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How NOT To implement UDL...and still find success

Mike Fischer
Mike Fischer
June 27, 2021

One District’s UDL Journey During Difficult Times

The last 60 years have produced an amazing parade of talented and successful musicians. But if you asked a person on the street to list the best singer, or most talented guitarist, or the most commercially successful recording artist, few (if any) would list Bob Dylan for any of those categories. Coming from humble beginnings, Dylan was largely self-taught, and not gifted with a smooth voice like Sinatra or McCartney, or the guitar prowess of Clapton or Hendrix. After some early success, Dylan was famously criticized by his fans for “going electric”, then had his career derailed by a motorcycle accident, and then again by a painful divorce. Despite all this, his contributions to music are immeasurable. His songs have been covered by hundreds of other famous artists, his career has spanned seven decades (he’s still recording and touring, to great critical acclaim), and he’s won a Nobel Prize for Literature...as a musician. 

So, what does Bob Dylan have to do with UDL, you ask? Great question! Despite the challenges and obstacles Dylan faced, he was in the right place at the right time with ideas that mattered. And, he worked prolifically (and still does!) to produce a body of work that’s unparalleled in modern music. The parallel to our district’s work on Universal Design for Learning is this:  we’ve also faced numerous challenges, yet things are moving forward successfully. And even though our progress may not be obvious to everyone, it’s apparent to many that UDL is an idea that’s badly needed, and it’s gained momentum this year despite challenging circumstances.

The Start of Our UDL Implementation Journey

“How many times can a man turn his head
And pretend that he just doesn’t see”
(Blowin’ in the Wind, 1963)    

Like so many other districts, we could clearly see that our school district could do a better job of serving all students. We had plenty of students who were doing fine, but we could no longer ignore the fact that significant numbers of students were not performing well. We’d had several teachers, site administrators, and district curriculum leaders who had attended a few UDL conferences, but we weren’t sure what it looked like in a high school setting (we’re a high school only district, 10,400 students). But most of us could see that UDL made good sense, was evidence-based, and had great promise, so in the fall of 2019, we dove in headfirst. 

We were fortunate enough to have a state grant to fund our efforts, and we developed a PD plan for UDL that started with Katie Novak visiting multiple classrooms across our district. As expected, this was well-received and was soon followed by full day PD sessions for teacher cohorts. Participation and enthusiasm were strong and positive, and then our first disruption occurred.

The First “Hiccup”: Too Many Initiatives

Our district had so many initiatives going on that site principals had requested that district leadership stop pulling teachers out of classrooms. These multiple initiatives were impacting instructional time and causing issues with substitute coverage. Our UDL sessions were competing with an equity initiative, textbook adoptions for English and Social Studies, a math curriculum revision, all while we were trying to establish new goals with a new school board and a relatively new superintendent. The principals’ request was certainly valid:  as a district, we were trying to do too much.

This certainly paused our UDL progress, but after much discussion (and pleading) with our ever-understanding Assistant Superintendent, we were allowed to continue some PD events if teachers requested them and we didn’t recruit or advertise it to other teachers. We were able to do a few limited UDL sessions when enough teachers requested it, but it was small in scale and wasn’t part of a continuous series.

Key Learning: it’s hard to make progress with UDL if your efforts are competing with multiple other initiatives.

When the Pandemic Hit

“When you ain't got nothing
You got nothing to lose” 

(Like a Rolling Stone, 1965)    

We had just gotten the ball rolling again when COVID hit. While other districts postponed school for longer periods, our district canceled classes for only a few days and opened fully online the very next week after our sudden closure. There was so much to do, all at once:  training on learning management systems, learning how to zoom from home, how to do breakout rooms and monitor the chat, and how to assign, accept, and grade homework. Plans for any PD other than tech training were tossed out the window.

Since everything was canceled by COVID, we considered how best to offer some sort of UDL exposure that was specifically relevant to online delivery. Katie Novak and her staff again rose to the occasion by finding subject area experts to do 60-minute sessions on three consecutive Friday mornings during our asynchronous days (without live students). These sessions were fairly well-attended, and we got many good questions and generally good feedback. Despite this being hastily planned for a very short duration, these sessions helped move our UDL efforts forward, and exposed many new staff to the ideas behind UDL. While it was far from what we’d envisioned for our UDL rollout, it still helped.

Key Learning: if we expect our teachers to be flexible with their instruction so that all students’ needs are met, we must model that by adapting our PD plans to meet teachers’ needs.

Remote Learning 2.0

“The only thing I knew how to do
Was to keep on keeping on”
(Tangled Up in Blue, 1975) 

In the summer of 2020, we expected that we’d be able to resume our UDL efforts, so we planned a series of five UDL half-day sessions spaced out across the school year. This seemed like a feasible plan, given that during summer, many people still assumed COVID rates would drop and we’d open schools in person come August. But in late July, with infection rates surging, our governor announced that all schools would be going fully online in the fall. So we adjusted our plan, re-arranged dates to allow for more time for teachers to adjust, and assumed that COVID would (finally!) subside by November, our new kickoff date for UDL training.

But yet another unpredictable factor soon emerged. Our school board was under a lot of pressure from the community, and they aggressively pushed for schools to be open as soon as possible. This led to long detailed discussions about masks, plexiglass barriers, three different rotating cohorts of students, quarantine procedures, and the time consuming work of contact tracing. Additionally, having our teachers shift from fully online instruction to hybrid instruction proved to be enormously draining, as teachers were teaching both live students in their classrooms while having to broadcast their lessons to remote students. 

When our UDL training kicked off in November 2020, we still had strong enthusiasm and healthy signups. We asked attendees to work in subject-specific Professional Learning Teams (PLT), which were mostly in math and science. As usual, the first sessions were fairly well-received, but the people who signed up weren’t always from the same school or from the same PLT, so they weren’t used to working together. This didn’t make for cohesive workgroups, but we felt like we had a good group and were looking forward to the series of sessions.

Key Learning: Get commitments from all members of a PLT for UDL training, rather than individual teachers. Asking for individual teachers to opt into training without being part of a team means they can just as easily opt-out.

Tackling Burn Out 

“You better start swimming
Or you’ll sink like a stone.” 
(The Times They Are A-Changing, 1964)    

The stress produced by our hybrid teaching model in October soon led to another decision of enormous impact. In late October, it was announced that we’d be opening a new online Academy, set to open...on January 5th! Two of us were asked to prepare, schedule, and open this academy, with me being the principal/director. Expected to get about 500-700 students, student signups quickly rose to 1500 students, with a waiting list of 400, with only 2 people running it, no support staff, and no teachers hired or trained. Instead of planning and supporting our UDL plans, 2 of us had to drop everything to hire teachers, do the master schedule, schedule students, and prepare content and train teachers. We survived, barely, and the new online academy actually did quite well. With 64 teachers, 1500 students, and only two admin, it’s a small miracle that we pulled this off.

When we resumed our UDL sessions, we could clearly see that teachers were burnt out. Enthusiasm had dwindled down quite a bit, and the constant changes brought by COVID had exhausted our teachers. By our 3rd UDL session in early February 2021, we could see that people just didn’t have the creative energy needed to create new lessons or assessments, no matter how much they liked the ideas behind UDL. In true UDL fashion, we pivoted. Instead of three-hour group sessions, we offered small group sessions where Katie could review each group’s work, but few took us up on that offer. Seeking more candid feedback, we then surveyed our cohort about where they were, what they wanted out of the remaining two UDL group sessions, and most said they’re still interested. But when those dates rolled around, it became apparent that these final sessions weren’t going to reach our goals with teams producing quality work that they’d be able to use in their classes. 

Never willing to give up, we pivoted again, and offered 1-hour coaching sessions to a number of teams, including a math department at our newly opened high school, and an instructional coaching team that’s preparing for a coaching model in 2021-22. Both of these were very well-received, and these teams have asked for more UDL coaching and training in the future. 

Key Learning: Pay close attention to where your learners are, what their capacity is, and respond accordingly. Set high expectations, but provide options and choices to meet their needs.

The Results

Throughout this very unique year, many educators I spoke to stated they’ve never worked so hard to feel so little satisfaction or success. It often felt like many efforts were flat-out failures, including our UDL efforts. 

Seeking some sense of progress (or failure), I decided to survey all staff who had participated in any of our UDL sessions all year long.  Given that I did this in May, I didn’t expect a huge response rate, but the results were encouraging:

  • On a scale of 1 to 4 (4=great), 70% of respondents gave the training sessions a rating of 4.
  • 55% of respondents said they are more interested in UDL than they were before attending our sessions (none said they were less interested after attending sessions).
  • When asked the most positive aspect of UDL, these were some of the responses:
    • Whenever I can get kids to say to themselves "I want to ______", I feel I get more follow through and overall enthusiasm about the assignment. UDL allows for more of the "I want to" moments as students navigate their own path through the curriculum.
    • Multiple mods to learn/assess. My students are surprised when they get to choose what they do and they love it. Breaking down barriers.
    • Positive affirmation that items we have begun to implement are benefitting student learning to make change in a positive direction.
    • UDL allows for authentic assessment and further engagement of more students. It also allows for a class of more diverse learners.
    • All students have access to the curriculum via different lessons/activities and may express their mastery in a variety of ways.

Despite a challenging year, it’s evident that our staff grasp the concepts of UDL, and are enthusiastic about pursuing this further. As we constantly had to change our plans, repackage them, and present them again to get teachers to participate, our efforts often felt like we were failing. 

But consider this:

  • UDL and a more inclusive instructional approach have now become one of our district goals.
  • Two schools are providing UDL training with their staff through grant money they’ve secured
  • Two other schools are planning to pursue UDL through on-site instructional coaches.

I’m reminded that progress is seldom a straight line, especially when it comes to moving organizations forward, and success doesn’t often look the way you thought it would look.

Key Learning: Progress isn’t usually very obvious or immediate, and leaders must take this into account when assessing major initiatives. Maintain realistic expectations, expect delays or setbacks, but actively look for successes and celebrate them.

Now, back to Bob Dylan, and why I started this article with him. Throughout this challenging year, many times I thought of how difficult it was to do professional development, and how it seldom goes the way you envision it. But as we all stumbled through this year’s challenges, this one Dylan lyric kept me going, and I think it fits:

“In the final end he won the war
After losing every battle” 
(Idiot Wind, 1975)    

It’s important for educational leaders to remember that progress seldom occurs on your terms. The general idea is to keep people moving in the right direction, and with the help and flexibility of Katie Novak and her staff, we’ve done that, and we’ve done it in some incredibly challenging circumstances.

And like Bob Dylan’s career, it takes inspiration, ideas that resonate with your audience, plenty of hard work, and flexibility to change with the times.

May your hands always be busy
May your feet always be swift
May you have a strong foundation
When the wind of changes shift” 
(Forever Young, 1974)  


To learn more about implementing Universal Design for Learning, explore our professional development options, check out our resource guide to UDL, or contact us to discuss the next steps for your team.

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