Recently, I got an email from a parent who has come to my class to teach technology courses a few times over the past years; she now has her own classroom (yay!) and was emailing with some questions about my practice. In thinking about how to answer her, I had to do some soul-searching about where I am and where I have been on my own journey into, through, and in Universal Design for Learning. After all, if I can help a new colleague avoid some of my more spectacular mistakes, I’m happy to share!
The first time I thought about my UDL journey was when I agreed to give the closing plenary for the UDL Rocks! Conference our district hosted in July 2018. Like this blog post, the focus was on my journey in UDL; this blog post is the updated version, a year-plus later.
“When are you going to start teaching?”
There would be no UDL journey for me without Dr. Katie Novak, both because she is our Assistant Superintendent who shapes the curricular vision for the district, and also because, on a personal level, she asked me to be her Graduate Assistant for the UDL course in summer 2016. And again in summer 2017. And to teach in-service courses in between. And so it began.
Prior to my time in my current district and my time with Dr. Novak, I was really good at creating a classroom culture of compliance, a classroom with no behavior issues (even in a tough school in a tough district). For this, I consistently received praise from my administrators. After all, things were quiet, students were working.
In my first year teaching math in Groton, I was assigned four classes of advanced math in 7th grade. I had the brainstorm that, since I was recording my lessons with an iPad in my first class of the day, I could just put the recording on the Apple TV in each subsequent class and have the students watch it.
Technology….iPad….recording…..Oh, I thought I was hot stuff…
Until the day a parent asked to meet with me and started off by saying, “The parents on the soccer field are all saying that you just sit at your desk. When are you going to start teaching?”
It took me about four years to acknowledge to myself the truth in that parent’s words–I wasn’t teaching. I had fallen into the beginner UDL trap of thinking that substituting a “cool option” created “engagement.” But the students were still just sitting in rows, in desks, taking notes (or not), still compliant.
A Step into UDL: Choice Homework
It wasn’t until I started taking classes in UDL with Dr. Novak that I began to have language to challenge myself to think differently and to think deeply about the true value of choice. The next steps for me in this journey were to provide choice homework assignments, where students could decide to work at grade-level or to explore more advanced topics.
My colleague, Irene Witt, and I also experimented with our exams, putting vocabulary on the front page and eventually building in templates and other supports. With every UDL class that I take or assist with or teach, I am reminded of the power of mastery-oriented feedback and of the addictive nature of revising your work.
So Much Farther to Go
In the 2017-2018 school year, I challenged myself to offer choice in my instruction, giving students the option of watching my lesson on the ChromeBook, using lessons I had recorded the year before, or watching the “live” version. Again, I thought I was hot stuff–after all, students now had a choice between two options, where before they had none! I was also so pleased with the amount of note-taking my students did while watching videos, especially the students most challenged by attention issues. I really thought I was on to something.
I should have known I was cruising for another crash, if I was thinking like that!
That reality check showed up in the form of the UDL Progression Rubric, which Dr. Novak shared with me in late Spring 2018. The first time I read the Rubric, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to cry or just give up. After all, I had been working with Dr. Novak for a few years at that point and was spending hours of time with my colleagues as a coach…and I knew we had more to do, but I struggled to wrap my head around the fact that, on a good day, most of my UDL practice was, well, emerging. At best.
“Remember how you used to drone on and on?”
About the same time the Progression Rubric made an appearance in my professional life, a group of Japanese educators came to visit the district. When I spoke to Dr. Novak after the visit, she described what they had observed in a colleague’s classroom–an essential question about the Holocaust….a collection of resources….and time for students to work.
All I could think was “HOW COULD WE DO THAT IN MATH?”
As an answer to that question, Irene and I began creating and using documents we called “By the End of Class” where we stepped back from our day-to-day planning and tried to be explicit about how a single topic or set of related topics could drive instruction for more than one day. In those documents, we began with an essential question or questions, and then provided key vocabulary, lesson materials (both required and optional), additional resources, and extensions.
I’m a bit of a glutton for punishment, so, when I decided to give the “By the end of class” document a try for the very first time ever, it was on a day when we were being observed by educators from another district. Nothing like trial by fire! I told them that it could be a total disaster, but we went for it. And it was awesome! Students were engaged and the feedback on the change was 100% positive.
In fact, when we asked students for feedback on the use of “By the End of class” documents to organize instruction, one student memorably responded that the documents allowed him to work at his own pace, as opposed to when I, as his teacher, used to “drone on and on.” Thanks for the feedback….I think.
For the 2018-2019 school year, Irene and I took on the challenge of expanding how we think about homework, adding yet-more options and moving beyond a binary set of daily choices. In 2019-2020, I am looking at adding work with Tier Two and Tier Three vocabulary to my practice as part of my evaluation goal.
So what lessons can I share from my journey? First and foremost, this is going to be a journey with a lot of backtracking and a lot of do-overs–it’s a journey that doesn’t actually have a clear end in sight. I encourage anyone interested in bringing UDL to their practice to work closely not only with UDL Guidelines but also with the Progression Rubric. In my practice, I find that the Progression Rubric provides me with much more understanding of how to not only begin with UDL, but also how to move forward.
Choice alone is not Universal Design for Learning; it is just the beginning. I challenge you to be constantly on guard for “fake UDL,” for fun projects that do not meet curriculum standards, for “cool” additions to your practice, for forgetting that putting in time doesn’t mean that you’re done. This is a long road, but it’s a road that you can walk with a great deal of company and high-quality company at that. Learning about Universal Design for Learning resonated with me in terms of the things I had always known were true, but hadn’t had the language to describe or to implement. UDL inspires me to be my best and ever-better professional self every day.