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Creating Inclusive Space for All with Zach Smith

Welcome to Episode 21 of the ThinkUDL podcast. In this episode Host Lillian Nave talks to Zach Smith, a doctoral candidate in Educational Leadership (Ed. L. D.) at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.  Lillian and Zach get the chance to talk about his efforts to make some broad scale change to educational spaces based on both his family experience and his work in a rural school district in the central valley of California. We talk about how UDL helps in creating inclusive space for all learners, including students with disabilities, English-language learners, students from various socio-economic classes, and many others. This conversation was recorded at CAST’s annual symposium on the campus of Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. You might hear some background noise as the symposium attendees move throughout the space. So tune in to hear about a vision for a better learning environment using UDL tools and how UDL empowers learners by providing choices.


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[Lillian]  Welcome to Think UDL, the Universal Design for Learning podcast.  Where we hear from the people who are designing and implementing strategies with learner variability in mind.


 I’m your host, Lillian Nave, and I’m interested in not just what you’re teaching, learning, guiding, and facilitating, but how you design and implement it, and why it even matters.


 Welcome to episode 21 of the Think UDL podcast: Creating Inclusive Space for All.  In this episode, I talk with Zack Smith, a doctoral candidate in educational leadership at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.  Zack and I get the chance to talk about his effort to make some broad-scale change to educational spaces, based on both his family experience and his work in a rural school district in the central valley of California.  We talk about how UDL helps in creating inclusive spaces for al learners, including students with disabilities, English language learners, students from various socioeconomic classes, and many others.  We recorded this conversation at CAST’s annual symposium on the campus of Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  You might hear some background noise around us in the midst of the symposium as we sat down for a conversation together.  So, tune in to hear us talk about a vision for a better learning environment using UDL tools, and how UDL empowers learners by providing choices. 

 Welcome to the Think UDL podcast.  We are here at CAST’s fifth annual UDL symposium, becoming expert learners, and we’re here in the large gathering hall, so we’ll hear lots of other folks, but I have Zack Smith with me, who is a graduate student at the Harvard Doctorate of Education Leadership here in Cambridge, Mass., and I want to say thank you for joining us on Think UDL!


[Zack]  Oh, yeah!  I’m really excited to be here. 

[Lillian]  I have a question to start off, and it’s a question I ask everyone, and that is: what makes you a different kind of learner?


[Zack]  That’s a great question.  I mean, I think everyone’s–and I know that’s probably why you’re asking it–because everyone’s a different type of learner.  For me, I like to try stuff.  So, you know, from note taking to different types of projects or ways to express, you know, understanding, I like to experiment.  Sometimes it gets me in trouble because it makes tasks way longer, but, you know, I’m definitely the type of person that likes to try new things on a pretty regular basis, and so I bring that into my learning preferences all the time, so like, I wonder if I could take notes a different way, or I wonder if I could use that piece of technology in a way that maybe I hadn’t tried it before, so I find that fun, and it keeps me engaged–especially if I’m not interested in the task, so–but also when I am interested in the task, it keeps me engaged, too.


[Lillian]  Great.  So, you have–you’re in a transition right now, like, you just moved here to Cambridge.


[Zack]  Yeah, I–its only been–it hasn’t even been a week


[Lillian]  Wow. 

[Zack]  So, yeah, we are in boxes, it feels like we are camping in an apartment right now.  We–I have four little girls, 8, 6, 4, and 1, and my very understanding, kind, beautiful, wonderful wife.


[Lillian]  Shout out to her.

[Zack]  Yeah, Georgie Smith, and so yeah we just moved last week.  We did kind of a cross-country trip as a family in our little Toyota Sienna, and we drove across country and we’re here.


[Lillian]  So, what was it that made you pick up four children and your whole family and your house and your lovely wife and come out to get a doctorate in educational leadership here at Harvard?  There must be something that has ignited a passion in you, that’s made you come and do this.


[Zack]  Yeah, I mean, I got in, so that was great, but, I think that–so, I have siblings–three siblings with disabilities, with three having Down Syndrome, and then I have two siblings who were–all my siblings are adopted–but two siblings were adopted from Ethiopia.  And so, growing up in that household, I got a front row seat to some kind of inequity in terms of education in general, special education specifically.  And so that was like a really kind of startling experience growing up.  And so, that’s what led me into education, and specifically wanting to create inclusive space.  And then, now that I’ve been here for–I’ve worked in California for eleven years in education–realizing, like, how there’s so much work to do, so, trying to position myself and my family to be able to have the skillset and some of the credentials to go into this work and try to make some broad scale change.  And UDL is a big tool there, and then the Ed.LD degree is just really, really valuable learning that I can get in order to try to go back.


[Lillian]  Yeah.  And you were in the central valley, right, in Fresno area?  Ok.


[Zack]  So, I live in Fresno–I lived in Fresno–past tense, that’s strange–


[Lillian]  Yeah, until eight days ago, right?

[Zack]  Yeah, and then, I worked in a little district called Sanger Unified, so it was comprised of about 12,500 kids, served pre-k through 22, but through high school and yeah so I got to work there and a kind of rural district.


[Lillian]  Ok.  And, what you experienced there, you said, is a kind of a place where you think UDL could make a difference?  What–tell me about what was happening in that district.


[Zack]  Yeah, so, I think the district and then also the central valley, its kind of a really dynamic place in that you have just a really diverse population all living together.  So, you have really folks that are coming from very low socioeconomic backgrounds, folks whose first language isn’t English, you have migrants, you also have some really wealthy people; and then you have any number of kind of need all together.  But, the central valley is also a place that has been–you know, whether fair or unfair–marginalized a bit from the rest of the state and you know, jobs–a lot of the time, people will leave the central valley to get jobs elsewhere, which then creates a like a–we lose a lot of talent, we lose a lot of, like, folks that would build the infrastructure to solve some of our problems there.  And so, for me, growing up in the central valley, I really love the people there, and then also want to be a part of a school, like, district initiative like UDL that promotes this idea that everyone has value, everyone has strengths, everyone has support needs; and, if we can build a flexible kind compassionate school district that is able to meet people where they are, a place like the central valley would solve and answer a lot of questions people have about whether something is possible because it’s a place of high need.  So, its like, if it works here, then it could work anywhere.  And so, I think that that kind of drives me to it.  I love the community of the central valley, and so the goal right now is absolutely to come back to it.  But, yeah, I don’t know, that–hopefully that wasn’t too long-winded.


[Lillian]  No, that was it.

[Zack]  That actually answered the question.

[Lillian]  So, yeah.  So, you’re here at Harvard for the Ed.LD, and can you take me through kind of what you’re going to be doing here?


[Zack]  Yeah, so, I’m still learning, definitely, so if any Ed.LD people are listening and I’m completely wrong, email me or something and I’ll fix it.  But, the first year is really more designed around kind of introspection and reflection of who I am as a leader, and trying to both understand, you know, strengths, but also areas of growth.  Specifically, making sure that I’m the type of leader that has a focus on the actual communities that I’m serving, and not just focused on my preferences within the communities.  So this program, as far as I can tell and as I’ve researched it, is a program that’s really going to push me to think broadly about how to support and care for people that live in communities–diverse communities.  And so–though its not a program  that’s like built in the framework of UDL (as far as I can tell) that’s actually something that drew me to it because I want to understand like, other systems and stuff, or other kind of initiatives and thought, the idea of understanding and being led through a process to meet and get other perspectives was really interesting for me.  And then in year two, I get to specialize a bit more.  So I have a little bit more choice and autonomy if there’s areas or interests  or experiences that I need to back-fill a bit, then I can do that, and then get–take classes at the Kennedy School–Business School, Law School, stuff like that.  And then the third year is like a paid internship, so I get a chance to–


[Lillian] That’s great, putting it into practice.

[Zack]  Yes.  Yeah, take it, put it into practice.  So, it’s a really quick degree.  Three year program and then get back into the field as soon as possible.


[Lillian]  And you’re hoping to go back to central valley, right?

[Zack]  Yeah, it is, I hope to go back to the central valley.  Our kind of community’s there, our support networks have been there.  We’re pretty open hand about the experience while we’re here, and even, you know, its three years away, but for sure right now we are 100% trying to push to go back, so, yeah.


[Lillian]  Yeah, that’s great.  So what are the things that you see UDL doing for–you listed so many things–students who are from a lower socioeconomic status, migrants, students who may not be there the whole year, right?  They’re coming in and out, English language learners, and also students who have learning differences, disabilities, those sorts of things, how do you see UDL making a change?


[Zack]  So, I think that the–I mean, its–getting a choice built into UDL and options really has the potential to empower people because, like, I am able to give autonomy back to a student or a teacher or an administrator, and say, like, here’s what we need to get done, and then here are the routes that I can see, do any of those routes work for you?  And even, could you give me a route that maybe I don’t see?  And that–in like, simplistic forms, is a really kind and humble way to build the system and to build a school and to build a school district.  And so, we’ve all–like everyone has the potential or is–has been marginalized based on context, right.  Like, we all have contexts where we’re going to have strengths, we’re going to have weaknesses, where we have power, where we won’t, some people have more than others, and that’s the problem–that’s a problem to understand.  But, realistically, we need to design systems that are ready and flexible because of that, because of human variability and because of the fact that we have, in our history, not done that well.  Where certain power structures that we put together benefit certain types of people, certain populations, and it benefits them in a disproportionate way.  And so, UDL, by putting choice in place and by being thoughtful and compassionate with how systems are designed, and saying, like, its welcoming and inclusive, in my mind, I’ve yet to see an initiative that does that as well as what UDL is proposing.  And so, for me, that’s the goal, and that’s why I’m so drawn to it.  And, you know, even this idea that we’re sitting in a conference that’s all about expert learning, like, if I can facilitate a learner to see themselves as an expert learner, then I’m empowering them to go out and take control and agency over their lives.  I’m giving the keys away to them, and I think that’s really what a great educator should be trying to do.  I know that’s what I’m trying to do as a parent, that’s what I’m trying to do even as a friend, you know, like trying to just give power back, and trying to empower people to be their best versions of themselves.  So, yeah, again, another long-winded answer, but it really is important, I think, to think through like why is–what are we trying to do in education, how are we trying to change education.


[Lillian]  That’s great.  I must say that that is a theme that I’m hearing–of course, the theme is becoming expert learners here at CAST’s annual–fifth annual symposium, and so the people who I’ve been talking to have all said things like its out of my control now, like, they unleash UDL  on their faculty, on their students, on their organization, and then people take it and run with it, literally and figuratively, and go to present at conferences or they’re implementing strategies that weren’t taught to them, right, they’re just picking up these things so that it is this relinquishing of control.  We want to make ourselves, in essence, obsolete.  You don’t want to have to teach the same thing over and over again to the same people, you’ll start the next group so that they can take it over for themselves.  The way you talk about parenting, too, we were just joking about this, my oldest is ten years older than your oldest, so going off to college and thinking this is exactly what I want.  But I don’t want to keep them at home all the time, I want them to go out and  fend for themselves and be confident, and become an expert kind of human  is what we’re hoping for.  I’m not sad at all, I’m sure I will be on drop-off day, but I feel like I’m not sad at all because this is exactly what we want them to do, to not have power over them and empower them.


[Zack]  Yeah, absolutely, I 100% agree with you, especially as a parent that’s what we want, and, you know, the best, I think the best stuff, the best positioned design is when you can design from like the caring space of a parent, right, like and so as a parent we want our kids to be autonomous, we want our kids to be informed, we want our kids to know what their limits are but also to feel like safe to take risks, that’s the same thing I want for my students, and that’s the same thing I want for my teachers.  And so I think that we have some tools that Universal Design for Learning can give us that are exciting tools, so yeah lets go do it. 


[Lillian]  Can you maybe think about something that you implemented in the last decade or so working in central valley where you were implementing UDL that was a big game changer for your faculty or for the students that maybe even was–took on that life of its own more than you thought it might?


[Zack]  Yeah.  There’s a few.  So, one being teaching students about Universal Design for Learning, I think.  So we have these at the high school, Sanger High, we had pathways.  And so one of our pathways for students to take to try to prepare and see if they want to go into a career is the education pathway.  And I got to share to students–so these are ninth and tenth graders–about like hey here’s this new thing–or, its not new–but it’s a thing that is being talked about, that your teachers are being trained in, and I want to tell you about it because you want to be teachers.  And so, just walk them through what UDL is, what things to look for in a Universally Designed experience, what things to ask for as students, in order to like promote their own understanding and ability to like advocate for themselves from the language of the teacher.  And so just talk to them about UDL, and then at the end of it, just had some open dialogue and seeing the kids, like, the sparks of like “oh, so you’re saying I can have a choice?” or  you’re saying I can ask for specifically a new representation when I don’t understand the current representation or like when I’m disengaged, I can communicate that I’m not engaged right now and give the teacher some strategies for how to engage me in the learning, like they were just a) dumbfounded by even the idea and then b) really inspired to ask when is this change happening, you know, and so, and then bringing–so we did it kind of  like qualitatively just asked informally questions but then we gave also out a survey where they just kind of rated themselves–I think they rated themselves–but they for sure gave feedback, and then that was shared back with the teachers, like hey here’s what the kids said.  And then that sprungboard into the next year, we did these mini-lesson studies with kids and teachers together at the high school.  So basically, we would meet at a lunch time session, we’ve been training the teachers in UDL, and then the teachers would, like, try to design something differently, and then they beta tested with a group of kids at a high school over lunch.  And they’d say “hey, I’m going to try these things, here’s what I’m going to do in terms of representation, do you see this as helpful?  Do you think this will engage the class?”  And the kids would respond back with feedback to the teacher before they taught it, of yeah that’ll work, or no that wouldn’t really work.  Or, like, a lot of it came out of like, well when you say it this way, when you communicate, like, that message, I feel this.  And the teachers were really taken aback by how some of the messages that they were communicating, let’s say like no revision, not allowing revision ever, or like you know some of the messages of like feedback on assignments, actually stifling kids to want to try.  And so that process was super powerful for me to just get kids and teachers in the same room talking shop about learning, and the teachers realizing, “oh, I can ask the kids and get feedback from them as to what’s working.”  I think that was a really powerful thing for a lot of teams.  We tried to do more of that as kind of time went on when it was less about what is UDL and then more about PD around how to do UDL and we did more of like those types of learning experiences where it was more lesson study, less, like, lecture and presentation, and more just teachers designing and then revising and then designing and revising, and I just love that stuff, so —


[Lillian]  Yeah, it’s a lot more participatory and empowering.

[Zack]  Yeah, it was cool, yeah, so we’re definitely into the stage where we’re–like, the data we would– I would want to collect and we’ve been collecting is more around implementation, so like the degree with which UDL is being implemented, its still early for like “oh this is resulting in these huge quantitative outcomes,” but like qualitatively we saw a lot of benefits from the initiative, and then, you know, as we’re seeing implementation grow, we don’t get a lot of teachers that resist.  So, that’s been a positive thing, too. 


[Lillian]  I’ve noticed that when I’m speaking with instructors, professors the first time, they sound–it sounds like UDL is a lot of work: “What do you mean I’m supposed to be doing three times the work when I make a representation” or something like that.  And then–just, it seems like that, right, that’s the initial impression.  And then when anyone gets into it, they realize, this is making my life so much easier, like, its taking down barriers for the instructor as well as for the students over and over again.


[Zack]  100% agree, I mean remediation, re-teaching, that’s a lot of work, that’s a ton of work

[Lillian]  Yeah, its kind of boring work, too! 


[Zack]  Yeah, and its like frustrating work, because you didn’t work the first time, and you’re having to go back and re-do it, and oftentimes you don’t have the kind of infrastructure in place to teach it differently, so you’re teaching it the same way, which is really frustrating, tiresome work, and then it also has the potential to be like kid-blaming work, too.  So, for sure, and that’s you know the elephant in the room is you do have to design and it takes time to develop these design muscles that you are working to develop.  No joke, its going to take more time to design lessons.  You do get faster, like, we can design lessons now in a 45 minute span, especially if we’re working in a professional learning community with a team.  And its fun to see a well-oiled group start to really–because then its like, that’s the stuff, we’re teachers, we like to play, you know, and design lessons that are exciting and the kids are going to lean into, but it is, it’s a matter of getting that barrier down where its all work, all working, and its going to be work on the front end or work on the back end, I personally would prefer work on the front end, and then from there, letting teachers feel like they have the freedom to try new things is really important, you know. 


[Lillian]  Yeah, there you go empowering people again .

[Zack]  Yeah, oh, gosh.


[Lillian]  Empowering them to try new things, and feel confident in that.  And you know what you were saying too, is something that everybody needs to hear who are teachers, instructors, college professors, post-grad, all of that, is, we feel like that remediation, have to teach it again, and that one thing you said was it can get into kid-blaming or student-blaming, and that, it helps nobody.


[Zack]  Yeah! 

[Lillian]  So, how do we re-frame UDL helps us to not look at the student, not say–label, its not lazy , or the student has this disability or this difference or they’re abnormal or they’re not neurotypical, right, all of those things where we are putting the–a blame on the student who is trying to do the learning or is there to learn, and then moving that UDL changes it into the environment, the design, the kind of, the way the teacher goes about things, its also very empowering, right?  You can do something about that.


[Zack]   Totally, yeah, I think that it–what’s interesting, and we start to see glimpses of this in Sanger, was the idea of like UDL and the embracing of diversity really changes the narrative then around kids that are not doing well.  So, meaning like, if its around my design, and the problem is not in the learner, the learner comes as they are, right, so the problem is around how I designed the instruction.  Learners then that don’t like, that pressure test, like, push me, that make me think differently, ultimately will condition me to be a better designer.  So like I then become better at my job as a result of someone who I don’t know how to serve yet, right, or I’m like, need to call in a team or need to ask for support.  Along the way, that kid will condition me to be better at what I do, and then over time, like, the constant flow of kids conditioned me to be really, really good at what I do.  And so–and then it also says those kids then have even a place as they are.  So like a kid with a behavioral issue, you are welcome here, you have a place, we’re going to learn how to support you, help us.  You know, to the degree that you can, we’d love your help, but like you’re welcome here because you’re going to help us get better.  Like that’s a radically different way of looking at kids that have–that do need different things, and so a system that says human variability and diversity is a strength, then would be built that way, you know, and we did see some glimpses of that in Sanger and its some of our–some of the really exciting stuff of like teacher in crisis, a kid that didn’t–we didn’t know how as a system to support well, we built a team that was–that was their job, was to be able to equip the teacher and the site to be able to support kids as they were, but also to show, like, you are–we’re trying to do UDL, and this kid, what’s essential for them is also going to be beneficial for a whole lot of your kids that you’re serving, and so using that experience of how–learning to support a kid almost is like a little micro case study for the teacher to say like this is going to be a big year of learning for you, and we want you to track how you are getting better at your craft as a result of serving Zack, right?  And then shifting it to say, like, at the end of the year, or at the end of the experience, what has Zack taught you and how are you better as a result of Zack?  Let’s catalog that, you know, those types of things I think are like super exciting because it really does take UDL as just being a framework, and then moves it to like ok now its just how we see kids and systems are starting to change.


[Lillian]  Wow, and then you’re thankful, you’re thankful for those students, right?

[Zack]  Yeah, and then you’re thankful for having that student in your class. 


[Lillian]  Its no longer that idea of “oh, I’ve got this, I have this student who sleeps through my class,” or, you know, this happens in higher ed a lot, right, or the student whose sitting there cross-armed and who is not, you know, going to participate, and so you’re–you have to change that attitude from “oh, I hate this,” to what is it that I can do that is empowering for that student or, you know, that eliminates that barrier.


[Zack]  Totally.  And I think that as a teacher you can do that, you can– like, it helps to shift how you view kids.  And then as a system designer, like, how do you create those, like, use the power of inclusion to create really dynamic instruction.  So its not just


[Lillian]  Yeah.  One of the things that we do when we think about course design–and, we’ve hosted a few course re-design institutes on our campus, and used the significant learning de-think model, and the first thing we have to do when we think about a course before we even get to the content is the situational factors.  And that–at least in my own context is often, for art history, you’re in a big room with the lights turned off, and projectors humming, right, and it was–when I was attending college, it was a lot of, you know, dry lecture, right, and you’re just–people are falling asleep and its like, after lunch, I mean, that’s even a situational factor, its like naptime for college students.  And so, even thinking about UDL makes me think about the design of all of those things.  And then, that–how can I make that into a strength rather than, you know, this is the part I dread about it, you know, so changing it into– from a very passive understanding into conversations that students will have, you know, things that will get them engaged and not just really slinking into their seats and, you know, like they’re at a movie theater eating popcorn or something.  But, its really made me change the way I think about all those design elements, and thankful that now I can be attuned to that student, that situation, those things that before were thorns in my side are now the kind of jewels in my crown–


[Zack]  Yeah, totally.

[Lillian]  That help make teaching a really wonderful experience rather than something to suffer through.


[Zack]  Yes, yeah.  Yeah, I totally agree.  It really–that really resonated with me, too, its–nobody likes to hate their job, or, like, feel trapped or powerless, and so we’re trying to give folks options so they don’t have to feel that way.


[Lillian]  So, as you are empowering yourself, and you are embarking on a three year journey here to get the Ed.LD here at Harvard in their Graduate School of Education, where do you see, let’s say looking five or ten years down the road, what are you hoping to do with that?


[Zack]  Well, I–I mean, I would definitely like, the goal is to go back into the central valley of California and to work with those same populations of students, the same populations of teachers and administrators, and try to create some proof of concept.  We really, for me, a lot of this is front line–the front line of this work is related to special education, and how we do exclusionary practices kind of in this nation, and so–I’d like to work in the sphere of curriculum and instruction, first best, tier one, whatever you want to call it–to create a true, inclusive space where kids, whoever they are, that walk onto our campus or through our classroom doors have a place; and we can kind of both capture their talent and use–like make it, let it make us better, but then also like, empower them for their own kind of expert learning journey, so the goal is to–I love public education, I love the idea of people in their neighborhood just showing up to school as they are, so I’d like to stay in that, and I love the central valley, so I miss it already. But–


[Lillian]  You’ll miss it even more in the winter!

[Zack]  Yeah, that’s right.  But–that’s the goal right now, over these next three years, is just learn as much as I can, and then be able to take it back to folks and kind of do better.


[Lillian]  Yeah, awesome, do better, and I really appreciate the time to talk to you about this and what your journey is and how you got into UDL.  And, for many of my guests–if not all–there’s this personal part–family background, or raising children, that’s often one, when you have more than one child, you realize, oh, they’re different.


[Zack]  Yeah, totally, so different!

[Lillian]  And then you think, oh, well, a classroom has twenty of these, or thirty of these, and they’re all different.  So that–this is a–I’m excited for you and I’m excited for the students, the administrators, the teachers you’re going to impact, and I appreciate you talking to us today.


[Zack]  That’s great, thanks for the time, wonderful podcast. 

[Lillian]  Thanks.



[Lillian]  You can follow the Think UDL podcast on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to find out when new episodes will be released, and also see transcripts and additional materials at the website.  The Think UDL podcast is made possible by College STAR, the STAR stands for supporting transition, access and retention in post-secondary settings, and the website provides free resources and instructional aids based on UDL principles.  If you’d like to know more, go to the website.  Additional support for the podcast is made possible by Appalachian State University, where, if you call it Appalachian, I’ll throw an apple at you!  The music on the podcast was performed by the Odyssey Quartet, comprised of Rex Shepherd, David Pate, Bill Folwell, and Jose Cochez.  Our sound engineer is Tanner Jones, and I am your host, Lillian Nave, thank you for joining us on the Think UDL podcast.


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