Embracing UDL

I was probably the worst student in the classroom. Actually, second worst. The worst student was my principal. We were in the back of the classroom with our heads down on the table, laptops open doing email, talking about anything and everything but the topic at hand. And the poor teacher having to deal with two naughty kids was my dear colleague.

While co-teaching a class to pre-service educators, my colleague Jill, principal Penny, and I all brought strengths to this class, weaving together our passions with the required content. To that end, Jill was beyond passionate about UDL. Penny and I, who had not been trained on UDL nor bit by the UDL bug, “let” Jill teach this UDL thing to our pre-service teachers while we worked on other, more pressing things, during our 3-hour class.

Sometimes, like our students, we are not ready to hear or embrace something new. For me, UDL was just that thing. Overwhelmed with a class full of big personalities, students with major trauma, and children with undiagnosed learning and behavioral disabilities, my mind and educational heart was not ready to tackle UDL. My entire focus was on creating a physically and emotionally safe environment… all… year… long!

Fortunately, Jill’s passion was overwhelmingly strong. She invited me multiple times to learn about UDL, engage in UDL, understand the power of UDL, become a UDL practitioner and advocate. What finally brought me to the table was a clear mind and heart ready to embrace UDL– in the educational world, that time is also known as summer break! Having an insanely difficult year behind me, I knew I needed to renew my heart and passion for education, and there it was– UDL!

As a classroom teacher, as someone who conducts staff professional development, as someone who works with pre-service educators, I continually need to remind myself that not everyone is ready to embrace something new. When our minds and hearts are ready, just the right thing will be there for you. Just waiting. Maybe you’ll have a Jill in your life whose infectious passion will overwhelm you. I hope everyone is that lucky.

∑ every interaction

Me with StudentEvery interaction with a student is an opportunity.  Every interaction adds up to a deeper relationship with a student, creating a lasting bond.

The importance of each interaction became transparently clear to me today when a student quoted something I had said to her over two years ago.

“Remember that day I felt really stupid and you said, ‘We all have ways our brain lights a fire. Let’s find your spark.’  Whenever I struggle, I try to find my spark. I found it today.”

Now, I doubt that I said something so eloquently, but apparently I said something that stayed with this student.

I consider myself lucky that I teach 6th – 8th graders, continuing to see students for three years.  I see the growth in my students and form relationships that grow deeper and more mature over the years.

We may never know what words will stick with our students, but we can keep the idea that our words are precious in our hearts.  Every interaction is an opportunity.  An opportunity to find a spark, to spark a match, to light a fire.


growth > grade

Thirteen faces looked at me.  Some incredulous. Some confused. Some angry.  I had just told my pre-service educators, students on the precipice of student teaching, that the project they turned in needed to be redone using the feedback they received.  These college students were to redo their first major project for my class.  One girl raised her hand and asked, “Was this your plan all along, or were our projects that terrible?”  A second student tentatively asked, “How does this effect our grade?”

Contrast this scene with earlier in the day.  I’m working with 6th graders, students half the age of my college students.  One boy, Willem, had just turned in a podcast. After listening to about 30 seconds, I noted about two positives– excellent images and strong use of academic vocabulary– along with three issues– sound quality, lack of a script, and lots of filler words.  After writing down these strengths and areas for growth, Willem looked at me and said, “Oh, okay! So I’ll do it again and bring it back.”  Therewas no frustration. No confusion. Nogrowth over grade anger. Just a sense of true learning for growth.

In creating a culture of learning, iteration must be a key component of learning.  Iteration leads to growth.  Iteration negates the idea of “one and done” learning.  Iteration provides an equitable option for all students to keep proving their mastery of the content.

When growth is the goal, the culture of the classroom looks and feels much differently than when the grade is the sole focus.  How do we lead with a focus on growth more than the grade?

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