Assisting with academics and developing character

Academy redefines learning specialist role for the benefit of students: character, time management and ‘executive function’ are stressed alongside academic assistance.

For Jamie Lee Forster, The Grosse Pointe Academy’s Director of Student Services, a typical day begins with the middle school’s Morning Meeting, where students and teachers gather to prepare for their day and week ahead, share news and team sports updates and tell fun facts or jokes. 

“The rest of the day is spent working with students one-to-one or in small groups or supporting teachers and students in their classrooms,” she said, whose teaching load has been reduced so she can concentrate more fully on the entire student body and the school’s new student support services.

“When I arrived at the Academy three years ago, I was hired in as a learning specialist,” said Forster, who received her master’s degree in education and teaching certifications from Cabrini University in Radnor, Pennsylvania. “We decided to expand my role this year to the Director of Student Services, so parents know that I’m here to help all students, not just those who need special assistance.”

Great [group] expectations

One of the Academy’s newer initiatives that Forster is working on is a renewed emphasis on character development, part of what the school calls “GPA’s Great Expectations,” which outlines specific objectives for each area of the school.

“At the start of the 2017-2018 school year, we introduced Great Expectations with Mrs. [Renee] Martin, our Christian life teacher, who explored and defined our core concepts — respect, responsibility and safety — in her classes. Throughout the year, all students in grades 1 through 8 participated in monthly lessons providing opportunities to practice our Great Expectations in both a group and community setting.”

Forster, who previously worked as a learning support teacher at Garrettford Elementary School in Pennsylvania, said that the character lessons at GPA focus on giving gratitude, respecting others and giving back to those in need.

“We have a ‘Caught with Character’ board where students are acknowledged for being respectful, responsible and safe. For example, helping a friend clean up a mess at lunch without being asked to do so by an adult,” she said. “This year, I will lead a full committee of teachers and administrators to develop newer and more engaging character lessons for the whole school. I hope that we will come up with even more meaningful and passionate work for our students.”

She cited other ‘caught with character’ examples, including collecting plastic bags to create sleeping mats for the homeless, an idea inspired by GPA 2019 graduate Allie Larpenteur and her work on homelessness during her Capstone project in Bridgette Murray’s eighth-grade Language Arts class.

But when it comes to what Forster spends the majority of her time on, she says by far it’s the one-to-one interaction with Academy students.

“My one-to-one reading sessions, for example, are individually programmed to the student’s needs and goals,” she said. “I assess my students to determine their strengths and areas of  growth, then I develop goals based on each student’s needs. I then share those goals with the student’s team (parents, teachers and administrators) and receive their approval.” Once all that has been accomplished, it’s “brass tacks,” as she personally designs day-to-day lessons that will target each student’s areas of growth.

“All my lessons are based on the Orton-Gillingham approach to reading, which is using all five senses to learn phonemic patterns and words. For example, I will introduce a pattern, such as initial r-blends: ‘br, cr, tr, fr, etc.’ We’ll review the sound cards by stating the letter names and sounds (BR says /br/). Then, I’ll introduce a tactile item or food that the child can associate with the sound. Recently, I made smoothies with a student when I introduced r-blends. Fruit (FR says /fr/) is a blend and we blended fruit together to make one drink, which is just like what we do with our blends in the English language. Two sounds blend together to make one sound, so instead of /f/ and /r/ we ‘blend it’ together and say /fr/.”

A different kind of learning specialist

While many school districts and private schools have learning specialists on staff, Forster points out that the Academy brings a whole new perspective to the position.

“Unlike most other schools and their learning specialists, at The Grosse Pointe Academy, all students — not just a few — can benefit from the resources within my area of expertise and I work closely with my colleagues to make that happen,” Forster said. “My goal is for all students to receive an individualized learning experience in their classrooms.” 

Over the summer, Forster worked with administrators and teachers to implement the Daily Five CAFE reading program and purchased a new library of Scholastic Leveled readers for grades 2 through 5. “I think that’s what separates my role as the Director of Students Services from learning specialists at other schools,” she added. “Yes, other schools have learning specialists, but I work with administrators and teachers to support all student growth, and I have a lot more flexibility than public school learning specialists. For example, they have restrictions on how often and when they can work with students based on governmental legislation and funding. I, on the other hand, am able to work with my students as much as the team (parents, teachers and administrators) determines is best.” If Forster is not able to work personally with a student, one of the two reading coaches work will step in. 

 

Students managing time

Forster’s small-group tutorials and a number of her one-to-one tutorials also focus on study skills with lessons based on observations, upcoming assignments and teacher/parent concerns.

“I start by helping students organize their binders,” she said. “I have them keep all their papers in one binder with different folders for different classes. We use a color system for the different classes. For example, green equals science, orange equals math, etcetera. I then teach students how to use our online resources, such as My Backpack or Google Classroom to find their assignments and put those assignments in their assignment book. We discuss how long each assignment might take, how many parts there are to each assignment, and how many days it will take to complete it – in other words, time management!”

Forster says that managing time is typically one of the most difficult things for students to master, which is why the Academy is changing its student-advisory program to focus more on ‘study skills.’

“This summer the GPA Student Services Review committee revised and enhanced our middle school advisory program and orientation,” said Forster, whose experience in the education field has included working with students with autism spectrum disorder, emotional impairment disorders and learning disabilities. “This program will focus on the skills that will help our students find success in their academic careers, as well as their future careers in the workplace. Our study skills program will be a combination of the SOAR Study Skills program developed by Susan Kruger and 360-Thinking from Sarah Ward. In fact, many of the strategies I teach my students during our tutorial classes are from Sarah Ward’s 360-Thinking.”

Forster said 360-Thinking emphasizes the importance of having students identify the steps of an assignment themselves, which helps them learn and develop their executive functioning skills (planning, time-management, organization).

“Individuals with effective executive functioning skills are able to visualize and pre-plan,” she added. “Like many skills taught in reading and mathematics, some students acquire executive functioning skills quickly, but others may need additional practice,” said Forster. “When it comes to supporting executive functioning skills, we have to be careful not to do the work for them. We can model pre-planning and organization, but we have to make sure we are allowing the students to visualize an assignment, list the steps and gather the supplies themselves.”

“This provides students with the skills to become lifelong and successful learners, which is the ultimate goal,” she said.