Situated at the edge of the Spring Mountains and the Red Rock National Conservation Area, our 33-acre Dawson home of flexible space and modern learning abruptly shut down in March. We left our classrooms filled with tangible remnants of the Dawson Bears spirit and headed into an indefinite distance learning reality. Hard questions emerged about how we might maintain who we are as a school while managing a crisis that was beleaguering our community. We grappled with so many uncertainties: What’s a Google Meet? How will we persevere? How do we still continue to provide safe spaces for our students? How can we build connections, provide a climate of care, and allow equitable access to educational experiences through devices? Will we be able to recreate what is unique about our Dawson community, virtually?
COVID-19 was a game-changer, not only for our community but for the world. An impossible task was handed to us as educators, but we were committed to creating an inclusive and welcoming distance learning community. The very bedrock of our community is fostering collaboration and connections, learning from one another through our diverse identities, and taking care of one another. We knew we were no longer permitted to be in our in-person learning home, and now we were tasked with making sure diversity, equity, inclusion, and social-emotional learning was woven through the distance learning experience. As educators, we needed to exhibit a consistent message to affirm and honor the cultural wellbeing of our students. The roads were uncharted. The process would be challenging but, because we believe in the Dawson Difference, we needed to take a leap and find the way.
Distance learning identified limitations of access and equity in education. Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) requires consideration of the individual makeup, backgrounds, and needs of our entire community. Students with learning differences would still necessitate individualized support and accommodations to ensure their academic needs were consistently met. There were concerns around the mental health, safety, and isolation of members of our LGBTQIA+ community. Students of Black or African American descent experienced racial exhaustion due to painful societal injustices, as well as dealt with a disproportionate number of their community members contracting COVID. Our second-language learners had challenges accessing materials and feeling connected to a group who spoke a language different from that within their home.
We had to ensure we leaned into all of these lived experiences and pushed our community forward. Building stability started with identifying the individuals and groups that might need additional support and resources. We identified and acknowledged barriers and focused upon purposefully representing Dawson’s Core Belief of “Recogniz(ing) students learn at different paces and in different ways and differentiate instruction accordingly.”
Once equal access to the internet was established, every student was equipped with a device for personalized, needs-based supplements, and we were, therefore, able to deliver both asynchronous and synchronous learning opportunities. The mixture of real-time and self-paced models allowed us to continue to provide academic materials and instruction while also continuing to honor our climate of care.
As a Challenge Success
school, a Climate of Care
is essential for building relationships and learning. One way this is accomplished is through daily morning meetings as homeroom classrooms. Although morning meetings can vary between grade levels, they all allow a safe place for students to share their feelings, thoughts, and wonderings while also offering a predictable routine for students and teachers to join together in solidarity and establish strong connections.
CASEL, a leader in Social and Emotional Education, defines Social and emotional learning (SEL) as the process through which children and adults understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions (source: https://casel.org/what-is-sel/). Third-grade teacher Beth Vineyard shared, “Our daily morning meetings were themed Connecting and Supporting One Another. It was truly our safety net throughout distance learning. This was a designated time in which each student knew they could connect with their peers and we could maintain a safe place to share our feelings. Together, we would process our feelings, set goals, and continue to support one another as we learned how to navigate virtual learning.”
(Morning SEL Google Form Survey, Third Grade)
Teachers adapted online assignments and assessments, which opened our minds to flexible deadlines and completion modes. We sent weekly communications to families that gave a clear depiction of their child’s online learning. The School shared insight about leadership, tuition adjustments, and access to school counselors, as well as provided closure opportunities for our graduates and re-invented meaningful and joyful end-of-the-year traditions, including Virtual Field Day and virtual class parties!
From mid-March through the end of May the resilience, dedication, and strength of Dawson’s teachers and students was unmatched. Although distance learning can never fully replicate the exceptional on-campus experience our students need, Dawson’s teachers worked tirelessly to provide a safe, trusting, and inclusive educational space where students could log on for support, respect, guidance, and a sense of belonging. Our faculty pivoted toward educating through an online environment with the growth mindset we always strive to model and never lost sight of the importance behind remaining focused and committed to each of our students. Teachers successfully reimagined digital curricular connections to the real world, strengthened the bond of distinct relationships, and honored the cultural diversity of each student and family.
Why doesn’t DEI work end when distance learning begins?
More important than ever before, the social-emotional health and wellbeing of children go hand-in-hand with DEI work. Parents, as your child’s primary educator, are you talking to your kids about injustices and race? The Dawson School community can help, as we are committed to the responsibility of being agents of positive change. Visit adsrm.org/unity for more information.
By Director of Student Life & Diversity Meg Aumann
, Faculty Kelisha Everage
& Beth Vineyard