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Smith Street Workshop: A Must For French, Tutoring, And Academic Enrichment In Brooklyn

July 17, 2018

As the return of the school season swiftly rolls upon us, I wanted to feature a remarkable individual, and her establishment for parents in search of educational enrichment for their children in Brooklyn. Not only is Olivia Ramsey an exceptional French instructor, but at her Smith Street Workshop, there is offered dynamic and innovative academic tutoring across many subjects for students ages 6-18, French courses for ages 18 months-16 years, as well as a summer camp in French immersion. There is also group tutoring offered for children in the same classes at school who may need a lower cost way to receive one on one time.

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I spoke with Olivia about how she began and what the Workshop’s goals are. Started as a small tutoring practice out of her apartment on Smith Street, word spread among the dual language schools at P.S. 58, ISB, P.S. 133 and M.S. 51 about her talents for tutoring. She now serves almost three times as many students and is planning for more. With a Bachelor’s Degree from Earlham College and a Master’s from Bank Street, Olivia has fused her past of French language studies with a rigorous academic focus. She taught for ten years here in New York, beginning at the Lycée Français de New York and then moved on to work as one of the founding teachers of PS 58’s French Dual Language program in Carroll Gardens. As she explains about what rewards her most about the work she does, “My relationships with students. It is unbelievable to watch their minds develop, to recognize their needs and the gaps in their learning, to identify their strengths and move forward together with a plan to fill those gaps. The most gratifying moments are after a few sessions when I notice subtle shifts in a child’s approach to learning. Instead of shutting down or giving up when confused, they take an extra step to solve the problem, try again, and they succeed. It is amazing how many kids don’t realize that learning something new is supposed to be somewhat hard and confusing. You can’t learn something you already know.

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The most important part of succeeding is putting forth the effort. Some of my kids who have struggled the most, who have real learning disabilities and obstacles in their way, have come incredibly far just by staying present and not giving up when something feels hard. The most rewarding thing by far is when a student doesn’t need me anymore, and has developed strategies and confidence to move forward independently and fly free.” I loved her ideas about speaking different laguages: “I loved the idea as a kid of two people from different countries saying & meaning the same thing but sounding completely different. I love the way language ties into culture, personality, ways of living, perspectives. Bilingualism fascinated me from an early age. I remember so clearly when I started working at the Lycée Français that I could listen to the high school kids talk together for hours. They would switch back and forth seamlessly from English to French, and as they did, their personas did as well, their gestures, body language, posture, everything was different when they switched languages.

Language, culture, and identity are inextricably linked, and I find it extraordinary. I also just love that being fluent in another language is a gateway to making more friends. Also, it makes traveling to French speaking countries feel more authentic and meaningful.” When I asked Olivia about the challenges she has noticed within the NYC public school system she replied, “It has been said so many times, but class size is an enormous issue. Granted, there are some magical teachers and schools who handle it really well, but by and large it is nearly impossible to meet the needs of every student when you are one teacher in a room of 33 students. NYC public school teachers are saints, and the pace that they keep is untenable and largely unsustainable. The demands are intense in terms of administrative work, state testing requirements, parent communication, professional development hours, planning, even cleaning the classroom at the day, that it is so hard to stay focused to instruction and differentiation to meet all kids’ needs.” I wanted to know what kinds of students Olivia found to be the most rewarding, to get a feel for her general teaching point of view; “Difficult question. All of them! On the one hand, it is amazing to work with kids who are super motivated and absorb everything we work on together and then take it to the next level on their own. On the other hand, it is great to work with kids who come in bummed out about school in general, and to help them find ways to feel successful and get psyched about learning again.”

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The summer camp sounds absolutely incredible for French immersion, and includes cooking, science, and art as routes for students to get to learn French in new ways. As the website states, “The objective of the summer sessions is to have as much fun possible while absorbing new vocabulary and concepts, and exploring new forms of creative expression in French. Each session is run by bilingual educators with years of experience in dual language classrooms where there are many different levels of French comprehension and expression. Campers can come for one, two, or even all seven weeks.” With all of the possibilities to enrich your child’s education at the Smith Street Workshop, I would run- not walk- to sign up! What a lucky establishment to know about, and what a wonderful woman with a true grit for education and academia there is in charge.

Rebecca Conroy is an artist, stylist, and Editor of A Child Grows in Brooklyn. She is  from New York City, and has an MFA from Columbia University in screenwriting. Rebecca often finds herself on film and photography sets making things run or look better, and is the mom of two outrageously wonderful kids. 

Meyer Harroch – New York Jewish Parenting Guide