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Integrating UDL Principles in Upper Elementary Literature Groups


Robyn Fialkow has taught in the New York City Public Schools for four years and is dually certified to teach general and special education for grades 1-6. Her philosophy of teaching emphasizes a capacity-oriented approach in which all children can learn and thrive. It is of paramount importance to her that the classroom provides students with “windows and mirrors," or the chance to see their unique selves reflected in the curriculum while also giving them the opportunity to learn about and celebrate others.

In applying inclusive Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles into her teaching, she has been engaged in a constant process of reflection on how to honor students’ differences by providing multiple means of representation, expression, and engagement. In this curriculum unit, Robyn discusses a literature circles unit and the various multimodal assignments and strategies she used to give all students access to the curriculum.


Robyn currently teaches a fourth-grade Integrated Co-Teaching (ICT) class in a Pre-K through Grade 5 school on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The school has a population of roughly 900 students. The school is comprised of a diverse community of learners who come from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds and have varied cultural and enrichment experiences. In a class of 29 students, there are 19 boys, 10 girls, and 11 students who have Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) across a range of classifications, including attention deficit disorders, language-based disabilities, learning disabilities, and autism. Both she and her co-teacher utilize the six approaches to co-teaching in order to deliver content effectively across all subject areas each day.



Thai is a fourth-grade student and English Language Learner who was born in Asia and moved to New York City in 2013. Thai is a humorous, kind, and curious child who makes friends easily. He is quick to smile and maintains a positive attitude about learning. He is very articulate when speaking, and he continues to work on being expressive in his writing.
During the first week of fourth grade, my co-teacher and I asked our students to write us letters of introduction. Thai sat with a blank sheet of paper in front of him for several minutes and it became clear that, although he had many ideas he wanted to express, he was hesitant to record them because he lacked confidence in his writing, handwriting, and spelling abilities.
We have focused on building Thai’s confidence this year in writing by emphasizing the content of his ideas. Thai has utilized various assistive technologies to facilitate the writing process, including speech-to-text apps like Google Voice Typing and Dragon Dictation. Thai loves engaging with technology and working with these tools is both enjoyable and intuitive for him.
Thai also loves graphic novels and comic books. The use of visuals to support comprehension has been important to Thai's educational experiences, and graphic novels allow Thai to access more complex concepts with the embedded visual supports. Thai is adept at reading social situations and is able to make insightful inferences based on characters’ body language, gestures, and facial cues.
When given free time, Thai has shown a preference for drawing and coloring with friends.


Nelly is a fourth-grade student who moved from California to New York in third grade. Nelly often comments that she misses her friends from California, and she presents as introverted. 
Nelly is a very artistic student whose creative talents became apparent in the classroom early on. Usually as a more reserved student, Neal emerges from her shell when art, drama, or music are integrated into the curriculum.
Neal is also very playful with her use of language throughout writing units. She enjoys coming up with clever similes or metaphors and adding her voice in personal narratives and opinion pieces.
Reading, writing, and attention have presented challenges for Nelly throughout her fourth-grade year. Specifically, Nelly has a more difficult time decoding grade-level multisyllabic words, and as a writer, she often struggles with letter reversals and applying spelling rules. Despite these challenges, Nelly is still engaged during independent reading and enjoys writing across genres.


Hope is a bright, vivacious, and self-motivated fourth-grade student who presents as academically “gifted.” She is above grade level across subject areas, and she exhibits a genuine love of learning. Hope is eager to present her creative ideas and has a quick wit and sense of humor. She craves enrichment work and often asks if she can work on independent projects in addition to her classroom work. 
Hope has shown a particular fondness for coding and computer science as well as literacy-based projects. She has created her own fictional characters and written newspaper-style articles about them. Hope also practices coding at home and, with minimal direction, has begun a self-directed project to create a “magazine” about computer science. The magazine includes different writing genres, including a biography of a computer scientist, an informational article about coding, a review of a coding app or game, and advertisements for fictional inventions related to coding.
She is enthusiastic about learning and will sometimes choose to stay indoors during recess to work on one of her projects. In addition to being passionate about academics, Hope is also very sociable and gets along well with her classmates.


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Thinking about curriculum through the lens of UDL principles has expanded my thinking about curriculum design and student-centered learning. It was truly remarkable, albeit unsurprising, to witness the increase in student engagement throughout the book club experience as students’ gained greater choice in expressing their learning. As I engaged with this work, I was struck by the idea that teachers do not need to retrofit the curriculum to meet the needs of individual students. Rather, teachers and students both benefit from creating and changing pre-existing curriculum to provide access to all learners from the start. Rebuilding curriculum is time-intensive work, but I realized it was just as, if not more, time-intensive to modify individual assignments for a large portion of students. By building a curriculum that responded to the needs of the whole and integrated multiple means of representation from the outset, all children with varying skill levels benefited and gained during the book club cycle.