Shades of Ebony: Universal Design

Shades of Ebony is an academic support program that provides literacy skill development for Burlington High School students. In 2013-2014, Shades explored an innovative approach to education: Universal Design for Learning (UDL). Shades worked with a local UDL expert to train tutors in this approach and support teachers who have Shades students in their classrooms.

What is Universal Design for Learning?

UDL is a framework for thinking about the design of learning experiences that respects the most recent research about how we learn. This framework provides 31 checkpoints for educators who want to plan and teach in a way that guarantees positive learning outcomes for all students. UDL asserts that for learning activities to be most effective for the greatest range of students, teachers must provide multiple means of presenting their material, multiple ways for students to show what they know through action and expression, and multiple means to keep students’ interest primed and engaged during their learning activities.

Enhancements and Impacts

Shades of Ebony is committed to creative learning, collaboration, and community.  As such, Shades focused their work with UDL on integrating their commitment to student learning with their commitment to helping staff and the community expand their knowledge and understanding. Enhancements to the program included:

  • A Dinner Theater in November 2013. Teachers were asked to have their students respond to a writing prompt and then any student who was interested could bring their written work to life in the form of a theatrical piece. 6 students (5 from Champlain Elementary and 1 from Burlington High School) came together and creatively performed their pieces.
  • A collaboration with Champlain College. Current and former (male) Shades students attended a seminar designed specifically for young men of color.
  • A visit to the University of Vermont was creative and interactive, pushing students to use literacy, verbal, problem solving, team building, and critical thinking skills. 25 students participated, 8 of whom were 8th grade students from Edmunds Middle School. The goal of this enhancement was to highlight a commitment to students pursuing postsecondary education.
  • The 9th annual Multicultural Festival of Foods. Current and former Shades students participated in this event with community involvement and support from local musicians and poets.

In general, Shades saw improvements in participating students’ literacy skills and overall academic performance in 2013-2014. In addition, Shades students commented throughout the program that they received consistent, supportive, and individualized feedback in response to their efforts to improve.