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Topic: case studies

CASE STUDY: This 11th grader stopped binge eating because the math stress was gone

Monday, October 8th, 2018

Is your child consumed by math anxiety, even though they’re “doing everything right?”

These are some of my favorite students to work with, because I used to struggle with the exact same thing.

When this particular Algebra II/Trig student first came to me, she was making decent grades – Cs, Bs and low As – but at enormous psychic cost.

She would spend hours every night perfectionistically slaving over her math homework, but still feel completely unclear about the material and consumed by math anxiety.

Math felt like a collection of shards of broken glass that she was putting massive energy into “keeping together,” but they never actually fit together or added up to a cohesive whole.

How did she shift from perfectionism to mastery?

Let’s break it down!

1. When this student started working with me, one of the things that really stressed her out was her formulas sheet.

A page covered in things she hadn’t yet learned, that she would eventually have to memorize, many involving symbols or terms she’d never heard of yet, all crammed onto one scary page.

OF COURSE this freaked her out!

So we set the formulas sheet aside.

2. And instead, we built the formulas sheet from scratch – one formula at a time.

First, we started with the simplest, most basic formula, and built it from scratch using foundational concepts that this student already knew, like the Pythagorean formula.

And we’d make it super visual, drawing diagrams that explained why it worked.

Then she’d “teach it back to me” and build it from scratch and draw the diagrams herself.

Then the next session, we’d do the same thing again.

And again.

And again.

Until each formula was totally internalized, and she could build almost the entire formulas sheet from scratch, all by herself.

3. This created massive self-trust.

Not only did this student KNOW all the formulas, she knew WHY they worked, AND she could build them on her own.

Also, taking the time to do this so slowly, in the end, created massive speed.

This student became one of the fastest problem-solvers I’ve ever seen at this level …

BECAUSE she had taken the time to understand the fundamental concepts so meticulously.

The end result was that, without trying to be fast, this student breezed through the material, understanding at a deep conceptual level problems that many other students just experience as a random collection of rules or weird answers spit out by their TI-82.

Now this student experienced math as a cohesive whole, where she belonged, instead of a random collection of disconnected shards.

4. So, how did this play out in her classroom?

As a result of our work, this student’s grades hit the roof.

She was awarded the “most improved student” award by her teacher – in front of her whole school.

She was so much less stressed that she stopped binge eating…
…just because the math anxiety was gone.

And she applied for and won a prestigious internship at a European research-based skin care company in Georgetown, DC – being chosen over COLLEGE STUDENTS!!!

(This is an awesome example of how when math is no longer an obstacle, students can really bring their dreams and visions out into the world.)

Do you have a child who is struggling with this kind of math anxiety?

Maybe they’re actually getting good grades, but not really understanding how the pieces fit together.

Or maybe their grades have started to suffer.

Either way, I’d love to connect with you get clear on whether or not my work would be a fit for your child.

Just fill out this application to get started: fill out your application here

I am so excited to connect!

Sending you love,
REBECCA

Related Articles:
Case Study: A 5th grader goes from believing “Math Doesn’t Like Me” to singing and dancing about math while wearing a purple tutu
Afraid Your Math Teacher Will Judge You?
Case Study: A 10th grader goes from feeling like math is a foreign language to becoming the most called-upon student in her class
The Treachery of Invisible Math Anxiety

Topic: case studies

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

Monday, January 22nd, 2018

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?

Just click here to get started with your special application for my one-on-one math tutoring programs.

Once your application is received, we’ll set up a special phone call to get clear if my approach would be a good fit for your child.

I can’t wait to hear from you!

Sending you love,
REBECCA

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

Topic: case studies

Case study: a 10th grader goes from feeling like math is a foreign language to being the most-called upon student in her class

Wednesday, October 26th, 2016

When this student first came to me just before the summer between her freshman and sophomore years, her mom told me that the tutor they’d just worked with had told the family that to this student, math was like a foreign language where she only spoke five words.

Somehow she’d made it to the end of 9th grade with Bs in math, but none of it actually made any sense to her. It was like she just knew enough to “get around” – like how to ask where the bathroom was and order a hamburger – but not enough to really understand what was going on around her, or communicate herself.

Once we started working together the summer before she headed into pre-calculus, this student’s mastery, confidence, and grades began to steadily improve. By mid-sophomore year, my student’s teacher mentioned to her that he had to be careful to call on other students because my student always gave the correct answer!

The “piece de resistance” was when my student had to take an oral final for her math class at the end of her 10th grade year. Her teacher gave them five very sophisticated problems that synthesized everything they’d ever learned in new ways they hadn’t seen before. They had unlimited time to prepare, and then each student was asked to explain one of the five problems, picked at random on the spot, in front of the entire class. My student did such a good job that she got an A, and she told me later that she walked out of that class feeling like, “I can do anything!”

When it came time for this student to decide what math class to take after pre-calculus, instead of taking the statistics class that many students take as a way to avoid math, my student opted to enroll in AP AB Calculus. Because math had become beautiful, fascinated, and intrinsically rewarding to her, she wanted to keep exploring and growing.

Here’s how this student and I worked together to completely transform her experience of math from a source of unbelievable stress and anxiety into a source of joy and strength:

1. We worked in an atmosphere of total camaraderie and trust. Our tutoring sessions were totally a lighthearted, safe zone where there was absolutely no judgement. This student was free to ask as many questions as she wanted, go over as many examples as she desired, or go over the same example as many times as she required, without any fear of being embarrassed.

2. We focused on filling in the gaps, while also addressing whatever she needed to learn that week or that day. When we would go over her current material and encounter a gap, we’d keep excavating backwards through the layers of prerequisite knowledge until we found the original misunderstanding. Then we’d fill that in, then the idea on top of that, then the idea on top of that, until we’d build back up through the layers to what she was responsible for learning today. This way she was able to repair gaps in her foundational knowledge, while also staying on top of her weekly curriculum and being prepared for tests and quizzes.

3. We really focused on approaching the material in a way that worked for HER. This particular student craves conceptual understanding, so we would approach the material from different angles until she understood WHY it worked that way. She also loves learning math visually, so we would frequently approach concepts and procedures in a visual way – like FOILing using a box instead of just parentheses – that made the concepts more intuitive for her, and easier to internalize.

During moments like this, she would share observations like, “I don’t know how I lived through math without completely understanding this, because it’s so much easier than I thought it was. My whole childhood with math has been completely relearned.”

As my student’s mastery naturally led to greater confidence and grades, her enthusiasm for math grew more and more. She recently shared with me, “This is actually so cool – when actually I understand it, it’s so much fun!”

Would you like your daughter or son to go from feeling like math is a foreign language to experiencing math as genuinely enjoyable, meaningful, and fascinating?

Just click here to get started with your special application for my one-on-one math tutoring programs.

Once your application is received, we’ll set up a special complimentary phone call to get clear if it would be a fit for me to support your child with math. I can’t wait to connect!

Related posts:
Case study: a 5th grader goes from believing “math doesn’t like me” to singing and dancing about math while wearing a purple tutu
Case study: a rising 8th grader masters her summer math packet
How to multiply binomials using a box (alternative to FOILing)
An easy way to remember how logarithmic notation works

Topic: case studies

Case Study: An 8th grader goes from “math meltdown” to “math touchdown!”

Wednesday, November 5th, 2014

When this student first came to me as a 7th grader, she and her mom were experiencing math as a horrible struggle week to week. On her tests, she would initially get 40s, 50s, and 60s, and then spend a lot of time redoing the work over and over to pull up her grades, even more often than not staying in from lunch and recess to redo her work. So she was ending up with Bs and low As after all the do-overs, but as the result of agonizing effort.

On many nights they would spend hours on her math homework, only to have the student end up in tears. And even this massive effort wasn’t resulting in confidence or mastery.

On top of that, the student’s experience of one-on-one help from her mom had become highly fraught and the stress was affecting the dynamic of their mother/daughter relationship.

The mom was really concerned that this student’s math struggles were going to keep her back from other academic and creative opportunities. This student is highly creative, unique, and passionate – she loves to draw, plays the violin, has her own sense of style, is a gamer, and even has been on multiple botball robotics teams. And the mom was worried that doors would be closed to her if math continued to be a struggle.

This frustrating experience felt like a roller coaster, where the otherwise academically-successful student was starting to feel like an impostor after the erosion of confidence that happened from week to week of working so hard and not experiencing confidence, mastery, or good grades.

Fast forward to now! After steadily working together throughout the spring and summer, this student is now getting grades like a 96% on her first quiz of the year and a high B on her progress report. She shared that she was explaining math to her peers who were confused. The best part of all was seeing her experience what she described as “The BOOM,” which she defined as “where everything just comes together and flows through my mind like a glass of water.”

Most of all, she is now enthusiastic and inquisitive and happy about doing math and will routinely exclaim things like, “Touchdown! I could help the ‘yesterday’ me understand this!” or “Doing stuff with fractions is my favorite math to do.”

Here are some of the ways we created this transformation:

We created a safe environment of total trust and camaraderie. We operated in a space that was a “no-judgement zone” where this student could go over whatever questions she had, however she needed to go over them, and with as much practice or examples as necessary. We also kept the emotional tone lighthearted and fun, even though the material was very challenging.

We found the gaps and filled them in. By the time this student came to me, she had been struggling with math through 4th, 5th, 6th, and most of 7th grade – almost four years, with different gaps from each year. While working on whatever she needed to learn that day or that week, we excavated the layers of underlying math foundation until we found the initial source of misunderstanding. Then we would master that concept and gradually build back up layer by layer to the current material. This created a pattern of understanding, confidence, and success.

We let the student set the pace. We really focused on mastery of one skill, one concept, one problem type at a time, letting the student’s needs set the pace. Truly internalizing math in this way had a much bigger impact on her long-term understanding and achievement than rushing in a superficial way through large amounts of material to “get it covered.”

Would you like your creative, unique, passionate child to have this same experience of being completely supported in experiencing math mastery?

Just click here to get started with your special application for my one-on-one math tutoring programs.

This application process has been meticulously designed to help us both get clear about whether the special, magical way I work is a match for you.

Once your application is received, we’ll set up a special phone call to explore whether or not my magical math tutoring programs would be a fit for your family! I’m excited to connect with you!

Related posts:
Case Study: A 5th grader goes from believing “math doesn’t like me” to singing and dancing about math while wearing a purple tutu
Case Study: a 7th grader goes from “I don’t get it” to getting 100 percents!
Case Study: An ADHD student raises her grade from a D to an A
Case Study: Math goes from a source of unbelievable stress and anxiety to a source of joy and strength

Topic: case studies

Case Study: A Rising 8th Grader Masters Her Summer Math Packet

Wednesday, September 14th, 2011

When this student came to me this past June, she had been invited to take a placement test in the fall to see if she would place into an honors math class, and wanted help pacing herself on her summer math packet.

I just found out that she placed into honors, and she was so excited when she told me that she screamed on the phone! I am SO proud of her hard work and persistence!

Here’s how we made it happen:

Openness and Trust. Throughout our sessions together, this student was extremely transparent about what she did and didn’t understand. This was enormously helpful, especially because while we thought the summer math packet consisted of review only, it turned out that a ton of material was stuff that this student had never learned. Her willingness to tell me whether she was elated or frustrated–frequently with a self-deprecating sense of humor–helped us build camaraderie and also made our work together much more effective.

Which brings us to…Adjust as you go. When we realized that we had a lot of material to cover from scratch, instead of just reviewing, we adjusted the plan and decided to meet more frequently.

Break it down. The packet was extra-challenging because each page was like a tossed salad, blending problems from all different parts of the curriculum. While this is a great strategy to use when you’re reviewing material, it is not an effective way to learn something new.

So we backtracked, and my student learned one prerequisite skill at a time, practicing it thoroughly until it felt comfortable and automatic. Then, we combined these skills in more complex problems, gradually building up to problems as hard as the ones in the packet.

Practice outside of sessions. I also gave this student individualized worksheets that gave her a chance to practice and internalize the skills we were working on, with answer keys so she could check her work as she went (instead of waiting to talk to me and then finding out that she had practiced something the wrong way). This was especially important because it was the summer and she wasn’t getting a regular dose of math from a school math class.

Feedback on solo work. After building up her skills, my student worked independently on chunks of the packet at the time. This way she got comfortable with problem sets where different kinds of problems are juxtaposed on one page, just like they would presumably be on the placement test. Then, when we worked together, we would go over all of her work so she knew she was on the right track.

Which brings us to, “What did I do wrong?” At first, my student just seemed annoyed with herself when she made a mistake, but I really emphasized to her that it’s okay if you make a mistake as long as you take the time to ask yourself why and learn from it. Scrutinizing and learning from errors gradually went from being an irritating chore to just a routine and helpful part of the learning process.

Enthusiasm. More than any other student I’ve ever worked with, this one has a great appreciation for mathematics’ dramatic resonance and poetic potential. When she learned how to find the solution to a system, she said that that would be a great name for a band. Frequently she remarked that new concepts we were going over would make the premise for a great science fiction story.

Her gleeful excitement about the greater meaning of what she was learning seemed to help her take the tough stuff more in stride, because even the “annoying” math procedures were part of something that was exciting to her.

Parental backup. The best tutoring happens when everyone works together as a team, and this student’s mom was totally focused on the process of learning. She made sure that her daughter completed assignments in between sessions (especially important during the summer). She asked me thoughtful questions about the material and her daughter’s progress that showed me she herself was deeply engaged with her daughter’s math material.

Because she was so organized and also willing to re-learn math and ask questions about the parts she wasn’t sure about, she was also a great role model to her daughter. Her involvement and support was instrumental in her daughter’s success.

I was so thrilled to hear that this student had rocked her placement test and placed into honors! Hooray!

***Update: I just found out today (12/7/2011) that my student got an A for the trimester in her honors math course! I love it when students become completely self-sufficient and continue to succeed after they “graduate” from tutoring. Hooray!!

Related posts:
The Rhyme and Reason of Making Mistakes
Five fun ways to help your kid learn math this summer
Case Study: An ADHD Student Raises Her Grade from a D to an A
Case Study: Regaining Love of Math

Topic: case studies

Case Study: A Seventh Grader goes From “I don’t get it” to getting 100 percents

Monday, June 13th, 2011

When this seventh-grader started math tutoring, she felt like she didn’t always “get” math, and the curriculum at her school wasn’t always totally connecting with her brain.

After about eight weeks together, she earned a 100% on a test, and her teacher sent her parents a note that she was doing really well and really seemed to be understanding the concepts in class.  After about six months of tutoring together, she just finished up the school year making more 100% percents on her tests!

Here’s how we did it:

Fill in the gaps. Algebra builds on everything that comes before, and a lot of 7th graders struggle with algebra because they still feel shaky about decimals, fractions, and other prerequisites. Whenever we found a gap – like when she told me she’d rather convert fractions to decimals whenever possible – we’d go back to where it started to get murky and then work step-by-step through many practice problems until she had mastered the material and filled in the gap.  She also learned fun songs for all of the times tables to feel more secure with those foundational math facts.

Customize: make it visual. This student seemed to get a lot out of seeing the math.  When we went over decimals, we used grids to show how multiple decimals can add up to wholes.  When reviewing fractions, we would divide a square into parts to make the concept visual and concrete.  When her class started working on adding and subtracting negative numbers, we spent a lot of time using a number line to practice this.  Making it visual made the material less abstract and more clear (and also more fun).

Practice. Everyone needs to practice challenging material until you internalize it.  When she had questions about the material from class, we’d do lots of extra practice problems I’d make up for her on the spot.

For example, when she started working on order of operations problems, I’d create progressively more elaborate order of operations problems for her to practice.  This way all the steps became automatic—no more second-guessing or feeling confused.

Extend. If we had extra time, we’d do more problems based on what she was doing in class, but take it to the next level.  I frequently asked her to create her own problems and was delighted to see that a lot of the time, the problems she made up were harder than the ones I made up for her – because she wanted to make it even more interesting!

I believe creating her own problems helped her feel like math was something that belonged to her, something that she could create, instead of a bunch of impersonal, arbitrary problems from a textbook.

Preview. This same principle of taking it to the next level meant that sometimes, instead of encountering a challenging new concept for the first time in class, we got to introduce it and explore it one-on-one.  Then, once it came up in class, this same student who used to feel like she “didn’t get it” knew exactly what was going on.

Immediate feedback. Throughout our work together, she got immediate feedback on whether or not she was doing the problems correctly.  This nipped potentially bad habits in the bud and also meant that she could learn the material right the first time without feeling disoriented.

Immediate feedback also meant that when she started to feel frustrated, we would talk about it, take a big deep yoga breath, and clear the air, which made her effort much more productive.

Working with this student was a great pleasure because she did such a good job of communicating what she wanted to work on and what she did and didn’t understand.  Because of her hard work, persistence, and open mind, she finished her year earning 100 percents!

Related posts:

Case Study: An ADHD student raises her grade from a D to an A
Case Study: Confused by math instruction in a foreign language
Case Study: Regaining love of math

Topic: case studies

Case Study: A 5th grader emerges as a successful student and enthusiastic mathematician

Sunday, August 8th, 2010

When this student first came to me, her dad was concerned that she had lost interest in learning math. During the school year, it also emerged that the student was in danger of not passing fifth grade.

Here’s what worked for this student:

Supporting the student’s own efforts to be proactive
During one of our first math tutoring sessions, I pointed out to this student that numbers that end in zero are even. Somehow she hadn’t learned that before. To help herself remember this new fact, she spontaneously made up new lyrics to the tune of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.” They went like this: “Even! Even! Numbers with a zero are even!”

The next time we met, I added to her original lyrics: “Even! Even! Numbers that end in zero are even! So are the numbers 2, 4, 6, 8. They are all even, and they’re all great! They’re even!”

She would sing the zero song whenever this topic came up. Not only did my student create a great way to remember this fact (and inspire me too), but singing also allowed her express her enthusiasm for math and let off a little steam.

Another time, she suggested we create a “Mistakes Log Blog” to help her analyze what mistakes she had made on a test that we were reviewing. I ran with this idea. When she wrote down where she’d made mistakes, the patterns became much clearer to her. In later sessions, she’d refer back to the “Mistakes Log Blog” when analyzing errors.

“Field trips”
In order to make concepts more concrete, we’d take field trips—to my living room, where we’d practice perimeter and area by measuring my rug, or to the kitchen, where we’d measure a round plate to show where the number pi comes from.

At my kitchen sink, we poured water between different containers to show the relationships between units of measurement. And we acted out word problems using food from my refrigerator. Field trips were way more engaging to her than sitting with a worksheet, so I tried to maximize this.

Multi-sensory learning
From taking all those field trips during math tutoring, I noticed my student benefited from hands-on learning. So we also used fraction overlays and math blocks from Math U See to build fractions and do “fraction of a number” problems. Using the manipulatives made abstract concepts concrete for my student, and really helped her “get” the material. Plus it was fun!

When I realized my student didn’t know her 9s times table yet, I taught her the Rockin’ the Standards song for the 9s, to the tune of the hokey pokey, so she would remember them forever. I also taught her the Place Value Rap to remember key facts about place value. Not only were these songs a great chance to stand up and play air guitar, but they were also an excellent way to internalize crucial material and build on the success of the Zero Song.

Managing focus
During the year, we met twice a week for either 60 or 90 minutes. If I noticed my student was losing focus, we’d take a break to jump up and down to rejuvenate ourselves. After a while, my student would ask to jump when she was having trouble concentrating. It might sound silly, but I was proud that my student was starting to pay attention to whether or not she was paying attention and that she knew how to refocus herself. (Thanks to Gretchen Rubin for inspiring me to try this!)

Brainology
When I realized my student was in danger of not passing fifth grade, I decided to use Carol Dweck’s Brainology curriculum, one of the most powerful motivational tools I know of to address one of the underlying cause of low achievement: low motivation. For several weeks, we would spend part of each tutoring session doing Brainology, which uses basic neuroscience to teach students that their brains are plastic and they can grow their intelligence.

My student enthusiastically embraced the Brainology program. She talked about the characters like they were her personal friends, and she responded to questions like “what is happening in your brain when you think?” with answers like, “Neurons are sending messages within a trillion connections.” She also used Brainology concepts like getting enough sleep and eating “brain food” while she was taking her end-of-year standardized tests (the CRCT).

The results

Three or four weeks after we began working together, her teachers reported a positive change in this student’s attitude. She started sitting in front, participating, and speaking up when she didn’t understand.

After about sixth or seven months of meeting twice a week, this student mastered the material, pulled up her grades, and successfully passed fifth grade. Her final math test score was so high that she was only either 10 points or 10 questions away from placing into the advanced math class in sixth grade. I am so proud of her!

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Topic: case studies

Case Study: a homeschooler prepares for the SAT

Monday, February 1st, 2010

When I started working with this student, math was “almost painful” for him. He’d decided to homeschool for 11th and 12th grade so he could take time to really learn the material he was studying, instead of just getting by. He’d asked his mom for a math tutor so he could prepare for the SAT and achieve his dream of attending art college.

Here’s what worked for this student:

Address the fundamentals. Before we approached the SAT math test as a whole, we had to master basic algebra and geometry topics one at a time. We started at the beginning of an Algebra 1 textbook and moved at our own pace. We focused on what was important and what would be on the test.

Solo work and feedback. Most students that I work with are sitting in math class and doing math homework at least three times a week. But this student wasn’t in a math class. Tutoring was his math class. And he wasn’t getting homework assignments unless I gave them to him. So it was essential for him to have carefully planned homework assignments and get detailed feedback from me on each one.

Adjust the textbook when necessary. We started off using the Glencoe Algebra 1 textbook, but after several months of working together, I realized my student needed more drill and better sequencing. He needed to be able to do as many problems as necessary to master the material. And he needed to be able to check his answers without having to wait to see me. So, as a supplemental text, we added another algebra textbook that had better sequencing and more practice problems. In the end, we relied on it more than the Glencoe.

Adjust the pace when necessary. When we started working together, I’d demonstrate a technique and then give him a chance to do it himself, correcting him immediately if he made any mistakes. I wouldn’t move on to the next concept until he’d mastered the material. But at this pace, he wouldn’t learn enough of what was on the SAT. So I started assigning him sections of the book to read and teach himself. This worked for a while, but then we reached a point where he’d get stuck midway through the material and have to wait for our next meeting before getting a clear explanation.

So we changed our approach and aimed for a middle ground. I would demonstrate one or two problems from each section before asking him to do the work himself outside of tutoring. This gave him a preview of what to expect and let him learn more material. I just wish that I had known about Math U See back then. It would have been great if he could have used Steve Demme’s instructional videos as his “math class,” and then used our time together as a resource to discuss whatever he had questions about.

I was so proud that he was so willing to work hard to learn something that didn’t always come easily. And I was thrilled to hear that his work allowed him to meet his goal: he got into the art college of his dreams!

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Topic: case studies

Case Study: An ADHD student raises her math grade from a D to an A

Monday, January 4th, 2010

Each ADHD student I’ve worked with has been totally unique from any other, so I always adjust my approach accordingly for each individual. But since this is a case study, here are some things that really helped this particular student.

This student first came to me the summer before ninth grade. The previous year she had struggled with focus, especially in math, and at the end of eighth grade, her math teacher had encouraged her to use the summer to review. So we started tutoring over the summer, which was perfect: tons of time, without the pressure of classroom tests or other school-year commitments.

Find the missing gaps and fill them in. Math is so cumulative that missing a single class or even spacing out for a few minutes can make a student feel totally lost! So a big part of our initial work together was retracing my student’s steps and seeing what skills were missing. Once those prerequisite skills were identified, she could master them and move forward.

Focus on conceptual understanding. A lot of students prefer to learn how to do something before learning why it works that way. However, this student craved conceptual understanding. Frequently, once the big picture became clear to her, her face would light up, and she’d exclaim excitedly. Off and running, she’d dive right into the problem, knowing exactly what to do even if I hadn’t told her first. Because this student thrived on big-picture teaching, we focused on that first in each session.

Adjust the curriculum. A easy but helpful psychological “trick”: when we started working together during the summer, we used the textbook for the upcoming year instead of using her old textbook. The material at the end of 8th grade and the beginning of 9th grade is usually the same. But she could start the year confidently, knowing that she’d already mastered the exact material that would be covered in the first few weeks of school. Also, after the school year began, when appropriate, we’d consult an alternative textbook for explanations better suited to her learning style.

In addition to our summer meetings, we continued to meet periodically during the year. After barely four months working together, I was thrilled to learn that my student earned a grade of 108 on her algebra test: 100 plus the 8 point extra credit problem. The highest grade in the class!

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Topic: case studies

Case Study: Confused by Math Instruction in a Foreign Language

Wednesday, December 9th, 2009

One of my favorite success stories is a student who came to me as a fourth grader. She was extremely confused about math because her first three years of elementary school were at a French language school. Not only was math taught in French, which was not her first language, but the math instructors were also really bad. Also, she would get emotional about math—sometimes she’d get so upset that she would freeze up.

We started with a lot of math drill, reviewing arithmetic concepts that were unclear from years of math instruction in French. Then we moved on to mixing that with a review of what she was working on in class. We worked very slowly, and at the end of every page or every problem I would give her a high five and a special sticker. (Now, after all I’ve learned about rewards and motivation, I might not give her a sticker every single time.)

Another helpful strategy was paying attention to her emotions of frustration and anxiety, and modeling how to handle them. When she got frustrated or anxious, I would stay calm, just like I hoped she’d learn to stay calm in the face of a challenge.

One day she got really upset about some things in her life that were stressing her out, and I could tell she needed a break. (I was trying to build on what I’d learned from working with another student who broke down during tutoring once.) So we packed up our work and spent the rest of the session leisurely exploring the beautiful library where we met for tutoring.

Very gradually, things improved to the point where she even told me that she “loved” certain kinds of problems. This made me so proud of her! It was amazing to see her going from feeling scared and confused about math to actually being comfortable and delighted with it. Overall, I think what worked for her was just personalized and caring attention with a stress-free vibe.

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