A Teacher at Riverside High School Reflects on Implementing UDL in Two of Her Courses

Sheila Messick is a long-serving English and PE teacher at Riverside High School and has been part of a team working on the AESD Inclusionary Practices Project through Washington State’s ESDs. Sheila, with her team, led by building principal Clint Hull have embraced inclusionary practices through implementation of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) for the 21/22 school year. Sheila discussed how she had altered and changed her perspective as a teacher of inclusionary practices in AP English and health & fitness classes. She said her journey began with “a mindset shift, we have to value and listen to their stories.” Sheila focuses on individual relationships with the students and getting to know them better.

For her AP English class, her intentionality of slow, gradual change has been welcomed by the students. She has distinctly moved away from every student doing the same thing and has given the students choice for how they learn and demonstrate their learning. “The kids loved the menu [of choice] I developed; when they can make a choice they give less resistance.”. She believes that the students don’t feel like she is trying to “catch them out” – the belief that high school students in particular often have, that the education system is trying to trip them up. Instead the developing trust between Sheila and her students encourages them to inquire into their own strengths and challenges, this in turn is leading to strengthening the relationship she has with parents and caregivers, as the students move to becoming more animated and engaged with school, the parents also feel more connected. A really interesting change is that the school has opened up the AP classes to any student who wishes to try it, instead of only accepting previous AP students, or those with a high grade. They have one student who has never been in an AP class before and has thrown herself into the work. Sheila feels that the initially shy student has gained confidence and is working well. One of the biggest changes Sheila made was altering her grading system which she feels is more equitable now.

Taking the focus away from grades has encouraged the students to enjoy learning rather than experiencing anxiety or giving up because they are unconfident about achievement. The new system encourages students to take risks and feel more in control of their journey. When asked about her teaching challenges or concerns, she said that she does wonder if some of the students might be tempted to take an easy route but that she feels overall the change in classroom culture encourages the development of student work ethic and learning autonomy, which is what students will need for success in their futures.

Sheila has a mixed health & fitness class including some really athletic students and students with disabilities. The class has completely changed from having students with disabilities train separately in their own group to training together. Now the sessions are constructed so the more athletic student athletes partner with students with disabilities, who they encourage and mentor. It has done wonders for the relationships with all the students. Prior to making the changes, Sheila discussed her visions with the student athletes, who she feels have embraced the new system, she explained that once per week she gives all students free choice with their sports, enabling student athletes to play competitively if they so wish. This strategy allows for all the students to encounter challenges, feel secure about individual skill level without excessive pressure or isolation. Sheila ensures class variety by setting a new inclusive practice challenge weekly and believes she has become a better educator through her own learning and change of mindset towards inclusive practice. She quotes, “balance and modify your system to allow each student to shine.” demonstrates the action she has taken to ensure that all students have the opportunity to have a voice, engage and learn.