In today's conversation we're joined by Tesha Fritzgerald,. Tesha is an urban education expert who currently serves as a district level leader in an urban school district in Ohio. She is a Martha Holding Jennings Foundation Scholar who has a passion for UDL and culturally responsive teaching, which has led her to publishing her recent book, Antiracism and Universal Design for Learning: Building Expressways to Success.
I invited Tesha on to talk about pairing UDL and antiracist teaching, with a specific focus on:
Tesha Fritzgerald, an urban education expert who focuses on UDL, culturally responsive teaching, anti-racist teaching, and author of Antiracism and Universal Design for Learning: Building Expressways to Success
0:00:10.4 Chris McNutt: Hello, and welcome to episode 86 of our podcast at Human Restoration Project. My name is Chris McNutt, and I'm a high school digital media instructor from Ohio. Before we get started, I wanted to let you know that this is brought to you by our supporters, three of whom are Nate Babcock, Joelle Ostrich, and C. Billy Campbell. Thank you for your ongoing support. You can learn more about the Human Restoration Project on our website, humanrestorationproject.org, or find us on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook.
0:00:52.4 CM: In today's conversation, we are joined by Tesha Fritzgerald. Tisha is an urban education expert who currently serves as a district-level leader in an urban school district in Ohio. She is a Martha Holding Jennings Foundation scholar who has a passion for UDL and culturally responsive teaching, which has led her to publishing her recent book, Anti-Racism and Universal Design for Learning, Building Express Ways to Success. I invited Tisha on to talk about pairing UDL and anti-racist teaching, with a specific focus on demanding excellence in progressive human-centered classrooms, clarifying what UDL actually is, clarifying how UDL and anti-racism can coexist when UDL has been critiqued for upholding a traditionalist lens, and finally, the actions that we can take to build anti-racist, UDL-driven classrooms.
0:01:35.4 CM: I wanted to start off by highlighting the words of Tamir Rice's mother and her call to action for teachers to question the system in which they serve. I'm going to read this quote at length because I think it's a very powerful opener. She states, "Are you ready to recognize these areas of challenge and pick up the mantle of opportunity? Are you ready to admit that black and brown children have the geniuses sitting in broken systems that are not built to see the brilliance they bring? Are you ready to fight against mindsets that prioritize policing over educational practices that lead to a life of freedom? Are you ready to partner with parents and families in a meaningful way by valuing our hopes and dreams for our own babies? Are you ready to admit that teaching practices are broken and that many black babies have been labeled and over-identified because educational systems haven't wanted to face this truth?" So that entire opener to me, it starts off the book incredibly powerfully, and it demonstrates why we need to rethink systems within our classrooms, our schools, our districts, our communities, and nationwide. What brought you into writing this book, specifically UDL and its connection to anti-racism?
0:02:35.0 Tesha Fritzgerald: Thank you Chris, for asking the question. Samaria Rice is amazing. She's an amazing woman who has suffered such horrible tragedy in losing her son, Tamir, but what she has fought for is that we don't lose him as a person. That he went to schools, that there were things that helped him to learn, and there were things that kept him from learning. And so her story being from Cleveland, Ohio, we mourned with her, we grieved with her, we walked with her. Seeing her story and connecting her story to the work of anti-racism and Universal Design for Learning seemed like such a natural fit. After the death of George Floyd, the work took a very different turn and there was a fire that was lit inside of me to really make sure that systems understood that there are people in the system that make decisions and make choices based on what they think, based on what they feel, and based on what they think they know about the children in front of them. So Samaria Rice's words about the geniuses that are sitting in broken systems resonated with my own heart, and many times I reflect on students that I reached and ones that I didn't reach because systems told me that they didn't have value.
0:04:01.1 TF: Systems gave me schedules that said, these kids are on an IEP or these kids have failed English before, and the decision making that went into what resources they got was not a system decision, it was an individual teaching decision. And so from the pain I've experienced of the past of not making decisions for every child, Universal Design for Learning is a framework that I believe gives me the freedom as a teacher to think about how to reach every student, but it also gives me the science and the research of teaching and learning to make better decisions and structure the classroom for every child to shine in the way that we're built to. So that's really the impetus for the work, just making sure that every individual understands the impact that they can have on the system where they are, and then as an individual push the system to be better for every child.
0:04:55.5 CM: Right, I mean that really resonates with me because I think about that too when we see students in this traditionalist lens, I think that sometimes we justify doing things that in retrospect feel really bad, like pushing students out of school because we feel like they're failures or they're not doing things, quote unquote. That teacher workroom talk where we label students and no longer see them as humans or individuals, and we justify that by saying like, "Well, they got an F or they're a discipline problem, quote unquote." And we just use that handbook to back up treating people like data as opposed to people. And really a lot of this work just seems to focus a lot more on honoring individual people. And you do use this word honor, and I want to start by talking about progressive education and the lowering of standards, because I think that there is something there that people that label themselves as progressive educators that want to escape the system sometimes do so by adapting resources to the point or offering alternatives to the point where there's really nothing of substance there. Like they're not really upholding the standard of excellence.
0:06:05.2 CM: And you write that demanding excellence communicates honor, and you based this off of Delpit's work, Lisa Delpit's work, The Codes of Honor. Could you talk a little bit about that?
0:06:14.8 TF: When we think about honor, we have to think about the individual decisions that we make that communicate value to those who are in our learning community. And so when we think about how our learners learn, when we think about what they need, what is comfortable for them, we build environments that say to them, "You know enough about you to make decisions for you." The opposite of that is power. And that's what Lisa Delpit writes about this code of power. And in the code of power, the people with the power make the rules to make sure that they're comfortable because they make the rules. And so juxtaposed to a culture of power where you do what I say because I told you to do it, because I am in power, because I am telling you to do what I believe everyone should do to be right. We have this culture of honor that says, "I value you. I want to know more about you, that you are the expert on you. You make decisions that work for you. And together we'll talk together about what decisions govern your best outcome." So let's say for instance, flexible seating. I'm not going to tell you where to sit, but together we will evaluate whether your choice was the best choice for your learning.
0:07:34.9 TF: And do you need to make different choices for your best outcomes? This empowers the learner to make decisions and to customize any learning environment they go into, not just to comply. Because even if the compliance led to an outcome that was good for them, will they be able to take you with them to make decisions in every learning environment they're in? No. So every learner needs to learn how to drive for themselves, whether that's how they take information in or what supports they need or how they show what they know to the world. These are the areas where learners need to be in the driver's seat. Putting them in the driver's seat says you have the tools that you need to drive. Now, I'm not going to just turn over the keys to you and send you out onto the expressway recklessly, but we will take the steps together to make sure that your driving meets your needs, that you know how to arrive at your destination safely, that you know what you need in order to learn, you know what supports work well for you. And if you can't find ones that work well for you, you have the tools to advocate for yourself to ask for what you need, and for that asking to be received respectfully is a culture of honor.
0:08:45.9 TF: And many times, black and brown children, when they advocate for themselves, when they speak up for something that's not working for them is dismissed as disrespect. So as Samaria asks, how many geniuses are sitting in the office? How many geniuses are cast to the side because what is in the learning environment is not working for them? And so honor becomes integral to making change in education, one learner at a time, and change in how educators view the learners in front of them as valuable, as bringing something to the table, as having something to offer and as expert enough on themselves to make decisions for themselves.
0:09:26.1 CM: Yeah. And it's fascinating too, you bring up that idea of kind of talking with the student, working through with them and kind of negotiating. Is this the best decision that you're making right now? In my experience, students are hyper honest about how they feel their current situation is going. And if a student, let's say picks maybe a wrong seat, a seat where they're hyper distracted or they're talking to someone all the time and they're not doing a lot, they're going to be honest and saying, I know this isn't really the best possible situation. But when you bring their voice into the equation and you're treating it like an honest conversation, like, "I'm just here to help you," students recognize that and that is what builds relationship and what builds trust. If you just tell a kid like, "Move seats, you're bad, you suck," you're going to internalize that or just hate the person for saying it.
0:10:13.5 TF: And you miss the opportunity to give them the skills to evaluate when they're in the wrong seat. What do I do next? And how do you try out different configurations until you find what works for you. And there's a freedom that happens in a learning community that allows learners to be the experts on themselves. I don't want someone to tell me where to sit. I hate it. I need to be able to choose my seat because I have needs that I don't need to communicate to everyone else, but perhaps I need to be close to an outlet because I'm using an assistive device for me that I don't need to disclose to the world. Or perhaps I need to be close to the door so that as I go in and out to the restroom, I don't disturb the learning for others. Allow learners to be the experts on themselves and to have a menu of supports to choose from so that they will know that they can get what they need. So closed captions are not just for people with hearing issues. Maybe I needed to make sure that I'm understanding the words that you're saying or that the message that you're sending is what you're communicating to me.
0:11:14.4 TF: We can't always prescribe the intervention or the support, but we have to have a menu that every learner understands that they can choose from it to see exactly what they need. We think ahead for the predicted supports that would be needed, and then we allow learners to pick and choose what they need. And we would be surprised. I know I'm often surprised when I give a menu of supports and I think that some of my students would choose one. Maybe they choose three where I would only think one would work for them. Maybe they go through all of the resources when I would think that they would gravitate towards one kind. And so that's the beauty of a universally designed learning environment that thinks ahead to what would be the barriers for learners. And as we learn them, as we listen to their voices, we learn more about what they need. And then we make those supports available to all the learners in the environment.
0:12:07.6 CM: Yeah. And I think that speaks to a lot of the assumptions that are made about UDL. I know in the past, sometimes I've been told that UDL is for accessibility purposes. So only the students that are like, for example, like Stanford or something where they need those additional tools in order to be quote unquote successful, that not all students need it. And what you're alluding to right now is kind of the opposite, that all students need universal approaches to learning because all of them can succeed in different ways. For those that maybe are less familiar with UDL, can you just clearly define what it means to incorporate that practice?
0:12:45.0 TF: So Universal Design for Learning at its core has three principles. And I'll tell you the way that I think of it. So Universal Design for Learning has a principle called multiple means of representation. And I see multiple means of representation as having options for how learners take information in. So maybe it's a podcast or maybe it's a blog post, maybe it's a video, maybe it's on YouTube, maybe it's music, maybe it's poetry, but they have options for how they take the learning in. So even in direct instruction, we can use multiple means of representation, means using pictures and words, having a glossary that they can go to or hyperlinks that they can click on for definitions, having the supports built in for how learners take information in. That's multiple means of representation. And then multiple means of engagement. I see in Universal Design for Learning, multiple means of engagement as how do you support learners once they're on the journey? So maybe that is where do you have multiple means of, do you have flexible seating? Do you have lights that they can turn on and off? Maybe there's noise canceling headphones that they're not listening to something else through, but maybe they're closing out the noise while everybody else converses in small groups.
0:14:07.1 TF: These are supports that are available that help learners learn how they learn and also give them what they need to reduce the barriers and threats, to reduce anxiety, to allow their brains to take on that cognitive load for taking learning in. So those are the supports that kind of help them navigate through. And last but not least is multiple means of action and expression. And this is how do I show the world what I know? And then what are the options for that? And many times in a traditional classroom, and I use the word loosely, in a traditional classroom, we show what we know by taking a test or everyone has to write a paper or everyone has to do a book report. Well, in a universally designed learning environment, learners would have an opportunity to choose how they show what they know. Of course, the standard is rigid. We don't change the standard, but the pathway to the standard is totally flexible. And once I reach the standard, how I show you what I know has to have some value to me. It has to be relevant to me. And maybe the multiple means of action and expression means taking the barriers off the classroom and allowing me to show what I know to a community that cares.
0:15:18.9 TF: Maybe it's making a video or maybe it's creating a blog post of my own. Maybe instead of a book report, it's posting a review on Amazon to say, here's what I think about this book and I'm 12 years old. So we have to think about how do we give learners an authentic audience, an authentic way to show what they know and choices and options for how they show that they've reached the standard. So multiple means of representation, how you take it in, multiple means of engagement, what supports you through and multiple means of action and expression. How do you share what you know with the world?
0:15:53.1 CM: Yeah. And it seems like each one of those two builds off of day-to-day when they might change up too. I think that sometimes we get caught in the mantra of, "Oh, this student likes to listen to the book. Therefore, I'm always going to give them a book on tape," which is maybe a good thought process, but sometimes they might not want to listen to the book. Sometimes they might want to read it.
0:16:14.9 TF: We have to be careful not to prescribe to the learner what they need based on what we think. The moment we become an expert on someone else is the moment we allow our biases to rule and power. And it takes away honor. My husband shared a story with me from when he was in the second grade and a teacher made a decision for him. Everyone else had a chance to choose to play with some blocks or something like that. But she chose to give him a stencil because she said, you need to work on your handwriting. She didn't give him an opportunity to choose what intervention would work best for him. She chose it. She gave it to him and then he felt shamed. When we make decisions for another human being, when we tell them you need this, when we say your deficit is this, so I'm going to assign you this, then there's that shame. There is a guilt that comes in. There is a message that is sent to the learner over and over again that I'm not good enough, that I can't learn like everyone else and I don't belong here. And then we perpetuate that with referrals to special education or pulling them out of the setting for an intervention.
0:17:22.8 TF: If we universally designed, then we send the message to the learner, you belong here. Every single one of us learns differently. And when you find what works best for you, it is also welcome here because you are. You are of value. You bring something to the table. We want you here and you are the expert on you.
0:17:42.5 CM: For sure. When you walk into a classroom that operates like this, where the district has the funding to incorporate all the tools, when all the students have kind of the thing that they're doing that everyone's kind of learning off doing their own thing, the teacher's working with some students, maybe some students are off on their own, it feels like a community. Like it feels like a place where I walk in there and there's love and respect. Even if you weren't a student in that room, you would walk in there knowing like, oh, these people care about me. Whereas sadly, if it's not incorporated this way, it feels like a prison in some cases, especially during COVID. I was just looking at someone posted on the news that one of the new tech tools for COVID is literally putting people into small glass boxes and having them sit inside these like crammed boxes so they don't spread COVID as opposed to just waiting until we don't have to worry about doing those things. But it is scary when you consider the carceral network and all the things that we internalize when someone tells us constantly what to do and that we're doing something wrong and what that does to our psyche and how we think of ourselves.
0:18:50.0 CM: When we build a community this way, we reflect a community that we hope to see in the future. So I really appreciate the message that's being sent here and the ideas that are being expressed. But I did want to also talk about critiques of UDL. So I wanted to highlight a piece by Benjamin Dockstader, which is where I'm getting most of this information, where it's interesting in your book, you talk about UDL, culturally responsive teaching, restorative justice, trauma-informed practices. But UDL has been critiqued and some of its major authors, I'm thinking like George Coros, where basically UDL is used to uphold the traditional system, quote unquote, as opposed to changing the system itself. So as in like UDL is, "Don't be negative, all students need to learn, just keep doing the same exact thing over and over again and they'll figure out how to do it." As opposed to this idea of transformation that we're questioning what the system is itself and rebuilding it in a UDL lens. Could you speak a little bit to that juxtaposition?
0:19:54.4 TF: I love that in the UDL community, we are open to hearing the critiques. What I would say is that to anyone who is thinking about how to build a universally designed learning environment, that we have to be attentive to what the critiques are. So here's the thing with the framework, the multiple means of representation, multiple means of engagement and multiple means of action and expression, when you are implementing and when you are designing, we have to know that there can be flaws, that there can be implicit bias, that we can take the framework and turn it into something that it was never intended to be. It is very important to listen to these voices of critique, to hear them out and to think about what the barriers are to truly building freedom in the classroom. So when we think about, in my book, I talk about building express ways to success and putting the learner in the driver's seat. That means that my biases and my power are laid to the side in order to value the learner and they pick up what is best for them. But when we hear the critiques, when we hear that UDL could be a tool that oppresses learners, we have to be attentive to that.
0:21:09.3 TF: We have to make sure that our design is bringing about the results that we are designing for. And if it's not, then we go back to the table. We come together as a community. And no one should be implementing UDL in isolation. And so that keeps the bias or the negative implications from being the reality all the time when we keep coming back together, when we see, "Okay, I failed." What is this feedback teaching me? What is it telling me? How can I grow? And then flip it on its head and say, "What is it teaching my students? What is it telling them? And how is it causing them to grow? Or how is it being a barrier?" If we are not conscious of that lens, then we fall. And that's with culturally responsive teaching. That's with Universal Design for Learning. That's with trauma informed. The moment we become an expert on someone outside of ourselves is the moment that we stop universally designing. And so it's very easy on the outside to look at a framework on paper and say that it has limitations. But actually, the framework has to be implemented to say whether it can move people forward or not.
0:22:19.9 TF: We have to implement. We have to try. We have to design. We have to keep coming to the table. And we have to keep having the conversation. I love the fact that in the UDL community, we can take a look at the framework and say, here's areas where I personally implement well, and this is how I know. Here's the outcomes. Here's the feedback from students. Here's the products that they give, and here's areas that I struggle with because it is three principles that have massive implications. You never arrive at, Katie Novak says, you never arrive at UDL utopia. We're always learning. We're always growing. We're always striving. And as we teach people this framework, as we teach them to evaluate the outcomes, we have to keep bringing them back to does this work for your learners? What options are you giving? Are your options limiting their capability to shine and grow? Or is it teaching them, putting them in the driver's seat so that they can get to the destination that they've chosen and they're not pigeonholed to the destination of your choosing?
0:23:23.5 CM: I think that's a great point. I think that critique of UDL rests itself on that idea of giving up power and speaking about power. It's one thing for me to create a classroom where there are many pathways to success, but ultimately I am the one defining what someone should do and what power exists. And also just bring to the table what it is that you're doing. Talking about UDL with students so they understand this is the point of all of this. I'm attempting to share power and give up power and cede it to you. I think some of that critique happens because behind the scenes we might think about these things but the learner still feels like they're not in control because they were never given a place to talk about power and privilege and what it means to be in the classroom underneath a teacher's authority, whether it be real or manufactured or just part of the system itself. And in my experience at least, having those conversations with students about power and even politics in school is incredibly powerful because that's what their daily existence is like at school. And when you talk about that, they feel like not only are you fighting for them, but they're on your side and they're willing to work with you.
0:24:36.7 TF: Students can handle the conversation. Their families can handle the conversation. And in a truly universally designed learning environment, the conversation is ongoing. And the destination is chosen by the learner and their families and we partner with them for that. So as we think about what UDL will transition into, what it looks like in the future, we think about how do we make sure that all practitioners have the tools they need to be able to have these conversations, to lean into the uncomfortableness of the conversation. And when there's conflict, how do we navigate those areas? It's all about honor. And when we honor the learners, their families, and as a community come together and say, how do we co-create this environment so that we all can learn together? That means there's going to be some give and take, some ebb and flow, some you need this to learn, I need this to learn. There are times where that comes in direct conflict with one another. How do we navigate that space? That's the same thing that we have to do as educators, as policymakers, as practitioners, as leaders, keep having the conversation, lean into the conflict and not away from it and listen to voices that are seemingly opposing or against, but help it to inform how you reform and get better at the practice.
0:25:56.7 CM: Exactly. I mean, the way that we're going to create critical thinkers is actually providing actual critical thought and not just a manufactured critical thought where we're making up the rules. So I really appreciate that. And I think, too, it might help to think about what are just some steps that we could take. So if our ultimate goal is to build this liberatory learning or a society where people are more equal, more equitable, and hopefully just in general. How do we get there? How can we use UDL to push anti-racism to ensure that our communities are equitable?
0:26:35.5 TF: So we have to continually think about where is the power? I know that I talk about power and honor. The only way to honor learners is to help them realize that they come to you with power of their own. And then we make that space so that they can advocate for themselves, advocate for themselves and their choices, advocate for themselves and what makes them comfortable, advocate for themselves and what they really need in order to learn and where they're trying to go. We do that by the choices that we make. And then we monitor the impact of those choices on our learners, specifically when it comes to anti-racism, we have to take a look at our curricula and see if Black and brown voices are even represented. And then if there are Black and brown students in our learning environment, are they able to bring their full self into the classroom and be acknowledged as a picture of success? So many times when we look at the statistics, when we look at the data, it tells us that a Black child is three times more likely to be suspended than their white counterpart. And what that is saying to us is that simply the color of their skin can predict the experience that they'll have walking into the school.
0:27:48.6 TF: Can you imagine the anxiety, the pressure of being misunderstood and the implications of being misunderstood on their accessibility to even being in the learning environment? And now even with COVID, as most, many of the learning environments are electronic or hybrid that a student can be removed from the setting and it's not even reported anymore. So when we think about what we can do to make sure that every learning environment is universally designed, meaning that every learner will have access to the supports that they need and that they will get to choose how they take information in, how they give information out and how they're supported through. We'll also have to think about what that means for Black and brown learners. Are we understanding where they're coming from? Are we setting our own dial to learner so that we can learn more about them and what they bring to the table and what funds of knowledge they have to share? Are we inviting families to be a part of the learning community, not just for us to tell them what they need to do, but for us to treasure the experiences and the knowledge that they bring to us to enrich our learning community?
0:29:00.6 TF: Do we have classrooms where voices are truly treasured, meaning that everyone understands how to listen, how to receive a voice, even if you disagree, how do we receive that? And there are many, if you look on any social media, there are many adults in need of this kind of learning environment as well, right? We need to learn how to treasure each other's voice and give everyone a space to disagree, to think deeply, to take some time, to make the space that you need in order for you to be successful. Until every learner has a vision of themselves as successful, then we will need Universal Design for Learning that is anti-racist.
0:29:43.7 CM: And when it comes to creating these classrooms, too, I'm sure people listening in, they hear like, "Oh, you can have them listen to a podcast, they can do some writing." There's all these different chunks of ideas. And I'm thinking with my teacher brain, which my teacher brain automatically goes like, "Man, that's a lot of work. That's a lot of stuff I have to do before every lesson." What suggestions would you have to do this effectively in a way that won't cause teachers to burn out?
0:30:08.4 TF: So what I will say is that universal design is actually, when you design on the front end, it's a lot less work on the back end because learners have what they need as far as options to get what they need. So I would say think deeply about what the outcomes are. And with providing multiple means of representation, engagement, and action and expression, you don't have to create everything. There are many resources that are already created. There are many YouTube videos. So if you don't see yourself as a musician or a rapper, you don't know how to make a music video, never fear. Google is here. Type in the name. Type in the subject. And I guarantee you'll find a video, some kind of song. You may find poetry. You may find something that's already created. Or you may want to share the standard, make sure that every learner understands the standard, and allow them to come up with resources that help their understanding and they can share that one with another. So if UDL feels too cumbersome, too overwhelming, my guess is that you haven't tapped into a community that already exists that will bring you what you need in order to reach your learners.
0:31:21.4 CM: I know that when you're in a classroom like this, it feels a lot more fun to teach too. It's a joyous occasion to teach a class where everyone's kind of working on their own thing, working in small groups, doing different stuff, because you spend most of the period walking around and talking to kids and learning about them and hearing from them.
0:31:38.9 TF: Oh yeah, you are exactly right. The teacher's joy is actually a part of the learning community. Now we just have to make sure that we're not putting our needs over the needs of the learners. But I don't want teachers to neglect themselves. That's not the message of anti-racist UDL at all. We create learning environments where everyone is a learner, where everyone is growing. That includes the teacher, that includes the students in a real school, a learning organization. That means the secretaries, the custodians. We are all learners. We are all learning and growing and bringing our full selves into the learning environment. No barrier, no disconnect, that you are welcome here. And over and over again, we welcome the learners in how we present options and how we interact with them and how we're curious about what their backgrounds are, how we can connect with their families, how we can participate in activities outside of school.
0:32:36.8 TF: We bring 100% of ourselves and our joy and our loves to the classroom with us. And when we share them, that also communicates value that you're sharing with me who you really are. I can share with you who I really am and we can learn from each other together. That creates community. And that kind of community is where true transformative learning happens.
0:33:07.2 CM: Thank you again for listening to Human Restoration Projects podcast. I hope this conversation leads you inspired and ready to push the progressive envelope of education. You can learn more about progressive education, support our cause, and stay tuned to this podcast and other updates on our website at humanrestorationproject.org.
Antiracism and Universal Design for Learning: Building Expressways to Success by Tesha Fritzgerald
Building Blocks of Brilliance (Tesha Fritzgerald's website)
Article: Making Room for Asset Pedagogies by Benjamin Doxtdator