Curriculum Design

Art for All: Universal Design for Learning (Ep. 190)

It is incredibly difficult to design your classroom in a way that works for all learners. Author and art teacher Liz Byron has tried to do exactly that in her book Art for All: Planning for Variability in the Visual Arts Classroom. Listen as they discuss student variability, customizing instruction, and the best ways to design your classroom for learning and engagement. Full Episode Transcript Below.

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Tim: Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for art teachers. This show is produced by the Art of Education University and I’m your host Tim Bogatz. Today’s episode is one that I think you’re going to find fascinating. As I told you at the end of last week’s episode, I’m going to be speaking today with art teacher and author Liz Byron. Her book is called Art for All: Planning for Variability in the Visual Arts Classroom. I read it recently and let me just say this book is a great read and there are so many ideas for you to take away. The book, and Liz–as the author–ask you to reflect on your practice and then, direct you toward goal setting and measuring progress and customizing instruction and most importantly, how you can engage your students the entire time throughout that process. It’s great.

I would like to say it’s a quick read because it is, it’s less than 100 pages, but at the same time, there are so many dynamic ideas and incredible suggestions that I ended up spending a lot of time reading, but even more so thinking and reflecting about everything that was in there. It took me a little bit longer, but it was totally worth it because I loved how much it made me think.

Then, just one last thing before I bring her on. I know we’re going to have a lot to talk about, well, we have an entire book to talk about, so it’s probably going to take a while, but it’s just so refreshing to read something specifically for art teachers, written by an art teacher because every suggestion in there, it has been tested in an art classroom. Everything that she’s done and she’s sharing comes from someone who knows what we do, someone who’s lived our life and has taught in classrooms like we teach. Just reading a book from that perspective, like I said is so refreshing. It gives it a great perspective and something that’s really, really enjoyable. Anyway, like I said, we have a lot to talk about, so let me bring her on now.

All right and Liz Byron is joining me now. Liz, how are you today?

Liz: Hi Tim. I’m great, thank you. I’m really excited to be here. I also just finished a day of teaching, so I’m a little tired, but glad to be here.

Tim: Awesome, well, I loved your book. I loved reading it. I’m really glad that we get to talk about this, but before we kind of dive into that I would love for you to kind of introduce yourself to the audience. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself, about your school, teaching career and of course, what I’m most curious about, like what possessed you to write an entire book on universal design for learning?

Liz: Yeah, sure. My name’s Liz Byron and I am a preschool to eighth grade visual art teacher in a Boston public school, called Mildred Avenue. I’ve been teaching for 13 years. As Tim said, I recently published a book called Art for All, Planning for Variability in the Visual Art Classroom. It’s about universal design for learning. With my background, I have a background in special education, ESL and actually, I’ve also taught prior to teaching art, a variety of other subjects. I’ve had a scope of universal design for learning in other subject areas. I had been teaching about it to other teachers for about a decade. When I became a visual art teacher, which was only four years ago, I realized there was a large gap in literature around what universal design for learning, is in particular within the visual arts. I was excited that it was a gap that I could potentially fill with a book. It also challenged me to reflect on my own practice and to engage with the process of writing, which wasn’t something I was used to doing. I was pushing myself outside of my comfort zone and trying to help support the field of art education with their own implementation and understanding of universal design for learning.

Tim: Yeah that’s really cool. I love the idea of reflection. That’s something we talk about on the podcast all the time, reflecting on what you’re doing as a teacher at any time, people can do that. I think that’s worthwhile. I do want to ask you though about just the idea of universal design for learning because like you said, it’s a gap that a lot of art teachers have. It’s not something that we know about. Can you just give us a little bit of baseline knowledge, just a quick introduction to UDL and maybe talk a little bit about why you think it’s so important?

Liz: Yeah, sure. Universal design for learning, also known as UDL is a framework for teaching in which you create a lesson, design a curriculum that reduces and removes barriers by providing multiple options for your students to engage in the content, multiple options for your students to learn the what, the representation of your content and multiple options for your students to show what they know, which comes under the principle of action and expression. UDL is grounded in neuroscience and about 30 years of research. It separates itself from other, “Fads.” It’s also actually written into the Every Student Succeeds Act as well as other federal legislation that revolves around education. It’s something as educators we all should be doing and should know about. Like I had said, in the field of art education, teachers might have heard about UDL, but when I teach other teachers, they’re often thinking, “Well, what does this look like? What does that mean?”

Liz: I mean that’s in short, UDL is divided into three principles, the what you’re going to teach, the representation; engagement, the why your students care and action and expression or how they’re going to show you what they know and how you’re going to assess it. The key to UDL is providing meaningful options towards those three principles that are all connected to a clear instructional goal or objective in which you have rigor, but you also don’t necessarily include the means or the end product in your goal. You can’t account for the learner variability in your classroom. That’s really also why it’s so critical because as art teachers, we sometimes see many different grades over the course of one day and often, the whole school over the course of the year from the variability of students that come before us don’t just range in ability within the realm of art, but they also have different abilities for executive functioning, self-regulation or across the developmental spectrum because we so often teach kids across the whole school.

It’s critical for art teachers to know about UDL because it’s a framework for creating access for all students and approaching variability with an open mindset because the barriers in our classroom, they’re not in the students. It’s in the curriculum and your environment and it’s a mind shift implementing UDL because you can’t look at a student and say, “Well, they’re not identifying as an artist,” or “They just can’t draw,” or “They’re not interested in art.” The barriers are in what we’re doing and our environment. As teachers, we are the key factors in how we design our instruction. If we really practice UDL and you reflect on your work, you really start to see a greater level of engagement and the level of student learning and student work is really elevated because you’ve created meaningful options that connect to a clear goal.

Tim: Yeah, absolutely. That was maybe what struck me most out of anything with your book was just all of these ideas about what is that action and expression look like, the opportunities for differentiation there. It got me thinking constantly about kind of what we want our students to accomplish. I want to circle in on something that you said in that last answer. You were talking about kind of a critical framework for art education. I know UDL and your book is all about, how it fits into what we do as art educators, but can you talk a little bit more about that fit? Why you think it works so well and like I said, why you think it’s a critical framework for what we do?

Liz: Yeah, thanks. That’s a great question and a great point because as art teachers, we often inherently do provide multiple options for the representation of our content. We do a demonstration, we are visual people, we have a visual. We say it or we also might have an anchor chart, but outside of the representation, we often still experience students, who are not 100% engaged in our class. If you’ve ever taught middle school, you know whether students are jiving with your lesson, right?

Tim: Exactly.

Liz: If art was truly a universal language and understood and appreciated by all, then we think we wouldn’t need our jobs. We’re teachers because there is a need and there isn’t a 100% engagement and students when they are limited in how they can show what they know, they don’t all necessarily engage completely and they don’t necessarily meet the learning goal and what we might have hoped for. Really, I think it helps push art educators outside of just our visual skillset into thinking about other forms of representation and really thinking about barriers to engagement, depending on developmental age or classroom set up or what the actual objective of the lesson is and how to even make it more culturally relevant? This all comes in through the UDL framework.

Tim: Let me ask you this, would you be willing to share maybe a concrete example of what this looks like? For example, let’s say you’re designing a lesson that’s going to incorporate UDL and bring in all these ideas that you’re talking about. What does that look like when you’re in the process of doing your lesson planning? What does that look like when it moves into action inside the classroom?

Liz: Yeah and this is the meat of it because what does it look like? UDL can take its form in many different ways and looks differently in different classrooms. Sometimes, what we think is UDL turns out to actually create more learning barriers. I’ll give you a scenario that I’m doing right now with my middle schoolers and then, I’ll give you an example from my early childhood lesson.

Tim: Okay, perfect.

Liz: Right now, when I’m planning for my middle schoolers, we are learning about one-point perspective, something that’s in the national visual arts standards, something a lot of middle school art teachers teach. Often, typically without UDL, you might go in and say, “I’m going to have my students learn one-point perspective, I’m going to show it to them. Then, they’re all going to make a city or a building, showing one-point perspective and we’ll make sure they have a vanishing line, a vanishing point and horizon line.” That’s what you might’ve done before UDL. In this case, I wanted to make the work more culturally relevant, provide options for autonomy and provide them with more representations of what one point perspective could be, while also allowing them options for how they’re going to show one-point perspective.

Here’s the gist, the goal for this current unit is I can create a work of art, showing one-point perspective that demonstrates a solution to my social issue. Students also in this unit selected a social issue. They have previously chosen this issue and created a collage about it. They’re using the same social issue and now, creating a work, using one-point perspective to show a solution, so they have a social issue. This is culturally relevant to them. Something they’ve chosen. They’ve researched it, it’s meaningful. There’s autonomy over the theme behind the one-point perspective, it’s not just some random city. I’ve exposed them to nine or 10 different ways to show or do one-point perspective.

Yes, we looked at a city using one point perspective, a railroad, a city street. We looked at buildings from above and below, but we also made landscapes as an option. These are also all options. They become mini-lessons, but students choose which way they’re going to actually create their final project on. We’ve used painters tape to show one-point perspective. We’ve written words or letters and showing those letters using one-point perspective. We’re taking all of these options, which all do show one-point perspective and in the end, which what they’re working on now, they create a piece using one of those 10 options, which all meet the goal of one-point perspective. They show a solution to a social issue they’ve chosen. The lesson is more meaningful because they connected it to a social issue they care about and they have autonomy over which way they’re going to show one-point perspective.

I have students, writing the word equity and I have other students creating this fantastical city of buildings that are representing different social and emotional deficits that they feel like exist in the world, like depression and anxiety. These buildings are buildings that are imaginatively selling happiness. They can go in many different directions and they’re all showing them one perspective and the engagement is much higher than if I know if I just said, “Everyone, we’re going to do a city street and we’re going to show one-point perspective,” everything starts to, one, look the same, the end product. In a UDL art classroom, your end products meet the same goal, but they’re not all looking kind of like a Pinterest page. They are very unique and individual, but you can see that in all of this work, clearly one-point perspective is being taught. That’s one example.

I also provide our students with options for how quick … Artists move through this creative process at a different pace, which I know can be a barrier for art teachers. We want everybody to done at the same time! Oh my gosh, get done already. The rest of the class is done, would you please finish? What I do is I have a window at the end of each project and if you’re an early finisher, there’s a poster in the room called, “What do I do when I’m done.” On it are about eight options, which relate to learning goals that we’ve already covered and you go choose something from that poster to do. The poster isn’t just words, it’s UDL. I have pictures and visuals on the poster, so that when you know you’re done, if you are finished, you go choose something from that.

Anyway that’s an example from middle school, using one point perspective. Again that really focused on options for action and expression. I have given them lots of ways to show that they’ve learned it and options for representation. I taught it in a bunch of different ways, using a bunch of different examples and because of that students had some autonomy, which increased their engagement. That’s it for middle school. With an early childhood example, the goal right now is to demonstrate symmetry. If your old goal was students will show symmetry by creating symmetrical paintings and folding their paper in half and opening it up or I’m sure teachers are listening and thinking of a dozen other ways you could teach symmetry. When you got Google clearly, but without the means embedded, the what, students will demonstrate symmetry. It opens up my mind to possible options for how students could go about it.

I teach symmetry somewhat at times, directly with the students, like what is symmetrical and what is not. Let’s look at images and discuss lines of symmetry, name them, point to them, look at things in the room that are and are not symmetrical. In the end, we’ve done mini-lessons on mandalas, using pattern blocks to show symmetry, a painting lesson, where they do paint and fold the paper in half and open it up. We’ve looked at the contemporary artists, Heather Hansen, who sits on a giant piece of paper and she uses her whole body, her arms, moving in a symmetrical motion to create these abstract, symmetrical images. These become options for students to engage in, to show that they understand symmetry. They can do the Heather Hansen station, they could use pattern blocks, they could use paint. I even have a finish the drawing image to show that it’s symmetrical or make a mandala. There’s an element of still again autonomy, but still connected to a clear goal, so that students might be creating something that looks very different from their classmate, but they’re all demonstrating symmetry.

Tim: Yeah that’s really cool. I appreciate it, just kind of talking us through those examples, I know it can be complicated, takes a while to explain, but I think it’s really helpful for teachers to hear all of that. One other thing I wanted to ask you about too, I know if we are moving beyond just lesson planning, UDL also has just more general strategies that can be kind of implemented as classroom routines or structures. Can you tell us what that would look like and maybe how you would suggest teachers can begin to implement some of those ideas?

Liz: Yeah, absolutely. Even the two examples I just gave on symmetry and one-point perspective, those aren’t even in the book. If you’re thinking, “Oh, I’d to know more or think more about other lessons,” the books has tons more examples and also a general theory around what it could look like because you can’t be completely comprehensive in all of our instruction across all areas, but it gives you a lot more examples of what UDL looks like in an art room. In the case of general strategies, yeah and when teachers are beginning to implement UDL, I often suggest, “Think about a general routine or strategy you could do in your classroom and how could you implement UDL or make it more UDL, so that students have greater access,” because if you do a lesson specific strategy, you might spend a lot of time prepping a lesson and then, the lesson comes and goes. You’re like,” Oh my God, I’m going to do that again.” If that’s your example, then you don’t end up continuing it.

A general routine that I like to make and really focus on making UDL is my cleanup routine. I also have a UDL way to respond to student artwork, a way to rate artists statements and I already mentioned the what do I do when I’m done poster. Go through those first three. The cleanup routine, so as art teachers, we know there’s like loads of barriers with a cleanup routine. When you think about what are the barriers to the cleanup routine, sometimes students don’t know what to do, what their role is, what do they do if they don’t have a job? I have lanyards with a visual and the name of the job on it and they’re color-coded. If you have a yellow lanyard, there’s text on it that says you’re a supply collector and then that is your job. Everyone in the class knows this person’s collecting supplies. I can’t say, “No, I’m not done, I’m going to keep working.” That means it’s time to stop.

Those students with certain name tags, I’ve Wipe Warriors, Drawing Rack Master and Brush Washer and Palate Cleaner. I just cloak these lanyards on kids who volunteer and then, it’s much clearer to me who’s moving around the room and doing what. Then, students know if they don’t have a job, then they’re going to head back to their seat. Younger students go to the rug and choose a book from the bin, which is a bin of art books that we’ve already looked at and/or haven’t. They all know, the routine is clear and much more smooth in that case.

Well, before I had a very clear way of presenting jobs to students. I was doing a bunch of different things, which were just creating more barriers. The routine also took a lot longer. Yeah, thinking about your own classroom and where is a routine or strategy that you could apply kind of consistently. I also mentioned when I have students respond, so other students’ artwork, yeah, we do turn and talks, we do presentations at the rug, but I also have created a couple of different options, where there’s a few scaffolded sheets that look somewhat similar. One of them is to sketch a work in our gallery. The gallery is really just a glorified space in the hallway, where the artwork hangs in a gallery–at least we call it a gallery, where we expose students to more and more art spaces. In this space, you can sketch a work of art you see. Every work has an artist statement, so you write down, you can record the name of the student and you can optionally write them a comment that is kind, helpful and specific. The concept of responding, I’ve created this phrase, using kind, helpful and specific feedback, but also created a set of images that go with each of those words to help cue kids into making sure their feedback includes all of those. It’s not just, “I liked it, I thought it was cool,” or something that’s a little … I want it to elevate their responding.

In addition to sketching a work of art, I have fan mail and a couple of different templates, students who want to as an option, can write a letter to someone whose artwork they appreciate. I have options for using sentence starters, a closed passage for fan mail, a closed passage is something where the paragraph is primarily written and you’re only writing in a few words or blank paper. UDL doesn’t mean I tell a student who … I’m not going to make the assumption that this student is going to take this paper with sentence starters. All options are available to all students because what is essential for some sentence starters are essential for some students at certain points, but it’s good for all. Students who don’t need the sentence starters, over time, they don’t take them. They take the blank paper, they take the blank lines.

The third way I have students responding in different ways is they’re able to give feedback via a comment box as well and again using the same process with specific feedback and connected to this as the artist statement. I have my students pre K to eight, all write artist statements. it’s evolved over time, but what I do now with my older students is one day, they walk into the room and I have up six works of art projected. I just ask them, “Choose one that you’d like to learn more about,” and whichever one the class votes on, we look at.

I have an artist statement that corresponds to each of those works. They’ve had autonomy, they’ve gotten to choose one of the works and we read about it and we deconstruct what a good artist statement says. Then, they can read the other ones if they choose because I have all of the artist statements printed out in a different representation, if they’d like. Then, they write their own, but I have a couple of different graphic organizers and tips sheets. Again, these are just options for students to write an artist statement, where if I just said, “Write an artist statement about your work,” when I used to do that or I gave them very explicit sentence starters or like a very dry formula, my artist statements were mostly pretty dry and the authenticity of their art didn’t come through. UDL doesn’t fix or cure everything. My kids aren’t all like excited about writing an artist statement! But the quality of writing is stronger than if I didn’t use or implement UDL, which is why I continue to reflect on it.

UDL is incredible because when you think about learning barriers in your classroom and think about the curriculum and the environment and take it off the student, then it’s something you can implement forever. You’re never going to hit the end where, oh everything’s UDL. I’m in a barrier-free environment. It’s exciting. It can also feel daunting, so I always encourage teachers. I was someone who started off learning about UDL. I pushed back very hard about 10 years ago when I first started learning about it because it seemed like too much. It didn’t seem sustainable and I didn’t fully understand it. It’s baby steps at first and those baby steps snowball.

Tim: Yeah that’s a good way to think about it. I wanted to ask you this, I guess just to kind of wrap everything up, you just mentioned that you’re never going to have everything UDL, like it’s a process that keeps going. When I was reading your book, I kept thinking about, what a classroom would look like if everything was kind of happening or you’re pushing towards, getting everything happening through the lens of UDL. I guess this is my book report summary here, but my thought was that just if that happens, the classroom is going to have customized instruction, students are engaged and everyone is working toward goals in the ways that work best for them. Am I right in thinking that like would that be what you’re trying to work toward with your planning, with your design, with your implementation?

Liz: Yeah, Tim, students are definitely more often engaged than not. There are options towards a specific and clear goal. It’s not open choice and it’s not teaching for artistic behavior. It is focused towards a clear goal with flexible means. In that case, yeah, students might be doing different activities, might be expressing what they know in a different way, but it’s all related to a clear goal. I wouldn’t say it’s not differentiation. I’m not customizing thirty different lessons, which differentiation is in short, I mean it’s like doing different things for different students. It’s providing meaningful options to all students and allowing them those options and choosing their own path, but all toward the same goal. I am not assuming that certain students are going to choose this and directing students in one way or another, they get that level of autonomy and choice, but it is all towards the same goal. It’s not a free for all and it’s not a completely like open floor classroom.

Tim: Right. That makes sense.

Liz: When you look at it like every day, today, I’m reflecting on my classroom just like we as teachers always reflect on our work. I’m thinking about, “Well, what went well and what didn’t go well?” When I think what didn’t go well, I’m not thinking, “Well so and so didn’t finish.” It was what were the barriers to why they got stuck or why they hit a rut? The barriers are not within the student, they’re in, “Well, what could I do as a teacher to design instruction that reduces and removes those barriers by either providing options for engagement, providing options for the representation, the what, was it that they like didn’t know how to do this because I didn’t teach it in a way that was effective or an option for how they could express what they know.” What’s really neat is within UDL, you start to get … Students become expert learners and expert artists and empowered. They truly do. My students come up to me and say, “Well, could I try this? I’ll still be showing one-point perspective, but I wanted to show it this way.” Absolutely, in some cases, I’m like, “Oh, you’re actually doing two-point perspective. You don’t even know it. You just stumbled upon that yourself. That’s fantastic.” It’s really exciting to see how students can take ownership over their learning and still meet rigorous standards.

Tim: Yeah that’s really cool. That’s a very succinct way to put it and makes a lot of sense. Cool, we will go ahead and wrap it up there. Liz, thank you so much for giving me some time, talking about your book and just kind of helping me parse through all of these ideas. I know there’s a lot there, but you do a really nice job of kind of breaking it down and making it understandable for everybody who’s listening to this, so thank you.

Liz: Thank you, yeah. The book is available on Amazon and through Cast, which is the organization that published the book. If you go on Amazon and you search up Art for All and Liz Byron, it’ll come right up. It’s only short read. It’s meant to be right in under an hour and there’s a resource page as well connected with it. The whole book has QR codes and some elements that are UDL, so that you have options for reading that.

Tim: Yeah and I will say that well, first we’ll link in the show notes, everybody can find that. Secondly, it took me away more than an hour because I kept putting it down to kind of think about what’s there, like what that looks like. Then, I was digging into the QR codes and there’s just so much there that is sort of extra. Yeah, there was a lot there. I really enjoyed it.

Liz: Oh that’s great.

Tim: Highly recommended.

Liz: I’m the same way too–I’m a slow reader, but like I read it in an hour.

Tim: That’s awesome.

Liz: Thank you so much and I so appreciate this.

Tim: All right, thank you Liz.

All right, thank you so much to Liz for coming on and thank you all so much for listening. I know that was a long conversation. I thought it was going to be. We’ll go ahead and wrap things up quickly. I just want to encourage everyone to give Liz’s book a read. As I just said, we’ll link to it in the show notes, so you can find a copy. The book is really smart and it’s entertaining. She is a real teacher with real experience. She shares her highs, she shares her lows and as you’re reading it, you know that these stories and these experiences only come from being in the classroom. The whole book has a ton of takeaways, a ton of advice and it is definitely worth your time. Make sure you check it out, Art for All: Planning for Variability in the Visual Arts Classroom, it’s worth a read.

Art Ed Radio is produced by the Art of Education University with audio engineering from Michael Crocker. I’m hoping to next week continue with bringing on new teachers and new ideas and hopefully we will talk to you then.

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.