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UDL in 15 Minutes with Blake Beckett

Are you still using a typewriter?

During this episode, Blake shared her passion for reflective teaching and her passion for helping students become reflective learners. In the process of talking through those big ideas, she shared a story that made me remember an attitude I once had. That attitude stated, “You made your choice. Now, you have to live with it.” While many think it teaches a lesson, it doesn’t. It is an antiquated attachment to finality where there doesn’t need to be one. It is like telling everyone that we have to go back to typewriters before the age of whiteout and correction tape. If you make a mistake, you have to pull out the paper and start over again. You are locked in and there are no other choices. It is the same mindset. Instead, take a moment to breathe and provide the student with guidance to be reflective in their decision-making. That is a lesson.

I’m not proud to say that I had the, “You made your choice” attitude when I started teaching, but I am pleased that I moved away from it before I left the classroom for higher education. I want to share how I made that transition, so this blog is going to be different than others. I’m going to share my story rather than links to specific resources or research. Welcome to story time with Loui.

I was raised by two secondary teachers. One (my father) high school, and the other (my mom) middle school. My father’s mother had been an elementary math teacher, and my mother’s cousin (raised like a sister) was also a teacher. I was surrounded by teachers and I loved it. In 3rd grade and volunteered to read to the 1st graders. Additionally, my school identified a cadre of students who liked to tutor other students and put us to work once a week after recess. It was probably only 20 minutes, but I reveled in it. We had access to the encyclopedias kept behind the librarian’s desk (I’m hoping you just shook your head in dismay) and we were each given a special dictionary. Armed with these tools, I felt prepared to help any student with any lesson, even math!

Something else came with this privilege. You got to choose an extra book to check out of the library to read the following week. Every student in the school wanted to check out The Guinness Book of World Records (now, the Guinness World Records). I had never checked it out before and it was available, so I grabbed it. With eager anticipation, I opened it at home only to find that it wasn’t interesting to me at all. I wasn’t entranced by the woman with the longest fingernails or the man who lifted the most weight. The next day, I took it to the librarian and asked if I could exchange it. “You made your choice. You can’t choose another book until next week.” I was stunned, a little angry, and seriously bummed. For reasons I still don’t understand, I was locked out of getting another book that interested me. Instead of fostering my love of books and my advancing my ability to discern my reading preferences, the librarian fostered my frustration. All I learned was to hate rules. Fast forward to 9th grade. By then, I’d been told this phrase in multiple ways with the same message – I was stuck with what I chose because that’s how life is. Thank goodness I had a teacher with a student empowerment mindset.

In my 9th grade English literature class, we chose a Shakespeare play to read during a two-week time period. I chose Romeo and Juliet because I knew it well and figured it would make life easier. Instead, it made life really boring. Three days in, I went to Mrs. Blaylock and tentatively asked if I could change plays. I was prepared for no, but she said, “Of course, Loui. I want you to enjoy Shakespeare!” But she didn’t stop there. She asked me three honest questions (they were not loaded with disdain; rather, she really wanted to hear my thoughts): why did I want to change plays, what new play did I want to choose, and how could I be more effective in my choices next time? Man, that third one was a zinger, but it stuck with me. I was a little intimidated by the process (you mean that my opinion matters that much?) and she required me to be articulate in my answers, but I learned how to be more effective in my decision-making. I gained empowerment.

Fast forward again to my 2nd year of teaching. I’m an 8th grade collaborative teacher. I have a case load of 42 students with Individual Education Programs (IEPs) across three 8th grade teams. Students on one team are in the midst of a Holocaust multidisciplinary unit. They need to choose a summative project that will be their focus for 9 weeks. We are about 1 week in and some of my students want to switch projects.

Did I use what Mrs. Blaylock had taught me? Nope. Instead, I told my students to soldier on. Sure, I scaffolded things, gave them timelines, pushed them to meet deadlines, but it was a miserable process for all. Why didn’t I take a moment to breathe and apply her three simple questions? Why was I focused on some arbitrary and ineffective stance when I could have been focused on student empowerment? I just needed to ask them the three questions and openly listen to their responses.

  • Why do you want to switch?
  • What do you want to choose?
  • And, how will you be more effective in your choice-making in the future?

I’m really fortunate that I did take the time to reflect on that mistake and I changed how I supported student empowerment. It’s also one more reason why I am so drawn to the UDL framework. It wasn’t in existence yet, but had I been introduced to the framework, discovered even some of the checkpoints under Recruiting Interest, Self-Regulation, and Executive Functions, and understood variability (i.e., students’ decisions, reasons, and needs are going to fluctuate and it’s my role to help them recognize that and find a decision-making pathway that suits them), I would have had a ton of different ways to empower my students. Understanding the necessity to empower learners can lead you to the ultimate understanding: the most important course of action is to help foster the growth of expert learners.