UDL Rising

On August 4, 2020, a group of my favorite educators, thinkers, and people joined together virtually to give a keynote titled UDL Rising to kick off the UDL Symposium. What follows are three of the words from Marian Dingle, myself, and Dr. Jon Mundorf. I am also sharing the link to the initial video of the entire keynote. I believe in the ability for access to information and unfortunately oftentimes large conferences are out of reach for the educators who are working directly with students and learners. I believe this message about Universal Design for Learning is for all educators.  

Marian Dingle

Hello everyone. My name is Marian Dingle, and I am both excited to be addressing you today and really honored to be among such esteemed panelists. My school year has begun, and as we speak, I am in a district training. Hence, this video.

I’d like to begin with a few acknowledgements. I acknowledge that the land I am on today called Georgia is unceded land that once belonged to the Cherokee and Muscogee Peoples. This land is land that they were forced to leave behind. I also acknowledge that my ancestors were stolen from their native lands to work this unceded land. I ask a blessing from the native peoples and my enslaved and free ancestors whose native languages I do not know. I ask them to bless our time together, as it is offered in a spirit of peace and reparation.

Personally, I acknowledge that although I am a healthy and employed educator, I am dealing with chronic trauma. My son, a rising college senior, travels back to school tomorrow. He will resume workouts with his football team, as we await a decision on when his season will begin. Both my adult children live and/or work in cities that have been in the news as the sites of recent murders and arrests of innocent people.

My husband occasionally travels for work. As a Black woman, I am very aware of anti-Blackness that surrounds me, and the real dangers that confront my family.

I begin with these acknowledgments because context matters. I think it is important for us to acknowledge where we are so that we are aware of the lens through which we act and feel. That allows you to receive my comments appropriately.

I have been teaching for 22 years, all in elementary grades. I have taught in different states, in public and private settings, in areas of families with high socioeconomic status, and in schools that received Title I funding, I have been a teacher of the gifted and I have taught in co-taught settings. And the one thing that continues to persist, the one thing that keeps me up at night is the fact that no matter where I go, the students who look like me are those that are perceived to be at the bottom. It is indeed the problem of practice of my career.

My father instilled a love of mathematics in me at a young age.

Many nights, we would spend at the kitchen table as he revealed its secrets to me. I was mesmerized and thought my father was a magician. I couldn’t get enough.

In fact, he and my mother mathematized everything. I grew up thinking everyone did this. In early childhood, we talk a lot about the importance of creating home environments for children that are rich in literacy and texts. Mine was rich in mathematical ideas and concepts. They weren’t contrived, but as natural as breathing.

I remember my mother periodically dumping the contents of her purse onto her bed to expose the loose change. The challenge was if I could count it correctly, I could keep it. As I understand now, this was a brilliant pedagogical move because it allowed a conversation about my process. She could observe my grouping strategies, how I looked for and made use of structure. And of course, I had every motivation to persevere.

In the book Dare to Lead by Brené Brown, she asks readers to select their core values from which all actions emanate. For me, they are love and justice. As a mathematical being, this is the lens through which I view the world, as is love and justice.

In my problem of practice, I am seeking a pedagogy that is more human and humanizing. I believe we can begin with the concept of community.

The Mayan-inspired poem, In Lak’ech, which translates into I Am You or You Are Me, reads:

You are my other me

If I do harm to you

I do harm to myself

If I love and respect you

I love and respect myself

We are models of community for the children. They are of our utmost concern.

The past few years, I have relied upon a daily morning meeting to build community. All of us sitting in a circle, being seen in whichever way we would like, with the invitation to speak. During my first year of doing this, I had a student, Gigi, who I had been warned about. “She is a selective mute,” they said. “She won’t talk to you or anyone.” Gigi, a Latine ELL student, had this label at age 9. So, of course, she became my challenge.

On the first day of school, I went around the circle, inviting each student to speak, but really expecting each student to speak. I made lots of eye contact with Gigi, in the hopes that when it was her turn, she would, in fact, speak. I used my wait time, and more wait time, but she did not speak. I proceeded to the next student. But all the while she was closely observing.

In the next period, I had taught the students a math song in a call and response fashion. It was a sort of diagnostic to see which material students knew, and how much they retained after some review. Along with the song, I would stop and point to different students, and that student would sing the required number in a rhythm. Mistakes were common (it was the first day), but fun. I got my nerve up, and I pointed to Gigi. What did she do? Well, she sang the correct number on beat of course.

That was the beginning of me realizing her brilliance. I was ecstatic, because I thought it was a win for me – that I had pushed through and she responded. But as the year went on, I realized that it wasn’t my win at all. She would continue to show me the mathematics that already lived inside of her. And I would have to catch up to where she was. I had to get over myself. If I was to teach her, I would need her trust and permission.

One way that trust was built between us was through journaling. I learned that it was not that she didn’t want to communicate, but she preferred writing. Through her entries and my response entries, we learned quite a bit about each other. I learned to read her facial expressions and body movements. Those eyes. They saw everything.

It wasn’t long before she began advocating for herself. One day, she approached me to say verbally that she just didn’t get division. She needed help and wanted extra work. I gave her a lesson on the spot, and supported her. She began to use her voice more and more,  but always purposefully. That was her lesson for all of us. That her voice was a gift to us. Not be taken lightly. She would use it as she saw fit.

It made me question quite a bit about my pedagogy, what I considered a good student. Why did I require her to use her voice to show she knew a concept? Why did I require oral reports and presentations? Whose need was I prioritizing? If we want an education that humanizes, then we must enter into experiences with kids that honor who they are. Learning should be consensual.

Colleagues would occasionally comment when they saw her use her voice in class. Mouths fell open when it was Gigi who appeared on the school announcements, broadcasting the week’s events.

They thought I had done some magic, or that there was something special about our class. But that wasn’t it at all. We simply allowed and expected Gigi to be herself. To me, that is what UDL should aspire to be. Where children’s brilliance is assumed and where students can trust that they can be their full selves.

Lizzie Fortin

Hello! I’m Lizzie Fortin and I use the pronouns she and they. I am a white queer educator currently sitting in a loft inside the renovated Hill Envelope Factory in a gentrified section of Worcester, MA, previously land of Nipmuck people, who I am continuing to learn about. I live one mile down the road from Laurel Clayton, a historically Black neighborhood that was demolished in 1970 and then removed again when I-290 was built. I live 2 miles from the school that I work at in the Worcester Public Schools. I want to send some love to the people in Beirut after the explosion yesterday and so much love to educators all over the country and world as they prepare for a school year like no other. I am an instructional coach at a high school, and was previously a visual art educator. I am an artist and am currently working on my daily collage project and a timeline project where I contextualize history. I want to express an immense amount of gratitude and love for my fellow panelists who have taught me so much about UDL, collective liberation, and unending grace. 

5 years ago when I learned about Universal Design for Learning, my brain exploded. I engaged in my first UDL 101 course and had a giant educator crush on Jon Mundorf. UDL finally made all the work I had been trying to do with students make sense. I finally had a framework and some clear direction. I loved the intentionality within the guidelines and the vast amount of research to help me make sense of how to make things happen for learners. I also began to understand myself as a learner. I began to notice how other people talked about education and students much more closely. I noticed the specificity of equity and margins – but noticed who was actually being left out – it seemed like my students, Black and brown students were being rendered invisible. 

Render, as an artist this word has a particular meaning, it’s a tier3 vocabulary word that means to draw accurately. It takes particular skill, practice, discipline, focus, and time to be able to render well. So when I hear the phrase, “rendered invisible”, I understand it as an intentional act. To render someone or a whole group of people invisible takes particular skill, intention, discipline, focus, and time. In order to bring those that we as a society and as educators have rendered invisible back to the center, as UDL proposes to do, we must be able to see clearly and get proximate. 

Bryan Stevenson, director of Equal Justice Initiative, author of Just Mercy, and advocate for those on death row says that in order to shift the moral arc towards justice, we have to get proximate to those people who are suffering and having experienced injustice. 

How often do I look away when I see the man on the side of the road?

 How often do I ignore the police siren in my neighborhood? 

How often do I throw my hands up with frustration in my own skills to support learners? 

How often do I use the phrase “those kids”? 

How often am I silent when others use that language? 

How often do I prioritize the learning of the students in my classroom that show an eagerness? How often am I part of rendering others invisible? 

Why is the school I teach at or my children go to predominantly white? 

Why won’t I send my children to the school I teach at? 

In order to get proximate we must name that Black learners, queer learners, and trans learners are rendered invisible in our classrooms, schools spaces, and in society. I also want to name the Indigenous youth who have some of the worst outcomes in this country, rivaling Black youth. I am still in a learning space around Indigeneity in this country but if I don’t name this here, I would be continuing to render this already marginalized community –  invisible. 

If I can’t name those who are most marginalized, that I am continuing to render them invisible. Based on the Human Rights Campaign data from 2018, only 11% of youth of color surveyed believe their racial or ethnic group is regarded positively in the U.S., and over 50% of trans and gender expansive youth said they can never use school restrooms that align with their gender identity. What’s more.. Only 26 percent say they always feel safe in their school classrooms — and just five percent say all of their teachers and school staff are supportive of LGBTQ people. Our classrooms are rendering queer youth invisible. The phrase school to prison pipeline is used all over the place. Schools are rendering Black queer youth invisible through actions shuffling students directly into the carceral system or through inaction allowing 8% of Black men and 5% of Black women to dropout, based on National Center for Educational Studies. Monique Morris uses the term Pushout because that is really what we as educators are doing for students at the margins, dropping out seems so passive as if nothing could have been done about it. Pushing out is much like the intentional moves of rendering students invisible. 

As an artist and UDL practitioner I have to center my design around those in the margins. Although I can name the demographics and notice the students within my school who are on the margins, forgotten about, rendered invisible, I have to do some stretching, some imagining, some dreaming in order to design around these margins. As a white, queer person I can look at my own experiences within education, but honestly, school was made for someone like me. In order to get beyond what I currently have a frame of understanding of education, I must dream beyond.  

As the group of us planned this talk, we thought of showing what this might look like, what we’re proposing, to explicitly name the barriers of racist and oppressive systems and how using UDL to proactively plan for those in the margins, there are a few barriers within me or us showing what this idea looks like. 

The first barrier: taking a guideline and just adding anti-oppressive language to it is just the addition of a ramp. It is reactive rather than proactive. We need to get to the foundation. We must partner with the communities we serve to hear what they need. We must know the history of the schools and spaces we are working within. We can’t be the experts here – but be expert listeners. 

The second barrier: we know that there’s not one way that UDL looks or sounds or feels. We know it’s not only about captions or bean bag chairs or even graphic organizers. That in order to be designing for your learners you need to be thinking specifically about the contexts and environments.

Imagination and dreaming is something that is intentionally taught out of us in traditional schooling. It is hard to do as an adult who is stifling under the systems of capitalism and white supremacy. So I will help a bit with this hard work of imagining the expansion of UDL to think more specifically towards those Black trans learners in your communities. So often when we are dreaming, especially with the use of UDL, we can only name the barriers and we get stuck on those barriers. Ask any teacher what the barriers are right now and we can talk to you for hours. Barriers are what make up teachers’ lounge conversations and parking lot after the meetings conversations. So. Let’s not get stuck on the barriers. We have named them here – and I implore you to continue to learn and have a full understanding of the barriers. But also to dream beyond the barriers and have your most marginalized students dream beyond the barriers – and then listen and put those dreams into place. Despite the perceived  absence of Black trans girls in your schools and educational spaces, we must plan for them in every moment.  

You will need to put on your anti-oppression lenses daily, not just when you are feeling like it. Just like when you first learned about UDL – it seems so large, so vast – as such so is working towards the dismantling of racism and oppression. Put your new bifocals on – the UDL lens and your anti-racist lenses. Put in that same amount of time and energy you did early on with UDL in understanding your learners’ needs, learning how to get captions on every video. Except now this work won’t be as technical, it’ll be human centered. Learn from those at the margins – listen to your learners, read, watch, and follow Black trans women, Black non-binary folx, queer Black women, and Black cishet women – who should I start with? Is a question I get a lot. I can’t answer that question for you but I can tell you who I’m listening to closely – Charlene Carruthers, Val Brown, Marian Dingle, Carol Anderson, Dr. Bettina Love, rev. Angel kyodo williams, adrienne maree brown, shea martin, Octavia Butler, Monise Morris, bell hooks, and Gholdy Muhammad . Put in that same discipline, intention, and practice as the artists do in rendering, so that no longer will we – and I include myself in that we – r be rendering people invisible, we have to work together collectively in order to make this happen, so find your people in your schools, your communities, and your lives. 

Jon Mundorf

Hi! I’m Jon Mundorf, my pronouns are he/him/his and I’m a middle school teacher on the stolen lands of the Timucuan in Gainesville, Florida. Last Monday, I began my 18th year teaching in Florida public schools. 

I first learned about UDL at a Harvard Summer Institute in 2006. My teachers were Grace Meo, Tom Hehir, and David Rose. 

When I attended the institute, I had never heard of UDL nor had I heard of the three people leading the institute. I attended because I was awarded a scholarship for summer learning through Florida Gulf Coast University and I found this opportunity about something design for learning, with a subtitle of New Directions for meeting the needs of Diverse Learners. I had just finished my first third year of teaching and was quickly on my way out. I was overwhelmed with all that was asked of teachers and how we were positioning students as the problem. I didn’t have any old directions so I was keen for a new direction. These three wonderful people taught me about UDL, but it was also the first time I really learned about the idea of asset pedagogy – an approach that focuses on strengths and sees the diversity of students as a positive thing. There’s no way I would be the teacher I am today, and certainly no chance I’d be sitting here with this group of wonderful people, if I hadn’t learned about UDL. 

A few weeks ago I read an article in The Atlantic written by Dr. Christopher Emdin. In the article he wrote, “”The best teachers don’t just keep teaching. Instead, they use their pedagogy as protest: They disrupt teaching norms that harm vulnerable students.”  It made me realize that UDL also taught me about the importance of disrupting teaching norms that harm vulnerable students. That is why I continue to incorporate UDL into my teaching and believe it is important for all educators to learn about UDL. I’ve never been asked to implement UDL by one of my principals, it has never been an initiative at a school or district I’ve worked in, yet it guides my work because it’s the best framework I’ve come across for celebrating and responding to the variability of students. It’s good, but it’s not perfect. In its current form, UDL is limited. Hence the need for this conversation and this symposium. 

Today I want to talk about a few big ideas I learned at Harvard in 2006 from these three teachers and how these ideas inspire my thinking about UDL rising today. I’m also going to ask you to consider some questions about UDL. 

Grace Meo, a founder of CAST, used to always say, the theory behind UDL is so important, but what is more important is where the rubber meets the road. Her passion for the application of UDL inspired me and the way I think about UDL in action. There’s no doubt my students benefit from options for perception, physical action, and recruiting for recruiting interest, to name a few, but there’s so much more needed in designing limitless learning environments. Over the years as I’ve taught my students about UDL, my 8th graders, my former 4th and 5th graders, I’ve learned that UDL addresses some of the barriers my students face, but not all of them. 

In the coming days, I’d like you to think about: Where does the rubber actually meet the road with UDL? Do the UDL Guidelines address the barriers your students face? 

Dr. Tom Hehir was a professor at Harvard University, is a former Director of the Office of Special Education Programs at the U.S. Department of Education, and the former director of special education for the Boston and Chicago Public Schools. He talked about Always being skeptical of the dominant frames by which society addresses its perceived problems, that dominant frames can hide oppression and inequality.” 

He often told a story about a conversation he had with Judy Heumann, American disability rights activist, about federal policy related to teaching students with disabilities. She said, “Don’t you get it Tom.” “It’s ableism! They (meaning people without disabilities) don’t believe we, people with disabilities are capable.”  Tom shared that this was an epiphany for him. It changed his frame. He saw how many of the practices that he, and others in the field, engaged in actually perpetuated ableism. Though well meaning, educators often focused on deficits and not strengths. Too often they ignored the unique gifts that students with disabilities brought with them because of their disabilities.” 

Tom’s story is a constant reminder to us that even well meaning educators can be creating the oppression and inequality caused by the frames they rely on for working with students. Take some time to consider these questions as you learn these next few days: What are the dominant frames guiding my work? What oppression and inequality are these frames hiding? 

At the turn of the 21st century, CAST co-founders Drs. Anne Meyer and David Rose wrote about the role of technology and disability in education reform and framed this work with the phrase, the future is in the margins. This notion has always resonated with me and connects every so clearly to the words of Dr. Emdin that I shared earlier. In the text, Meyer and Rose say, “As in any revolution, students in the margins are likely to lead the way, precipitating the shifts in thinking that will open vast opportunities for educational reform. They have much to offer in this enterprise; we all have much to gain.”

As I said, this idea is always on my mind, and it makes me wonder, as I hope you will to, who are the students in the margins and how am I letting them lead the way? 

Finally, I’d like to talk about the learning and unlearning we need to do. Take some time to think about who you have been learning from.  As we move forward to name, disrupt, and dismantle barriers to equity, think about the gaps in your learning or even the unlearning you need to do and from whom will you learn as you move forward. The answer to the first question is what got us here – which includes the good and the bad. How you answer the second question will determine the future of UDL. 

In the book, White Fragility, Robin DiAngleo writes, “Not naming the groups that face barriers only serves those who already have access; the assumption is that the access enjoyed by the controlling group is universal.” I always believed, or maybe wanted to believe, that even though UDL didn’t specifically address barriers such as racism, sexism, homophobia, structural inequity, economic injustice, that if you looked closely you could find a connection. I really did. I’d try to convince people of it. I realize now that I was wrong and maybe I was just trying to convince myself. 

Does racism limit learning? Does sexism limit learning? Do homophobia and transphobia limit learning? Does inequity limit learning? Does injustice limit learning? Of course it does. UDL is limited because it fails to specifically address the barriers of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, inequity, and injustice.

In 2017, a tweet in my twitter feed from a teacher in NYC caught my attention. It was from an account @MisterMinor and it was a Kendrick Lamar quote and image. I didn’t know Corn at the time, but the words captured my feelings perfectly.  “I sit and talk to kids all day because I feel like they carry the most wisdom.” I printed it out the and have had on my desk at school ever since. To me it’s a reminder of the importance of the asset pedagogy I mentioned earlier. Students come to us as the very best student they can be at that particular moment at time. It’s our job to learn from them and design for them. 

We’re just a few weeks from the start of the school year and I’ve got a whole bunch of 8th graders ready for what I hope will be their best year yet. You have students waiting for you, too. As you embark on this symposium and the upcoming school year, please keep asking yourself, Who are the students in the margins and how are we letting them lead the way? What dominant frames need to be challenged? Where does the rubber meet the road? 

Grappling with these questions, and the other questions that arise in the struggle, is the only way we are going to design learning without limits. 

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