A Dispatch from a Social Entrepreneur: Running a High-Touch Organization in a Low-Touch World
Recently, The New York Times published an article that posed the question, “Are We Losing a Generation of Children to Remote Learning?” As an example of what we’ve lost as schools have gone online, journalist Ginia Bellafante highlighted the work of one New York City principal, Wendy Poveda. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Poveda discovered that students weren’t coming to school because they didn’t have clean clothes to wear. She took the initiative to install a laundry room outside her school’s cafeteria for students who didn’t have clean clothes. After the laundry room installation, these students were absent less often because their in-person learning environment was better able to meet their needs.
This got me thinking about the one in five students with learning disabilities who have been hit the hardest by the shift to remote learning. Before the pandemic, Eye to Eye offered innovative in-person programs to help these students succeed in an education system that wasn’t designed for them. Students strengthened their social and emotional skills like time management, building peer relationships, and goal-setting in this environment. Simultaneously, educators had the opportunity to interact with their students and tap into their needs through direct classroom observation. As our students continue learning independently and asynchronously this year, and their educators must deliver curriculum without the benefit of in-person instruction, these social and emotional skills are more important than ever. When the pandemic sent students home, our programs had to pause — and then change. To use an analogy, the ‘laundry machines’ Eye to Eye installed for students who learn differently across the country weren’t useful anymore.
Now, you might be thinking I’ve been down about this or discouraged about what the future holds for kids who learn differently, but I’m not. I see an opportunity. As a person with dyslexia and ADHD, I learned to use my imagination and problem-solve when things didn’t work for me from an early age. I’ve always valued the kind of flexibility and resourcefulness Poveda demonstrated when she installed those laundry machines in her school. When the pandemic shuttered schools in March, she didn’t want her students’ distance learning to “feel like a joyless trip to a strange place, without an itinerary.” So she used her resourcefulness once again in support of her students. She sent iPads and supplies to underprivileged students and arranged for aides to check on them.
In much the same way, we knew we couldn’t just halt our work, which has transformed children’s lives and created a community among people who learn differently for more than twenty years. As I said, this was an opportunity. We needed to provide the students we serve with a similar roadmap for success designed with equity in mind–to reach anyone, anywhere. Eye to Eye spent the months since the pandemic adapting our “high touch” educational programming to a new, “low touch” world. Today, thanks to our staff and volunteers’ imagination and tireless work, we now offer two virtual programs called “Learning Differently 101.” We intentionally designed this programming to reach students and educators wherever they are when they need us most and introduce them to our work.
The “Learning Differently 101” programs are open to the public and delivered free of charge for middle school-aged students and the educators who teach them. Through the multi-sensory, entertaining journey, students build an understanding of what it means to learn differently, gain a deeper sense of belonging to the community of people who learn differently, and learn how to leverage allies, accommodations, and advocacy skills.
We know it’s not enough to teach students that they have a right to be seen, heard, and valued. Educators must also understand learning disabilities and know how to provide flexible learning environments and opportunities. Therefore, we designed the educator program to focus on increasing understanding, awareness, and empathy for students who learn differently, making empowerment the focus of conversations about learning disabilities and providing strategies for unlocking the potential of students with learning disabilities and understanding their unique needs.
So far, parents have offered very positive feedback about their kids’ experiences with our program. One mother shared that her son Tegan’s experience with Learning Differently 101 has been “amazing!” She wrote,
“I loved how the beginning discussed intelligence and that most people [with learning disabilities] have average to above-average intelligence. That is exactly what Tegan needed to hear. All kiddos will appreciate hearing this. The information was also short and to the point, which is great for everyone, not just our kiddos with learning disabilities. The brain break with the quiz was perfectly timed, and an excellent way to recap the highlights. I love it!”
We’ve received similar feedback from our educators. One teacher wrote, “I accept the Empathy Call to Action Challenge!” And my favorite:
“Strategies like the shadowing technique and empathy interview will be very valuable but also being proactive with students to help facilitate their self-advocacy.”
Marcus Soutra, Eye to Eye’s President and the chief architect of our programming for the past two decades, has always said we’re “creating a world where kids know what they need and how to ask for it, and where teachers are willing and able to provide for their students.” Even in the shadow of a global pandemic, Eye to Eye has remained dedicated to this mission, despite the multifaceted challenges this crisis presented. We are social entrepreneurs who believe in constant problem-solving, hard work, flexibility, and a commitment to never backing away from our values. As a result, we have innovative, interactive, entertaining, and best of all, infinitely useful programs that serve our community.
I’m not saying Eye to Eye has found a pandemic panacea for students who learn differently. But I think we have demonstrated that we can produce a few diamonds in times of crisis that will have value even as the seas calm. You could say that in response to this pandemic, we’ve become more skilled at sailing. As they say, a steady sea does not a skilled sailor make.