As institutions strive for inclusive excellence, campus leaders, staff, and faculty address a growing set of needs, including the needs of students with disabilities. In the following interview, Erik Day, a veteran educator in his ninth year of teaching, describes entering just his second year at Beacon College, the first accredited institution of higher learning to award bachelor’s degrees exclusively to students with dyslexia, ADHD, or other specific learning disabilities.
How does your institution make sure teachers understand the nature of the disabilities that some students have?
My disclaimer is that I am no expert on learning disabilities. The only background that I have is from my previous year teaching here. In my first semester all the new faculty would meet every week. Different veteran faculty would come in one at a time and teach us about ADHD, which is the most common disability that our students have, teach us about dyslexia, teach us about Asperger syndrome.
Certainly from my point of view, the support network at Beacon College is unprecedented. All students are attached to their own specialist as soon as they start the college, if not before. There’s a policy in every teacher’s syllabus that states, “If I have students who are not attending classes, I have to contact a learning specialist.” Learning specialists are directly in contact with the parents of the students. However, as faculty we are also allowed to contact parents of students directly. Our students are different, and these parents know that they’re different. If they didn’t know that they were different they would not send them to this college. They want special attention and full connection with the school to know how their students are doing.
What is a new, effective strategy you’ve learned and used with students who have a variety of needs?
Something that might be unconventional is that I play board games with my students. I had a student who has ADHD. He’s incredibly bright, and when I gave this student feedback he didn’t like for the first time, he threw his book across the room. Now this student and I play board games together every single Thursday night with five other students. None of these kids knew each other before we got together to play. We spend a lot of time connecting with our students outside the classroom.
In terms of your own preparation, what do you do to get ready?
I’m going to answer you based on what I learned at the new faculty training program.
Use large type. Use colors. We get criticized for this: “What is this, primary school?” But it works for these students. Also, give them very short presentations at the beginning, then allow them to work. Engage them immediately.
It’s very important for me to get to know their names and their nicknames—”Theodore, do you want to be called Teddy?” “Daniel, do you want to be called Dan?” For our high school program, we’re given a dossier, if you will, about incoming students that asks them fun questions like “What are your hobbies?” So the very first day of class, I can say things like “Madison, I see you’re into karate” or “Kelly, you are the president of the Lego Club, and you were at Barack Obama’s inauguration the second time.” I know something about every student, and that really works.
I work with another faculty member, Sandy Novak—she’s been with the school for many years and is great at working with these students. One thing she does right away is that she assigns seats to her students, which is something I haven’t seen teachers do a lot. It breaks up any of that ADHD interaction—getting involved in conversations with one another—that students can have.
What are some of the strategies you use to build community in class?
Last year, one of my goals was to have students get their work accepted into a game design or film competition. I did not force them into working in a group because that’s not a good idea. More and more, I encouraged them to get together voluntarily. We went outside on a number of occasions to work on the project as a group.
Beacon College has a college immersion program for high school students—Summer for Success—which for me remains the single most rewarding professional experience I’ve had in my life. As far as community goes, all 35 students in the program bonded like I had never seen people bond. It’s not because it’s a small group, but here are people who have existed in society and they’re the outliers—many of them have been ostracized from society. And here they are in a community with other people who are just like them. Out of 35 students, we already have 10 who have submitted applications and one that’s committed to be an RA for the next summer program. I think that has a lot to do with why we’re going to see higher retention, we’re going to see a lot of these students coming back to college because of our sense of community.