Administrators Ask: Where Do I Get Started?

If you have not already seen the video from Principal Robyn Ellis, you shouldn’t miss it! (Click here.)   Robyn’s school implemented SOAR® and her students made incredible gains:

- The average student GPAs rose by more than 1 full point, and

- Standardized test scores skyrocketed, by more than 5 standard points!

How Do You Make This Happen In Your School?

Whether you are a parent or teacher leading this initiative, you obviously have to get your administrator on board.  Administrators, like all of us, are overloaded with a lot of decisions and deadlines.  Recently, I found myself having similar conversations with a few different administrators.  They all asked the same question…

“Where Do I Get Started?”

I’ve broken the decisions down into a few key questions: 

1. Who, in our school, will get this instruction?

2. How much time can we devote to study skills?  (In other words, how can we fit this into our schedule?)

3. What materials and supplies are needed?

I went through each of these questions and outlined several options below.  Although, the options are endless!  We have spoken to hundreds of schools implementing study skills over the years; each and every one of them has a different set of parameters guiding their implementation.  So, the examples below are starting points.  Options are limited only by your creativity!

Here we go…

Q1- Who, in our school, will get this instruction?

Options typically include:

- The whole school

- A whole grade-level – Such as first-year students entering middle or high school.  SOAR® is an ideal component for a “middle school seminar” or “freshman academy” class.

- One class or a specialized group – Such as an elective class, special education, academic probation, gifted & talented (Yes, they need study skills, too!), and after-school tutoring club/enrichment programs.

Q2 – How much time can we devote to study skills?  

Options typically fall into these categories:

- Year-round class. – This option is usually selected when schools offer a year-round course of some kind.  It might be a class that meets daily or weekly, such as: homeroom, “middle school academy,” “freshman seminar.”

Hurst Middle School, a public school just outside of New Orleans, built “SOAR® Time” into the last twenty minutes of their day by shaving a few minutes from each class period.  (“SOAR® Time” more than made up for those few minutes when students showed up to class with all of their assignments neatly organized every day!)  For SOAR® Time, students met in small groups with their designated SOAR® teacher. The teacher helped them get organized at the end of the day, reviewing assignments, checking binders and book bags, and doing a general status check with each student in their group.  Yes, this sometimes became a counseling session, but that’s just as important!  The point is, no student left the school without some quality 1-1 interaction with a teacher.  (The small groups were made possible by enlisting the help of ALL staff members.)

Guerin Catholic High School in Noblesville, IN added SOAR® to their daily “Kairos” time.  Kairos time is a daily time set aside for students to collect their thoughts, connect with teachers 1-1, reflect, worship, and yes, learn study skills.  For freshmen, 1-2 Kairos sessions each week are dedicated to teaching and coaching students in study skills.

Maeser Prep Academy, a public charter school just outside of Salt Lake City, UT made study skills a full year course, required for all incoming 6th graders.  Led by the 2013 SOAR® Teacher of the Year, Marlene Goodrich, all 6th graders have support in implementing strategies throughout the whole year.

- Semester/quarter/trimester class. - These classes are typically dedicated study skills classes and often count as a CTE course.   Usually, schools make this a “required” course for entering middle or high school students.  Options include:

- Replacing an elective credit. 

- Offering as an elective.  Here’s an important tip: If you make this class an elective, do NOT call it study skills.  Call it “Better Grades in Less Time,” or you won’t get many students signing up, at least not initially.  Once the class is rolling, students love it!  But, when it is an optional elective, you have to get a group through the doors, first.

- Academic probation/at-risk classes.

- Special education classes, small groups, or 1-1 support.

- Embedded into the curriculum with core classes. – If this option is under consideration, you have a secondary question to consider: will the content be delivered explicitly by specific teachers (for example, all English teachers will be expected to teach study skills content) OR will you simply train teachers and have them teach the concepts and strategies as needed.  (The latter option has some pit-falls.  If this option is necessary, call us to help you work through them.)

Lake Orion High School, a public high school outside of Detroit, MI (where my husband, Brian, taught for ten years) combined study skills with the required freshman English class.  Teachers (including Scott Boneman, who is golfing with my husband today) worked their way through the study skills and English curriculum over the course of a full year.

- Before or after-school programs. This is how SOAR® was born.  I taught it as an after-school program when I was a high school classroom teacher.  The upside to this option is that it is the most flexible. It is not as optimal as other options, however, since fewer students typically attend these classes and the strategies do not become part of the school culture.

Q3 – What materials & supplies are needed? 

To get the dramatic improvements like Robyn Ellis and her students achieved – results that are guaranteed by SOAR® - you need to have the right materials.  The SOAR® Study Skills materials are a small fraction of the cost of “core content” curriculum, yet study skills apply across the curriculum!  The required components include:

- SOAR® Multi-Media Teacher’s Guide – We have done all of the prep-work so teachers can put their energy into working with their students. Quality, interactive lessons are right at their finger-tips and ready for delivery:

- 180 done-for-you and engaging slides.

- Multiple assessments for clear progress-monitoring.

- Lessons are neatly organized into 10-20-minute chunks, each with supporting slides and teacher notes.

- Spiral review is built into each lesson.

- The Study Skills Scorecard address the WIIFM (What’s In It for Me?) Factor, dramatically improving motivation!  During Lesson 1, students fill out this scorecard to identify their target needs.  The Scorecard is then revisited at the beginning of each lesson so students can clearly see the relevance of each lesson to their life, or their peers’ lives.

- Interactive extension activities are included.

- SOAR® Student Book – SOAR® has been a “flipped class” since long before the term was known!  The book is written in short, concise, and clear chapters with a lot of visual support.  Students get the background information, access prior knowledge, and make important learning connections before they even get to class.

This makes for much more fruitful classroom discussions, which facilitates “positive peer pressure” (see article about this concept here).  In short, the positive peer pressure serves to make the learning much more deep and relevant for all students as they learn from each other.  It also serves as a very effective way to gently coax along the 20% of students – in every group – that just don’t know if they can trust the information you are delivering.  Many of these students will let their guard down when they see how their peers are responding.

- ADDITIONAL SUPPLIESThe only additional supplies required will replace what students already use; instead of a dozen folders and notebooks, each student will need:

- One binder – 1 or 1.5 inches with plastic pocket on the inside, front cover (NOTE: Do not use a binder that is larger than 1.5 inches. Larger binders are difficult to manage and over complicate the binder system).

- One poly binder folder for each class.

- One academic planner or agenda.


Q: “Is there enough content to fill a full course?” 

A1 (The “What I Should Say” Answer): The MMTG was intentionally created with flexibility, since every school IS working with a different set of parameters. It includes several, optional, extension activities and assessments that can fill some time.

A2 (The “What I Really Want to Say” Answer): As educators, we are programmed to think that *we* have to fill every minute of class time.  Study skills, however, represent a completely different approach to learning.  You will be teaching the students to take responsibility for their own learning; that means students will soon be responsible for filling the majority of class time.  You will do a little bit of “direct instruction,” but the vast majority of your time should not be spent at the front of the room.  Instead, you will become a “coach,” supporting students as they practice and implement.

In short, my combined recommendations for filling class time:

- Use the extension activities in the MMTG.

- Incorporate frequent class discussions.  Don’t let these draw out, just to fill time.  But, a hearty 10-15 minute class discussion about “what is working/what is not working” is very valuable.  (TIP:  Always acknowledge and validate students who are struggling to implement a strategy.  Listen with an open mind when they describe a roadblock.  Most roadblocks will seem huge to them, but will be relatively minor for you to guide them around.  With all of this said, START the conversation with a student who will have something positive/encouraging to say.  This gets the tone of the discussion moving in an upward direction.  Then, of course, be sure to keep the floor open for *honest* feedback.

- Give students some 1-1 time as a consistent part of your schedule.  We put so much work into the MMTG so that you can have the energy to be fully present with your students, not feeling pressured to squeeze lesson planning into your class time.  Just a couple of minutes a few times a month make a huge difference to students.  Of course, some students will need more time, so account for their needs.  Focus on being an encouraging “cheerleader” and “remover of roadblocks,” not a “nag.” This class will be dramatically enriched by the encouragement and personal contact received from 1-1 meetings.

- Allow for “Guided Implementation Time.”  Yes, that’s right… students should do their homework in this class! They need to apply the strategies they learn; what better way to do that than to apply them to their homework?

- Really long on time?  Let students research “advanced” study skills and compare/contrast them to SOAR®’s strategies.  (Hint:  nearly all of the “advanced” strategies are very complex, time-consuming, difficult to remember, and applicable to only a few specific types of learning strategies.  This is a great way for students to gain an appreciation for the effectiveness and efficiency of SOAR®!)

Q: “I am ‘squeezing’ study skills into one short session, 30 minutes, each week.  Will I have enough time to cover the content?” 

A:  Never forget this:  ANYTHING is better than NOTHING!  You may already know my story, but I grew up s-t-r-u-g-g-l-i-n-g through school.  The reason I created SOAR® is because one day, I got very angry!  I was in college and had just completed my first successful semester of school – ever. I was overjoyed to realize that I was not stupid!

But then, a strong and deep feeling of resentment overtook me.  It was sudden and it was strong! I spent 12 years suffering through school, not having any idea what was going on and not learning very much.  I cried my way through thousands of hours of homework.

Basically, I hated a major portion of my life! After I “accidentally” discovered study skills (which is another story for another day), I realized that all of that suffering was in vain.  The strategies that saved me were so simple…

Why didn’t someone teach me these before?” I wondered with serious regret.

Fortunately, my mother never let me get away with pity parties.  Her “training” caught up with me and I soon realized the past was over; there was no sense getting mad.  The only thing I could do was look forward.  There was a specific day during my freshman year of college (probably a snowy Tuesday) when I decided that *I* would be the one to bring study skills to students!

And here I am, begging you to do something.  Because anything is better than nothing!  If just one person had shown me one strategy, I would have at least known that a better way was possible.  Instead, I felt constant hopelessness.

SOAR® started as a 6-hour, after-school enrichment course.  So, you can cover the basics in a short amount of time. When time is very limited, you simply need to re-frame your goals.  Instead of focusing on student achievement skyrocketing by a “full grade-point” or “five standardized points,” your main objective will be to instill hope!

-Susan Kruger


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