Schools across New Orleans have a mission to produce smart, analytical students ready to take on the challenges of college and beyond. But many are also aware that a semester-long algebra class doesn't guarantee an algebra whiz, no matter how smart the student. Aptitude and academic success don't always go hand in hand, which is why local schools and academic organizations are pouring time and resources into making sure kids not only learn, but learn how to learn.
"I don't think we ever see a student where there's not the capability there," says Kim Harper, a principal at Ursuline Academy who helped establish the school's study skills curriculum. "They just need some help, need some guidance and resources."
Harper and Ursuline learning specialist Jessica Huston recognized the need to teach study skills about 10 years ago, when they were confronted with bright students struggling because they didn't know how to study. Fifth-, sixth- and seventh-graders at Ursuline are required to take a study skills class that meets once a week and teaches basic methods for staying organized, taking notes and setting goals. Over the course's three years, the curriculum hones in on test taking and essay writing. Key to the program's success is helping students identify what type of learners they are: visual or kinesthetic.
Identifying learning styles is crucial, says Connie Harlan, head of the middle school at Louise S. McGehee School. "Oftentimes girls study hard, but they don't study smart," she says. "Our learning specialists work really hard to help girls identify their learning styles, to ask, 'What is going to be the best for you?' You might spend hours studying note cards, but if you're not a visual learner, then that's really not helpful."
Jolayne Gotzkowsky, head of McGehee's upper school, says she often hears students talking about studying until 1 a.m. "There are studies that show that after a certain point, it doesn't do anything," she says. "That's another thing that we have to balance in the student and parent perception — that more is better — because it can be counterproductive. You know, more studying, more tutoring, more test prep, this whole idea of more, more, more. I don't want to say we're combating that, but as a school community, we're trying to educate students and parents that that may not necessarily be the case."
Both Ursuline and McGehee offer peer tutoring, where students who excel in a certain subject help students who are struggling. At Ursuline, peer tutoring is offered in middle and upper schools, and at McGehee, upper school students are paid $15 an hour to help middle school students with homework. "It's not that the girls really need an intensive study," Harlan says. "They just need someone a few years older, who they kind of think is cool, who will sit down and explain to them some math concepts that their parents probably forgot about years ago."
That seems to be at the heart of helping students: readjusting the way they think about help, homework and studying. It's something that Big Class, a literacy, writing and tutoring center in Bywater, is attempting to do. "At Big Class, we try to connect subjects to their real-world contexts, so students can see the usefulness of history or math or whatever the subject may be," says Doug Keller, founder and director of the program. "It has less to do with focus and preparation than with the way subjects are presented to students."
Keller uses math as an example. At Big Class, tutors represent numbers using zombies to make things a little more interesting. Math, Harlan and Gotzkowsky agree, is one of the more difficult subjects to approach. Gotzkowsky cites the work of the renowned educator and psychologist JoAnn Deak, who argued that 80 percent of male students are inclined toward math and science, while 80 percent of female students are humanities-inclined. That means, for example, that 80 percent of the McGehee student body will trend away from math and conceptual sciences; the school has jumped in headfirst to provide support for those students.
At Start the Adventure in Reading (STAIR), another local nonprofit that matches tutors with students for homework and reading help, focus and engagement are key. "STAIR's one-on-one tutoring creates a nurturing environment, allowing students to learn at their own pace while being encouraged by the positive reinforcement of their own success," says program director Heidi Sherman.
Gotzkowsky says the use of zombies and mentors and a personalized approach to learning is what keeps students out of what she calls a "negative feedback loop." Instead of sending a student to detention for not completing an assignment or doing poorly on a mid-term exam, educators should focus on positive ways to help the child understand and learn.