By. Courtney DeHoff, Director of Learning Services
There are so many things that I love about being a learning specialist at The Bay School. First and foremost, I love working individually with Bay students. They are the most self-reflective group of youngsters that I have encountered in my career. Bay students think deeply both about content and process. They are actively engaged in their learning and take pride in their accomplishments. Bay students embody the idea of a growth mindset. Beyond all that, they are kind kids and a joy to spend time with!
While all aspects of my job are engaging, my favorite opportunity is working with the students in the learning services mentor group. The Learning Service Mentor Program was started at Bay, by a former Bay student, Virginia Cortland ’11, as her senior signature project. She paired a small group of 12th-graders with diagnosed learning differences with a few incoming 9th-graders who also had learning needs and scheduled a few meetings throughout the year to teach classes to both groups on organizational skills. She was, and is, a very organized student! This program was a great success because it was student-run and had great student buy-in.
As the learning services department at Bay expanded, we attempted to replicate this program and finally settled on the model we are using now, with select 11th- and 12th- graders with learning differences acting as mentors to incoming 9th-grade students who are interested in having a mentor. In selecting students as mentors, we look for students who are not only kind, with excellent interpersonal skills, but also students who know themselves well, understand their learning and who have acquired and use effective strategies for helping themselves with the aspects of learning that are difficult for them.
Once we have identified these students we make sure they are committed to the program and enthusiastic about sharing their advice and strategies with others. Many of our current mentors were mentees themselves as 9th-graders so they are very excited about sharing what they have learned during their time at Bay. They focus on teaching the younger students what they wish they had known as 9th-graders.
The mentors and mentees meet formally six times a year for pizza lunches or dessert parties and during these meetings, they get to know each other not only as mentor-mentee pairs but also as a group. There are also a handful of less formal meetings throughout the year. The most exciting and surprising thing that has come out of the mentor program has been the bonding of the 9th-grade mentees with their fellow classmates in the group, and the 12th-graders with their fellow mentors.
Initial meetings of the mentor group are around group bonding and getting to know one another. Students do ice-breaking activities and talk about their interests and activities outside of school. As the students get to know each other a little bit better, we discuss topics of interest to them such as how to avoid procrastination and tips for better time management. These meetings are often student-run with the older students sharing their strategies for specific projects and classes. It is amazing to see them finally write down and follow the advice that we as learning specialists and parents have given for years, only after it comes out of the mouth of another student!
We have had many memorable mentor meetings so far but two stand out in my mind as being very cathartic for students. The first was organized by some 12th-graders and happened during a particularly stressful time of year. Upon walking into the meeting, I could sense the annoyance of some of the upperclassmen at having to be there when they had so much else to do. Luckily, the students who organized the day’s activity created a guess-that-song-type game which the students all enjoyed. Interestingly, the game turned into an impromptu dance party with everyone (even Learning Specialists!) participating. It was awesome to see the students so engaged, with one of our tallest and shiest 12th-graders doing the “sprinkler” while another jumped in and did the “running man.” I was so touched to see that even our most guarded and grumpy 9th-grader was busting some moves. The energy at the end of the meeting was palpably different than that at the beginning. Giving the students the time and space to laugh and dance was a great release and reminder that sometimes you need to take a little break and be silly. I know that they had a much better mindset and approach to their midterms right after that meeting.
Another mentor meeting that stands out was one where we used a program called Padlet, which anonymously projects student responses on to a computer screen. We asked students to reflect on what they wish their parents understood about their learning differences, what they wish their friends understood about their learning differences and finally what they wish their teachers understood about their learning differences. We used this technology because we wanted to be sensitive to students who might be hesitant about sharing these feelings with the group. To our surprise, when we asked students if they wanted to expand on the ideas they had posted, many students, both 9th- and 12th-graders opened up about feeling misunderstood around their LD. An active and lively discussion followed and there seemed to be a sense of relief in the room that others were experiencing the same frustrations that they were. All of us learned a lot that day, not least of all the learning specialists in the room!
Based on my years working with students with learning differences in many different types of schools, I know that it is very rare to have these types of experiences, where students can let their guard down and really be honest about who they are. It is not an accident that these programs work so well at The Bay School. There is a culture at Bay that promotes honesty, self-reflection, and non-judgmental kindness and because of this, students can be loud and proud about having learning differences. They recognize that the student in the seat next to them is extremely brilliant and understands things on a very profound level, even if they have difficulty spelling. What I find really refreshing and unique about Bay is that students see each other’s strengths and weaknesses and are able to respect both.
I continue to learn something new from students and parents each day in my role as a learning specialist at Bay. I feel grateful to be working in a community with such wise and giving members. The Bay School is a very special place.