One of the first principles of universal design is that it is better to build flexible options into a curriculum at the outset rather than trying to retrofit the program after it is published. A corollary might be that even when you’ve built in flexibility, you never stop retrofitting to meet the needs of an ever-expanding universe of users.
That’s been Glenn Kleiman’s and Amy Brodesky’s experience in their decade of work on EDC’s Mathscape: Seeing and Thinking Mathematically. In 1991, Kleiman and co-developers set out to create a middle school curriculum that would make math more accessible to more students. Unlike a traditional textbook, each unit of Mathscape features multiple approaches to problems. There are drawing and art connections to engage visual learners, physical activities and manipulatives for hands-on learners, and story contexts and writing prompts for students with strong verbal skills. All of these options have taken Mathscape well down the road toward universal design; still, Brodesky believes you can always go further. “No matter how rich and flexible a curriculum is, teachers still need to adapt it to meet the needs of their own students—particularly students with disabilities,” Brodesky comments. “And there are things we can do to help teachers make those adaptations.”
Brodesky is assistant project director of a new project, Addressing Accessibility in Middle School Mathematics, a collaboration of EDC and CAST, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). The project aims to help teachers adapt five NSF-funded standards-based mathematics curricula (Mathscape, Connected Mathematics Project, Mathematics in Context, MathThematics, and Pathways in Algebra and Geometry) to better meet the needs of students with disabilities.
Judith Zorfass, who co-directs the project with Kleiman, knows from her years of experience that the needs of students with disabilities are not always in synch with the needs of typical students. “It’s not easy designing a curriculum that works for students with and without disabilities,” she acknowledges. “There are real tensions to be resolved. However, the payoff of addressing these tensions is that you create materials that are beneficial to students with a wide range of learning styles.”
Teachers using Mathscape, for example, have reported instances where the same options that make the mathematics more accessible to one student can be a barrier for another. “We know that the reading, writing, and drawing we built into Mathscape have made some mathematical concepts meaningful to a lot of students who used to feel they weren’t good at math,” Brodesky explains. “But that can also raise challenges for some students with learning disabilities.”
The project team is preparing for a fall workshop with mathematics and special education teachers who are using the curricula at several Boston-area schools. The workshop will present an overview of universal design and adaptations of selected lessons. Teachers will then return to their classrooms to try out the adaptations with their students and reflect on the experience. Mathematics and special education teachers will also work collaboratively in study/planning groups to plan additional adaptations.
The adaptations will be designed to address the three principles CAST has identified as key to universally designed curricula: multiple ways of presenting information, multiple ways of engaging students, and multiple ways for students to represent their thinking.
Brodesky offers a scenario to illustrate what those adaptations might eventually look like. In the Mathscape unit, “Patterns in Numbers and Shapes: Using Algebraic Thinking,” students analyze patterns and then learn to describe the patterns, using mathematical tools (i.e., verbal descriptions, tables, graphs, and mathematical expressions with variables). In Brodesky’s scenario, before teaching the unit, Andy (a mathematics teacher) and Tanya (a special ed teacher) meet to discuss concerns that the unit’s emphasis on interpreting and making tables and graphs may create barriers for students with cognitive or motor disabilities. Turning to the project website and resource books, they find templates and organizers specific to the “Patterns” unit. There are table templates where the x/y columns are set up, with large spaces left for writing. They also find large grids with the axes already labeled, which will help students with disabilities organize and enter the values in a pattern.
Tools such as these help the teachers zero in on the mathematics goal of a complex lesson, so that students with disabilities devote most of their time to the key mathematical ideas, rather than getting bogged down in some less significant tasks. In this scenario, students focus on plotting points rather than spending the class period on the mechanics of setting up the axes.
Andy and Tanya are also concerned that the writing tasks in the unit may present barriers for students with cognitive or language disabilities. (The new curricula require more extensive reading and writing than traditional middle school mathematics curricula.) The two teachers decide to meet with the language arts teacher so that they can incorporate various writing tools she’s developed—such as paragraph templates and correction checklists—into the math class. They also meet with the technology coordinator to discuss software tools that will allow students to receive and present information in various ways (such as speech recognition technology).
Finally, they discuss ways to “scaffold” the final project of the “Patterns” unit, in which students create a situation and then explore the patterns within it. (Long-term student projects are another characteristic of the new curricula.) Andy and Tanya decide to divide the multistep project into smaller, more step-by-step chunks, present less information at a time, and provide a visual organizer for each step to assist students with disabilities.
Beyond developing these classroom adaptations, the Addressing Accessibility project will also work to raise awareness of school policies and attitudes that may work against inclusive practices. Brodesky has already started that process with some of the field-test schools: “At a meeting I had with a school staff last week, we spent some time talking about schedule conflicts. The mathematics teachers expressed frustration that the schedule doesn’t give them time to meet with the special education teachers—when the math teachers have planning time, that’s when the special education teachers are working with their students. The principal was receptive to the idea of changing the schedule so that there would be common planning time. That’s a really important step forward for the school.”
Originally published on June 1, 2000