Snow Soccer + Workout = New Perspective

Recently, my sister who lives out of town came home for a visit with my 7 year old neice. My darling neice wanted to play soccer outside since she just got new cleats, shin guards, hot pink soccer socks, and a hot pink soccer ball. Even though there were still snowbanks that had yet to melt, there was slushy grass visible and the sun was out. Needless to say, outside we went for some early spring soccer. Twenty minutes go by of passing the ball with no major issues. Then, while showing my neice how to plant one foot and kick with the side of her other foot, down I go! I completely fall on my back, my jeans quicky soak up water and mud, and my head bounces off the ground.

Always in teacher mode, I look up at my neice, begin to laugh, and declare, “See. Even if you fall down, you can just get right back up and keep playing.” My intentions were good. My head was not. I was bleeding. Badly. Off to Urgent Care I went with my sister holding a towel to my head.

Two hours later, I am released with a fairly clean bill of health- no concussion, no stitches needed, just Tylenol to keep the headache at bay and directions to steer clear of playing snow soccer.

Three days after this fun adventure, I realize that I am slated for a workout with my trainer. However, my head was still a bit headachy in the mornings. Recognzing my body needed a workout but my head was not 100%, I email my trainer the snow soccer details and ask if he could create a workout that minimized head movement. Three hours later, I am put through a 50 minute training circuit that vigorously worked my entire body but kept my head from any quick movements.

What does this crazy story have to do with our work as educators? Everything! Hopefully, our students do not sustain head injuries on a regular basis. However, the larger question is this:

Are we, as educators, equipped to quickly and effectively make modifications for our students based off their individual needs?

What tools do we have to ensure each student has what he or she needs to be successful while also maintaining academic rigor and social-emotional stability? How do we pull these tools together so that a student can inform us of a need and we can make that accommodation within hours, if not sooner, to ensure success in the classroom?

To me, these questions reflect my ongoing work towards creating an environment centered on a Universal Design for Learning (UDL). Designing to the edges so that all students are included versus making modifications individually as they come means I will be prepared for those students who may “all of a sudden” get a head injury and need a different mode of learning. Whether the suddenness was always there and not identified, a change in student preference, a need to explore and expand horizons, or a modality previous realized as a best fit, all students deserve a classroom where they can achieve success.

As I was working out, this need to be ready and able to make my classroom a space where all students could achieve highly rigorous academic success seemed so obvious to me. My trainer did not “dumb down” my workout due to my head injury. He provided different pathways for me to achieve a full body workout that left me physically stretched to my limits yet did not futher aggrevate my injury.

I know I have work to do in creating a classroom designed to stretch student learning to its limits for every individual. I know my toolbox is not as full as it should be. I know the task will initially feel daunting, but I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the results will lead to a more inclusive, welcoming, classroom where creating personalized pathways to success is the norm and not the exception.

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?

oh well ⇒ bathroom tears


Well, I told my gym teacher that my group wasn’t being fair.  He said, “Oh well.” I told him I needed to go to the bathroom.  I left to go cry.  ~11 year old girl

One of my little 6th graders with a pip-squeaky voice related this story to me when I found her in the hallway.  Today is only the third day of school.  Only her second gym class.  Only the first time she changed shoes and actually ran around in gym class.  Already, she is struggling.

To be fair to my colleague in physical education, I have learned that group dynamics are tough for this little girl.  She is on the autism spectrum, she is physically littler than most of her classmates, and she has this cute, high-pitched voice that says whatever comes to her mind.  Working in teams is not her favorite.  If she must work with others, she needs to make the decisions and be the leader.

It’s the third day.

Only the third day.  Only the second time she has interacted with this teacher.  Only her first time asking for his help.

Every child has the right to be seen, heard, and valued.  When my little 6th grader told me she needed to cry in the bathroom, my heart twinged with pain.  Her issue was not seen as important enough to investigate.  She did not feel heard.  Her perspective was not valued.

Creating and equitable classroom is not magic. It does not happen easily.  It comes with lots of time, patience, reflection, dedication, questions, trust-building, relationship-forging.  Equity begins with ensuring that our students know they are wanted, they are valued, they are needed in our classroom.  If they are gone, the classroom is not the same without them.

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When an issue arises, not matter how large or small, we as educators make the decision of how to help our young ones come to a resolution.  “Oh well” is not a resolution.  It does not satisfy the need to be heard and valued.

No kid should have to leave class to cry in the bathroom because of our words.


child + learner = student

At the core of any good classroom is a supportive, trusting relationship between student and teacher.  In my early career days, I knew it was important to get to know my students, but I didn’t prioritize this foundational aspect to the degree I now do.  Why?  My students are children first.  They are little human beings who have passions, dreams, fears, anxieties, silly moments, sad times, crazy adventures…

A neat activity my colleague did brought me much insight into my own kiddos.  This activity was easy, quick, but insightful.  She simply asked the students to write down 3 things that are important about them.  Then, she asked them to write down how they learn best as a student.  With some prompting and scaffolding, students understood what it meant by how they learn best.

The results were insightful, funny, “typical middle school”, heartfelt, sometimes sad, but above all reflective of the fact that these students are children first and foremost.  One student listed his 6 other siblings in order (he is the 2nd).  Another made sure we knew her sister was in our school (of course we knew, but she is proud of it).  One boy cared to share his little sister is a premie. Family remained a central theme.

Other students shared their love of drawing, reading, playing video games, or being in sports.  One little girl shared her love of 1. Art, 2. Nature, 3. Nature & Art.   Some wanted us to know qualities about them, like they are helpful, shy, talkative, or dislike photos being taken of them.  These nuggets of information helped establish that each student is a child first, a person, a little human being.

What was so telling was the way these students were able to share about their needs as learners.  Students wrote about needing fidgets because they get antsy or have ADHD.  Many shared their preference for learning: reading, listening, hands-on.  Some advocated to sit in the front so they can focus; others wanted us to know they prefer working alone or in groups.

Students know themselves as learners.  They know their strengths and weaknesses.  They were brave enough to share with my colleague, who gratefully shared with me. These little notecards are the introduction to these kiddos.  Time to learn the rest of the story and write the next chapter together.

Cool = Cool = Cool

School started today.  As with any new group, we are all getting to know one another, from names to personalities to gender. Yes, gender is something we learn through expression–be it name, clothing, appearance.

One young boy of 11 years old wears his hair long.  During a group activity, a little girl pointed to this long-haired boy, looked at me, and said, “I forget her name.”  Her name.  The young boy sheepishly looked away.  The rest of the class snickered at the gender slip.

All, except one self-aware boy.  Right as I was about to step in to stop the giggling, this boy said, “Hey. Who cares if he was a girl? He’s cool.  Doesn’t matter if he’s a boy or girl. Cool is cool.”

Wise words for someone so young.

social justice + personalization

I had been in foster care along with my older sister and my brother. We all were in foster care for 3 years. I actually still know my foster sister. ~Madeline, 11 years old

From the list of social injustice topics (see social – justice = injustice) , students chose an injustice to explore more deeply through a mathematical lens.  However, before exploring the mathematics, students worked to define their chosen issue.  As students chose their social injustices, I quickly realized that many of the topics they chose were ones where they found a personal connection.  After researching their topic, I asked students to privately email me about their choices.

I wanted to learn more about [depression] because maybe I have it. I know close friends and family of mine who might have depression. I wanted to learn about it so I could know how to solve it, how to make it better. Researching this topic about depression made me realize that I’m not alone with this problem. There are millions of people in the world who deal with depression and now it doesn’t make me feel so alone anymore. ~ Hope, 12 years old

Students revealed that even if they had not experienced the issue, they chose it because of close friend…

Well, one of my friends almost got raped by one of her friends. But I’ve gone through depression, child abuse, self harming,  and I’m also bi. ~ Aria, 11 years old

or family member…

My aunt is a lesbian and has a partner, my auntie-aunt.  I’ve always known about my about my aunt and my auntie-aunt being together.  It’s not weird or anything.  It’s just what it is.  ~Michele, 12 years old

or a neighbor…

Something I realized was the proliferation of animal abuse. I have a neighbor who never takes their dog for a walk and leaves him outside even when he shouldn’t. They have gone through 4 dogs in the last 2 years. ~ Troy, 12 years old

As I embarked on my journey into exploring social justice with my students, I initially shied away from heavy hitting topics like rape, sexual orientation, child abuse, or human trafficking.  As my students were the ones to bring the injustice up themselves, I realized it was my own fear keeping me from delving into such deep issues.

I worry about my students, who–in my mind–are just still “kiddos”, too young to be troubled with such deep issues.

I worry more that exploring such difficult, complex issues may propel my students faster into young adulthood.

I worry most that by not exploring the issues, students would not have the opportunity to voice their opinion on topics they clearly are already exposed to.




social – justice = injustice

Wow. There’s a lot wrong with our world. I don’t even know where to start.

Although voiced by an 11 year old female, the immensity of social injustices in society was clearly written on the faces of my 21 sixth grade students.  The room was silent.  Their eyes were downcast.  Their shoulders sagged a bit, as if realizing the weightiness of the topics written on the board.

The class began by defining social justice (see social + justice).  Sometimes to understand what a difficult concept is (like social justice), we need to explore what it isn’t.  Therefore, as a class, we needed to investigate the injustices in society, the areas where our local, state, national, and global communities are not achieving equity.

The list students created is quite extensive, ranging from discriminating against someone’s race, sexual orientation, disability, and gender to global issues of terrorism and sex trafficking.

Students expressed issues facing middle school students like bullying, depression, alcohol/drug use, and divorce to environmental issues of pollution, water scarcity, and global climate change.


At the end of our brainstorm, student sat back and looked at a board filled with issues in our society.  The silence felt like hopelessness, that the world was filled with too many problems.  That these students were “only” 11 and 12 years old.  That the injustices were far too big for them to solve.

So I scanned the room, catching as many eyes as I could, and asked, “Now what are we doing to do about it?”

Hope began to light up their eyes.

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