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Sup with the Sup
Episode 12: Suzy Cox and Universal Design Learning
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Welcome, everyone, to the next episode of Provo City School District’s What’s Up With The Sup podcast. I am Superintendent Wendy Dau. For our podcast this week, I am joined by Suzy Cox, the Director of Innovative Learning for Provo City School District. We will be discussing universal design learning – what it is, how it is applied in the classroom, and how it can benefit all students. 

But first, let’s begin with our updates. 

  • The School Year Calendar Priorities Survey for the 2025 2026 school year has been sent out. Please check your email for the link to complete the survey. This survey provides parents, students, and employees the opportunity to let the district know which details of a school year calendar are most important to them. The survey will remain open through Sunday, November 5th, after which the results will be shared with the public and used to construct two options of the 2025 2026 school year calendar to be voted on by the public, students, and employees. 
  • Prepare to spread holiday cheer with Timpview High School’s Sub for Santa program, starting after Thanksgiving break on November 27th, 2023 and continuing through winter break until January 3rd. Timpview is teaming up with the United Way and the Food and Care Coalition to support families in our district. Whether you want to donate new gifts, contribute cash, or find more ways to join in, please visit timpviewsubforsanta.weebly.com and make this season extra special for those in need. 
  • A reminder that the contest for students to design a Find Your Swing pin is officially here. Students can submit their best artwork representing the Find Your Swing theme for a chance to have the design become the pin. Artwork can be turned into their school’s main office by Wednesday, December 13th, 2023. 
  • The next school board meeting will be a study session and business meeting on Tuesday, November 14th. Study sessions are held in boardroom one at the district office and business meetings take place in the professional development center. Both meetings are open to the public and public comment is welcomed at the business meeting. Please check our website for the start times for both meetings.
  • Look for the weekly videocast from me every Friday. In this short video, I provide important information and updates about work happening throughout the district. 

And now on to our guest, Dr. Suzy Cox. She is the Director of Innovative Learning for Provo City School District. She has been a professor at Utah Valley University. She also currently teaches one class at Dixon Middle School in coding.

Wendy: Suzy, your official title for the district is Director of Innovative Learning. So what does that mean, and what does a typical day look like for you? 

Suzy: Oh, goodness. Um, so it means that I am constantly trying to help the district consider what is on the horizon, uh, both in regard to technology use, but also with our pedagogy. So what are some of the trends that are emerging from the state and nationally? things like competency based learning or personalized learning, and how can we enhance those approaches, perhaps using technology, and then when is it not appropriate to use technology. So it’s kind of this constant seeking of what’s coming and how we can incorporate that effectively into our instruction in the district. So my typical day is pretty varied. Everything from meetings to teaching a computer science class at Dixon, to working with state leaders on what’s coming and designing endorsement credentials and things like that, to um, spending some time researching and reading articles about what’s, what’s coming on that horizon. So lots of variation in what I do. 

Wendy: That sounds like a pretty exciting day then because you don’t have any two days that are going to be exactly the same. 

Suzy: Absolutely. So it’s a little exhausting, but also very invigorating. 

Wendy: That’s great. So you talk about universal design for learning, which educators love acronyms, so we often refer to it as UDL. But what exactly is it? 

Suzy: Yeah, I really want to make sure that we all understand that at least from my perspective, and hopefully it’s growing across the district, this is our essential framework for thinking about our tier one, our main instruction in our classrooms. So it emerged out of architecture and back in the seventies and eighties, there were a lot of buildings in the world that people couldn’t access. If you were in a wheelchair, if you were on crutches, had any kind of mobility impairment, you couldn’t access a building. And so they implemented universal design to say every building should be able to be accessed by every person. So that means ramps, it means elevators, it means people will be able to get into this building no matter what.

Wendy: I had no idea, by the way, that this came from architecture. So I’m excited because I’m learning something new. So keep going. Sorry. 

Suzy: Excellent. So that’s where the term came from. And then in the 90s, we started to think about that in terms of instruction. Are we designing instruction that is accessible to all of our learners? And we’re not simply talking about students who may have various disabilities. We’re talking about every single student. We often design instruction that has inherent barriers in that instruction. I do it all the time because I’m a learner who tends to prefer to read things, to write my thoughts out. I’m very wordy. And so I design instruction that’s kind of the same way. And I’ve had to learn over the years that that doesn’t work for all of my students. You’d think that would be native and kind of obvious, but it wasn’t to me. So I’ve had to learn how to create instruction that has a variety of ways to represent the content, a variety of ways for my kids to engage throughout the day, and then a variety of ways for them to show their understanding.

So as we look at Universal Design for Learning, it has those three principles. How do we provide multiple modes of representation? What does the content look like to the kids? Right? How do we provide multiple modes of engagement? So can they work with partners? Can they work alone? Can they be online? Can they be offline?

What does that look like throughout the day? And then how do they show their understanding? So multiple modes of expression. Does it have to be a written product? Sometimes it does, because we’re teaching writing, but other times it can be a recording or it could be a video or it could be a poster or an infographic.

There can be a variety of ways that students can show their understanding. So universal design is starting to really think about how do I start from the beginning with this understanding that I’m going to have a variety of kids in my class. ELs. I’m going to have students with disabilities. I’m going to have students like my son who struggle with handwriting. That just was always a challenge for him. You know, I’m going to have these kids and I don’t have to wait and see and be surprised by that fact. I can instead think, you know, I’ve, I’ve been teaching long enough. I know that these barriers exist in my instruction. Let me design out. Those barriers. Let me think about the options that I might provide to my students in advance.

Wendy: It’s interesting that you bring this up because when you start really looking at the research as to what works for multilingual students, they talk about not giving them something separate or different, but it’s how you’re actually designing your entire lesson so that those barriers of that language access are not stopping them. So it’s awesome that you’re talking about this. It just made that connection for me. 

Suzy:  That’s wonderful. And I actually, Dr. Katie Novak, who does a lot of work in this realm, she talks about it as, uh, as if you were throwing a dinner party. So if you were throwing a dinner party and you made a casserole and that was what you were serving to everybody. And then you had people attend the dinner and maybe they were vegetarians and maybe they were lactose intolerant and whatever. And you’d created this lovely casserole with a lactose base or dairy base and it had meat in it. There was automatically a barrier for them to enjoy that dinner party. But if I offer instead a buffet and they come to that buffet, I’m not creating separate dishes for each individual. I’m saying here’s a buffet of options that should work for most of you. Then more of my party attendees are going to enjoy the day. 

Wendy: Okay. That’s a really good analogy. So if a teacher is using this concept of universal design for learning, talk about how it might specifically change the classroom experience for a student.

Suzy: The goal of UDL is really to create expert learners. So it’s about helping students become more self regulated, more self directed, so they’re not constantly having to come to you and say, I can’t access this, what do I do? 

Wendy: Okay. 

Suzy: Instead, they’re starting to learn how to make choices for themselves, how to find resources for themselves. And so it’s a shift for students to not always be receiving from the teacher, but to really start to take ownership of their own learning. So we’ll see students making more of their own choices. We’ll see students reflecting on, hey, that didn’t work for me. I didn’t learn the content as well as I would like to.  Or teacher, could I show my understanding in this way versus that way? This other way seems to work better for me. So we’re really starting to see that kids take a more active role in the classroom. 

Wendy: So it’s almost like in Doug Fisher and Nancy Fry’s research of assessment capable learners, where they talk about students being able to identify the tools and the ways in which they’re going to demonstrate that learning. And they have a lot of ownership over that. And as they do that, the learning is much higher and we see student learning go up significantly, so it’s all in alignment with that. 

Suzy: Absolutely, and I want to emphasize it’s not a free for all. It’s not, you know, a child walking in and saying, I know that you are teaching about writing good paragraphs, but I want to learn about zebras today, so I’m out, you know.

Wendy: Peace out. There are no zebras. Never mind. 

Suzy: Um, and it also doesn’t come naturally as far as making those right decisions, right? So if I’m sitting in my middle school classroom, I’m not going to have my kids come in and say, you know what? I’ve really tried a variety of ways to learn this content and have found this one way works best for me. So it’s about me providing a menu of options and then engaging the students in reflective activities to say, how well did that work for you? So when we do this next time, what choice are you going to make about that? 

Wendy: So you have to guide them to that. You can’t just assume that they’re going to. Arrive at that conclusion.

Suzy: Absolutely. 

Wendy: That’s great. And you’re kind of touching on this already about UDL providing voice and choice for students. It certainly is increasing that.  Describe a great lesson you have seen, or that maybe even you have designed and used in your classes that follows this design. So we can kind of see how that might be laid out.

Suzy: Yeah, we have some outstanding teachers in the district who are using UDL principles and in designing their instructions. So I, I know several of our elementary teachers right now have implemented the use of choice boards, which are not new. And so this kind of begs the question at least for teachers of the difference between differentiation and UDL. UDL is more proactive. We’re not, again, we’re not waiting to see what our students need. We’re predicting what they’ll need, and then we can fill it back in with differentiation when we need to. But if I design a choice board in advance, a choice board is simply a technique for a teacher to present content or present activities, and they’re all aligned to the learning targets and the success criteria that I’m driving my students toward, but the students get to choose between the different activities.

Mary Wade in her classroom last year, was designing it in such a way that there were must do’s, should do’s, and can do’s, right? So there were certain things they absolutely had to do, but then they could make choices about some of the other things they were participating in in class. 

Wendy: Okay. 

Suzy: So that’s beautiful that we’ve seen in class.  We’ve also seen a rise in students being able to choose what their end product looks like. And so I’ve seen that especially at the secondary level where students are getting more choice. Am I going to write an essay to communicate this? Or am I going to create a video or am I going to create a business plan? Like I’ve seen all kinds of great variation in our classrooms across the district. 

Wendy: So, and they’re, they’re all designed so that that student is demonstrating those standards, but they just get to do it in different ways. 

Suzy: Yeah. And that’s the critical piece is that the teacher is still maintaining a high standard, a high goal. We’re not changing the goals for different students. We’re saying this is that high bar that we’re still trying to reach. Here are the success criteria, the exact specific things that I’m looking for. But what that looks like in your end product might be different from what it looks like in your neighbors.

Wendy: I appreciate that you brought up it’s not changing it for each student so that we have different levels of expectations, because sometimes that’s what ends up happening when we create these choices. Then you’re going to start to see some are more rigorous than others, but all of these choices have the same level of rigor and are really looking at the standards and allowing the students to demonstrate those standards appropriately, but just in different ways.

Suzy: Absolutely. And I should be able to grade all of the products using the same high quality. 

Wendy: Okay. Okay. So that is also a way in which I can add that student choice, but it’s not necessarily going to add more work to me because I don’t have to now create a separate rubric for each thing. 

Suzy: Exactly. 

Wendy:Okay. That’s awesome. All right. So if I’m a principal or a parent going into a classroom and a teacher’s really designed a lesson using this, using UDL, what are some of my look fors that I can see that that has actually happened? And you’ve touched on this a little bit, but. 

Suzy: Yeah, I mean, in some ways it’s tricky to answer that question because I would say it’s not a look for to walk into a classroom and have every student on a screen.

That’s not our ideal classroom situation. What I would probably see is a mix of student activities. So I would see a teacher working with small groups of students individually while some other teachers are working on an online product while some other students are perhaps reading or using manipulatives or writing text by hand. A lot of variation in what the students are engaged with. 

Wendy: Okay. 

Suzy: So it’s a little bit tricky to say, if you walk into a classroom and they’re doing X, Y, and Z, they’re doing UDL. 

Wendy: Okay. 

Suzy: It really should be a question that we’re asking to the teacher and also to the students. And they’re the same questions, conveniently, that we ask for PLCs or that we ask for our teacher clarity.

Wendy: Yep. 

Suzy: What are you learning? Why are you learning it? And how will you know when you’ve learned it? And as we look at our technology use, they’re the same questions. What technology are you using? Why are you using that technology? And how is that going to help you master those success criteria? 

Wendy: So maybe one of the ways in which you could kind of see this design being mapped out is as I go around and talk to the students, they’re giving me a different product, like they’re explaining, I’m going to demonstrate this in this way because I chose that. 

Suzy: Yeah. 

Wendy: So if you’re hearing those kinds of things, then you have a pretty good idea that that’s kind of what the teacher’s using. 

Suzy: Absolutely. Or I might walk up to a student and say, what are you learning about and how are you learning it?

Wendy: Okay. 

Suzy: And that student might say, well, we’re all learning about the characteristics of living things, but I’m watching a video to learn it and my neighbor is reading a text and my other neighbor is, right? So they might have different approaches. 

Wendy: Okay. That helps a ton as we’re looking for that. I can see a teacher might look at this and be like, if I have to do all of these choices, this could be a lot of work. So how does it help teachers instead of just making it seem like, well, now I have to design all of these different success criteria instead of doing one. Why would I want to do this as a teacher and how would I have the time to be able to do this? 

Suzy: So we currently have a lot of time in our schedules, elementary through secondary, right, where we’re reteaching concepts, where we’re trying to provide interventions for students who didn’t master the content the first time. And that is taking so much of our time and energy to figure out, Oh shoot, that lesson I designed in a very specific way for the quote unquote average student didn’t work for 40 percent of my kids. And now I’ve got to figure out ways to differentiate and reteach this concept. While it does require more time on the front end to design things to find the options, I’ve done it myself. I’ve designed entire classes that were based on the UDL principles. And yes, it was a lot of work up front. I’m not gonna pretend it’s not. But on the back end, I’m having to reteach less often. My students know where the resources are that they can turn to if they are having an issue. And so they can say, man, I didn’t learn that very well from the first resource. Let me try another one. So those options are built in, they’re available. The students know they’re there. I’m more likely to have more of my students master the content the first time around because I’ve removed some of those barriers to learning. And when they need extra support, he resources are already there, and they know where to go to find them. 

Wendy: Because we do see teachers spending a lot of time on designing the reteaching pieces, and so you’re saying that it lessens it on that back end. Do we have research that shows that the ability of the student to learn those standards the first time through is much greater if a teacher uses this model. What is the research telling us about that? 

Suzy: Yeah, absolutely. So CAST, which is of course another acronym that we don’t need to master, but they, this is the organization, the entity that’s been researching this for 35 years. So they have a whole database of articles and things we can turn to. Absolutely. When we remove those barriers, when we provide the resources, when students have more choice and opportunity in their learning. Then that mastery, the first time through increases significantly, we’re going to get much closer to that 80 percent or more target that we’re hoping for.

Wendy: Okay. Um, I’ve heard a lot of concern and this is kind of switching gears a little bit because you made the comment earlier about when we’re using technology in the classroom, we need to sometimes acknowledge there might actually be a better way to teach a particular concept, right? Technology is not always, it’s not the end all be all for everything. So there are concerned parents who have reached out to me and they’ve stated, you know, I’m concerned about how much time my child is spending on devices at school, and even at home, like they’re, they’re talking about managing that. So how can we reassure parents that we’re using technology to really engage our students and using it in the best way possible?

Suzy: It’s something we’re actually learning how to do, right? So just like parents, just like kids coming out of the pandemic, we’re trying to figure out what we learned during that period that was beneficial and what kind of habits we developed during the pandemic that are not actually beneficial to student learning.

And this is a national thing, you know, there’s this personalized learning topic that people have been talking about and what in some classes that looks like. I walk into the room, every student has their headphones on and is on their computer and is learning at their own pace and they never talk to each other and they never have a relationship.

Wendy: Very much worries me. 

Suzy: That breaks my heart. That’s not at all what we’re after and we’re working with our teachers and some of them are. so great at this. Most of them are so great at this. The technology needs to be enhancing the learning experience. It needs to be multiplying the effect of the teacher and the teacher is there to build those relationships with kids, to know them and to interpret content and mediate content in the best way that he or she possibly can. So again, I should walk into a classroom and I should see this flexible, that’s what we call it in the district, flexible learning when the kids are moving on to technology, when there’s a tool that’s really going to help them. So if we take, for example, our Read & Write Chrome extension that we made sure every student got in the district, one of the reasons for that is because we had it for our students with special needs, but they weren’t using it because they felt stigmatized when they turned that on.

So we made sure that every single student in the district had that. They can then take a piece of text that if it were on paper were completely inaccessible to them. Okay. And turn on text to speech or magnify it or reduce the distractions on the page or translate a word or all these different things that they could do with it. And now some kids may still want that piece of paper. I’m a piece of paper girl. I like to annotate and highlight and I’ll do all of that kind of stuff and I like to do it by hand. So having those options again is what we’re looking for. 

Wendy: Okay. 

Suzy: Not on technology all the time. not off technology on the time, but the movement back and forth that allows our students to get exactly what they need.

Wendy: I remember observing a teacher that had a, that was doing a Nearpod and it really was the teacher’s presentation and then the kids were also watching on the Nearpod and then they, they could type in answers to different questions and things, but the kids never talked. There was never a discussion as a class. They weren’t talking to each other. And so the conversation that I had with the teacher afterwards was how did this, like, help with this learning? How is this any different? Because there was no feedback given as they’re typing in the answers. We’re not putting up an answer and analyzing it or saying, do you agree? Do you disagree? Let’s have a conversation. And so they were so proud that they had done a Nearpod. And I was proud of them, too. Like, it’s hard to learn new technology. And so just helping them, okay, that’s step one. Now, let’s look at how am I using this to make sure that the student is highly engaged in this process.

Suzy: So, yeah. This year we introduced what we call the ABCs of flexible learning. That’s something we’re really excited about and we’re just starting to spread. Uh, it’s actually secretly, don’t tell anybody, coming from, coming from motivation. It doesn’t even have to do with technology, but we adopted it as one of our guiding principles for technology. So we know that kids are going to be most motivated in class and engaged and participating when they feel like a sense of autonomy, like they have some choice, which we’ve been talking about with UDL, that they feel a sense of belonging with their teacher and with their peers, and that they feel a sense of competence. Like, I did it. I’ve mastered the content. This is great. So those are our things. I mean, UDL is that framework of, are we representing content, engaging kids and, and allowing them options for expression, but as we’re choosing the technologies and when those are going to come into play, it becomes, are we allowing choice or limiting choice? Are we promoting belonging or reducing belonging? And that’s been the big one with the technology is that we’re not seeing as much of that discussion and camaraderie that we’d like to see in the classroom. 

Wendy: Well, and then what happens is kids think, well, I can just do this at home because I, I mean, I can just watch this and I didn’t have to talk to anybody, but if we end up having a really rich discussion about it, that’s exciting and amazing. Then it’s like, Oh, I don’t want to miss class because who knows what we’re going to talk about today. This is going to be incredible. So it really does make a difference when we take it to that next level.

Suzy: And it’s funny because I’m teaching this coding class at Dixon right now and you’d think that that class was entirely online. Right. We are learning the computer program. And so they’re just on their Chromebooks all day. But we started the class period today on the rug. Yes. I bring my seventh and eighth graders to the rug and they sat at the rug and we’re talking through these really complex principles. We’re at the end of term one. So we’re talking about the big deal stuff. And it was everybody offline. They have paper notebooks where they write down definitions. Then we talk about the concept and we look at examples together and we compare those. And then they go back and program for a bit and then I get them back off. So I’ve had to practice it myself, even in a really high technology class with that reminder that the relationships are what matter. 

Wendy: I love that. I’m glad you brought it back to that and use the example of your own class, which many people would just stick them on a device and here we go, go through a workbook, you’ll learn coding, but it’s not engaging. Like I’m not going to want to go to that class, but everybody wants to go to your class. I know that. So how could teachers then use their collaboration time on Fridays, which we call our professional learning communities or PLCs, so that they could design lessons like this without it becoming so overwhelming? 

Suzy: This is one of the things we’re most excited about this emphasis on PLCs. Improving tier one instruction and using that formative assessment process. That’s what we chose all of our technology tools for. And that’s what UDL is built for. So being in a team helps lighten that load as far as UDL is concerned, because we’ve each found, as teachers, different representations. different activities for engaging the kids, different ways of having them show their understanding.

And so if we pool those resources together, we can create those choice boards. We can create those single high quality rubrics that work for a lot of different products. We can come up with ideas of what the students might create. together as a group. So when we’re looking at the data that are coming in from our formative assessments and we’re recognizing, wow, my students haven’t mastered this skill yet, this standard yet. What are you guys using? How could we combine those together? Are we sure we have good options for the representation? Do we have a variety of ways for our students to access this content and to engage with it? 

Wendy: Okay.

Suzy:  And, of course, we have our district innovative learning specialists who are there to help. So they can work with individual teachers or with PLCs or even the whole school if that’s what the principal would like. And they can co plan lessons, they can model teach in the classroom, or they can just sit and brainstorm about how to use UDL more effectively. So it’s important for teachers to realize that they’re not alone in trying to do this.

Wendy: Is there anything else you want to share about UDL or about innovative learning or about all of the great things that we’re doing to engage our students at much higher levels? 

Suzy: Oh my goodness, all of the things. UDL is really personal to me. It really is. I started my teaching career at a middle school in rural Mexico where my kids just didn’t have access to multiple representations of content and all these different ways of showing their understanding.

And then I got a chance to teach again in a school district that shan’t be named, but it was not Provo District and my kids were identified as the entire class that I was working with were identified as at risk students. And I was told to my face that my kids weren’t capable of doing anything with technology except remediation. So their only use of technology was to go in and do the drill and kill kind of practice quiz kinds of things. And so they kept falling farther and farther behind. 

Wendy: Yes, of course they did.

Suzy: because they’re the exact kids that need multiple representations in multiple ways of expressing their understanding. So this really is coming from a very personal place for everybody in the innovative learning division. We take this really seriously and hope people understand that we’re coming from a rich pedagogical place. We’re often seen as the canvas people or as the technology people, 

Wendy: but that’s not what it is.

Suzy: But we really want that understanding of we’re building belonging. We’re building competence and autonomy in our kids so that they can feel like they belong at school. They have an academic identity and that they have a future in things that they love. 

Wendy: And they want to be at school because it’s exciting in every class every day.

Suzy: Absolutely. 

Wendy: Thank you so much. I appreciate your time. Thank you for being a guest. It was great to talk with you. 

Suzy: Thank you. 

Wendy: Thank you for joining me for this episode of What’s Up with the Sup. As always, all episodes will be posted on YouTube, district website, and anywhere you get your podcasts. If you have any topics or questions you would like us to discuss on the podcast, please email us at podcast@provo.edu.

Our new episode next week will be a fun one. I will be visiting a few schools and speaking with students about what they are grateful for. It is sure to be an interesting episode and a great way to kick off the month of November. Until then, have a great week.

Shauna Sprunger
  • Coordinator of Communications
  • Shauna Sprunger
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