How Do I Learn?

Send by email
At the Learning Center, students learn how they learn--and how to advocate for themselves
From the Fall 2009 Caller

By Ann Fyfield

The Learning Center during finals week last May was a busy place—and it showed well what we do there and why we do it. The seven quiet study rooms and one large table were filled to capacity. Students were studying alone or in small groups, making tea at the counter, or discussing upcoming plans for their summer. My coworker Kathy Qualman and I were busy that week too, talking with teachers and parents about student transitions for the next year, and passing along test-taking strategies to students just before their finals.
Most emblematically, some students came to tell us that they had spoken with their teachers about finals. They asked if they could take some of their exams in a quiet space in the Learning Center, without the distractions that can so often deter their test-taking performance. They knew how they learned best, knew the way to articulate their needs, knew with whom they could communicate, and knew where they could go.
This self knowledge and ability to self-advocate is essential to learning at any stage in life, essential to all students—whether they are faced with learning challenges or not. The key lies in knowing how they struggle and how they shine. Helping guide Catlin Gabel students in finding this path towards self-advocacy is one way in which teachers and the Learning Center work together to ensure that the student is the “unit of consideration.”
As we work together with teachers and students to understand a child’s learning strengths and needs, we work towards building trust. This in turn helps a student identify personal goals and strategies, and fosters an ability to communicate with teachers without fear of reprisal or failure. It doesn’t happen right away; in fact the process can take many years. What can start with a student’s frustration that causes her or him to avoid teachers or classwork— for many different reasons—often ends in that student becoming a successful partner with teachers and parents in his or her own learning.
Over the years, Catlin Gabel has developed a number of approaches to helping students learn about their learning. Foremost, we value the school’s generosity towards professional development, which has encouraged countless teachers to benefit from brain research conferences and training in the All Kinds of Minds initiative. This allows teachers and learning specialists to use and understand consistent concepts and vocabulary needed to discuss and track students and their learning. Above and beyond that, the learning specialists, including Sue Sacks in the Lower School, have been trained to administer the Woodcock Johnson tests of cognition and achievement, which reveal student strengths and weaknesses. We use the test results to create a learning profile for each student and as a springboard for discussions with students, teachers, and parents about the most efficient and productive ways to build on individual strengths in a classroom setting. We work from this profile to help the student set personal goals and study strategies that can lead them to success in school. Sometimes we refer a student out for further testing, but mostly we use the information to help teachers, parents, and students understand and value the student’s learning strengths.
Depending on the student’s own passion for learning and perseverance, sometimes this testing helps the student get immediate results, while for others it may take a while to bear fruit. We often find that as students mature and take on a more active role in their own learning, the ability to use what they have learned from the tests increases. Sometimes a student will knock on the door and say, “Hey, can we look at my profile again?” We will then sit down to see what has changed and talk about additional strategies to use based on increasing demands as they go through their years at school.
The point at which a child begins to understand and use the information from a profile is joyous, for both us and them. A 6th grader who came to me early this year began her testing reluctant to participate and fearful of the findings. As she came to grasp the reasons why she sometimes had a hard time in class, her fear of the unknown lessened, and she was able to freely talk about what tripped her up and where she felt confident. We came up with goals and strategies that built on her strengths. By the end of the year, I was receiving emails from her with her own ideas about preparation, what worked and didn’t work for her learning. She had taken on the challenge of her own success. What was once a fear of a retake test became an opportunity to refine her study efforts. She learned to advocate for herself, confidently talking with teachers about ways she could better understand the classwork.
Catlin Gabel is best at building relationships between students and teachers. As a support system outside the classroom, we also value our role in helping students identify and build one-on-one relationships with trusted mentors and advocates. We have built a network of peer and adult tutors who can help a student and a teacher manage time and workload. We facilitate the Middle School study hall, where students can get help from Upper School students who have “been there and done that.” The older students often help the younger ones navigate their way through homework assignments or show them that they can talk about homework with teachers. When parents, teachers, and students meet after outside testing, students grasp that their teachers are allies who are eager to understand how they learn and what helps build success for them. This is another step towards a student becoming a partner and self-advocate for learning.
Kathy and I always end our year with a walk to the senior awards assembly. We remind ourselves that more than 80 percent of Catlin Gabel students use the learning services of the Lower, Middle, or Upper Schools at some point in their school career. We nudge each other as student after student takes that walk to receive an award for academic or community achievement. These are the students we worked with. Sitting right alongside their parents, having seen these students grow in self-confidence from children to strong young adults, we are with them in awe of this transformation and proud to have played a small part in their support.
Learning specialist Ann Fyfield has been at Catlin Gabel since 1989. Her roles have included teaching Japanese, and this year she also teaches 6th grade humanities.