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, who is The Grosse Pointe Academy’s director of learning services, a typical Monday during the school year begins with a meeting with a cohort of eighth-grade students who form her advisory group. She says they go over plans for the week and any special events, and she helps them with organization skills and teaches regular character lessons to the group.

“Then the rest of the day I work with students one-to-one or in small groups,” she said. “Previously, I had taught both reading and math classes, but this upcoming school year, I will only be teaching reading.”

Forster’s teaching load has been reduced so she can concentrate more fully as the director of learning services on the entire student body and the school’s new student support services.

“When I got to 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. “Now, we are rebranding my title as director of student services so parents know that I am here to help all students, not just those who need special assistance.”

Great [group] expectations

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

“At the start of the 2017-2018 school year, we introduced our GPA ‘Great Expectations,’ with Mrs. [Renee] Martin, our Christian life teacher, who explored and defined our core concepts — respect, responsibility and safety — with students in her class. Then, throughout the year, all students in grades 1 through 8 participate 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 also have a ‘Caught with Character’ board where students are acknowledged for being super respectful, responsible, and safe. For example, helping a friend clean up a mess at lunch without being asked by an adult to help,” 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 by forming the committee we will come up with even more meaningful and passionate work for the 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 first assess my students to determine their biggest areas of growth, then I develop goals based on the student’s needs and areas of concern. 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 of 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 the sounds (BR says /br/). Then, I will introduce a tactile item or food that the child can associate with the sound. Recently, I made smoothies with a young student to introduce 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.

“I think that’s what separates the GPA approach to learning specialists from other schools,” she added. “Yes, other private schools and public school have learning specialists, but I work with all students and teachers. 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. However, I am able to work with my students as much as the team (parents, teacher and administration) determines is needed. And if I am not able to personally work with a student, I will have one of our reading coaches work one-to-one with the student. Another difference between my role at the Academy and learning specialists at other private schools is I am not just a tutor. Many private school learning specialists are tutors and only provide one-to-one support. However, I work with all of the teachers and administration to create and design programs that benefit all students as well as giving me the flexibility to work with those that may need one-to-one support.”

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.

“First, I start with these students by organizing their binders,” she said. “I have the students keep all of their papers in one binder with different folders for different classes. We have a color system for the different classes. For example, green = science, orange = math, and etc. Then, I teach my student or students how to use our online resources, such as My Backpack or Google Classroom to find their assignments and then put those assignments in their assignment book. We then look at the assignments and 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 also is acutely aware that managing time typically is one of the most difficult things for many students to master, which is why, she said, the Academy is changing its student-advisory program to focus more on those types of ‘study skills.’

“This summer Bridgette Murray and I are putting together a new 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 also emphasizes the importance of having students identify the steps of an assignment themselves. Otherwise they are not learning and developing their executive functioning skills (planning, time-management, organization), she said.

“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. If we only gave struggling students the supplies and the steps necessary to complete an assignment, then we are doing the ‘work’ for those students. So I use 360-Thinking to force my students to visualize an assignment, list the steps, and gather their own supplies themselves.

“It is a much better outcome for the student,” she said.