Design a Classroom Where Every Student Can be Exactly Who They Are

Celebrating the Art of Teaching, One Educator at a Time

McGraw Hill
Inspired Ideas
5 min readMay 6, 2024


We’ve been publishing educator stories through our guest blogging program, The Art of Teaching, for nearly eight years. Educators from all over the country (even the world) have shared their perspectives on what makes teaching so deeply fulfilling despite the seemingly never-ending challenges.

We want to pause a moment and celebrate them individually. Every one of these teacher bloggers has unique strengths that make teaching a true art form. We’re sitting down with them to find out what brought them to education and how they refine their practice.

Today, we spoke with Katie Novak, an educator, leader, and Universal Design for Learning (UDL) expert.

Can you tell us about your path through various roles as an educator?

I taught middle school and high school English for more than a decade before I went into administration. I also served as a district reading coordinator, a Title 1 coordinator, and an assistant superintendent of schools. Regardless of my roles, I always saw myself as a teacher first. Today, as a consultant and graduate instructor, when people ask what I do for a living, I answer, “I’m a teacher.”

What motivated you to enter education?

Yesterday, my mother texted me a picture of me reading a book in front of her fifth-grade classroom. She said in the text, “This is when I knew you were going to be a teacher.” At the time she took that picture, I was a college student studying to be a recreational therapist. As a daughter of two teachers, I didn’t see teaching in my future. It’s not that I didn’t love kids and people, but rather that I saw all the nights and weekends my mother would bring home canvas bags full of papers to correct and thought I wanted a little more balance in my life. If you’re a teacher, you know what I’m talking about (thankfully, I got much better about setting boundaries and finding balance in my career!) Ultimately, I went for my master’s degree in education right after I graduated college, and the rest is history.

What do you want teachers to know about Universal Design for Learning?

Many people see Universal Design for Learning (UDL) as a Herculean task suited for a team rather than an individual. You may think of UDL as adding to the canvas tote of papers you have to lug home, but I found it was MUCH less work when I shifted to student-led learning. Let me share an analogy of getting ready in the morning. Imagine if we all had to follow the exact same routine to prepare for our day — same breakfast, same outfit, same commute. It wouldn’t work because we all have unique preferences, needs, and challenges. Just like our morning routines, UDL recognizes that each student needs to learn and share their learning in their own way. Yes, we are unique and dynamic, but with the right strategies and options, we can all arrive at the same destination.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is not about creating individual lessons for each student. Instead, think of it as offering a closet full of learning strategies for students to pick from. For a writing assignment, this could mean choosing between using an exemplar, a graphic organizer, or having a writing conference. When learning a new concept, students might prefer reading a text, listening to an audio version, or watching a video explanation. This variety of tools and methods allows students to experiment with different options to find what suits them best, essentially making the classroom a dressing room filled with choices. And just like choosing a raincoat over a T-shirt based on the weather, students can tailor their learning strategies to fit the day’s “educational weather.” This adaptable approach ensures that learning is personalized and responsive to each student’s needs and preferences.

Offering choices in a writing assignment is similar to deciding on your breakfast or how you’ll get to work. Just as you weigh options like “Toast or cereal? Walk or ride to work?” you can empower students to navigate their own paths in crafting writing. Do they brainstorm best through group discussions or individual reflection? Do they prefer typing their drafts, writing them out by hand, or using voice-to-text? This method is about exploring personal avenues to reach the same goal. Though it may appear complex initially, it’s actually a streamlined approach ensuring every student can work toward the same firm goals. This strategy not only supports diverse learners but also encourages students to take control of their learning, ultimately making the teaching process more efficient.

What does the “Art of Teaching” mean to you?

To me, the art of teaching is simply designing a classroom that works for every learner. When I was a teacher, I used to say to my class, “You get to be exactly who you are, and you will be successful with me. This is not because I know exactly what you need, but because I’m willing to work with you to figure out what you need to be successful.”

Katie Novak, Ed.D. is the founder of Novak Educational Consulting, a graduate instructor at the University of Pennsylvania, Graduate School of Education, and the best-selling author of 14 books on inclusive practices, with over 250K books sold worldwide. Katie designs and presents workshops both nationally and internationally focusing on the implementation of Universal Design for Learning (UDL), multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS), inclusive practices, and universally designed leadership.

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To be reminded why your work is so very important and for more stories and advice, visit our collection of teacher perspectives at The Art of Teaching.

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McGraw Hill
Inspired Ideas

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