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Preparing for a Different Kind of Middle Grades Classroom

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by Paul Dunford, independent consultant for the Association for Middle Level Education (AMLE)

As we prepare for the Common Core State Standards to be implemented in states across the country, the information from literature and developers urges us to prepare for a "different kind of classroom."

Descriptions of this next generation of classroom paint pictures of places where self-directed learning, student choice, and engagement built around enduring understanding are paramount. The Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is currently being applied to both the development and assessment of Common Core State Standards to measure student achievement. UDL, with origins in the neurosciences, prescribes flexible approaches to learning that are adjusted to meet the individual needs of students.

For those of us long committed to middle level education it appears our time has come. The alignment between middle grades classroom practices and the principles guiding curriculum development and assessment are closer than ever before. The Association for Middle Level Education position paper, This We Believe: Keys to Educating Young Adolescents (TWB) has always guided our middle level practitioners to "make informed decisions about the kinds of learning experiences that young adolescents need." The major goals of middle level education as defined in TWB and the principles of UDL are well aligned. When TWB and UDL are naturally woven together they will further guide the middle grades classroom practices by combining our vast experience and research on what is best for all students ages 10-15 with scientifically based neuroscience research and suggested classroom practices that support the principles of UDL.

Throughout the collective work of AMLE, key teaching and learning concepts emerge. This is the time for middle grades educators to demonstrate a deep understanding of the needs of middle level learners and how those needs are supported with UDL principles and practices. The chart below presents just a few of the connections between concepts from the Association for Middle Level Education and the principles of UDL.

AMLE Key Concept
Association for Middle Level Education (2010). This We Believe: Keys to Educating Young Adolescents. Westerville, OH: Author.
UDL Principle or Guideline
CAST (2011). Universal Design for Learning Guidelines Version 2.0. Wakefield, MA: Author.




Employ a culture of learning where the learner — not the subject matter — is the center of the learning.


Principle I. Provide Multiple Means of Representation Provide interactive models that guide exploration and new understandings, multiple entry points to a lesson (art, literature, film etc.).


When students are talking, they're thinking. Set up structured environments for students to talk and share.




Principle II. Provide Multiple Means of Action and Expression
Guide appropriate goal setting, provide templates for understanding the problem, setting up prioritization, sequences, and schedules of steps, and guides for breaking long-term goals into reachable short-term objectives.


Connect students to the real-world using Project-Based Learning.




Principle III. Provide Multiple Means of Engagement 
Provide options for recruiting interest with choices in perceived challenge, context or content used for practicing skills, the tools used to gather information or to produce a product.


In preparation for the full implementation of Common Core State Standards, I urge everyone who professes a belief in meeting the unique needs of young adolescents to continue to build on this table as they practice the concepts and principles of TWB and UDL. Ensuring a clear connection of these concepts and principles in our middle grades classrooms will prove invaluable to increasing our students' achievement as we move to fully implement the Common Core State Standards and the assessments as they are developed.


Views expressed in this post are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the endorsement of the Learning First Alliance or any of its members.

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