End of Year Song

I started singing in my area’s Rock Voices choir a couple summers ago, and I noticed a phenomena, probably discovered by many already in similar situations. We start getting to know the music, and over the course of a couple months we really get to know it well we love it.  After a while we almost get to the point where we are tired of it, we have rehearsed and reahearsed and it becomes old hat. Then one night, the band joins us with drums, rhythm, guitar, keyboard, or whatever the season’s arrangement calls for, and everything changes. For a good week, the music is more alive than it ever was, because all our work rehearsing harmonies comes together with the amazing rock sound of the band on stage with lights and audience energy, and the high is amazing. Suddenly, unexpectedly for me the first time, there is a let down, which this week I realized is very similar to the end of school year emotions I have felt, observed, and heard from others.  

After the last note is sung, the band packs up, the risers are dismantled and I am home with my ears that have only recently stopped ringing.  The emotional let down is huge. We will never sing those songs with that exact same mix of people, and that same crowd energy again. In that moment, I don’t want to hear the songs on the radio or listen to part recordings any more, because they are such a pale version of the performance, yet I wish I could, because I don’t really want to let go of those songs that carried all that thick, rich emotional color into my life.  

The last day of school was yesterday for us, and I was noting how we were all, kids and teachers alike dancing an emotional line, between relief that the hard work is coming to a close for a while, and the anguish that we will never get that performance back.  Whether our kids have made progress, or we wish we did more, whether our relationships with the kids are strong, or we wish we built stronger ones, it is all done by the time we walk in the door on that last day. Sixth grade has sung their last song, and said their last official farewell.  

We will never teach the same lesson in just the same way to the same students and have the same effect.  That same kiddo will probably not ever call you “Mom” by accident again. The student who was a challenge all year, and you adored anyway, is often particularly and precariously balanced that day, somewhere between nervous/giddy and somber/tear rimmed.  All year and especially the last few weeks, we build up to that final “goodbye” wave to busses and when it is all over… a part of us wishes it wasn’t. A part of us wants to sing that song one more time with the band loud, and the crowd dancing and singing along.


UDL more than the next ”Buzzword”

We have heard them before,  “whole language”, “phonics”, “research based”, “differentiation”, “RTI”, “data”, and on and on. . . the buzzword rotation in education cannot be denied.  Right now I am afraid that teachers are so conditioned to the buzzwords phasing in and out that some may be overlooking UDL as just another phrase or phase, just another new “thing to do”.  When I hear a search committee ask  about a teacher's understanding of UDL, then set her off in a room without any support materials (adequate curriculum, manipulatives, alternate seating, sufficient or even functioning technology options) that certainly corroborates the “buzz” notion.

There is sometimes a lack of true understanding around UDL at the administrative level some of who seem to use UDL as an excuse or means to reduce staff or corral a heavy “load” into a classroom and call it inclusion.  In a district where administration supports UDL practices I hear teachers not sure, “What is it really?”, “How can I do it?”, “I’m going to give them a choice board so it looks more UDL when admins come in”, or “Is this just a feather in the cap for admin?” As with any would be buzzword, there are many interpretations and misunderstandings, and mostly the feeling that UDL is another one of those, “just one more” items that they just don’t have time to “do”.  I for one find that heartbreaking.

I find it heartbreaking because, in the last forty five years or so, our country has noted many times over that our public education system doesn’t always work for everyone.  Since IDEA was introduced in 1975, we have grappled with ways to meet the needs of different learners.  We have noted “gaps” in growth indexes between students who live in poverty and those who do not, between kids whose parents graduated college and whose did not.  In the early 90’s, We implemented standards to ensure rigorous curriculum, and followed suit with rigorous testing before the  “rigorous standards” were
fully understood and implemented.  Yet the gaps persist. I find it heartbreaking.  We researched best
practices for reading instruction, yet are still struggling to consistently put them into play within
schools, or across districts, and across the nation.  We have more information available to us than ever before about how the brain learns, the role of emotions in learning, and how to best leverage memory to maximize learning, and yet teachers are still struggling with distracted learners, a lack of engagement, and teaching that doesn’t stick.  I find it heartbreaking.

2014 far left, 1992 scores far right. student average scores 8 th gr reading (darkest blue = parent didn’t graduate from high school,  next=graduated, graduated with some post HS ed, and lightest blue= college graduates)
My own children are growing up in this world of standards and standardized testing and their experiences have varied from teacher to teacher.  Some of the biggest complaints are too much
teacher talk, too many work sheets, too much expectation that all the kids are going to fit in the same box, or the saddest, “I didn’t really learn anything new.” I’m not sure how many teachers expect kids to fit in the box though.  Maybe they lack the time, understanding, or determination to chase down materials or create lessons that meet the needs of everyone in their class.  Whatever the reasons,
while working in different schools and districts in a variety of capacities over the last several years, I
have seen the same looks of disengagement on kids faces, the same poor attitudes toward school and
learning, and the same types of students sent to sit in time out, to take a break, on walking breaks, and
in buddy room chairs from preschool to middle elementary.  I have seen this in large and small schools in and around the county where I live where tiny rural schools still exist within 10-25 miles of larger ( but not huge) city schools.  I know teachers know it too, bc teachers are questioning student attitudes toward school daily on Facebook, Twitter, and even in PLC’s reading to find out where the joy has gone.  I find it heartbreaking.

I still remember when my mom advised me, “College is where you learn how to learn.”  And she was right, back then. ( @1992)   I am guessing that is at least a part of why standards based education took hold.  I know I hadn’t learned a lot about how to learn in my 12 years of public school, and I hope you don’t doubt for a minute that, upon hearing my mom speak those words, I asked myself, “Why is that?  What was the actual point of those 12 years anyway?  Why aren’t we teaching kids how to learn?”  When I graduated with my preliminary teaching certificate in the mid nineties, I
remember wishing I had more information about how kids actually learn.  I found it heartbreaking
even then.

I took workshops that had brain in the title in hopes of opening a magic door to learning.  I studied how to integrate the arts in a standards based curriculum, and backwards design before they called it that, because we knew back in 1992 that the arts were a great way to engage the brain.  We knew that teaching kids to read involved phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension.  We knew kids needed support to learn to read, balanced with autonomy to make reading choices that mattered to them, and we were teaching writing all across the curriculum. Then something happened in education, testing became an all consuming entity, teacher autonomy gave way to scripted curriculums, and for the next twenty years our achievement and achievement gaps
have stagnated, or in some cases gotten worse.  I find it heartbreaking.

So fast forward to the last several years.  As the Information Age has grown, the need for
discriminating consumers of information, problem solvers, and designers of solutions has also
increased.  The Current standards really embody the idea of teaching students To be thinkers and consumers of information.  We know more and understand more about emotion, memory systems, learning and the Brain than ever before!  We have resources to support teachers scaffolding in the classroom, Keys to Literacy, Comprehension, Vocabulary...  We have graphic organizers out our ears.  We have books full of engagement strategies, Teach Like a Pirate, and strategies for how to encourage student centered practices in  Learn Like a Pirate.  We know readers should be wild about books, The Book Whisperer, and that they still need teaching, Reading Strategies and Writing Strategies, through mini lessons and small group work and conferences.  We require SEI endorsements in our state to ensure teachers understand how to best work with students who speak other languages, are bilingual, and bicultural We have access now to online tools like Epic, Pebble Go, Story Bird, and News ELA, just to name a very few!

In my current district, we also have  UDL Now!, handed out to teachers and staff last year.  When I read it, I thought “yes!”  I recognized the many great teaching practices I had read of, taken workshops on, learned and tried throughout the book, with Universal Deign in Learning as the framework to make sense of them all and give them a rightful place in our collective teaching pedagogy.  I have joined the Design Team in our district, attended last year’s cast symposium and completed my first online UDL course, but a lot of the teachers I have talked to haven’t even read the book yet.  I find that heartbreaking.

And now...now we have the Universal Design for Learning Guidelines to give all this amazing
information, all these amazing resources, and all our tools for best practice, a framework to make them work for everyone in our classes.  Not just the kids who we know need help or learn different or whose barriers to learning are visible or obvious in some way, but also those kids who we might not know learn differently, or whose parents are for whatever reason unable to advocate for them.  In my thinking, UDL is SO much more than a buzzword.  UDL is so much more than the next hot topic.  UDL provides a framework for thinking and teaching focused on planning.  The guidelines provide us with a structure to build on, to not just teach our students but teach them how to be learners and problem solvers and  achievers.  UDL fills me with hope.