Jeff Gandell’s Portfolio
When I think about what led me to participate in the Universal Design for Learning fellowship, one event springs to mind.
During the Fall 2016 semester, I was meeting with a student in my office. He was in a Literary Themes class of mine titled Underdogs, Outcasts, and Loners. He was francophone, and had enormous difficulty expressing himself in clearly written English. He was a responsible student—he had strong attendance, and he got his work done. After a few minutes of looking over his work together, it became clear that his grammatical difficulties were not only due to careless proofreading, but that he simply did not possess the capacity to write proper English sentences. His level of written expression was that low. In a moment of feeling helpless and frustrated by the challenge of helping him, I said something like this: “Your level of English is so weak, it’s not even clear how you got into this school.” Of course, I felt terrible immediately after saying this, and apologized several times. But the damage was done. He continued to come to class, to get his work done, but it was clear that he had checked out. His attitude and body language from then on indicated that he was now only willing to do the bare minimum required to pass. And really, who could blame him?
This caused me to reflect on my attitude towards all my students. And I asked myself a difficult question: Do I give all my students, regardless of their background and the level the entered the class with, the same chance to succeed?
English classes reward students who can write well. But, some students come into class able to write excellently. Some students come into class barely able to construct a sentence. And, the majority reside somewhere in between. I think I was doing was a lot of us do: “teaching to the middle.” But, that leaves a percentage of strong students uninspired, and a percentage of weak students hopeless. This wasn’t good enough for me.
My experience with this student was a wake-up call. If I wasn’t attempting to meet the needs of all my students, and give everyone a fair shot to succeed, then I wasn’t doing my job properly. My job isn’t to be an English warden. That’s not why I got into this game. I got into teaching to inspire, to open young people’s minds and hearts. To encourage. Anything else feels petty.
For my UDL project, I implemented a system of self-assessments. I aimed to make these self-assessments part of the fabric of the course. I wanted to put the students goals, needs, feelings, and attitudes at the forefront of what they’re doing. All of these elements are key factors in success, and I wanted to give the students the chance to explore these in detail, and for me to get to know each student a little better.
I implemented these self-assessments in the Fall 2017 semester in a Literary Genres class titled, Contemporary American Fiction. It is a class very similar in scope and level of content and skills as the Literary Themes class I taught in Fall 2016. I think they worked well. I learned a lot. My portfolio details my journey in implementing these self-assessments, as well as some of the results.
The principles we discussed, read about, and worked on in our UDL community help me see the classroom in new and different ways. In addition to the measurable results outlined in my portfolio, there are many more subtle, almost intangible differences from how I was approaching learning before. These are hard to express in a final output, but they’re there. I feel that when I encounter a student in a similar situation as the one described above, I will be better equipped to give them a chance to succeed, and to feel proud.
As a final note, I wanted to thank Laure, Catherine, and Effie their management of the UDL community. They employ a sensitive and reflective approach to learning, one that does a great job of modeling what UDL can feel like in a learning environment.
I hope you enjoy the portfolio, and please get in touch if you’d like to discuss the notion of self-assessments in any more detail