One of my most influential teachers died this past summer. Mrs. Bales (Jane Bales Starner) taught English at Manchester high school when I attended in the early 80s. She also chaired the English Department and sponsored the school newspaper and yearbook.
Mrs. Bales was ahead of her time with practices for universal design for learning (UDL). When I walked in for the first day of creative writing, and saw the chairs arranged in a circle, I knew I was not going to be bored in this class. Her level of engagement was high every single day, and she represented the content in a variety of ways to reach more students. One morning, she arranged for a student in a culinary class to fry an egg in our classroom so that we could use all of our senses to describe it. I connected it to what I was learning in biology class by comparing the egg to a spineless sea creature.
I remember her having us bring in photos of ourselves as children and writing about that. We read each other’s work and tried to guess who authored the piece. I felt seen and valued, and hearing others’ stories made me feel connected to my classmates. I remember she had us do peer editing before that was widely practiced. I was a strong writer and she affirmed that. But she also paid enough attention to see that I was also a good teacher and told me so. She paired me with students who were struggling. Looking back, I think it was a big factor in my choice to enter education as a profession.
I remember a project I did for English Literature class where I wrote a ballad, as a way to express what I had learned about this oral poetic tradition. It was about my sister’s recent breakup with her boyfriend. I brought in my guitar to sing it for the class. I was nervous, but my chorus was very simple so she joined in singing which led to everyone else joining in.
She encouraged us to send entries to writing contests at the state and national levels. I won the Purdue poetry writing contest for high schoolers my senior year, and she drove me to Lafayette for the banquet where I got to hear John Irving read the novel he was writing at the time, A Prayer for Owen Meany. As an Indiana farm girl and first-generation-headed-to-college student, I shook the hand of the Purdue president and felt like I might belong there.
Jane was on the eccentric side in the best way. Sometimes her lectures would lapse into a stream of consciousness. It kept our 17-year-old collective attention, though, even if we made fun of her in the hallway. She did not lecture often, though, using more active practices to keep us involved.
Challenging vague, boring writing, she kept high expectations for our work. One time she wrote the comment “good” after one of my journal entries, and I challenged her back calling her out on her vagueness. She was amused and took it to heart, and then wrote me back a couple of pages with very specific praise and criticism of my work. I imagine she went to bed late that night after going through a large stack of journals.
Mrs. Bales did the hard, effective, gratifying work of well-designed instruction. Many teachers do this perhaps without ever labeling it “universal design for learning”. I know that she was active in state teaching organizations, so much of her skill was likely gained by attending professional development, and applying new ideas to her craft. Whatever it was called in 1982, I knew that she cared deeply for her students as individuals, and made the classroom a place for all to thrive.
PATINS is here to help you discover how you’ve been doing universal design all along! We’ll also help you network with other great teachers and find your next best teaching ideas. Check out our training calendar for opportunities to garner new ways to inspire your students. Mrs. Bales continues to inspire me. She showed up in my dreams a couple of nights ago vacuuming under my furniture. Here is a poem in her honor:
My High School English Teacher, Showing Up at 2 a.m.
Why are you here,
in a dream
after 40 years,
lifting the end of my couch
with superhuman strength?
Bev, I read your poem to Mrs. Bales first, then read your blog. Interesting, isn't it, how UDL has always been here, without a fancy name, no PD necessary, just quietly there in the minds of great teachers, doing the hard work. I had a few such teachers too. Thank you for this inspiring piece.