UDL for Remote Classrooms

My latest post for the NEO blog is, Applying Universal Design for Learning in Remote Classrooms.   I know that many educators are still concerned about what the beginning of the new school year will bring, but this article will give you many helpful tools regardless of your upcoming situation.  Universal Design for Learning is all about creating lessons effectively and efficiently for all students.  One of the first videos that I watched when I went to Harvard one summer for UDL training is the Todd Rose TED Talk I’ve embedded below.  It embodies the philosophy behind UDL – where we stop designing schools for “average,” and begin designing “to the edges.”  Take a look at the video, and then hop on over to my article for specific ways to apply UDL to distance learning.

My previous NEO articles have been: How Distance Learning Fosters Global Collaboration, How to Use Design Thinking in the Classroom, and How to S.T.E.A.M. Up Distance Learning.

One-Hole Punch Puzzles

I am so not proficient when it comes to spatial reasoning.  This makes sense to me because I can’t think of ever really practicing it as a child.  I didn’t build with Legos or blocks, and I wasn’t really into jigsaw puzzles.  Mostly, I read a lot.  That means I’m generally a decent speller, but when I try to sew a face mask you will have to turn it right side in to make it right side out.  Or something like that.  Let’s just say my very un-straight stitches are very visible on the side of the material that you would normally want people to see.  And, yes, that is with a sewing machine.

So, as I spend the second half of my century of life trying to visualize what comes naturally to everyone else in my family, I would like to re-iterate that spatial skills are pretty important, and aren’t really a big focus in most schools.  Regular readers will know that this isn’t a new theme on this blog, and here are some past posts that I’ve done with other great resources: Spatial ReasoningSpatial Puzzles, and a bunch of reviews of apps and games.

Today’s spatial reasoning resource would have been so fun to do with my engineering students.  It comes to us from Mark Chubb (@MarkChubb3), who offers these One-Hole Punch Puzzles on his blog, Thinking Mathematically.  I’ve seen puzzles like these on some aptitude tests, but usually the questions show how a paper was folded and punched, and you have to select from the multiple-choice the subsequent result when unfolded.  In this hands-on twist, Chubb produces the results, and students have to use their own pieces of paper and one-hole punch tools to demonstrate where the paper must have been folded and punched.

In a pre-Covid class, we could have shared hole punchers and then had a huge confetti party.  Sadly, this may not be an option for any teachers anytime soon, but I encourage home-schoolers, parents, and anyone who can’t sew a mask to give these puzzles a try.

Hole Punch Confetti
Image by Monsterkoi from Pixabay


BrainPop: Black Lives Matter Protests

BrainPop has created an excellent animated video that explains the protests for Black Lives Matter.  It is accompanied by a blog post that offers tips for discussing related topics with young people, and a video discussion guide. This is a fairly recent addition to the BrainPop archives, as it refers to the death of George Floyd and other current events.  You may prefer to read quickly through the transcript instead of watching the video to determine if it is appropriate for your target audience.

This post is part of a weekly Black Lives Matter series that I have vowed to include on this blog.  Here are the previous posts:

Black Lives Matter
Image by S B from Pixabay

Save Yourself

Before I begin this post, I should mention that I retired last December, so I technically don’t have “skin in the game,” – no employers to irritate, no job to lose.  But I still consider myself an educator, and I think I’ve earned the right to throw out some opinions after 29 years of experience.

In yesterday’s post I alluded to a previous attack I experienced in college.  I had gone on a picnic with my boyfriend in a park in Lubbock, where he was attending law school.  When I went to the restroom, a man followed me in, threw me on the floor, and tried to rape me.  I yelled loudly, hoping one of the people I had seen near the entrance would come to my aid.  When that didn’t work, I kicked him hard and scrambled away.  He slammed me back down.  I kicked again, and ran, finally making it past him.  Standing outside the restroom was a couple, who gaped at me.  I yelled at them, “Didn’t you hear me screaming?”  as the perpetrator raced out the door behind me and away from the scene.  They mumbled something about not realizing I was in trouble, and asked if I was okay.

I was not okay; I was furious – at them.  Why didn’t they try to help? That experience, and the one that I detailed yesterday, made it clear that “Wait for someone to rescue me,” should never be Plan A.  Another interesting revelation that comes to me in retrospect – Sister Rosemary had no idea the power I had in my quadriceps when she reprimanded me for kicking Scottie V. and potentially “giving him blood clots” when I was in 5th grade because he kept bugging me and no one would do anything about it.  Little did I know that practice would save me from two sexual assaults later.

So, that leads us to today.  What would I do now to save myself?  If I was still a teacher on contract in a state where we technically can’t strike, how would I protect myself and my family from contracting a deadly virus when the school year begins again?

If I was still the idealistic college student who walked into a public restroom in broad daylight expecting safety and privacy or, at the very least, quick help when needed, I would say, “Let’s suggest to the federal government that it would behoove them to save the economy and education at the same time by starting a program that employs people who have been laid off in jobs that support socially distanced schools in the middle of this pandemic: extra bus drivers, food delivery personnel, people to sanitize the school, substitute teachers, child carers,  and maintenance people to repair everything from broken bathroom stalls to out-dated HVAC systems.”

But I’m pretty sure even the me of thirty-something years ago would have taken one look at our current administration and said, “O.K. Uh, how about Plan B?”

So, my Plan B would be to get as many teachers as possible in my district to demand, at the very least, the items below from superintendents and school boards.

Do you guarantee:

  • you will always make the mental and physical of needs of your students and staff your first priority, even above standardized testing scores?
  • you will be providing an endless supply of masks and sanitizing materials to all students and staff for the remainder of this pandemic?
  • you will organize the schedule so class sizes can accommodate the 6″ apart rule?
  • you will give staff adequate time to train and prepare for new expectations?
  • you will provide extra paid staff sick days, as needed according to a physician, if diagnosed with COVID-19, and not take them from standard allocated sick days?
  • you will provide 14 paid quarantine days with work that can be done at home, not taken from standard allocated sick days, each time a staff member is exposed?
  • you will have people on staff who will sanitize classrooms, restrooms, and other areas of the school so that teachers do not have to do this, or you will give teachers time to do this?
  • you will work to attract and keep quality substitutes so teachers are not pulled from planning times and classes aren’t joined when a teacher is out?
  • you have a plan for fire and lock-down drills that does not compromise social distancing?

Now, there are far more questions that I, and other teachers have (as you can see in this crowd-sourced document collected by Sarah Mulhern Gross), but the above would be the assurances I would need to set foot back in a classroom.

And, what if the powers-that-be can’t/won’t make those guarantees?

Save yourself.  Do what you need to do to stay alive and mentally well.  Whether it means quitting your job, or staying in it and finding ways to subvert the system to keep you, your students, and your families safe, don’t wait for rescue, and don’t underestimate your value.

Kick ’em in the groin and move on.



The Knife at Your Throat

It happened when I was still a relatively new teacher. With a few years under my belt, I was beginning to feel like I knew what I was doing, and I was excited for the promise of the new school year.  I was beginning to feel confident in my career, and it was not uncommon for me, typically not a morning person, to cheerfully arrive at school early so I could prepare for each day I had passionately planned with plenty of time before students arrived.  On this particular morning, I entered my portable classroom even earlier, as our fifth grade class was in charge of announcements that week, and I had arranged for two students to meet me to practice their parts before the bell.

I stood at the chalkboard to write the daily agenda.  Before I could register that the tile beneath my feet had sunk down ever so slightly, a hand wrapped around my neck.  “Don’t say a word.”

One of my colleagues, a male teacher, worked in the portable diagonally from me.  He was a true morning person, and would often visit the classroom next to me to fill up on coffee.  At first I thought the voice came from him, playing an ill-advised prank.  But then the arm wrenched me toward the windows.  The loud whisper ordered me to, “Close the blinds.  Turn off the lights.”  And I felt the knife on my neck.

I did as I was told.  The stranger remained behind me the entire time.  I offered him my purse, dumping it out.  He asked for the watch on my wrist, took my money, and kept saying, “What else are you going to give me?”

When there was nothing else, he made me kneel on the floor, and I knew what else he wanted.

In order to prepare himself, the knife came away from my neck for a moment.  I took the opportunity to kick back with all of the force I could muster, scramble back to my feet, and run out of the room.

My colleague’s door was locked.  I banged on it, screaming his name.  As he opened the door, my assailant raced out of the room behind me.  Immediately assessing the situation, my colleague asked if I was okay, and ran after the man.

The man disappeared into an adjacent apartment complex.  But my co-worker was able to describe him to the police later, which I could not do.  He identified the man who was later picked up, arrested, and subsequently provided a dubious alibi in the form of a gas station receipt from across town at the time of the crime.  Charges were pressed because he was already wanted for a parole violation, but there was never a resolution to my own incident. I never knew if he really was the perpetrator.

The rest of the morning was a blur, but I remember talking to police officers who were skeptical when I couldn’t give a description, and a public relations representative from the district who joined the conversation and warned me not to talk to anyone in the media.

It never occurred to me to quit my job.  I was young, and teaching was all I had ever wanted to do.  Even if I could have somehow afforded to quit, I wouldn’t have, because this was the career I had wanted and worked hard for.

I returned to my classroom the next day.  My co-workers and many of the parents in the community remarked on my bravery, many surprised that I would come back to the site of such a traumatic experience.  I didn’t see it that way at all.  It was self-preservation from the moment I kicked that man to the subsequent mornings that I went back to the room, escorted by my hyper vigilant boyfriend.  I was going to back to living my normal life, doing what I could control.

The district responded by putting peepholes in all of the portable doors, although that wouldn’t have made a difference in my situation.  No one invited the man in.  We never found out if he had been hiding in the room next door when I arrived or if I hadn’t closed my door tightly enough behind me.

In the meantime, the community embraced me.  Parents informed me, without relating details, that the alleged suspect had been evicted from the apartment complex.  Encouraging notes were sent, the teachers at my after-school tutoring job joined together to buy me a new watch.  I got lots of extra hugs from my students who, thankfully, did not seem to consider the fact that they might have been in danger, too.

Over twenty years later, I can still trace the exact spot on my skin where the knife rested.  I still leap out of my skin when someone sneaks up behind me.  The PTSD that I was later diagnosed with (from that and another incident during college) was not the only by-product of that experience.  As I reflected on that day periodically throughout the next twenty + years, I realized it was indicative of what I observed repeatedly throughout my career as an educator:

  • Educational systems (often school districts) are motivated by two things: money and lawsuits.  That’s why a PR person was immediately dispatched to speak with me instead of a counselor. (I was never offered mental health care related to this experience.)
  • Educational systems are usually reactive instead of proactive.  The peepholes – reactive.  Even then, security was extremely lax until school shootings became regular occurrences decades later.
  • Educational systems often react with “band-aid” solutions, that don’t address the real problems.  Again – the peepholes.
  • The system considers teachers expendable.  No administrator would have tried to dissuade me from quitting after my assault.  No extra care was offered to me to make sure I felt safe.  If I had quit, a replacement would have quickly been found – and that person would probably would receive a lower salary than me, saving the district money.

If you think these issues have changed in the last quarter century, I can tell you stories from the last few years that show they have not.  So, when you demand that teachers return to the classrooms in the middle of a pandemic, keep the above examples of a broken system in mind.  But also remember the power of the community of students, their families, and my colleagues, who did what they could to support a traumatized teacher.

I was willing to return to a classroom where I was nearly raped.  Since then, I have repeatedly looked over my students as we huddled during lockdown drills, and knew that I would be willing to take a bullet for any one of them.  But COVID-19 is different.  It’s not just one man with a knife, hiding in the dark.  It’s multiple assailants, waiting patiently to follow teachers home and destroy their families, too.

Many teachers may feel, as I did, that returning to their jobs is a given.  They may, unfortunately, have no other choice.  I urge teachers, parents, communities, and local leaders to take a good look at what our already broken systems are going to do to ensure the safety (physical and emotional) of school staff.  Ask the hard questions (you can find over 400 of them in this document crowd-sourced by Sarah Mulhern Gross), and demand answers.  Be proactive.  Guarantee that the mental and physical health of your staff and students is paramount – not the scores on standardized tests.  Otherwise, the teachers who are on the front-lines will be forced to deal with the consequences.  Attrition rates will leap astronomically and, though it may seem like it, there is not an endless supply of teachers – especially good ones.

21 Day Challenge

According to its website, the Bexley Anti-Racism Project is sponsored by “a coalition of POC and white allies who are current students or graduates of Bexley High School.”  As I am working to educate myself about anti-racism, I was pleased to see the “21 Day Challenge” on the BARP website.  As you can see in the image below, each day gives you a source to read, watch, or hear that will further your understanding of anti-racism.  (You can click on the link in the previous sentence, or on the image below to find the links referenced for each day.)  Only two of these suggestions were on my radar before I saw this helpful graphic, so I am thankful for the people who are behind BARP for putting this together.

I committed to doing weekly anti-racism posts last month.  Here are the previous ones, in case you have missed them:



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