George Lucas Educational Foundation
Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Teaching Students How to Learn

Support seminars teach students the skills they need to succeed now—and in the future.

October 4, 2016


Students arrive at New Mexico School for the Arts (NMSA) -- a Title I, dual academic and arts high school -- from varying academic backgrounds and skill levels. "We realized that we needed a place in the day for them to learn how to learn, and we couldn't do it through individual classrooms," explains Cindy Montoya, NMSA's principal.

To meet their students' needs while closing the achievement gap, the school created daily support seminars. Freshmen build study skills; sophomores and juniors gain extra academic support; and seniors go through the college application process.

"We didn't want to be a wait-to-fail model," explains Montoya. "You take a class, you fail it, and then you make it up over the summer, and you spend a lot of money on credit-recovery programs. Instead, what if we took that same money and started addressing these metacognitive, social-emotional skills -- encouraging them to build relationships, ask questions in class, and learn how they learn best?"

If you want to meet the needs of your diverse student body, below are tips on how NMSA structures, schedules, and staffs their daily support seminars, as well as tips on how they build study, social-emotional, and college readiness skills in the classroom.

How It's Done

Schedule Support Seminars

From freshman year through senior year, support seminars are daily, 35-minute classes, all scheduled at the same time. "The cost is a trade-off of other electives. We only offer Spanish; we don't have a second foreign language," explains Montoya.

You can start out by offering the seminar as a one-semester class, suggests Montoya. And if you can't afford a semester course embedded in the school day, you could try it before or after school. If you incorporate support seminars into an outside-of-school-time program, be sure to have teachers on board, advises Montoya. "We tried volunteers outside the school day, but it wasn't connected enough to what they do all day within school."

Staff Support Seminars

At NMSA, any teacher, counselor, and administrator who wants to teach support seminars can do so. When looking for teachers, NMSA leadership recommends:

  • Support seminar teachers should be educators at your school and not volunteers. They need to have an understanding of what your students are learning and what their academic and social-emotional needs are.
  • Support seminar teachers want to teach this course. They need to be invested in their group of students, and they'll be less invested if they don't want to be there.
  • Support seminar teachers need a growth mindset, and they need to believe that all students can learn.

"If [a support seminar teacher] believes that some students are just D and F students, they're not going to grow, and you're not going to help them through these skills," says Eric Crites, NMSA's assistant principal and Freshman Academy teacher. "It's a combination of teaching them skills, but also being their cheerleader and teaching them to believe in themselves."

If you have multiple sections of any support seminar by grade level, pick teachers with varying strengths. That way you can rotate students between classes when they need targeted support that matches one of the teacher's specialities.

For Senior Seminar, it's great to have a guidance counselor on board. They'll have access and knowledge into the college application process, which is the focus of Senior Seminar.

Offer Freshman Academy

Freshman Academy teaches students a combination of study, social-emotional, and goal-setting skills. "We start off the year with teaching them how to read their schedule, find their classes, use the school email, use their planners, and organize their notebooks," says Crites.

Over the course of the year, they also learn skills like collaboration, conflict resolution, time management, and self-assessment. Teachers use this period to level the playing field in terms of skills and experience among their diverse body of often underprivileged freshmen.

Embed Social-Emotional Discussion Into Close-Reading Activities

You can discuss social-emotional issues while teaching close-reading and speaking skills like annotation, note taking, coming up with critical questions, and practicing discussion techniques. "What we choose as the text for those tend to be articles that address social-emotional issues, like cliques in high school or managing stress," says Crites.

In a lesson about stress management, students would practice taking Cornell notes on a TED Talk about how to manage stress, explains Crites. "Then we would work in small groups to develop analyses of what they say. We embed all these skills in that process."

About two days out of the week, freshmen focus on social-emotional topics. Over the course of the year, they cover topics like bullying, collaboration, and stress management.

Teach Your Freshmen to Track, Reflect, and Take Ownership of Their Grades

By having your students monitor their grades and reflect on how they change -- and what actions they took to bring about that change -- you allow them to take ownership of their learning. Once a week, NMSA students check their grades using PowerSchool, and then track them on a Google document that charts their week-by-week progress. From monitoring their own data, they create a plan for the following week. "While they're doing that, I go around and do a check-in with each student. We look at their grades and if we see any issues. That's our chance to coach them to help them understand what they can do when things aren't going right," adds Crites.

Assign an End-of-the-Year Freshmen Survival Guide

To reinforce what your students learn in Freshman Academy, have them create an end-of-the-year presentation or performance that they can share with the incoming freshmen. The following questions should guide their project:

  • What skills have I learned that helped me become a successful high school student?
  • What do incoming freshmen need to know to be a successful student at New Mexico School for the Arts?

Knowing that their project will have a real audience motivates them to deeply reflect on what they've worked on, what they've learned, and what was important to their success, says Crites.

And NMSA is seeing success from Freshman Academy. "Last year's ninth-grade students took the PARCC language arts test, and 82 percent of them were proficient," says Crites. "Statewide, the average was 27 percent. We focused on helping them develop the skills that they needed for that test. That tells me that Freshman Academy is working."

Offer Sophomore and Junior Academic Academies

In sophomore and junior year, all students take academic seminar classes, which provide extra support in either math or English and help them prepare for the ACT and SAT.

Academic seminar classes are mixed-grade and based on need. Using test scores, grades, and teacher recommendations, students are assessed and placed into either a math or English academic academy; so you can have tenth- and eleventh-grade students in the same class.

Support the Work Sophomores and Juniors Are Already Doing

Connect the academic seminar to the content and assignments that your students are already doing. Rather than creating more work for them, you want to support them in understanding what they're already working on, suggests Montoya.

Prepare Juniors for the ACT

Acacia McCombs is NMSA's science and Senior Seminar teacher. One day a week for eight weeks, she works with juniors on college test prep, with a large focus on the ACT. "We walk all juniors through the signup process for a college entrance exam," explains McCombs. "Every junior takes the ACT before starting senior year."

To prepare students, NMSA uses the following resources:

  • PrepMe: an online PSAT, SAT, or ACT prep program that targets skills specific to each student
  • Testive app: an online program that offers personalized assignments, feedback, and support from coaches to prepare students for the ACT or SAT
  • Khan Academy: an online program that allows for personalized practice for the SAT
  • ACT practice questions on paper

Offer Senior Seminar

Many NMSA students don't have the internet access, time, or support to complete their college applications. By providing those resources during Senior Seminar, the school is helping their students move past those barriers.

"For some students -- especially first-generation students going to college -- they may not have the vocabulary and skills to start the college application process," says McCombs. "So we begin by showing a timeline of what they'll be doing the first semester in terms of figuring out the deadlines of different colleges and writing an admissions essay."

Bring in an Alumni Panel

Invite your alumni to speak on a panel. NMSA hosts panels of 13 to 15 alumni who are still in college to speak about their experience and what excites and interests them about college life. "I know that really got some students motivated to jump in and start working harder on their college application process," says McCombs.

Bring in College Representatives

By bringing in a variety of representatives from local and out-of-state colleges with a range of atmospheres and programs, you'll help your students see the diversity in the opportunities available to them. NMSA brings representatives from 30 to 40 colleges to speak to their Senior Seminar classes each year.

Guide Seniors in Writing Their Admissions Essay

Use the first semester of senior seminar to guide your students in writing and rewriting their admissions essay. Before they begin writing, show them examples of good and bad admissions essays, and invite someone on a college admissions committee to give your students advice.

A Pomona College English professor and admissions committee member comes to NMSA each year and tells the students what he likes to see included in the admissions essays, and then leads a brainstorming workshop. Through rapid-fire questioning, he helps them reflect on "important experiences or people in their lives that have really influenced them, and then tells them to focus on a moment they had where something interesting came about," says McCombs.

When your students start the writing process, emphasize critique, drafting, and redrafting. Have your students critique each other's essays, and give them a rubric to help inform their critique. You can also ask your school's English teacher to help critique your students' essays. NMSA's English teacher critiques the admissions essays over the span of a month.

Host a Financial Aid Night

Host a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) night for students and their parents. Not every family has internet or computer access. You can help more families to complete their FAFSA by hosting a financial aid night in a classroom or computer lab and having people there to guide them through the process.

Help Seniors Understand the Total Cost of Attending a College

Teach your students the difference between tuition and total cost of attendance. "When our students come in with their comparison offers, they still talk simply about the tuition," says McCombs. But if one school's tuition is $5,000 cheaper and the cost of living is more, then that school wouldn't be a better option financially. There are other costs outside of a college's tuition that you have to consider.

Help Seniors Decipher Student Loans

Teach your students the difference between subsidized and unsubsidized loans and the implications of taking out student loans. "We talked a lot about deciphering student loans and what it means to take out loans," recalls Julia, a 12th-grade student. "And we talked about our salary for our expected major, and really thinking about the place you need to be in after college to really make [paying back your student loans] work."

Facilitate Socratic Seminars

Whether discussing the implications of taking out student loans or the motivations behind going to college, you can use Socratic seminars to help facilitate student-driven discussion that will help deepen their learning. "I do about four Socratic seminars a year," says McCombs, "and the idea is that we all have a common text. We all read a text in order to prepare for a conversation. I facilitate it, but the students really drive the conversation, and they talk about what they think is interesting from whatever we've read."

Guide Your Students to Support Each Other

You'll have some students who are ahead of the process in completing their college applications. During Senior Seminar, they can use that time as a study hall and work on other class assignments, but they also adopt the role of encouraging and supporting their peers.

"Some students, they're never going to go on a college visit," says McCombs. "Our students who have visited colleges, they report out on what their experience was like, and they sometimes have already been through a particular process, like the FAFSA, so they can help students with that."

"The application process is very long and difficult," says John, a NMSA senior. "Having that class time -- and a teacher who could help you -- really helped. If I had to do that all by myself, I wouldn't have gotten anywhere."

School Snapshot

New Mexico School for the Arts

Grades 9-12 | Santa Fe, NM
222 | Charter, Suburban
Per Pupil Expenditures
$9992 District$9734 State
Free / Reduced Lunch
60% White
29% Hispanic
4% Black
4% Native American
3% Asian
Demographic data is from the 2016-2017 academic year. Financial data is from the 2013-2014 academic year.

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  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • College Readiness
  • 9-12 High School

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