Making Academic Progress during COVID-19:
Letters from our Founder

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Gratitude and Resilience

Dear Academic Approach Families:

As we head into the weekend—2 weeks into social distancing—the value of resilience is on my mind. Resilience has always been a critical non-cognitive factor in the success of our students: those who can persevere through challenging content and the most rigorous problem solving continue to grow academically—and emotionally.

The Power of Gratitude

Over the past several years, we’ve partnered with the University of Chicago to develop a strategy toolkit for students to reduce anxiety and increase resilience. One of our favorite tools is showing gratitude. While this may sound trite, neuroscience research proves that feeling gratitude directly leads to decreasing stress and increasing positive thinking. Moreover, those with increased positive thinking have increased ability for creative and flexible thought and are more able to learn and cope with anxiety.

The Joy Collector

I’ll be encouraging my family and other families to start a concrete practice of writing down the joys—no matter how small—that we are grateful for each day in a Joy Collector journal. I’m also expressing my gratitude for those joys directly to those who bring joy. These practices are especially important right now in helping us to keep anxiety as low as possible and engage us in the process of building resilience through unexpected challenges.

Further reading

I particularly enjoyed this article that contextualizes the research showing the importance of demonstrating gratitude for our own mental health. I’d love to hear the strategies you are implementing with your own families to support them; please reach out and share those suggestions.

Be well,
Matthew Pietrafetta, Ph.D., Founder & CEO 

The Importance of Social-Emotional Learning

Dear Academic Approach Families:

As an educator, I’ve always been aware of my impact not only on the academic progress of my students but also on their positive mindsets and attitudes as they navigate challenging circumstances and unexpected hurdles.

Social-Emotional Learning

Seeing our students develop successfully on and beyond the test has always been central to our work. We’ve dug deep into the evidenced-based practices of social and emotional learning (SEL) through our research and partnerships, and our instruction incorporates the core elements of SEL: improving students’ self-awareness, social awareness, self-management, decision making, and relationship management. Students with strong social emotional skills often find greater academic success. They’re also more equipped to face and overcome challenges they encounter in all aspects of life.

Supporting Social-Emotional Learning at Home

Teaching SEL helps our students face challenges and builds resilience to thrive in the months ahead. With schools either closed or shifted to e-learning, SEL is all the more important to emphasize at home. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) has put together a great resource page for families and educators to help incorporate SEL as they support students during challenging times.

Share Your Recommendations

We’ll continue to share ways to support our students and prepare them for the challenges ahead. Have any recommendations for SEL, games and activities, or student support? Send them my way.

Be well,
Matthew Pietrafetta, Ph.D., Founder & CEO

Positive, Personalized Mentoring — at a Distance

Dear Academic Approach Families:

I definitely miss meeting my students in person. I miss greeting them with a handshake or a high five, sitting down across the table and warming up to our session’s topic first with some relevant small talk:

“How did that AP US History paper go?” “How was the dress rehearsal?” “I heard you guys beat [insert rival school]! I already rubbed it in to one of my students from there.”

Social Distancing, Staying Positive, Maintaining Relationships

It’s important to remember that healthy communal aspects of our students’ lives have been disrupted. Creative outlets for self-expression or channeling nervous energy through group activity simply and suddenly ended. Social distancing invariably promotes social isolation. Given what our students are experiencing, it’s important to maintain relationships and continue to cultivate them.

Education isn’t just about academics. It’s also about emotion and connection. My own children have received email from former teachers just checking in, reminding them of great experiences they enjoyed with warm mentors, who still care about their progress and success. This is a time for teachers, coaches, and other mentors to reach out to students – new and old – to encourage and connect.

Mentoring Basics

We’re trying to cling to the basics of mentoring as we Zoom into our students’ lives now. Small talk still matters, because it shows you care and you are familiar. It establishes a continuity of shared experiences when so much right now is discontinuous.

There are still AP US History papers to inquire about. And while the sporting events and rehearsals have ceased for now, there are books to recommend, board games to suggest, and important academic questions to answer that are relevant to the student’s specific needs.

Additional Resources Coming Soon

Stay tuned for additional resources for both educators and students on navigating the e-learning world we now live in. And if you have any recommendations for books, board games, or academic reflections, send them my way.

Be well,
Matthew Pietrafetta, Ph.D., Founder & CEO

State Testing Waivers & Helping Students Prepare

Dear Academic Approach Families:

Some important updates today that will likely push standardized testing windows further out in terms of time and further encourage the delivery of these tests online.

State Testing Waivers

Since the White House announced that the Federal Department of Education will not enforce state mandated testing School Year 2019-2020, State Boards of Education across the country are seeking to waive state accountability criteria. This will likely mean many schools will not provide federal or district funded end-of-year tests, including the scheduled SAT or ACT provided as part of the school day testing program in spring 2020. It seems likely that schools will offer additional school day test options later this spring or in the fall, and students will also have the option to test on national Saturday test dates once they resume. Currently, the next scheduled national test dates are June 13th for the ACT and June 6th for the SAT.

Helping Schools and Students Prepare

Though much is up in the air for our current juniors in terms of the college admissions timeline, there is plenty of time ahead to ensure they are prepared both for college admissions and college-level coursework. With many students lacking a federally, state, or district-funded college admissions test this school year, they are likely looking for alternative testing dates prior to fall admissions. Students can test well into fall of their senior year and still use that score for consideration in college applications. For regular decision admission, most colleges will accept scores from as late as the December test.

The Future is Online

With ACT’s already planned expansion of online testing at school-based test sites in September 2020 and College Board’s move to offer secure AP tests in-home in spring 2020, it’s also possible the testing agencies may offer more flexible options to students throughout this summer and fall. We’ll keep you informed of changes as they are announced.

Be well,
Matthew Pietrafetta, Ph.D., Founder & CEO

The Question of Online Testing and E-Learning

Dear Academic Approach Families:

The theme of this week’s letters will be Online Testing & E-Learning. Two topics today: 1) New federal support for e-learning; and 2) our research and opinion on online testing.

Federal Support for E-Learning

U.S. Secretary of the Department of Education Betsy DeVos issued a statement that schools should be striving to offer distance learning options to students, including those with disabilities or diverse learning needs. While there certainly are questions about which tools to use and how to provide access equitably given the limitations, for example, that Chicago Public School students have on technology usage, we believe that urging schools—as our Federal DOE has—to allow and support remote learning is smart. Some schools are moving quickly, providing detailed schedules and activities for students each week, while others are still determining how to best support their students. Right now, we believe that focusing on how to reach students (even with fewer resources) is the right direction rather than canceling or delaying learning any further.

Research & Opinion on Online Testing

With the limitations put in place by necessary social distancing and stay-at-home measures, online tests may provide the best possible option in the next few months. Our Director of Education Amanda Aisen offers valuable research and opinion on online testing here.

Be well,
Matthew Pietrafetta, Ph.D., Founder & CEO

Modified AP Exams and Extended School Closures

Dear Academic Approach Families:

As we close the week, we have updates from the College Board re: AP exams and from school districts on extended school closures

Modified AP Exams

This morning, the College Board announced that AP exams this year will be administered as 45-minute online exams for students to take at home. The content tested has been revised to exclude content that could not be taught before schools closed, and the question types will only include free-response questions. A detailed breakdown of what content will be included on each test can be found here on the College Board’s website.

Beginning next week, the College Board will offer free materials for self-study. Our instructors are available to tailor these materials and others to a student’s specific academic needs.

Extended School Closures for Illinois

For our Illinois families, please note that Chicago public schools’ closure was extended to April 20th, and the state-wide school closures have been extended to April 8th. In addition, the spring NWEA-MAP test for high school admissions has been cancelled.

Going Forward

For your convenience, we have compiled our daily updates on this website for you to review and share with others. We will continue to update you as we learn more. 

Be well,
Matthew Pietrafetta, Ph.D., Founder & CEO

Rigor & Relevance: Critical Reading during COVID-19

Dear Academic Approach Families:

In today’s message, I highlight the importance of critical reading, rigor, and relevance while our students learn at home.

With the first week of e-learning drawing near an end, we can see that it’s challenging to replicate the rigor of consistent classroom learning at home. As educators and parents, we are being asked to find more opportunities for learning and engagement to keep students consistently growing.

I remember 20 years ago as a graduate student teaching in the core curriculum at Columbia in NYC trying to find ways to engage my freshmen writers. 19 persuasive essays, 1 semester—I had to make it relevant to get their buy-in. I focused on debates, controversies, often with direct relevance to our campus. If the text spoke to my students, I received strong engagement and persuasive argument from them in response.

Critical Reading during COVID-19
NYTimes Learning Article of the Day provides a great resource for nonfiction texts to read and study with students. If you select today’s lesson, “We Live in Zoom Now,” it provides a relevant article and very practical prompts for discussion and writing: How do you celebrate with friends in a world of social distancing? What are ways to teach our grandparents to use technology to engage? What is the most challenging thing about living online?

Making text-to-self connections has always been the most immediate way to get student buy-in and engagement. Science, technology, politics—no longer can be dismissed with that common student refrain: “What does that have to do with my life?”

That means this time is a teachable moment: a time to encourage students read rigorous and challenging nonfiction texts, and reflect on them seriously. The critical reading and thinking skills they’ll build will keep students on-track for their return to school and on the path to college readiness.

Be well,
Matthew Pietrafetta, Ph.D., Founder & CEO

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