Internationally renowed education consultant Katie Novak works across the world to help education systems incorporate Universal Design for Learning (UDL) so that students are better supported and teachers have more balance.
In this episode of The Best of Us, Katie shares ways in which educators can apply UDL to professional learning, and how instructional coaches can look for UDL in classrooms. We also talked about the inspiration for her recent article “It’s OK to be Uncomfortable When Talking About Race” and how barriers such as racism and ableism are preventing many students from accessing rigorous instruction.
0:47 Jeremy Rogoff
Hi, I'm Jeremy Rogoff, co-founder and CEO of Kickoff and host of The Best of US Podcast. In this episode I sat down with Dr. Katie Novak, a leading expert in inclusive practices, Universal Design for Learning and Educational Equity. During our conversation, we explored how to apply UDL and professional learning, the role of instructional coaches in recognizing UDL in classrooms, and the barriers that prevent many students from accessing rigorous instruction.
We also discussed Katie's recent article in the Learning Professional titled It's Okay to be Uncomfortable when talking about Race and the importance of addressing these sensitive topics in education. I really appreciate Katie's tactical tips for improving educator support, and I think her advice is particularly helpful for professional learning leaders thinking about how to re-envision how they run PD.
Katie Novak, welcome to the Best of Us.
1:40 Katie Novak
Thank you so much for having me. I'm excited to be here.
1:43 Jeremy Rogoff
We are excited to have you. And I'm excited to talk to you because we often talk to practitioners of professional learning in school districts. We often talk to people who provide professional learning in school districts. And every time I get to talk to someone new who's providing professional learning, they bring just a new insight to what they're learning from schools and districts.
And so I am excited to hear your insights and perspectives today. So I thought a place where we could start , just at a high level for those who don't know you, is just share a little bit about how you arrived to be doing what you're doing when it comes to providing support to educators and schools.
2:20 Katie Novak
Well, as a daughter of two teachers, the very last thing that I was going to do with my life was to become a teacher. And so it's so funny because both my parents loved education and I was like, I don't think I want to do that.
And I went and I started studying pre-med, and then I was doing work on recreational therapy and I graduated and then suddenly was like, “Oh, what have I done? I need to be a teacher. ” So I went back right right away and got my masters degree in education and just started teaching high school English in California in 2002, and loved teaching.
I was a teacher for 13 years and I had no intention of doing anything differently. I taught high school English, I taught middle school English. And because my dad had been a college professor, I figured, I'm going to teach my 30 years, I'm going to retire, and then I'm going to become like a college professor focusing on new teachers.
So a really key part of this story is that I did have a doctoral degree when the district that I was in won this grant where they were going to be trained in something called Universal Design for Learning. And the Gates Foundation provided all of these funds to determine what is the impact on schools and districts, really, really leveraging high quality professional learning to scale universal design, which is something we'll talk a little bit more about.
And they asked me because they're like, Well, you have this advanced degree. You must want to do something with adults. I'm like, Yeah, not now. I was thinking more like 20 years from now. And they just kept asking me and I was like, No, I'm not really interested. I love working with kids and they really had trouble drumming up people to get this intensive training in the summer.
And I will be totally transparent: I finally did it because they provided a stipend to it. So I'm like, okay, you know what? I'll give it a try. And for me, it like rocked my world, recognizing just the power of changing the outcomes of students based on the design of a learning environment, based on the design of curriculum and instruction. I became absolutely enamored with this and started collaborating with the organization CAST, who was really doing a lot of the research on UDL.
And they invited me because I was a practicing educator to come to their annual Harvard University UDL symposium to share a little bit about my work as a seventh grade teacher learning about universal design. And I put on the best workshop I could, and people started coming up to me afterwards and saying, Hey, can you come do this in our district?
And I was like, What? Because I had no intention of doing that. So people say, “How did you start providing support to adults?” Well, it kind of found me. And the more I did that, the more I loved it. And when I had an opportunity to step into a role as the district coordinator of reading and then an ELL director, and then an assistant superintendent of schools, I took it simply because it provided a schedule that was really flexible that allowed me to not only serve the adults who are my colleagues, but I could use my vacation time to do some consulting.
And so I was an assistant superintendent for six years while doing consulting during my vacation. And when I finished that contract, I saw that there was a space that I could work with more districts by consulting full time. So it was like an accidental path that found me. But ultimately, at my heart I am still a teacher. So when people ask me what I do for a living, I always say, Oh, I’m a teacher.
And then they'll say, Well, what do you teach? And I'm like, Oh, you know, I'm a graduate instructor and I do a lot of professional development with teachers. But that is my story. So 20 years later, I have the opportunity to work with schools and districts all over the world to help them learn What I learned that summer that selfishly, I only did for a stipend. [laughs]
6:35 Jeremy Rogoff
Well, it's amazing to hear your story because it puts into context the work that you're doing now, and it does relate to UDL, which we'll cover in more detail. But I guess bringing us forward to today — when a school or district leader calls you, what problem are they trying to solve?
6:54 Katie Novak
Generally, they're contacting me because they're recognizing that there are many, many students who are not having great outcomes. And those outcomes could be academic. It could be that students aren't reporting high levels of engagement. But essentially we have teachers who are working really, really, really hard and are not having the desired impact on our students. And so generally when people contact me, it's because they are struggling to include all students.
They're struggling to engage with our students or they're struggling with growth for all students. And generally that is because teachers don't yet feel prepared to meet the needs of like the wide range of students who they're serving. So when I'm working with a district, it's essentially, if we don't better prepare our teachers and build their competency and provide them with the tools they need, then we're not going to really change the outcomes of kids.
So generally we have teachers who are feeling really overwhelmed, who of course want to serve all learners but maybe don't have the support yet, or the strategies or the resources or the technology to be able to do that in a way that isn't over burdensome for them. And so how do we create a different way to design teaching and learning so that we're better supporting students and creating more balance for teachers.
8:14 Jeremy Rogoff
It's not so much a school or a district leader says “We are struggling in reading and math or we're struggling with this student assessment score.” It's they've identified that we have almost a systems-level problem with how we are designing, learning for our students or designing learning for our teachers. And that's that's what leads them to you.
8:34 Katie Novak
Exactly. I don't work in a single subject matter. I'm curriculum agnostic. It's recognizing that the system isn't yet meeting the needs of all kids. And if it's not meeting the needs of all kids, I can tell you it's not meeting the needs of our teachers and it's really looking for how do we approach our strategic work and our professional development differently so that we can better serve all of our stakeholders.
8:59 Jeremy Rogoff
So I would imagine that there might be district leaders or school leaders that come to you and think that they have one problem, like it could be around reading and math or it could be around the achievement of a particular subgroup. They might recognize one problem, but you see a different problem.
How do you navigate that conversation with leaders around helping them see maybe a perspective that they don't see initially?
9:28 Katie Novak
I think that most leaders are pretty aware of the fact that there are really significant barriers in our school districts. I don't work with a lot of districts who have experienced exceptional growth in the past couple of years. We know that teacher burnout is a problem, that teachers being overwhelmed is a problem. And I think that especially after COVID, we're recognizing that student disengagement is a problem.
So generally I don't find that it's a difficult conversation about what needs to change. The difficult conversation is, how do we have to change it? Because I think that in some ways people are hoping for a solution that is easy to implement, that is efficient, that's not going to completely disrupt the way that we're currently doing work.
And the truth is, to create a better system, we need to look at scheduling differently, at curriculum adoption differently, at professional development and family community engagement. And I think that sometimes, of course, there's this recognition that there's all of these barriers, all of these challenges. And when we say, okay, so like the first thing we're going to do is we're going to start doing learning walks.
We're going to see what instruction currently looks like. We're going to recognize the barriers. And it's like, Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. How are we going to get people on board to do this? There's going to be a lot of pushback. We don't have a lot of time. So it's not recognizing that things need to change. It's, I think, leaning into the recognition that change is going to be uncomfortable, that change is not going to have everybody cheering and excited about what needs to change.
But that school is about kids and it's what has to be done. And and one of the things that I really try to stress is that teachers are working way too hard to not have better results. And I'm not asking teachers to add things on. We're actually asking teachers to do a lot of different things and to stop doing a lot of the things they're doing for kids, which is creating a culture of compliance at best generally, and a lot of disengagement.
11:33 Jeremy Rogoff
Yeah, And a lot of what we talk about is creating a culture of compliance of among teachers and around what's expected of them, both from a professional learning standpoint, from a teacher performance standpoint. And, you know, when I think about what excited me about your work is that because you're working with adults around redesigning schedules, redesigning time, you're kind of helping them think differently about the constraints that they may or may not have when it comes to the levers that they have to pull it.
It's it's a theme that we explore on this podcast with a few other folks. So I'm I guess I would be curious to hear from you when you work with a new school or district, what is the process for identifying where to start and then how to go about the change management that's required to actually see through the vision that they have and that you have?
12:23 Katie Novak
Well, I think interestingly, the first step is often “What is your vision?” Talk to me about what your vision is for all learners and how are you measuring your progress toward that. And when I'm talking about measuring progress, I'm not talking about let's only look at standardized achievement measures, because I've never worked with a district that actually had success in standardized measures in their vision.
There's a lot about mastery and high levels of learning in achievement, but clearly achievement is bigger than testing kids in grades three through eight in math and ELA for 2 hours a couple times a year. So when we're talking about what is your vision for all learners, I really try to be responsive to that and make sure that it was something that has buy in with the community, because I think sometimes visions are created in a central office and no one knows they exist.
But if we really go through this process of what is it that we want from our kids in this community, what does our learner profile look like? What do we value? Then the question is, well, how are you measuring progress toward that? And, you know, certainly we're going to look at some student outcome data, their proficiency and their grades in looking at some standardized measures.
But it's also about what do our classrooms look like? What does instructional data tell us? What does our perception need to say? What are teachers saying about their experience, what our students are saying about their experience? We're looking at a lot of different measures. And then my question is, what are you doing? What are the actions that you're taking to get there?
And that's usually a pretty interesting conversation because I think that we have this big vision for deeper learning, for really innovative classrooms, for teachers to feel like they have strong efficacy for students to feel as though, you know, that they're working towards mastery, that their identity is honored, all of those things. But then we're measuring test scores and student surveys and upset, and we're doing it maybe once or twice a year.
And so really trying to get people more responsive to like, how do we know that we're on the right track? Because I want them to be able to measure the impact of shifting professional development, not only on teacher perception, but student perception learning and instructional walk data. And then, of course, it needs to land with students because this is who are impacting.
So I try to talk to people about what is it that you're trying to do, How are you measuring your growth towards that? How is that progress? And then what is some of that data actually telling you? And what we find is that most teachers do not feel like they're getting high quality professional learning. They don't feel like their administrators and leaders are modeling the practices that they're expected to implement in classrooms.
You know, they're not getting access to the resources and technology that are necessary. And then even systemic things like common planning and, you know, scheduling for professional learning communities. If we're not going to invest in teachers, then we can't invest in kids. And so helping people realize what some of the systemic barriers are then will allow them to incorporate action steps, which oftentimes is professional development and universal design, for an example.
And then measure if that actually made a difference, because we should not be doing things that are not positively impacting our work.
15:42 Jeremy Rogoff
Yeah, and I love that you talked about measuring our impact because if you wait until the middle of the year, at the end of the year to actually see the change that you want to see, whether it's in mindsets, behaviors, practices, ultimately student achievement, it will be way too late to actually make the type, of course, corrections that you want.
You know, I wanted to kind of end our conversation around talking about UDL and professional learning, but you've kind of teed it up. So I'd like to go a little bit deeper to understand, you know, when we think about UDL, we often think about what does it look like for students, But you bring a lens to this for PD and you've written a number of articles and blog posts about bringing universal design for learning to PD.
Before we dive into the PD, for those folks who are not familiar, can you just define UDL a little bit more to give us a kind of shared understanding of it?
16:28 Katie Novak
Yeah. So universal design for learning is essentially how do we design a learning experience that will work for everyone in attendance by focusing on firm goals and flexible means. So what really is it that we want all educators to know, or what really is it that we want all educators to be able to do? And then recognizing that if we ask every single person to do the same exact thing in the same exact way, we're going to be really excluding many, many people.
So the best analogy to explain universal design is just when we think of having people over for dinner. If I have 20 people over for dinner and they're, you know, wildly diverse in their eating preferences and you know what they can dietary we have friends who are vegan, lactose intolerant, gluten sensitive, all of these different things. I can't just serve up like a meat and cheese lasagna and hand everyone their plate and be like, go ahead.
Because there are so many people who simply can't or will not eat that. And so what really is my goal that you enjoy your dinner. So I'm going to have some options and choices. We're probably going to potluck it. And I honestly feel that professional learning has to be the same. So if you're coming to a professional learning session and so the goal is that we want teachers to understand what universal design for learning is.
So there's no reason that everyone has to read the same article and hard copy. There is lots of ways to learn about what universal design for learning is, and that might be reading an article, it might be listening to a podcast, it might be watching a video. Any of those things could be done independently or with a partner or with small groups.
And so if the firm goal is, people will build an understanding of what the UDL framework is. Here are some resources that I've curated that might support you in doing that, but also you are brilliant professionals. Those who know where to access really good professional resources and maybe you want to look on one of your favorite sites in a science network you're in to ask what UDL looks like in science because that would be so much more relevant, authentic and meaningful.
And that's a potluck because you're bringing that resource in because there's value. And so it's recognizing there is lots of different ways to learn, there's lots of materials to use as we learn. So some people might want a hard copy of an article, some people might put in their earbuds and go for a walk while listening to a podcast.
Others might like the movie theater experience, where the presenter says, In that room, I will play a video if you're interested in accessing it. And so we have these different materials, these different methods of learning, and then there's lots of different ways to measure someone's learning. When you think about what the goal is. So if I want to know if all of the teachers in a session understand what UDL is, I can provide options for that.
They can choose to have a discussion and have one person summarize that discussion they might want to hand in, you know, revisions of lessons. It might be something far more innovative like a Tik Tok video or, you know, their own little mini podcast. And so I think that when we're talking about teaching and learning, if we want all students to learn more about, let's say, figurative language, we can provide them with lots of opportunities to find the resources they need to understand what figurative language is.
And then if we want them to share with us what they've learned about figurative language, there's also lots of opportunities for students to do that. And I think that we as educators often think that we have to be the ones that creating all of that. And that's where we have to shift over to student lab and say, I can provide you with a couple of high quality resources, but I can also honor you as learners and give you time to think about where are you usually go for your own professional learning and how do you find those resources?
And let's have this conversation and let's think about what's relevant, authentic and meaningful and I find that when I work with educators and I say, like, you're going to make your own schedule for this 2 hours and this is what you have to learn and this is what you have to show. And I'm going to provide lots of different station rotations that you can join with me.
But if you don't feel like that serves you as a learner, then please do something else. And the feedback from educators, I'm just like, Oh my gosh, It's just there's so much dignity in you saying I trust you as a professional to find really great resources to collaborate with one another and to create something, then I can provide feedback and then differentiate support as needed.
So in a nutshell, firm goals, flexible means, flexibility in how people learn the materials they access and how they share what they're learning, but always focused on what really is the goal. So if the goal is writing, you need to produce writing, but you can do that by hand. You can do that voice to text, you can do that in a beautiful interactive infographic.
You could do that in a blog. So it's always thinking about what really is it that is non-negotiable and what's the flexibility within that.
21:26 Jeremy Rogoff
I love that. It sounds like effective professional learning is a lot like effective instruction and effective differentiation. Me personally, I would prefer a podcast for how to learn about something as opposed to a long article, and that resonates with me about, you know, getting to the actual goal in flexible ways. At the same time, if I am a district leader, if I'm a professional learning leader, it also sounds really hard, like how do I as a professional learning leader or as a facilitator or a coach, change my practice in a way that helps me produce professional learning in a way that's easier, right?
Because it takes it sounds like it takes a lot of preparation and time and thought for how to design a learning experience that's going to be really valuable. And I know plenty of principals or coaches who say, Look, I have an hour to get ready for this pre-session that I have to lead at the end of the week.
How do you help them make that behavior change when they're used to it, when many of us are used to kind of waiting for the last minute to get to prepared?
22:27 Katie Novak
So my first advice would be actually have a goal for professional learning. I think that sometimes... universal design for learning is a topic, it's a focus area. But what's actually the goal, right? Is it that learners understand more about their firm goals, where they're unpacking their standards? Is it that they're exploring the different flexible technologies that are already available in the district’s suite of technology tools?
So I think that we could do ourselves a lot of favors by saying what really is the thing that all learners have to know or are they going to have to be able to do when it's done? The next step is to start thinking about some of the practices that are routine. So turn and talk in a faculty meeting... it happens in every faculty meeting ever.
We throw up a couple of different slides, we pose a question, we say, Talk to your colleagues even, and that can be really exclusionary so people are exhausted. At the end of the day, they're not in a space to have this really deep conversation at 5:30 on a Thursday. And so we say, what really is the goal there?
The goal is reflection. And so if I share a couple of slides, I can easily say, okay, I'm going to give you 10 minutes. You can either go back over and look at these resources, you can take some notes or, you know, write yourself an email. So you remember you might want to have a conversation. If you want to have a conversation, feel free to stand up, go outside, take some laps in the hallway, you know?
But I really want you to reflect on this, the central question here and then take a moment and think about like, what do you really need right now and why do you need it and have people go around and share, Oh, my gosh, actually, like, I am just I'm burnt out. It's so hot in here. I love the idea of like going outside and sitting down and just looking at those three sources.
You went kind of fast. Someone else is like, Ah, today we had like silent writing all day. I'm going out of my mind. I would love to talk to a colleague who wants to go for a walk with me. And we think about like, gosh, we have to carve all this flexibility out. But that's something you can do in almost every staff meeting.
And I think that the key is thinking about the flexible options, asking people, what are you going to choose and why are you going to choose that? And really honoring people's self-awareness and self-management and the decisions that they're making. It really normalizes that we do not have to do things in the same way to work toward the same outcome, to reflect on the same question.
The other thing I would say is ask for people to help. So at the end of a professional development session when I was an assistant superintendent, I might say, okay, I would love feedback from you about what went really well in the session. And then .... It would be great if and then I would say, just so you know, on Tuesday at 3:00, I'm going to be looking through all of this data.
I'm going to be planning the next session. If anyone wants to come in and help me, I am all ears. Like I will share with you what the feedback was. I will show you what people wanted. And I would have a couple of people who would be like, Yeah, like I can totally swing in and help you out, but we do not have to do all of this by ourselves.
And I think there's a lot of people who would much rather help to co-create than to experience a snooze fest every single week.
25:44 Jeremy Rogoff
I love that. It's super practical and reminds people that they're not alone. And oftentimes as teachers, we feel like we have to close our door and figure out our lesson plan all on our own. It's the same thing with professional learning. So I love that sentiment and also the really practical question stem. When you work with leaders and they are they've bought into UDL for professional learning, what do you find to be the biggest barriers or challenges that they face when it comes to rolling something like this out at scale?
I can imagine I am one coach or one professional learning leader and I'm doing it. But then you want to also see that. You want to model that, and also see that among your colleagues. What are the things that they struggle with when it comes to implementing this design for learning ?
26:32 Katie Novak
Time. It's always time. So I love the work of Linda Darling-Hammond and the Learning Policy Institute. I think that's just such a great evidence base. And, you know, her work is to truly shift practice. You've got to look at like, I think it's like 49 hours a year or something like that. And many districts have like three half-days.
Okay, so we have 9 hours and we do something different every time. You know, you can't make huge sustainable change when you're supporting people for 9 hours a year. And so it's really thinking about like, well, if it takes a while to shift the professional development schedule or a school calendar, but what are all the other sources of professional learning?
If we have instructional coaching, if we have professional learning communities, faculty meetings can be [changed]. And so I think that it's really helping people see that there actually is a lot of time that can be focused on professional learning. If you have really clear goals for what that time is going to look like.
So if it's really valuable for you to have teachers understand what their standards are so that they determine where flexibility is appropriate, then how do we build that into our professional learning communities? How do we give time for teachers to do that during common planning? How do we, you know, take a little bit of our faculty meeting time and, you know, have teachers reflect on how that process is going?
And so I think that most of the time when I work with teachers, we're talking vast, vast, vast majority of teachers are totally on board that this makes good sense. We are preparing students for a world of which they have to be reflective of, which they're going to have to be able to figure out where to find reputable, accurate information, how to craft their own responses.
I mean, they're competing with chat bots. They're competing with an Internet that has a lot of really good information and it's at our fingertips. And I think people recognize that if our learner profiles are going to value critical thinking and problem solving and creativity, we have to shift instruction. But it's more of like, but how do I find the time when to shift instruction?
And so what I generally say is start thinking about those routines. Turn and talk is something that we can change all the time. We can always say this is the resource that students have always read because they have to answer these questions. You're welcome to find your own resources if you can get that same information and then let me know how you are sure that it's accurate.
Because, you know, ChatGPT. ChatGPT is the latest of the bots and it's wildly inaccurate. I've used it so many times, and the responses sometimes are brilliant and sometimes they're laughable. And you cannot depend on that for accurate information yet. And I think that [we need to have] conversations with students about that: I don't need to be able to find all these resources for you, but I do need to help you recognize how to find accurate, reliable information as you are learning, because that's going to be a huge life skill.
I'm a mom of four and I asked my 13-year-old, “If you need to find out if news was accurate, where would you go?” And he's like, TikTok. And I was like, Oh my gosh, please tell me that is not true. And he's like, Yeah. I'm like, Well, you know, just because it's on TikTok, it's not accurate, right?
And he goes, Pfff, mom, if it is trending, it's true. And I was like, Oh my gosh, get me a paper bag to breathe into. Do you know how many times Betty White passed away before she really passed away and it was trending? That’s not accurate, but like if we were always handing them the accurate resource.
Then they're never going to learn to do it themselves. So considering we're on a podcast, this is a great story. So I design graduate courses, I teach at UPenn, and whenever I create a module to build background knowledge, I always have the essential question and then something to read, something to listen to, something to watch.
Just as the first step to build your background knowledge. And certainly if that doesn't meet your needs, then I want you to look and find this additional information. But I was having a really difficult time finding an awesome podcast about just data-based decision making and its value and like getting rid of all the technical things.
I was looking for hours. And so finally I said, You know what? I'm going to ask ChatGPT, Could you recommend a podcast about data-based decision making in schools that are really highly viewed and rated? Sure thing. And it gives me a title, who the podcast is with and where it was, right? So it would be like, oh, you can listen to data-based decision making in schools...
And so I was like, sweet. And then I went to the Internet. .. and they weren't real. None of them were real. It took all the information it could find about podcasts. It took information about educator. It was totally, totally made up. And I wrote to it like, These aren't real podcasts.
And it's like, I am sorry. I did the best I could with the information I had, but I'm like, What a great example of why we want students to begin to do some of that research on their own, which then saves us time.
31:58 Jeremy Rogoff
I mean, we could do an entire separate podcast on the number of search queries I've done with Chat GPT that have given me baloney. So I definitely see the same experience and I can understand why it makes it that much more important to be teaching our teachers and our students about the importance of critical thinking and not just accepting the answer that that's being provided and creating that space for educators to problem solve on their own.
I think that's a good segue, because the other area that I wanted to cover within UDL is the work that you've done around instructional coaching in particular and what to look for in the classroom when it comes to UDL is basically a framework for thinking about look-fors when it comes to UDL. So can you talk a little bit about that? If I'm an instructional coach, how can I be looking for UDL in classrooms?
32:43 Katie Novak
So it's a framework, right? And so we're thinking about how do we design instruction while recognizing the barriers to one size fits all instruction and then eliminating them through your design. So I serve a lasagna, and both you and I can go, ooh, that's not going to work if there's anyone who's lactose intolerant, that's not going to work because we have some friends who are vegan.
And the same is true for everyone is going to read this scientific article in hard copy and then they're going to write an essay and I say, We have some kids who are not decoding at grade level. You can't only have printed text. And we have some students who will really struggle with organization of writing. And so how do we create this buffet style flexibility?
And so, you know, as an instructional coach, the first question that you can ask is, so what really is your goal? What really is it that all learners have to know and do? And do you articulate that goal really clearly to students? Did they know why they're learning? Do they have opportunities to reflect on what they already know about it?
Do they have their own opportunity to set goals as they work towards that? But we have to do a lot of work with like what really is the goal here? And then given the instructional materials that I've used previously, who would be excluded? And so I would say, okay, so, you know, I have a lot of kids who aren’t decoding at grade level.
They're multilingual. Maybe I can have a couple of hard copies. But then I also want to make sure that they can access it digitally. And then they have the option, of course, on their own to do a read aloud to translate something. And they can read it alone or they can read it with a partner. And as they're reading, they can either do some highlighting or they can create some sketch notes, right?
And you start going, okay, we're really transforming this. But it always comes back to what really is it that students have to know and do. And if, for example, students have to read a primary source document or a scientific article and there is really no alternative for it because they have to say evidence, how do we make that accessible?
So we start asking, what really is it the students have to know and do based on what you know about students who might struggle or who might not be challenged, what other pathways or what options could you provide? And so we basically go through, my colleagues and I, what are some starting spaces? And for each of the potential look-fors are there really clear, firm goals, learning objectives, what are we looking for?
But what's the impact on students? So I'm not posting a goal on the board. So when my evaluator walks in and I see the goal on the board, it's because the sweet loves who we serve do not have a fantastic working memory. And if they know that visually there's going to be this reminder of this is what we're doing today and this is why you're doing it.
And when you get distracted or after we take a break, it's a nice reminder. This is what we're working on and we're doing that because we want anybody to be able to walk in at any time and say, What are you doing and why are you doing it? And so what type of questions do we ask as instructional coaches to get teachers to be more reflective on the strategies that they're using so that when I walk in the room and say, What are you working on today?
And you know, why are you working on it? And like, what's your goal and how are you going to learn this? The students are prepared to answer those questions not because of me, but because if you can't answer those questions, you're not going to be very purposeful about your learning. And so trying to operate analyze what are some of the questions that we can ask our colleagues to help them reflect, and what are some things that we can do to help people realize that there is always a way to be flexible.
People will push back and say, Oh, I totally understand what you're saying, Katie, but even if we can make the time for this, even if teachers begin to shift their instruction, they still have to take standardized tests. And like that is the greatest example of all time of the fact that you need to be a critical thinker and a problem solver.
Because people will say, I can't just hand out a graphic organizer when students are taking the standardized test, but students can create their own grade. So this is even more like reason why you say some of you will really struggle with organization. I'm going to teach you all how to make a graphic organizer because I want you to know that's always an option for you.
And I can’t hand out manipulatives in math, but they get scrap paper and they can rip it up into pieces. And for students who don't have great stamina for reading, they don't have to read the whole passage and then read the questions. They can skip ahead and they can look at the questions and they can write down the questions on scrap paper.
And then when they're reading, they can start and it's like there is a ton of flexibility. But the firm goal of I have to share my learning in this technological space, the best chance of me doing that is knowing how to solve problems, knowing what the goal is, and actually having that grade level content.
37:28 Jeremy Rogoff
What I continue to take away from this conversation is the importance of setting and knowing the goal. What is the goal of what we are learning and why are we doing it? And we overlook that so much as teachers. We overlook that so much in professional learning. And if we continue to anchor back to that, that will inform how we design the learning process.
So that's coming across very clearly. So I don't think there's a really clear segue to to talk about this, but I wanted to cover something that you wrote about in the Learning Forward October edition of the Learning Professional. And the the title of that article was “It's okay to be uncomfortable when talking about race.”
So when I hear the conversation that we're having today about UDL, we haven't really talked about race. So I'm curious first, what inspired you to write this article?
38:29 Katie Novak
So I wrote a book called Equity by Design with one of my business partners, Mirko Charden. And essentially we know that traditional instruction does work for some students. And we also know that there are many students for whom are not experiencing outcomes. And those are our students with disabilities. Our multilingual students, our students of color are students who have economic disadvantage, and we have to be able to talk about that.
And so when we're talking about barriers, racism and ableism are barriers that are preventing students from accessing instruction as they need to access it simply because the type of flexibility that will be necessary for some students to access instruction that is rigorous and culturally responsive, those things often are simply not provided because as educators, we are biased against some of those practices and everybody is biased.
Every single person is biased. I don't want to oversimplify this, but some people are like, I'm not biased. And it's like — one of the examples that I used is I'm a mom of four. I'm an excellent mom, I'm an awesome mom. My kids think I'm an awesome mom, but I work a lot and I travel a lot.
And when I travel, most people will be like, Oh my gosh, you have four kids like, who's watching them? I'm like, What do you mean? Who's like, You know, I'm married. But even if I wasn't married, clearly somebody would be watching my kids and they'll say, I would love to do what you're doing, Katie, But like, I could never leave my kids.
So some people are biased to think that really good moms are always home with their kids, right? That's a form of bias. Nobody's right, Nobody's wrong. We have these lived experiences that basically lead us to believe that, you know, being a great mom is one thing and not you know, it's there's a way. There's not the way. Right.
And I think it's the same thing about, well, kids have to be able to do it this way in classrooms. And you know, students have to be able to do this and behave in this way. And we really try to get people to recognize that we're not devaluing your belief system here. It's just recognizing that there are so many other belief systems.
And when holistically as an institution, our beliefs make it so that we can predict the outcomes of kids based on their identity group, it shows that we're leaning too much in one way. And so we talk about that. You know, we have to be able to have these conversations about that. Our views are often really biasing some kids over other kids, and let's listen to those other experiences.
Let's recognize that there are more than one way to be a good mom. There's more than one way to be a respectful student. There's than one way to prepare writing. And again, we often have those assumptions based on ability and based on race, simply because that is the experience that we believe to be true based on what everyone is told.
That is true, right? So when we start having these conversations, it gets itchy. As Mirko says, some of us, we talk about this courageous conversation compass. [But] some of us, as soon as we start talking about race and ableism, some people like start to think about it really like intellectually. And it's like, Well, let me think about that.
That wasn't my experience. And some people act and it's just like I need like I need to get out of here. You're calling me this, you're calling me that. Like, this is my whole life experience. Some people get really emotional, get really angry, and they have every right to have all of those feelings. And when we start bringing up the way that we're designing, instruction is working really, really well for white, middle class, upper class kids who speak English.
And that is because the way that we decided school, it works really well for some kids at the expense of others, just like some people think, Why shouldn't I be able to serve a lasagna? It's my house, it's my dinner. Like you have to be respectful because that's what my mom told me for like 20 years of my life. It's like if you're respectful, you're going to eat.
So I think that we just have to recognize that all of us have these belief systems based on the lives that we lived. And the more that we can explain what we believe and why and that being inclusive doesn't mean abandoning what you've been taught to believe. It just means that those beliefs can't dictate the practices that are available to students in your classroom.
And so having these conversations, and even though people get really uncomfortable, is like just honoring, it's okay to be uncomfortable. It's okay to want to walk out. It's okay to really try to intellectually think through it. It's okay to say in my heart, I don't agree with you. We can coexist, but we have to change our practices because like the way that we think is not the way that our students think.
And clearly what we're doing is not resulting in the impact that our kids deserve. And we got into this because we believe in our kids and that has to trump our belief in all of these other things.
43:34 Jeremy Rogoff
Yeah, And if I were to make the connection between the article and what you're talking about here and our prior conversation around UDL, it goes back to the goal, right? If the goal is to engage all learners, for all learners to be successful, there are certain things that we have to know about ourselves and be honest with about ourselves and acknowledge so that we can have conversations about the biases that we bring to the table.
And like you said, biases are not wrong or right. They're just they just are. And so there's that part that's part of becoming a better educators, becoming a more self-aware educator. I could go on with you. I'd love to chat for much longer, but that the podcast is meant to be pretty short so that people can listen to it on their commute.
As we close up, I'd love to hear what's one thing that you're reading about or learning about currently.
44:21 Katie Novak
Okay, so I actually just finished this amazing book by Ken O'Connor and he wrote 15 Fixes for Broken Grades. And I've read Joe Feldman's work on grading for equity and again, you know, totally integrated in so much of my work, but a lot of my districts that I'm working with right now are like, how do you grade this stuff?
The goal is not writing. The goal is not a presentation. Students just need to share their understanding, you know? And then there's a podcast and there's a video and there's the live presentation and there's this and like, what does grading look like? And so end up with a lot of conversations about grading.
And Joe Feldman, you know, basically talks about what are some of the barriers to grading and what can O'Connor does in a really short book. It is valuable, like 100 pages. He's like, you know, one problem with grades is, for instance, they do not represent actual learning because if you offer extra credit for bringing in tissues or if you get a zero because you turn in something late that you could have like nailed, like what does the grade really mean?
And so he says these are all these issues, but then for each issue, there's a fix with a corresponding school handbook policy and then teachers sharing how they shifted to it. And what I loved was just how incredibly concrete the guidance was, because I think that everyone recognizes that it's taking points away for late work doesn't present an accurate picture of student learning.
That being said, as a graduate instructor, I can't wait for 30 people to hand in all assignments the night before. I have final grades due. Because it doesn't value learning. It doesn't value the process [or] my feedback. Right. And so like, it's kind of like, like get it but also at some point it's like if you don't give me the work, I don't know what I'm supposed to do.
And he offers this really brilliant — there can be consequences, those consequences just can't be graded. So it's like if you don't hand in work and as an instructor, I'm not able to provide you with any feedback. Then you know you're going to have to be able to... go to this kind of like homework helper, this work helper so that you can actually produce the work.
So I can provide you with feedback on your next steps. And if you're not able to do that, then we're going to call home and figure out what the barriers are, right? So it's not like, Oh, sure, do it, don't do it. But it's saying like, if we really want a student grade to reflect student learning and we want to eliminate some of these other things, how do we do that?
And I highly recommend his book to answer that question.
46:54 Jeremy Rogoff
Sounds incredibly practical and incredibly, like you said, concrete. So thank you for sharing that. What as we close out, how can professional learning leaders or district or school leaders, how can they best get in touch with you?
47:7 Katie Novak
I am at Novak Education and I have an amazing, amazing, amazing team. If you are focused on either building these systems that are more inclusive or implementing universal design for learning or even thinking about how do you recognize some of the barriers to instruction, you can go to novakeducation.com and reach out. There's lots of us on the team who are available to support you.
47:33 Jeremy Rogoff
Katie Novak It has been wonderful to learn from you over these past 45 minutes. Thank you so much for coming on the Best of Us.
47:39 Katie Novak
Thanks for having me.
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