Rebecca Zook - Math Tutoring Online

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Five Steps to True Mastery

Thursday, April 10th, 2014

Have you ever taken a math test you felt completely confident about, only to find out that you bombed it and you weren’t prepared at all?

Trust me, you’re not alone. But why does this happen so frequently?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. And this is what I’ve realized.

True mastery takes more than one step. But I’ve never seen these steps discussed before like this.

And I definitely didn’t hear about this when I was in math classes growing up!

This is what I had to figure out all by myself, and now do in all of my one-on-one work with my own clients.

Let me break it down for you:

1. The first level of mastery: you can follow along passively when someone else is explaining a concept to you or demonstrating how to do a technique.

You aren’t actively participating, you’re just observing and listening, and what they’re saying makes sense.

2. The second level of mastery: you can do problems interactively with someone else.

You are actively participating as they walk you through the steps of the problem and you do it together.

3. The third level of mastery: you successfully complete a similar problem type completely independently and get the answer correct – and you understand why – without any guidance or corrections from someone else.

4. The fourth level of mastery:
you consistently get the answer right on enough similar problems that the concepts get internalized and the process becomes automated.

You have the track record that shows you that you really are prepared to go in and do this successfully on a quiz, test, or exam.

5. BONUS: The fifth level of mastery: you understand the concept and technique so well that you can easily and confidently teach someone else how to do it. When you get to this level, you know that you’ve REALLY got it!

Until you get to the point where you have at least “level four mastery” and consistently get the answer correct on problems of a similar type (and understand why), you aren’t really prepared.

For example, a student will passively understand someone else’s demonstration and think, “Great! I got it! I am ready to rock this test!” However, that is only level 1 mastery. Just because you can follow along with someone’s demonstration of how to bake muffins from scratch doesn’t mean your own muffins will taste good. Watching someone else do it is ONLY the first step.

Another place where major problems can happen is when students think, “Great! I did two of these problem types correctly and I understand them. I am ready to get an A!” That is like getting the basketball in the net twice and thinking that you’re ready to win the next game. It takes consistent training and practice to get consistent results.

Do you wish you knew exactly to do to get consistently awesome results in math? Are you tired of doing everything you know to help your daughter or son prepare for math tests, only to experience soul-crushing defeat time after time? Are you ready to invest in high-level, one-on-one, super-customized support that is not typical tutoring? Then send me an email at rebecca@zooktutoring.com, or give me a call at 617-888-0160, and we can set up a special private appointment for a complimentary one-on-one conversation where we can explore whether or not the way I work would be a good fit for you! I can’t wait to connect!

Related posts:
On Optimal Challenge
Need to remember something important? Breaking news!
“It’s eraser time!” (And other math mantras)
“Interesting,” not “Complicated” (Math Mantras Part 2)

When doing your math homework just isn’t cutting it

Thursday, March 27th, 2014

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What if math could make you jump for joy?

Did you ever take the Presidential fitness tests growing up? I vividly remember being asked, about once a year, to run a mile. Even though I got a lot of cardio growing up from serious ballet training, running the mile in middle school and high school pretty much always made me feel like I was going to die. Even if I actually ran the whole thing, there would always come a point midway where it literally felt like my lungs were bleeding inside.

Looking back at this experience, I was like, what the heck were the PE teachers thinking? If you only run a mile once a year of course you are going to suck at it and totally hate it!

What about actually creating a physically fit generation by nurturing students to LOVE to run… not just endure a yearly test? What about actually creating a generation of students who LOVE to do math… not just “get through it” to make the grade?

Whether you’re at the starting line of a race, or freaking out the night before a math test, whenever there’s a gap between what we’re being asked to do, and our preparation, it can create a lot of stress and fear.

And very frequently, the reason you will have trouble in math, or with your physical fitness test, is because – bottom line – the practice you’re assigned is NOT ENOUGH for you to really master the material and be prepared for the task.

Ironically, usually when you’re in that “freaking out” place, the last thing you want to do is do MORE of what is freaking you out… whether it’s running a mile or doing math problems.

It actually requires a significant shift in your mindset, away from “let me just get through this” to “how can I truly master this so I can consistently perform at the level I desire”… And working from that new place of aiming for true mastery is so much more rewarding and satisfying… you can even learn to LOVE what used to fill you with fear and despair.

I’ve seen this transformation in my own life and also in so many of my students’. What I’m talking about here is a much higher and deeper level of taking personal responsibility for your own experience. And the beautiful result of this is realizing that whether or not you “make it” is really, truly up to you, not your teacher’s agenda or assignment schedule.

So how do you DO this? Let me share some super easy to implement tips for how to customize your own “math workout” when you know that your homework alone is not enough.

Here are some great ways to create extra practice that matches what you’re already working on:

1. Super simple: if you are assigned the evens, do the odds for extra practice, or vice versa. Just be sure that you’re able to check your answers somehow so you know you’re practicing things correctly.

(extra tip: If the answers aren’t in the back of the book, you can check a lot of math problems by plugging them into www.wolframalpha.com and it will tell you what the solution is. Just a word to the wise: Wolfram Alpha is a very powerful tool, and it often includes a lot of extra information that might be way more than what you’re looking for or need, so don’t get overwhelmed by all the “extras” – just pay attention to the parts you need, like a solution for ‘x’, for example. Just trust that the more sophisticated stuff will make more sense later on in your math learning adventure!)

2. Look for an ‘extra practice’ section in the back of the book. Most math textbooks have extra practice in the back, but a lot of times teachers won’t mention it or assign problems from it. Again, it’s most valuable when the book also includes solutions to the problems so you can check your work.

3. Don’t wait until the end of the chapter to use the “study guide” or “chapter test” problems for extra practice. Most books have a chapter review at the end of each chapter which will include several extra problems for you to use, labeled by section. Use them for extra practice as you learn each section. You can always revisit them closer to the test if you like!

4. This is a little more advanced: make up your own problems by just changing a few of the numbers. This is best to use if you know there’s a way you can check your answers so you know you’re practicing correctly, or if you are feeling confident about checking your own work.

5. Invest in an extra math textbook for extra practice. (I am a fan of the Algebra 1 & Algebra 2 “Structure and Method: The Classic” books, which also make a good reference.) Use the table of contents and the index to find problems that are similar to the ones that you’re working on.

6. Get the solutions manual or teacher’s manual for your regular textbook.
When they’re available, they usually include answers to EVERY problem in the book, not just selected problems.

(Note: Please understand – my intention in suggesting this is absolutely not for students to take a shortcut and skip doing the work of the problem. It’s because it’s something I personally do when I’m learning a new math concept or technique and I want to make sure I can check ALL my work.)

7. Most important: be sure to choose problems where you can check your answers as you go, whether in the back of the book, from wolframalpha, or from a trusted friend or adult. If you don’t know if your answer is correct or not, it’s like practicing the violin wearing earplugs. The only way you know you’re really learning is if you’re getting feedback that you’re on the right track.

Are you tired of watching your kid do their homework diligently night after night, and then bomb their tests and quizzes? Do you dread trying to answer your kid’s questions about math? Are you ready to invest in totally customized support so that your son or daughter can see great results from their hard work and experience math as a source of joy and strength? Send me an email at rebecca@zooktutoring.com or give me a call at 617-888-0160, and we can set up a special complimentary conversation to explore what’s going on with your kid and get clear on whether or not it would be a fit for us to work together! I can’t wait to hear from you!

Related posts:
How to experience math as your own unique creation
Three simple tips for the night before your math exam
Tips for how to help your kid with their math homework
Self-made heroes: the dancers of planet b-boy

Case Study: A 5th grader goes from believing “math doesn’t like me” to singing and dancing about math while wearing her purple tutu

Thursday, February 27th, 2014

When this fifth grade student first came to me, her mom told me, “My daughter is joyful about everything in her life – except for math.” This student was so anxious and uncertain about math that she refused to do her homework unless she was literally sitting next to her mom. She would tell her mom, “math doesn’t like me.”

This put a lot of pressure and stress on her mom, who was doing everything she could to try to help her daughter succeed at math, but she felt like she she was failing her daughter and being a “bad mother” because she couldn’t find a solution. The mom felt anxious picking her daughter up from school because she wasn’t sure whether or not her daughter would have a math temper tantrum. And even though when her daughter would express her feelings of math inadequacy, she was really just asking for help, it was so stressful for the mom that the mom sometimes would react with frustration just because she was so worn down from the seemingly endless math stress.

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I started working with this student towards the end of her fifth grade school year. Because this student loves to dance and sing and has a great passion for musical theater, I started teaching her math songs to help her remember different concepts and formulas. We also really focused on filling in the gaps and building a strong foundation.

Midway through the summer, this student started spontaneously singing her math problems! She would make up these little operas about all the different math operations she was doing – as well as songs just about math concepts in general, with sophisticated lyrics that showed she really got the concepts. She would even come to some of her sessions wearing her purple tutu. I was overjoyed to see her expressing herself so confidently and creatively with math, even with her outfits. At the same time, her mom and I also weren’t yet sure how this would transfer to the classroom.

Her first day back at school, her first middle school math class of 6th grade, the teacher asked a question, and my student just couldn’t help herself – she shouted out, “It’s because of the commutative property!” It turned out that no one else in her class – even the students she thought of as being very strong mathematicians – had even heard of the commutative property before! This was a huge boost to my student’s confidence and enjoyment!

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Since her first day back at school as a sixth grader, she has consistently made 90s or 100s on every single math test and quiz she’s taken – except for one! On this test, she got an 88%, and what is so interesting is that this absolutely didn’t defeat her.

When she talked about it with her mom, the focus was just about making sure to get the test back from the teacher, so we could go over what she didn’t understand in our tutoring sessions and learn from it. In some ways this was an even bigger victory than the tests where she scored higher, because it showed how much her mindset had shifted. We could see her resilience in how she dealt with a lower grade, and how her attitude had shifted to “I’ll get it, because I know I can get it.”

Just as important, the mom’s experience has shifted dramatically now that she isn’t the one who is helping her daughter with math. She shared with me that when she comes home from work, it’s easy for her energy to be fully engaged with her daughter because it isn’t sapped by worrying about helping her with her math homework right away. She can just decompress and regroup and be energized and be a good parent. And her daughter has become so much more independent that the mom can be reading a book in another room while her daughter is doing her homework on her own!

How did we create this totally awesome math transformation? Let me tell you all about it!

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1. Positive, relaxed environment. We fostered an environment of trust and camaraderie. Our work together is committed and also relaxed; this student is totally free to make mistakes, ask questions, or go over whatever it is she needs to go over, no matter what.

2. Dealing with math feelings.
When this student is overjoyed, anxious, or heartbroken, we deal with it together head-on. There was one session very early on where she (quite understandably) cried because she was so disappointed and frustrated with a recent grade. Instead of squelching this or ending the session, we just talked it out, making a safe space for her to feel, express, and release her frustration and disappointment. Other times she was so happy with what she was learning and accomplishing that she would dance and sing with glee and pride!

3. Consciously fostering a “growth mindset” with math. This student has an awesome “growth mindset” when it comes to her work in musical theater. She will audition over and over again for the same Broadway show, and instead of getting discouraged if she hasn’t gotten a part yet, she is just really excited about the process and the experience.

At the same time, there have been periods where she has really expressed more of a “fixed mindset” about math – “you have it or you don’t,” and being worried that she wasn’t one of the ones who “had it.” We deliberately take time to talk about this together and draw parallels with her work in the theater so that she can pull that already-existing growth mindset into her math.

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For example, just this week, this student expressed both concern and hope about a state-wide test she was taking the next day. She wanted to score high enough to be selected for state and national math events, and she was also worried that there would be stuff on the test that she didn’t know because she wasn’t in the “honors level class.”

We discussed at length how it’s like if she went to an audition and they asked her to play the bagpipes and do a Scottish accent, she wouldn’t beat herself up for not already knowing how to do those things – after the audition, she would just ask her teachers and coaches to help her learn, if that’s something she was interested in being able to do. Then she shared her philosophy of auditioning, which is that “it’s not just about the part, it’s about the experience, and if you’re not focused on the part, it will just naturally happen.” We drew direct parallels with what she tells herself during her auditions and what she can tell herself during her math tests.


4. Self-expression.
In the context of a supportive environment of trust where all of our work is super individualized, this student started to express herself more and more, whether it was singing the math songs she’d learned, making up her own original math songs, singing herself through the math problem she was working on, wearing her purple tutu, or decorating her problems with hot pink drawings (some of which are included in this very blog post)! Seeing her experience math as a vehicle of self-expression is absolutely encouraged, because it’s a huge sign that the student is getting way more comfortable and also really internalizing the material at a deeper level.

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5. Support is normalized. Just like this student didn’t stop taking voice lessons or going to dance class once she started getting parts in musicals, math support that fosters her autonomy is now just part of her normal routine. Instead of saying, “Well, now her grades are higher, she’s done with math mentoring,” this student and her parents have recommitted to receiving support so that she can just continue to grow her math abilities and confidence more and more, and that her family can experience an even deeper experience of harmony around math.

I am so, so proud of this student, and how her persistence, vulnerability, and commitment has created such true mastery, confidence, and JOY with her math!

Are you tired of feeling like a bad parent because even though you’re doing everything you can to help your kid with math, it isn’t working? Does it break your heart to see your own purple-tutu-wearing kid have meltdowns about math? Are you ready to invest in high-level support? Then I would love to talk to you! Send me an email at rebecca@zooktutoring.com, or give me a call at 617-888-0160, and we can set up a special complimentary one-on-one appointment to get clear on what’s really happening with your kid’s math and whether or not the way I work would be a fit for your family. I can’t wait to hear from you!

Related Posts:
Case Study: A Rising 8th grader masters her summer math packet
Case study: A seventh grader goes from “I don’t get it” to getting 100 percents
Case Study: an ADHD student goes from a D to an A
I just can’t keep this a secret any longer

I just can’t keep this a secret any longer

Thursday, February 6th, 2014

For a long time, I’ve been hinting at this… or feeling like it was expressed already… but it’s time for me to just come out and say it, loud and proud.

I am not a typical tutor.

What I do is not typical tutoring.

My results are not typical.

My students are not typical.

In fact, I’m coming to realize that what I do is SOO different from typical tutoring that I’ve realized it’s almost confusing when people use one word, “tutoring,” to describe typical tutoring and what I do.

So it’s time for me to really be clear about how the way I work is different, and how my students receive an experience that is completely different from typical tutoring.

Because I’ve recently heard some parents describe their other tutoring experiences, and it’s so different from how I work, I am almost flabbergasted.

Here’s what I am NOT about.

Kids have told me about working with tutors who just had them memorize and regurgitate a bunch of steps. Then the kid would just forget the steps as soon as they didn’t need to use them (like three days later), because they never actually understood what they meant. This is not how I work. I am not about “just getting you through it.”

I’ve had parents describe working with tutors who would literally say, “I managed to find the answer, but I can’t explain why.” That is not what I’m about. My intention is always to have YOU be able to get to the answer, AND clearly understand why.

I’ve heard about tutors who just made sure that the kid got their homework done. This is not how I operate. Our sessions focus on developing and retaining the skills you need to complete their homework on your own. We will work on very similar problems so you are really prepared to do your homework solo. If you only practice those problems collaboratively, you won’t feel secure and confident on your tests and quizzes when I’m not there.

I’ve heard about tutoring which is just about doing worksheet after worksheet after worksheet, in silence. I know that this approach works for some kids – but that is not how I roll. Our sessions are dynamic and totally customized to you.

I know that some tutoring is just a recapitulation of what is happening in the classroom. But if that’s already not working for you, why do more of what ISN’T working? My sessions are completely individualized to each specific student, even if the way they need to the approach the material is really different from how it’s being taught in the classroom.

And I’m also not just about grades or getting kids into an honors or AP class. I’ve seen it happen time after time that good grades are just a natural byproduct of truly understanding the material. When you focus on mastery, the grades just gradually happen on their own. And if you get a grade that is not as high as you want or expect, it’s just an indication that there was some gap in your understanding that we can address together.

I am not about ad hoc support or being a bandaid. I know that some students receive tutoring inconsistently in big lumps, like four hours the night before an exam. My experience is that this does not create lasting change, and it does create a lot of drama and stress. Math is like working out – something you need to do consistently if you want to see results.

Finally, I am absolutely NOT about tutoring as a way of encouraging dependency. Some schools have told me that they are concerned that if kids receive tutoring, they will be dependent on their tutor “getting them through it,” the kid will hold up the class because they are so confused, and then the kid will barely scrape by. That is not the way that I work. Students who work with me experience genuine mastery, make a positive contribution to their math classes at school with their confidence, preparation, and creativity, and earn grades that reflect their deep understanding and ownership of the material.

OK. Phew!!!! Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest about what I’m NOT about, let me tell you what I AM about.

Mastery. What I care about is MASTERY, and my work is about the mastery process. Like an elite tennis coach or an elite cello teacher, we focus on mastering the skills of math, increment by increment, to create permanent, transformational, holistic math fluency.

Individualization.
I am constantly customizing what we are doing and what I am saying to the individual student in every single nanosecond. We find ways of approaching the material that make sense with how YOU think. We keep you in the “sweet spot” where you are challenged and growing, but what we’re practicing doesn’t make you bored (it’s too easy) or anxious (it’s too hard).

Emotional Environment. We work in an atmosphere of trust and camaraderie. Our sessions are lighthearted and filled with commitment, mutual respect, and let me just come out and say it, love! Laughter is typical. Singing and dancing is encouraged!

Consistent Mentoring Relationship.
We work within the context of a long-term, consistent mentoring relationship where we both commit to your organic, aligned math transformation. Even though I am the tutor and you are the student, we come to the table with deep respect for each other and the understanding that we both have important things to contribute to our process. We work in an apprenticeship model where the student’s self-expression and intellectual contributions are nourished and valued – even if, in the current moment, they feel totally overwhelmed and helpless!

Empathy. I can feel if a student is frustrated, overwhelmed, or elated, and adjust my approach accordingly.

Emotional Reality. I explicitly address the emotional challenges of math. Even though emotions are basically NEVER addressed or even mentioned in most academic math contexts, I have found that the reason why people give up on math is because of how they FEEL. So it is essential that we address math feelings as an intrinsic part of the mastery process. If a student has a panic attack in class, breaks down and cries, or is feeling frustrated or overwhelmed, we talk about it, honor the feelings instead of suppressing or ignoring them, and develop strategies to help them become resilient no matter what emotions come up.

Individuality is encouraged.
It has been my experience that our greatest contributions and breakthroughs happen when we are being completely ourselves. All my students are encouraged to express their individuality during our work together, whether that means jumping up and down with excitement, making up original math songs, taking a quick break to jump or dance, feeling free to move around throughout the session if they are highly kinesthetic, or even just wearing their favorite purple tutu to our sessions.

It is a vehicle. At its core, what I offer is actually not really about math at all. It is actually about learning how how to overcome the seemingly insurmountable, and we just happen to use math as a vehicle to do that.

Support is normative. Since we’re all in a continuous process of refining our skills and expanding into our own personal genius, it is normal to continue to receive top-level support even after you start to excel. After Lindsey Vonn wins a skiing medal, she doesn’t stop training. Once you make CEO, you don’t stop receiving executive coaching and tell yourself, “I’ve actually got this down.” When you are a prima ballerina, you don’t stop rehearsing with your master teacher. The kinds of students I work with want to keep receiving mentoring and experiencing this one-on-one mastery process because they want to continue to do their best and keep learning, even after they start to initially do well. Because it’s about continuous growth and expansion, there is no limit to the potential of the process.

My clients have told me that working with me is like working with a life coach, or seeing a great psychologist. One family even coined a new word for their sessions with me – instead of calling it tutoring, they call it “Zookuring.”

But no matter what you call what we do, once you realize that you can go from hating math because it’s so confusing, to loving math and experiencing it as a source of joy and strength – “no one can take it away from you,” to quote a parent whose kid experienced this very transformation. And this experience of autonomy and self-efficacy in the face of a massive challenge has a huge positive impact on what students believe they are capable of, and ultimately, what they actually accomplish during their time on this earth.

Are you tired of “typical tutoring” that doesn’t address the underlying issues? Are you discouraged by support that doesn’t take into account what your kid actually needs to understand how math actually works? Are you ready to experience the kind of joyful, individualized transformation I’ve just described? Then let’s talk! Send me an email at rebecca@zooktutoring.com or call me at 617-888-0160 and we’ll set up a time for a special complimentary appointment to explore whether or not the way I work would be a good fit for your family. I can’t wait to connect!

Related posts:
Failure is not the enemy
On being yourself while doing math
How to help kids be okay with things being hard
What a Balinese dancing queen taught me about praise and encouragement
What I learned on the streets of Paris…and in a Dutch grocery store

How to know when it’s time to stop tutoring your own kid

Thursday, January 23rd, 2014

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You want math to feel like a fun adventure through a magical forest… not like you’re lost in the wilderness without a trail!

You want to help your kid so badly! You are willing to move heaven and earth to help your son or daughter understand math better.

But you’re struggling to help your kid with math by yourself. It’s painful.

Sometimes it might just be a question of working with your kid when you’re not so tired, getting materials that feel like a better fit, or adjusting your approach. But sometimes it’s more than that.

How do you know when you’re not the right person to be helping your own kid?

I haven’t seen anyone else write about this yet, but it’s been coming up a lot recently in the families that I work with, so it’s clear to me that it’s time to share…. how to know when someone else should be doing the tutoring – even if you have been willing to do it yourself.

1. Tutoring your own kid has become toxic to your parent/child relationship. This can go both ways. For example, when one family that now works with me first approached me, the 5th-grade student refused to work on her math homework at all…. unless she was sitting next to her mom. The student believed her mom’s presence was calming, but she was still so anxious that it totally stressed her mom out to have this arrangement! This was negatively impacting their entire mother/daughter relationship.

2. No matter how hard you try, you can’t explain it to your kid in a way they can understand. This can take many different forms. Sometimes even if you are a professional mathematician, you won’t be able to explain it in a way that your kid can connect with. Or maybe you have a method that is crystal-clear to you, but that leaves your kid completely fuzzy or frustrated. Maybe you vividly remember how you learned it growing up, but there seems to be no connection with the way your kid is being taught the material now.

Sometimes this can also look like “Your kid resists your help” or “Your kid won’t listen to you about math” (because they might just not understand how you explain it–even though they still love you!!)

3. Helping your kid with math is taking over your entire life. Sometimes your kid will understand the way you approach it, but helping them becomes a huge project that eclipses everything else. You might find yourself spending hours every single day working on math with them, just wishing that you had time for a normal evening where you could cook dinner and enjoy it as a family without worrying about math.

4. Your help is not creating fluency.
Sometimes a parent will be able to help their kid “get through it” by being persistent, working backwards, and guessing and checking, but you can sense that even though your kid is “getting it done,” you know they’re not really getting it. It’s like they’re limping through Barcelona using a phrase book instead of actually learning how to speak Spanish fluently, and if they come up against something a little out of the ordinary, they only know how to ask where the bathroom is or how to get to the train station. You know this level of understanding is not going to get them where they need to go even if on the surface things look “OK.”

5. You can absolutely do it, but it’s not how you want to spend your time. You can explain it. Your kids get it when you help them. But when you come home from work, you just want to be a parent. You don’t want to have to be their teacher and tutor. You just want to have time to relax and hang out with your kids during the few precious last years you have together under the same roof.

6. What you’re doing isn’t helping. This is the absolute bottom line. Sometimes a parent and a kid will be working together for hours every day, and the kid is still struggling. The parent’s first impulse might be to work together with the kid EVEN MORE, but don’t more of what isn’t working is not going to make the situation better.

Do these scenarios sound familiar? Are you ready to invest in high-level one-on-one support so you can just be a mom or dad, trusting that your kid’s math mastery is completely being taken care of? Send me an email at rebecca@zooktutoring.com or give me a call at 617-888-0160, and we can totally set up a complimentary one-hour conversation to get clear on what’s really going on in your kid’s math situation and whether or not the way I work would be a fit for your family.

Related posts:
Tips on how to help your kid with their math homework
Three simple steps to tell if your kid actually understands what’s going on in math
How to find a good tutor
The rhyme and reason of making mistakes

How to get your kid talking about math

Thursday, January 9th, 2014
A lock growing out of a tree?

A lock growing out of a tree?

That’s what I found on the trunk of a holly tree in my neighborhood!!

Who did this and what does it mean? It is completely intriguing to me – a door lock that looks like it’s been grafted onto (or growing out of) this beautiful tree!

A lot of times, kids can feel that talking about math is like a door they just can’t open all the way.

Maybe they know some of the words, but really expressing what they understand or asking about what they don’t understand – that might feel like just a tiny sliver, like they can only open that door a crack.

I want to share a powerful question I use all the time to get kids to open up about talking about math.

This is especially helpful when you want your kid to explain something back to you to really check that they understand.

After spending some time working through problems together, I will ask, “How would you explain this to your best friend?”

A lot of the time that is all it takes to get them talking. Instead of worrying about not using the right “math words” or making a mistake, they’re able to connect to the feeling of just helping their best friend.

Occasionally, a student will be totally tongue-tied even with this question – and that’s OK. That usually just means they need to spend more time doing the concept together before trying to explain it to someone else.

Also, kids can even use this technique if they are completely by themselves. This can actually be a bridge towards encouraging students to talk themselves through problems more, like we talked about in my recent post about talking math out when you’re in doubt!

Do you want your kid to experience math as an intriguing, fun puzzle, instead of a monster in the closet? Is the pain of your kid’s math challenges actually causing you pain as their parent? Are you ready for high-level one-on-one support?

Email me at rebecca@zooktutoring.com, or give me a call at 617-888-0160, and we can set up a special appointment for us to have a complimentary hour-long call to get clear on what’s going on with your math situation and investigate if the way I work would make sense for you.

Checking out this mysterious holly tree that the lock "grew" out of

Checking out this mysterious holly tree that the lock “grew” out of

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How to experience math as your own unique creation

Thursday, December 26th, 2013

A great way to check if your son or daughter really understands what they’re working on is – once they’ve already spent some time practicing a particular problem type – to ask them to create their own original “designer” problem.

I frequently use the words, “Now I want to see a [student's name] Original!” (Like if I was tutoring a student named Sally, I would say, “Now I want to see a Sally Original!”)

Why does this help?

1. First, being asked to create an original problem quickly reveals whether or not the student has truly internalized what they’re working on. If they can create and solve their own unique problem similar to what they’ve been working on, it means that they understand the material on a deeper level than just being able to DO it – they can actually CREATE it from scratch.

2. Second, it’s fun! Usually kids are really excited for the opportunity to create their own problem.

3. Third, when students do this, sometimes they’ll actually create and solve something much more complex than they have been working on. It’s like they want to take it to the next level, and they can without anyone stopping them, because they’re totally in the driver’s seat.

(Also, sometimes the opposite will happen, where a student will be reluctant to do this because they haven’t been asked to do it before, or they don’t feel ready. If this happens, you can just offer to go first or take turns, or if you really sense they’re communicating they need more practice first, do more practice problems before coming back and asking them to create their own.)

4. Fourth, it really helps them take ownership of their own learning. When you’re making and solving your own problem, it means you understand math is something you can CREATE – not just something random you’re being asked to do. This is a major confidence builder.

And it also really brings home the fact that math is a human creation, with its own beautiful idiosyncrasies!

Are you tired of not even having time to create dinner for your family because your kid’s math homework has become an overwhelming family-wide project? Do you wish that your kid could experience math creatively, as a source of fun, confidence, and security, instead of dread or incompetence? Are you ready to invest in high-level, super-customized tutoring support? Send me an email at rebecca@zooktutoring.com, or give me a call at 617-888-0160, and we can set up a time to have a special complimentary call where we can get super clear on what’s going on with your kid’s math and whether or not the way I work would be a fit for your family.

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What I learned on the streets of Paris…and in a Dutch grocery store

Thursday, December 12th, 2013

Rebecca and Alex in the Netherlands
Me & my new friend Alex at our training in the Netherlands

I recently had the opportunity to travel to the Netherlands for a very special training! I got to spend two days in a huge, luxurious barn (now outfitted for humans) and experience the beautiful southwestern Dutch countryside, full of incredible trees…

Rebecca in the forest in the Netherlands

spirited horses…

Rebecca with horses in the netherlands

…unexpectedly considerately quiet chickens that made no noise until long after I’d awoken, and amazing smells! (Unfortuately I don’t have a picture of the chickens or the smells.)

On my way to the training, taking the country-wide commuter rail from the Amsterdam airport, I was checking out the commuter rail map, and I couldn’t believe it.

At the bottom of the map was… Paris!

My heart leapt. This felt like looking at the Washington DC Metro map and finding it went all the way to Cuba or Buenos Aires!

So the morning my training was complete, I did one of the craziest things I’ve ever done. My leaping heart led the way, and I decided that later that day I was going to Paris with absolutely no plans.

I bought myself a ticket and got to experience the European high-speed rail (which felt kind of like a cross between the Hogwarts Express and the Starship Enterprise). On the train I managed to find a hotel room … and the adventure began.

It was a crazy blend of having moments of complete euphoria, where I just felt overjoyed for no reason except that I was in Paris and everything was so beautiful that I felt like my head might just explode. And then moments of complete overwhelm, where I was totally exhausted and confused.

Me & shelly in paris
(That is me and my friend Shelly in the ferris wheel in front of the Eiffel tower, during one of my awesome Paris moments, not one of the overwhelmed moments!!!)

But what surprised and delighted me the most of all wasn’t that I could buy roasted chestnuts from the street vendors at the Christmas market. It wasn’t that there was gluten-free patisserie run by incredibly sweet people. It wasn’t the autumn beauty of the Jardin de Tuleries, or walking into the Sacre Coeur cathedral in Montmartre and realizing that nuns were singing.

What surprised me the most of all was that I could actually communicate in French! After not using it AT ALL, whatsoever, for AT LEAST 11 years.

Me & alex in front of the eiffel tower

Just to give you some context, I had been to Paris before, right after I graduated from high school, and just two years or so after studying French academically.

On that trip, even though my French was WAY fresher in my mind, I didn’t actually have much success communicating with anyone. Plus my parents, who both speak some French, were happy to lead the way.

But on this recent trip, somehow I was having conversations, in French, about relatively complex topics like, is this dog lost at the Christmas market, or does he belong to someone nearby? (In case you’re worried, his name is Elvis and he belongs to the lady who works at the nearby restaurant, and just likes to walk around in front).

Even more surprising to me was how the vast majority of Parisiens went out of their way to talk to me in French, and how patient and lighthearted they were as I expressed myself with my limited vocabulary, and how much we were actually able to talk about together.

I really tried to figure out, what is it that had changed?

Then I realized.

It was my Indonesian language training.

Several years ago, I learned Indonesian in a total immersion environment, that coincidentally also seemed to train me to be extremely friendly, polite, and assertive in a foreign language.

It also trained me to be playful, experimental, and completely not worried about doing something wrong (unlike my more typical French language courses where any mistake I made out loud could dock my grade).

Somehow, this experience was SO internalized that it came out when I was speaking a completely different language!

I noticed it again when I was at a Dutch grocery store, trying to figure out which type of jam I should take home to my family. The grocery store guy spoke great English but couldn’t remember the names of the berries, so I just guessed what I thought it might be and he would tell me whether or not it was right. It was a totally fun game, and he kept exclaiming, “You should work here!” because my berry guesses were somehow so accurate!

At one point, there was one jar we couldn’t figure out. He went to grab a colleague. This guy was a berry expert, and told me what everything was, and what he thought was the best.

Somehow, this completely ruined the game. My heart sank.

Why? Why was it so fun and successful with the first guy who couldn’t remember the English names?

With the first guy, I felt safe, I felt like I could make mistakes, and I was having fun! And I was LEARNING. With the second guy, it was all about his expertise and had nothing to do with me trying to figure it out. It was completely passive and while informative, sadly boring. And I wasn’t learning. I was just watching.

It made me realize that not only is it super helpful as a learner to be playful and experimental, but, that you need to have someone who is willing to be playful and experimental with you. If they just want to tell you everything while you stand there and listen, it doesn’t matter how playful and experimental you are.

For me, when I’m learning, it is so important to be in an environment with someone else where I feel safe, where I feel like I can make mistakes, and where I can have fun.

In fact, these elements are so important to me, that’s how I work with all my own students! (So much so that this is what I think about even when I’m on vacation!)

So, if you or your kid is struggling with math and having a “overwhelmed in Paris moment” instead of a “euphoric beauty in Paris moment”…

if you are sick and tired of being in a math situation where someone just tells you everything and doesn’t help you learn to figure it out on your own…

if you want to not only transform your relationship with math, but also gain skills that help you become way more experimental, assertive, and proactive in other subjects…

I would love to talk to you.

Send me an email at rebecca@zooktutoring.com, or give me a call at 617-888-0160. We can set aside a totally special one-hour appointment as my gift to you, to figure out what is going on in your math situation, get clear on what you want instead, and explore whether or not the way I work makes sense for you.

I can’t wait to hear from you!

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How to get started when you have no idea what to do … talk it out!!

Wednesday, November 27th, 2013

Most people think of math as a silent activity, but solving a problem effectively doesn’t mean you have to stay quiet. Talking through a problem out loud can trigger insight. So when in doubt, talk it out!

Psychologists in Spain found that college students who talked through challenging math problems out loud solved them faster and more accurately than students who stayed quiet.

Researcher Jose Luis Villegas Castellanos suggests that talking themselves through the problems provides math students with “more possibilities of finding the right solution.”

Many times in my one-on-one work with my students, once they open their mouth and start talking, they are totally surprised by how much they are able to figure out, even when initially they were super stumped!

Do you want your son or daughter to have the opportunity to consistently talk their math problems out with an expert who fosters their mathematical independence? Do you wish your kid could see math as a challenge they can handle, rather than a task that they dread? Do you want them to feel confident, fearless, capable, smart, and relaxed? Are you ready as a family to receive top-level math tutoring support?

Send me an email at rebecca@zooktutoring.com, or give me a call at 617-888-0160, and we can schedule a special complimentary one-hour appointment to get clarity on what’s going on in your math situation and explore whether or not the way I work would make sense for you!

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Tips for a Happy Math Year – #5 – Make Word Problems Routine

Wednesday, November 6th, 2013

It’s time for our next tip in my special series, tips for a happy math year!!!


Make word problems routine.
The reason why our kids study math is so they can solve real world problems. Yet word problems sometimes get a bad rap. While translating English into math is a separate skill that goes above and beyond simple computation, everyone can develop this ability.

If your kid’s math book includes word problems, invite them to do one a day just for fun, even if it’s not assigned for homework. You can get free word problem worksheets at teachnology.

You can also make up your own word problems together while running errands or at mealtimes. A lot of kids like to make up their own math problems, and it helps them feel like math is something that is part of them, that they can create, instead of something arbitrary that comes from a textbook.

Practicing this can be empowering and fun at the same time.

Does your son or daughter struggle with word problems? Do you wish your kid had enough in their toolkit to be a confident, creative math problem-solver? Do you dream of your kid being inspired to see math as an ongoing source of inspiration? Send me an email at rebecca@zooktutoring.com or call me at 617-888-0160, and we can set up a special complimentary hour-long call to get clarity about what’s going on with your kid’s math learning process, and find out whether or not it would make sense for us to work together.

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