Tuesday, August 11, 2020

On the Coffee Table: Katie Novak

Title:  UDL Now! A Teacher's Guide to Applying Universal Design for Learning in Today's Classrooms
Author: Katie Novak
UDL Now!: A Teacher's Guide to Applying Universal Design for ...
via Amazon
I can't help it.  Summer reading - as assigned by my employer - always feels like a brutal imposition.  All education professionals need an emotional break from school from time to time and having to think about the job during what's supposed to be vacation can be really hard.  Plus, it cuts into my other reading.  The nerve!

Universal Design in the new buzzword at our school and probably many others.  To make my own position clear up front, the idea is awesome.  Rather than differentiating instruction to meet individual student needs, you build the accommodations into the curriculum and allow everyone the choice of using them, whether they "need" them or not.  In simplest terms, you would provide written instructions for the hearing impaired and those and spoken instructions for the seeing impaired, but all students in the classroom would benefit from the fact that you're doing both.  It's more complicated than that but it's the gist. 

Initiative fatigue is very real in education - probably other industries, too.  Throw out last year's greatest idea ever in favor of a new bright shiny object, sure to be abandoned in turn.  If you stick around long enough, you learn to hold on to what's useful from each one as it passes through.  Still, it would be nice if the powers that be could just let a concept sit for a while and we could all learn from the long-term effects.

But as long as we're here, and preparing for what is sure to be the least predictable year of my entire teaching career (let's hope so, anyway), let's focus on what I would like to remember from Katie Novak's thoughtfully written book...
  • You don't need to change everything all at once.  This is always important advice when incorporating new thinking.  Nearly every book says it but admins - mine, at least - still push for complete overhaul right now.
  • Student choice in how to meet learning standards is central to universal design.  Choice is something I've already been working hard to incorporate into my own curriculum so I find the material on the subject meaningful.  An important reminder from Novak: "When giving students choice, you are still in control since you are presenting them with acceptable choices."
  • Novak provides loads of good apps and websites for student projects and for varied means of presenting material.
  • An excellent section on e-mail etiquette, important for students and teachers alike.
  • Inspiring words: "We have a responsibility not only to teach our content but to teach our students how to access our content."
That last bit is especially important to me as a performing arts teacher.  Our subjects usually get short shrift in teacher professional development texts but Novak does right by the arts.  She uses visual art as her model when she initially presents a basic UDL curriculum - most would use literacy or math.  When she discusses the importance of literacy in the arts, her wording is thoughtful, stating that one should learn to read music or read artwork - not that one should learn to read in music and art classes.  Semantics?  The difference is crucial.  I believe that my subject has value in its own right, not merely as a vehicle to teach more language skills.  Don't get me wrong, I believe it does have value in the latter instance.  I just don't want to be told that's its only value.  Novak implies that teaching my students to read music notation is just as important.  I like that.

It's a good book.  Novak could use a better editor - lots of typos, particularly for a "Revised & Expanded Edition."  I will keep it around as a resource, even after we move on to something else next year.


  1. Sounds interesting, I took a longer break from teaching after the baby☺

    1. That is both understanding and commendable. I would have loved to be a stay-at-home father for a while. Our daughter is nearly 17 now. The opportunity is long past.

  2. I find it interesting that they assign you books to read. I generally read two or three how-to type books for my employment a year and write reviews on them, but I also think I am better to read from a variety of genre. I agree, sometimes we all just want what's new and shinny without understanding what we are giving up.


    1. In principle, I realize they should give us books. Staying current with the practice is undeniably important. I also enjoy reading so I am not as resentful as those who do not. Still, it feels like an imposition - keeps me away from the spy novels.

  3. My thoughts on education, as I've probably indicated in the past, are complicated.
    I don't think it matters at all what gimmicks, etc we try in schools and classrooms to increase learning, etc. Mostly, the same subset of students are going to apply themselves to the learning no matter what tactic is being used.
    We are currently lacking, culturally, the two things needed for real change in the education system:
    1. an appreciation for the intrinsic value of education
    2. enough teachers who actually have the gift of teaching (because too many people who actually have that gift are off doing things that pay better)

    1. I don't disagree. However, the shortcomings are no excuse for not trying to improve our practice. It is more than gimmicks.