I recently started co-teaching a course on Universal Design for Learning (UDL) with Dr. Katie Novak, our assistant superintendent and international UDL guru. The course began with a self-reflection on UDL and, in reading over the submissions, I saw many students (teachers) reflecting on how their school experiences might have been different if they had been taught by teachers using the principles of UDL. Reading those reflections got me out of bed at 10:00 at night to write this post, reflecting on a life-changing educational experience I had in high school, an experience of failure.
From the time I first became aware of grades and rankings, I knew I was first in my class, starting in middle school and through graduation from high school. It was an unspoken expectation that I would turn in work at the A or A+ level because that was what I was capable of doing. I worked very, very hard for my grades, but I also knew how to get them and I had a skill set that allowed me to be successful when measured on this scale–I had neat handwriting, I was a natural reader, I did not suffer from attention concerns, I had engaged and educated parents.
Before I even started high school, my father and I had mapped out every course I would take in those four years and I was already amassing a data base of my top colleges. In my plan, I would attend Harvard and become a college professor in English. Everything was planned, everything was on-track.
Until the summer between junior and senior year.
That summer, I attended the Advanced Studies Program at St. Paul’s School in Concord, NH. This was a competitive program for the top two students in each high school in New Hampshire. Students who attended were considered to be in the process of being groomed to attend top-tier universities upon graduation from high school. At the time, that description was perfect for who I was as a student, until I actually started in the program.
From day one, I struggled. I struggled with sharing a room (as the only girl in my family, I had had my own room since I was four). I struggled with the reading load–I literally did not know how to skim, only read, and we were assigned a few hundred pages of reading a night. I struggled with the restrictions on my daily schedule, with no room to make my own choices.
My birthday came and went and a few days later, two weeks into a five-week program, I woke up crying. I cried through breakfast. I cried through class, which, memorably, meant I was crying while we went on a field trip to a television studio in Concord. I cried through lunch. I cried until I called home and told my mom to pick me up. Not for the night, but for keeps.
This choice changed the entire trajectory of my life as it was planned. I threw away the letters from Harvard and Yale. I applied to Keene State College (and no place else) and was awarded a full, four-year scholarship, starting me off into my adult life with no student loans. I lived at home for a semester (in my own room!) and then moved into a studio apartment (by myself!); I never again shared a room in an educational setting. I graduated early and went for a very abbreviated solo hike on the Appalachian Trail. I met friends from Ecuador and lived in Quito, marrying and divorcing un quiteño in the process. I returned to the US thinking in two languages and living between two cultures/worlds.
I also ended up, through a string of events, teaching math, not the English I graduated with a Bachelors in, nor, at the end of it all, not the English as a Second Language I studied for my first Masters. Seventeen years later, I can’t imagine teaching anything else, although I know that my lack of ease with math is both a strength and a weakness in my math teaching, as it gives me much empathy for the struggles of my students but also means there is content I don’t understand as deeply as others do.
How does this connect to UDL? As teachers who believe in and practice UDL, we hope that we are teaching our students to be resilient. We hope that we are giving them multiple doors to open, not setting them off on a single, narrow path. I don’t remember if I had explicit conversations with my parents about how to “deal” with the fact I had left St. Paul’s, but I was clearly resilient in the long run; I am sure my parents invited me to reconsider my decision to leave, but I also know they didn’t pressure me to do so. I don’t remember how I made all of the life-changing choices that summer. I do remember spending a lot of time outside, doing yard work and running.
In the the MTSS Blueprint (Novak, Rodriguez & Massachusetts Department of Education, 2018), the authors describe the following scenario in a middle school science class:
To foster self-awareness, before beginning the experiment students are asked to reflect individually and engage in small group discussions about how they might react if the experiment goes well or poorly. Students then reflect on those reactions after the experiment. (pg. 26)
I never discussed the possibility that I might fail at St. Paul’s; I never created a plan to deal with that potential failure. This was not part of my school experience; instead, I have learned this as an adult. As a single mother and an often-single woman, I have had to raise my kids and deal with all of the hassle of owning a house and cars and managing money completely on my own. I have clear memories of learning the very, very hard way that I should expect the worst and plan for that, rather than assuming it will all work out and then having no recourse when it came crashing down.
As I reflect on sharing this experience through this blog, I find myself wondering, as did the students in the UDL course, in what ways my academic or life experiences might have been different given access to experiences with a grounding in UDL. I also wonder in what ways I can better prepare my students, knowing what I know now about UDL, for the “St. Paul’s” experiences that await them in life.