Set Out the Welcome Mat!: Top 3 Strategies to Welcome All Students to Learning
In schools across the country, every pencil in the packet has been sharpened, a few crayons have already been worked to the nub, and more than one folder has been lost. The newness has worn off. But each day, in each lesson, and in every learning environment, a Day 1 ritual is repeated: Welcoming our students to learn.
Although subjects are taught, content is covered, and standards are met, we seek a greater outcome. We want our students to become expert learners. We want them to be purposeful and motivated, resourceful and knowledgeable, strategic and goal-directed. We support them to reach these outcomes when we plan our lessons using a Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework.
You can begin implementing UDL guidelines in any order you would like, but I like to begin with three practices I think of as the “welcome mat.”
1. Provide options for recruiting interest
2. Provide options for perception
3. Provide options for physical access
These are entrance points for any student, lesson, and environment.
When we “provide options for recruiting interest,” we establish ways our students can personally connect to the subject or skill. That connection might be allowing students to choose between activities, helping them see how the topic or skill is relevant in their lives, or ensuring they know that they will get the support they need to learn. They feel safe knowing that the expectation isn’t perfection; the expectation is to grow as a learner. For example, students in 5th and 6th grade need to understand ratio concepts and use ratio reasoning to solve problems. So you plan a lesson on using ratio reasoning and set a goal that requires students to demonstrate their understanding. In this lesson, your students will expand a recipe to serve more people and have the option of making that recipe. If their ratio reasoning is wrong, the end product won’t taste good or won’t set up correctly, providing a real life connection to identifying the correct ratio.
Further supporting this guideline, the National Council on Teachers of Mathematics has an article that discusses why it is important to establish a safe environment where our students are allowed to fail (during the practice phase), learn from that failure (during the ongoing practice and monitored through formative assessment), and take ownership of their learning.
When we “provide options for perception,” we share information in a way that will be received by every student. Beyond the basics of presenting the information so students can hear and/or see it, this guideline considers the volume and speed at which the information is delivered, as well as the variation of the display (e.g., colors, bolding, underlining, etc.). This guideline also refers to the autonomy students have over the display of information. In a high-tech setting, students have access to supports that let them enlarge or otherwise emphasize the text, or they can alter the volume and related settings of the sound. A non-example is a PDF file that is stagnant and cannot be manipulated.
Returning to the ratio lesson, you can offer a physical representation of the ingredients as well as physical representations of measurement (e.g., measuring cups and spoons). In addition, the text can be enlarged, and/or students can work with partners or use technology to read aloud the ingredients and recipe. The goal is for students to demonstrate their ability to reason using ratios. By providing these supports, students can focus on that specific outcome rather than how to access the information.
The third guideline of the welcome mat “provides options for physical access.” At its most basic, this guideline urges educators to have tools in the environment and provide sufficient time so students can demonstrate their knowledge and abilities. Historically, students have been asked to demonstrate their knowledge of mathematics through pencil and paper and within a set amount of time. This guideline challenges educators to erase those boundaries, allowing more students to actively participate and be part of the learning community.
If the lesson is designed to allow students to show their knowledge, they can write out the ratios, speak the ratios and have others write them down, or show their understanding of the ratios by making the recipe. Students can move through the information (i.e., navigate) independently or with the help of a digital reader or reading partner. And in a well-designed environment, students are not asking permission to access these options; instead, the options are available at all times. The students use their own decision-making skills to determine the best tools for them at that moment.
When these three welcome mat guidelines are in action, all students know that they will be able to connect to the lesson, access information, and show what they know. They know that they are welcomed learners; they know they are at home in your classroom.
For more information about UDL and setting out the welcome mat, check out the following links:
- CAST’s 2 minute video about UDL
- Blog by Elizabeth Stein: "Creating Expert Learners in Every Classroom"
- National Council on Teachers of Mathematic's "The Power of Incorrect Answers"
- Loui Lord Nelson