1. Teacher Life

Growing from the Contributions of the Learners in Our Classrooms

Currently, I am teaching a course with UPenn titled “Building a Strong Foundation for Universal Design for Learning and Innovation,” which is part of a UDL certificate program taught with my friend and colleague, Dr. Katie Novak. (You can sign up for the spring 2022 session here if you are interested!)

One of the things about teaching this course is that I want to create a space of learning that would be similar to what I would hope we can create in classrooms for students at any level.  For example, the assignments have a guideline of dates for completion, but other than the final date of the course, there is total flexibility on when participants can complete them.  This “guideline with flexibility” provides a structure that many people appreciate and acknowledges that everyone has different things on their plate. It allows people to create and learn in a time and space that works for them. For example, if you just said, “complete the assignments whenever works for you,” I would probably wait until the very last minute.  If you tell me, “Here is a suggested time frame to complete each assignment, I would probably do my best to stay in that time frame but not rush something of lower quality if it was past that suggested timeline.

The other attribute of the course that I think is very valuable is that I work with students not to do “their job” plus the class, but look at their current work or work they aspire to do and connect the content in a way that makes sense to them. I encourage participants to almost “double-dip” because I want the class to be meaningful to their work without being an “extra.” This ties into my idea that ALL learning is personal, as I wrote about in this post and shared the following:

Screen Shot 2016-01-30 at 4.53.05 PM

Screen Shot 2016-01-30 at 4.53.05 PM

I can share ideas and content, but ultimately, I want this class to be an opportunity for individuals to connect the content to their own current experience.  I learn so much from students in the class as their experiences are so different and range from superintendents, classroom teachers, business leaders, and school-based admin, so what they share is unique and personal. It is not only the content they share but how they share it.  It ranges from audio reflections, videos, and written blog posts to presentations, and I encourage participants to do both things they are comfortable with and new mediums.  It is fascinating to see all of the different platforms they use in sharing ideas that I have picked up some new ways of communicating, as do others in the class.  My learning, and I hope the learning of the other students,  is significantly improved because of their experience!

The last thing that I want to share through this course is regarding assessment.  I am a big believer in the idea that assessment should be more about a conversation and help grow learners through the process. It is not meant to be a punitive process but something where both parties can benefit. It is not meant to be final but to push learning forward.  

Below are some of the comments I have shared with individuals in their learning that might be beneficial to those outside the class.


1. How do we recreate learning opportunities for adults that we want in the classroom while elevating people across the hallway?

In one of the class submissions, an educator shared great strategies in her classroom and how she uses the same strategies with her colleagues in their professional learning. I loved it and shared how I appreciate this as an excellent opportunity to elevate her own staff!

My comment:


I especially love the thought of these steps being about how we connect with the adults in our schools. We often forget how meaningful the relationship is with our colleagues, not only for their benefit but also for modeling to our students. For example, I often see people saying, “You can’t be a prophet in your own land” but then I ask, “If we believe that, do we discourage students from celebrating their classmates and embracing their expertise?” They watch how we celebrate (or don’t) one another, and I think they take that into adulthood.


If we as adults don’t celebrate the accomplishments and expertise of our colleagues, not only is it hurtful to them, but it sets up a pretty bad example for our students as well.


2. How do we elevate ALL learners rather than most?

Another student from the class shared that although most students and families had shown they were doing well getting back to their routines in school, some were struggling, and they (the school community) were working on finding solutions with the families to help them find success. I shared the following comment:


It is really easy in education to say, “Well, 90% of our students/staff/families…” and then celebrate that as success. My question is ALWAYS, “What are you doing for the other 10% that need something more and/or different?” As you say, it is imperative that we focus on ALL not just celebrate even if we have helped most.


Her work is quite powerful, and for years I have been challenging the idea of “best practice” being good enough. There is no single “best practice” delivered the same way that works for every learner. We have to continually innovate in our practice to either iterate or invent solutions that work for everybody.  This is a common theme of the class and in the practice of the students participating.


3. What does “learner-driven” practice look like, and where does “data” fit into that process?

One of the students in the class shared their experience with “data” and how although it can provide some information, there is also a lot that can be missing in what we know about the student experience.  As I have shared numerous times, we need to be “Learner-Driven, Evidence-Informed,” and that means we need to know the students in front of us first and see each of them as individuals with different gifts and talents they bring into the classroom.

As I read her submission, I tried to share a different analogy and work it out in my head. Through the conversation, I wanted to show that I am still learning from what people are submitting.  Here is what I shared:


As I read your post, I was thinking about coaching in sports and the connection to learning. Coaches at the top level definitely use statistics and data to be a part of the equation of their decisions, but the best coaches also learn how to read the game’s situation and flow. I am breaking down this analogy in my head (you inspired it through your post!) so I am not 100% confident of it yet. But, I do think it is remembering that teaching (and coaching) is part art, part science, but all relationships. Different moments call for a different focus.


I just wanted to share some of my learning and takeaways from teaching this course. Learners in any space must know that their contributions are valued, no matter if they are the teacher or the student, and I always learn so much from participants in what they share!

If you are interested in being a part of this course/certificate program starting in January of 2022 for the next cohort, you can learn more about the class here!

I hope to create a space in this class that is the same as what I would want for my own kids!

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