Ding, ding. Ding, ding. The doorbell rang as students “arrived” and logged into the Learning Differences Affinity Group virtual meeting. Megan Anderson, Kim Stewart, Jillian DeBusk (Dana Hall’s Learning Specialists) and Erica Ramirez (Director of Community, Equity, and Inclusion) were ready to greet them.
The Learning Differences Affinity Group was created in 2019 when we recognized the need for a space for students at Dana Hall who identify as neurodiverse or learning disabled to come together to discuss their experiences. This year we held one meeting for 11th- and 12th-grade students and one meeting for the 9th- and 10th-grade students. Both meetings were well attended, and as students trickled into the meeting room, they were asked, “What is one strategy that you use to stay motivated (in school or life)?” As we move closer to the one-year anniversary of “Pandemic Learning” and experience “Pandemic Fatigue,” the answer to this question feels more vital than ever. Students shared various strategies for staying motivated in and outside of the classroom. They spoke about setting short and long term goals, using their homework planner, having an accountability buddy, creating a to-do list with checkboxes, building in breaks, establishing a reward system, keeping a good work/life balance, and remembering that they have people who support them and want them to be successful at Dana Hall. The students’ ability to reflect and articulate what they need is a testament to their metacognition (the knowledge and skills for organizing, guiding, and controlling one’s own thinking, actions, and learning processes). Teaching students effective metacognitive skills is an important component of the Learning Strategies Curriculum at Dana Hall. Doing so provides them with the tools they need to take ownership of their learning.
During the past 11 months, the format of learning has been upended for all students. Digital tools that were once supplemental to classroom instruction have now become mainstream, and every student and teacher has worked hard to learn new methods for learning and communicating. The most recent affinity group meetings focused on finding out how neurodiverse learners in the Dana Hall community have been impacted by hybrid and distance learning and sharing helpful tips for navigating this new learning model. Together, students brainstormed what is working well, what could be better, and ways to improve the current learning environment. Each student’s unique learning needs meant that what was working for one person might not be ideal for a peer; however, students shared many tips and strategies that were beneficial to all. Even though the students attending the affinity group identify as having learning differences, the many solutions and suggestions they shared are teaching practices and student strategies that benefit all learners. Their savvy and practical ideas will be shared with administrators and faculty for further consideration and development.
Despite the necessity of meeting virtually, students expressed interest in continuing the Learning DIfferences Affinity Group to meet and share experiences and ideas. The previous in-person affinity group meetings were well attended, and students were eager to share their thoughts; the inability to physically gather in our current learning model makes such meetings perhaps even more essential for providing a venue in which students can identify and share their frustrations and successes with their peers. The learning specialists and Ms. Ramirez are consulting on how best to move forward with meeting more regularly and creating leadership positions for students within the group in the future. While it is not prudent to physically gather at this unprecedented time, students were appreciative for the opportunity to connect virtually and share how despite today’s challenges, they are persevering.