning. CAST. 2011.

Rose, David H., and Anne Meyer. “Chapter 3: Why We Need Flexible Instructional Media.” Teaching Every Student in the Digital Age: Universal Design for Learning.  Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2002.

Flexible Curricula

“How can we rethink and remake educational systems that will provide more flexibility and educate more students effectively?” (Young & Minitz 501)

This is the most important question that we can ask if we want to create accessible curricula and classroom environments where all students feels comfortable sharing and learning. Young & Minitz argue that instructors should take responsibility for making classrooms, curricula, and teaching practices as accessible as possible (502). The question, then, is how we do that.

Ginsberg & Schulte note that ~10% of U.S. college students have a disability, yet college instructors have the least support and knowledge about how to educate students with disabilities (84).  Through their qualitative survey—which admittedly feels a bit shallow (i.e. They only interviewed faculty from one school, and it’s not entirely clear why they chose that school.)—we see faculty responses that range from “I’m treating the students [with disabilities] differently” to “I do for them ‘what I do for all students’” (88). It seems like the most negative comments come from instructors who support the deficit-model of disability, positioning students with disabilities as “defective” and in need of being fixed (85). So a shift in attitude may be the first step to creating more flexible curricula. Instructors who view students with disabilities from clinical and othering perspectives can’t begin to create accessible classroom environments. Post-secondary instructors need to adopt the social model of disability that locates the problems within our interactions, relationships, and environments.

Adopting a social constructivist model is certainly important, but it doesn’t answer the original question: How do we physically enact accessible practices?

The second step is definitely implementing accessible classroom practices. The answers from Ginsberg & Schulte’s survey give us some ideas:

  • asking students to paraphrase materials to gauge understanding,
  • breaking down content (which Sousa tells us is necessary for comprehension, anyway),
  • giving exams in different formats,
  • meeting with students one on one, and
  • encouraging student collaboration (89).

These options are all fairly interactive, advocate student-centered learning (which makes learning more relevant and comprehensible), and encourage delivering information in multiple modes of communication. If a student has trouble listening to a lecture, try delivering that information visually or as a written supplement. Even better, if I’m trying to explain a complex concept, I have students work together to learn the material and then present it to me. This repositioning gets students involved, positions them as valuable knowledge-makers, and emphasizes their abilities. As Harwood & and Humphry may argue, it highlights what students “can do” rather than highlighting what is “done for them” (379).

For me, the best way to create accessible practices is to focus on multiplicity and flexibility, which are often interrelated. I teach Composition & Rhetoric to undergrads, which always involves a final research project. In terms of multiplicity, I try enacting as many different classroom practices as possible—we brainstorm ideas visually and verbally, do research in the library and in online databases, draft outlines in traditional formats and in mental maps, and share drafts with each other throughout the process. In terms of flexibility, there are always set curricular goals, but I always allow a wide range of media for the final product—e.g. traditional term papers, websites, scrapbooks, formal reports, collections of brief essays, multimedia presentations, etc. Students need the flexibility to learn and compose in whichever ways make them the most comfortable, which will ultimately allow them to do the best work they can.

So, what practices work in your classrooms?

 

 

Ginsberg, Sarah M., and Karen Schulte. “Instructional Accommodations: Impact of Conventional vs. Social Constructivist View of Disability.” Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning 8.2 (2008): 84-91.

Harwood, Valerie, and Nici Humphry. “Taking Exception: Discourses of Exceptionality and the Invocation of the ‘Ideal.’” Disability & the Politics of Education: An International Reader. Eds. Susan L. Gabel and Scot Danforth. New York, NY: Peter Lang, 2008. 372-83.

Young, Kathryn, and Emily Mintz. “A Comparison: Difference, Dependency, and Stigmatization in Special Education and Disability Studies.” Disability & the Politics of Education: An International Reader. Eds. Susan L. Gabel and Scot Danforth. New York, NY: Peter Lang, 2008. 499-511. Print.