Teachers in Ringgold School District are bringing fun back into the classroom by customizing the learning experience for their students.

Using a novel teaching approach first developed by Dr. David Rose, an internationally acclaimed developmental neuropsychologist and educator, Ringgold is giving all of its students an equal opportunity to succeed.

“As educators, we have discovered that a one-size-fits-all approach to learning doesn’t meet the needs of most students,” said Megan Marie Van Fossan, superintendent of Ringgold School District.

“There are different ways students can grasp information and knowledge.”

Shortly after Van Fossan took over the helm of Ringgold last summer, she recommended that the district adopt the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) – a groundbreaking teaching approach that is rooted in neuropsychology, human development and education research.

According to Van Fossan, UDL encompasses a wide variety of teaching methods that can be adjusted for each student’s strengths and weaknesses. The goal is to remove barriers that often prevent students from becoming expert learners.

“It’s pretty clear what students should know when they complete a course or when they finish a unit or chapter,” said Van Fossan. “But how you get there can take many paths. It depends on the needs of each student. With the Universal Design for Learning, we are giving our teachers autonomy to design a learning experience that helps student achieve their goals.”

Ringgold Elementary School North was among four schools in the district to apply the Universal Design for Learning in the classroom. RESN Principal Ross Ference likes the UDL approach because it gives his teachers more flexibility.

“The Universal Design for Learning framework gives our teachers the freedom to teach toward the edges,” he said. “It allows our teachers to adapt the curriculum so they can address the needs of students who are excelling in their coursework as well as students who need some extra assistance. There is a lot of room for creativity. And our teachers have come up with some great ideas for using UDL in their classrooms.”

Kristie Gray, a third-grade language arts teacher at RESN, was looking for a better way to explain how punctuation marks work when she found a solution in her food pantry.

“It dawned on me that macaroni noodles look a lot like quotation marks,” said Gray. “So, I wrote a few sentences on a board and asked my students to glue the macaroni where the quotation marks would go. They really had a lot of fun with that and picked up the concept much faster.”

The Universal Design for Learning has also become popular with RESN’s second-grade students.

“In my classroom, we are doing a lot of goal setting, and UDL helps my students visualize the skills they need to master to achieve those goals,” said Roseanne Giffin, a second-grade language arts teacher. “Recently, my students have started using a graph to keep track of how much they are improving each week. When they see their growth, they are amazed.”

Kristen Scalise, a RESN kindergarten teacher, is turning UDL into a game with her students.

“I try to bring more creativity into the classroom,” said Scalise. “Once I passed out paper and pencils to my students and asked them to draw a picture of their own special insect, then write something about that bug. My students also learn how to identify and pronounce letters while playing a bean bag toss game or by participating in chalk talks. It’s really amazing to see 5-year-old students catching on to those concepts.”

RESN’s students are encouraged to share their ideas with the teachers. And that is helping the students to become more engaged and motivated to learn, said Debbie Coppula, director of professional learning, who is working with students from kindergarten through the 12th grade.

“We have learned that there’s a lot more energy in the classroom when teachers are collaborating with their students,” she said. “You would be surprised how many great ideas the students offer to their teachers. Even the shyest kids feel more involved in the classroom. The Universal Design for Learning is great because it ensures that all voices are being heard.”

Van Fossan noted that Ringgold Elementary School South, as well as Ringgold’s middle and high schools, are also using UDL in their classrooms. She said that the teachers often share their ideas using social media.

“Twitter is a great professional learning tool,” she said. “Because of their busy schedules, our teachers don’t have many opportunities to get together. But they can easily bounce ideas around using Twitter. In addition, thousands of parents and other people are following our schools on Twitter and the PTA is sharing our stories on their Facebook page.”

The reaction to the Universal Design for Learning has been overwhelmingly positive. Van Fossan said Ringgold has received excellent feedback from surveys conducted with students, teachers and parents. She added that Ringgold’s school board has been very supportive of this teaching approach.

“When I explained to the board what we wanted to do with UDL, they told me, ‘That sounds great. What do you need?’ We are happy to see how much the school board has bought in to this concept,” said Van Fossan.

Judging by the reaction from the students, the Universal Design for Learning is a big hit in the classrooms.

“You can see the excitement in the classrooms,” said Michelle Engle, director of pupil services. “It’s almost like everyone has regained the fun and enjoyment in learning.”

RESN Assistant Principal Kelli Dellarose said the Universal Design for Learning has impacted her 5-year-old son, who is a kindergarten student at Ringgold Elementary School North.

“One day my son came home and started singing a rap song that Mr. Ference performs during his morning announcements,” she said. “He told me that he was becoming an expert learner. That was totally amazing from the perspective of a parent. It’s great to see the smiles on the faces of our students and teachers. Everyone is more eager and excited to learn.”

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