Marina Koestler Ruben

Blog Posts: June 2011

Reviewed in Library Journal!

Thanks to Library Journal and Karen McCoy for reviewing How to Tutor Your Own Child!  

From the review: 

This book is for parents interested in providing holistic learning opportunities for their children. Ruben advocates the importance of “parent-tutoring” as an effective supplement to regular education, and she derives many examples from her experiences as a professional tutor. She begins with tips to engage children in the learning process and proceeds to ideas to make education fun and creative. Parent tutors are also encouraged to model a love of learning for their students. In “Tutor Toolboxes,” Ruben recommends everything from mnemonic devices to organizing learning spaces and materials to, most important, encouraging reluctant children. Each chapter ends with a “Tutor Take-Away” table that summarizes the section. Parents with teens will be most interested in the final part of the book, which focuses on how to adjust educational approaches for adolescents.

 Read Full Post.

Thrice-Read Books

In my last post, I mentioned a mother who got her son interested in Moby Dick and in Greek philosophy by introducing him to junior editions of the works.  

This mother's efforts reminded me of a reading system endorsed by Susan Wise Bauer and Jessie Bauer in their book The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home.  The Bauers recommend a twelve-year educational model that's comprised of three four-year studies of world history and literature:

The pattern widens and deepens as the student matures and learns.  For example, a first grader listens to you read the story of the Iliad from one of the picture-book versions available at any public library....  Four years later, the fifth grader reads ones of the popular middle-grade adaptations....  Four more years go by, and the ninth grader--faced with Homer's Iliad itself--plunges right in, undaunted.  She already knows the story.  What's to be scared of?

Check out The Well-Trained Mind for a detailed list of the books the Bauers recommend for each of the four-year segments. Read Full Post.

How to Turn Twilight into Dracula

I posted the following question on the How to Tutor Your Own Child Facebook yesterday:

If your child's friends like poorly written but popular books (e.g., Twilight), is it better to 
(A) convince your child to avoid these books in favor of better literature, even if no one else he or she knows has read these books 
(B) encourage your child to read lower-quality books so he/she can talk to friends about them?

Or is there a C option that's a better way to encourage a love of reading?

In retrospect, "poorly written" wasn't exactly what I meant to say.  What I was aiming to do was to draw a distinction between "popular" books ("beach reads," perhaps) and "literary" books.

The general consensus from FB responses and those I spoke with personally seemed to be that it's ideal for kids to read a combination of popular and literary books.  Some commenters had good ideas for how to transition between the two.  Tynessa, the mother of an eight-year old, used the junior version of Moby Dick to get her son interested in the story.  She did the same for Greek mythology.  This is reminiscent of what Susan Wise Bauer and Jessie Bauer recommend in their book The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home.  (More on this in my next post.)

Another commenter (and friend), Eleni, suggested easing students from a pop culture book to a literary one that's somehow related.  Here's what she wrote:

So: "Do you like the vampires in Twilight? Cool... want to read a book from the 19th century that revolutionized the way we think of vampires? It's called Dracula." 

You can also use this method in reverse.  If you wanted your child to study Greek mythology, as Tynessa did, you could introduce your child to a relevant "fun" novel--e.g., Rick Riordan's Lightening Thief series.

Now for some practice.  

Let's say your child likes Suzanne Collins's Hunger Games series.  Can you relate it to anything more literary?

Or what if he or she likes Jeff Kinney's Diary of a Wimpy Kid series?  

Or Pretty Little Liars, by Sara Shepard?  Any ideas for these?  

Do any other pop-to-lit connections that come to mind? Read Full Post.

Don't Google Too Soon

In How to Tutor Your Own Child, I discuss the role that the Internet plays in students' intellectual development.  Though search engines may be an effective tool, I'm concerned about how the Web makes us so quick to Google for answers.  Think about the process of discovery that's lost in Googling.

Here's a non-academic example:

Can you name all seven of Snow White's dwarfs?  When I try, I come up with six: Sleepy, Dopey, Grumpy, Happy, Bashful, and Doc.

Of course, if I were to type in "seven dwarfs" on Google, I would get the answer right away.  But if I try to think of the seventh dwarf myself, my brain starts making connections:

Odds are that the seventh is another adjective that ends in a "y" and subtly casts aspersion.  Angry?  No.  Too close to Grumpy.  Frumpy?  No.  I don't remember any dwarfs in hair nets.  Clingy?  Burpy?  Was there a Snarky?

No luck.  So I start wondering about the other names:

I get the name Bashful.  It has a better ring than Shy.  But Doc?  Was he the only one with medical training, so he got to replace his earlier, less flattering name with a title?  Is he Doc né Nerdly?  Could Grumpy get knighted and change his name to Sir?

Admittedly, I'm not coming up with the answer.  But I'm thinking about parts of speech, synonyms, naming trends, and titles.  I'm thinking flexibly.  The unknown seventh dwarf's name could prompt hours of creative association and discussion at parties, around the dinner table, or at school.  

It might not occur to your children to slow down and brainstorm this way, so I recommend that you take the initiative to encourage them to keep their smart phones and Google at bay and/or model this behavior yourself when faced with an unknown, at least when time allows.

In Tim Kreider's New York Times op-ed piece "In Praise of Not Knowing," (June 18), he says:

I hope kids are still finding some way, despite Google and Wikipedia, of not knowing things. Learning how to transform mere ignorance into mystery, simple not knowing into wonder, is a useful skill. 

He's right.  Consider that so many great thinkers spent their days exploring exactly that mystery--that unknown.  Doing so is what led to some of human history's best theories and inventions.

That said, have you seen successes on a smaller scale?  Have you or your child ever found that NOT Googling something has led to positive results?

P.S. Here's a clue to the name of the seventh dwarf: a little mystery is nothing to sneeze at. Read Full Post.

Should We Limit Homework?

In "New Recruit in Homework Revolt: The Principal," June 15th's New York Times reports on the movement to reduce and/or ban homework, on the grounds that students are overworked, should be able to spend their free time playing or with their families, and aren't benefiting enough to justify the work.

Some schools have handled the alleged work overload by setting time limits for homework.  For example, kindergartners might have a ten-minute homework cap, with each grade's load increasing by ten minutes.  Of course, different students need varying amount of time to complete homework, which complicates this system.  

My high school didn't stick to these types of time limits for homework.  During my senior year, we certainly weren't limited to 130 minutes of homework.  The amount of homework varied by course load.  And shouldn't it?  Doesn't it make sense for a student in a more intensive class to spend more time on a subject?  

The article actually mentions my former high school:

Ridgewood High School in New Jersey introduced a homework-free winter break in December.

This kind of policy seems logical to me, though the article made an interesting point from a parenting perspective:

 In Coronado, Calif., the school board rejected a proposal by the superintendent to eliminate homework on weekends and holidays after some parents said that was when they had time to help their children

I'm not sure what I think about this.  How much should parent availability factor into a school's decision about assigning homework? Read Full Post.

My Letter to the New York Times

On June 8, the New York Times published "Push for A's at Private Schools is Keeping Private Tutors Busy," in which Jenny Anderson details the ubiquity of high-priced tutoring services in New York City's private school circuit.  

Private SAT tutors have been de rigueur at elite New York private schools for a generation, but the proliferation of subject-matter tutors for students angling for A’s is a newer phenomenon that is beginning to incite a backlash. Interviews with parents, students, teachers, administrators, tutors and consultants suggest that more than half of the students at the city’s top-tier schools hire tutors, an open secret that the schools seem unable to stop.

Hiring a private tutor to coach one's child through school is a pricey proposition.  But, for many families, the $795 they may shell out for an hour-long session is not their biggest cost.

What is?  Read my letter to the Times to find out.  (See the last letter on the page.) Read Full Post.

Parents and Children, on the Same Track

For me, "tutoring" a child doesn't necessarily mean that you're working on homework--or anything officially academic.  It's more a style of interaction.  It's what happens when a parent learns to engage with a child intellectually and encourage in that child a love of learning.

So what does tutoring look like?  A few possibilities: Discussing the local election over dinner.  Caring for a bird that fell out of a tree in the yard.  Playing guitar and recorder duets.

First and foremost, especially with an older child, it's important for the child to feel comfortable spending time with the parent and to know he or she can communicate openly.  

Dominique Browning explores this issue in a New York Times article, "Mothers and Sons, on the Same Track" (Travel, June 3), where she writes about a cross-country Amtrak trip she takes with her two sons, ages 22 and 26.  On the trip, Browning tries to create an atmosphere that will allow her children to feel respected and valuable.

Browning lays out what she learns.  Among her most relevant points:

1. "Turn it over to a younger power."  She puts her sons in charge of planning the trip: tickets, lodging, itinerary.  Even young children can research and plan a trip, whether cross-country or down the street.  Let them research it, map it, and take pride in sharing their plan with you.

2. "Don't say everything that pops into your brain" and "No more corrections of any sort."  The latter is extreme, but Browning's point is good.  When motivating and engaging with your children, try not to be overly critical.

3. "Do interesting things together.  Do anything together."  Self-explanatory.

4. "Listen and do nothing.  Or, do nothing and just listen."  Browning watches her children as they interact with another guest in the dining car:

I began to see my children as if they were guests at my table, rather than creatures who needed molding, or scolding or holding, or anything at all from me besides ... listening.

 Read Full Post.

The Benefits of Being Alone

In How to Tutor Your Own Child, I emphasize the educational value of simplicity, silence, and boredom.  Along those same lines, I was struck by this quote about the benefits of aloneness from "The Writer as Psychotic," an article by author Philip Yancey:

Brain scans reveal that aloneness is central to the creative impulse; sensory deprivation allows the synaptic loops in the inner brain that lead to creativity.

I think Yancey's point holds true for everyone, not just writers.  While schools often emphasize group work, it is the absence of interaction--and of other stimuli--that can provide the space we need to create, allowing us to fill the void with something new.

Here are a few other ways that children can benefit from being alone:

Are there other ways that aloneness benefits children or students? Read Full Post.

Discussion Questions -- Oprah's Documentary of the Month: "Sons of Perdition"

The Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) has a documentary-of-the-month club.  Last night, as June's film, they premiered Sons of Perdition, "the story of polygamy's exiled youth."  (Note: This is entirely  different from Road to Perdition, the 2002 film by Tom Hanks.)  

Sons of Perdition is a 2010 documentary that tells the story of Sam, Bruce, and Joe, teenage boys who have run away from Warren Jeffs's polygamist Mormon sect.  They struggle to find jobs, schooling, and homes in the outside world while still trying to communicate with and liberate families members who still live under Jeffs's control in Colorado City.
For parents thinking of watching this film with children, it's most appropriate for high schoolers and above.  Here are a few questions that can get you talking before/during/after the film:
1. Can you think of any valid reasons to exile a teen from his home?
2. In what ways do you think these teens improved their lives by leaving the sect?  In what ways are their lives harder?
3. In one clip, Warren Jeffs says, "Walt Disney and the Care Bears and all the little creatures are lies" and are "frivolous" and "useless."  He says that children should hear truth.  What do you think about Jeffs's stance?
4. What do you think about Sam's decision not to be adopted?
5. If you haven't already, read about the Amish tradition of rumspringa, the period of time when Amish teens consider whether to join a non-Amish community.  How would an Amish teen's decision and exploration of "mainstream" society compare with the changes that these Mormon teens underwent?
Oprah's July film will be Serving Life, about an inmate-staffed hospice program inside a maximum security prison.  August is Life 2.0, about online interaction between users of the virtual computer world of Second Life.
 Read Full Post.

Why I'm Smitten with jaZams, a Toy Store in Princeton

I was in Princeton, NJ, this past weekend and made my first trip to jaZams, an amazing children's book and toy store in Palmer Square.  Here's their site.  They're also on Facebook.  I see that Yelpers like them as well.

If you're ever in the area, I highly recommend an in-person visit.  It's a large store with high ceilings,  natural light, and a magical feel.  Mobiles dangle overhead, and educational products abound.  JaZams prides itself on selling toys that encourage imagination and creativity.  
Among the products that caught my eye:
Magnets from Greggo.  I bought the magnetic animal track tiles--because you never know when you might be at the fridge door wondering how to identify the claws of a nine-banded armadillo.  They also have magnetic Braille alphabet squares, desert animals, composers, human organs, and lots more.  While the site doesn't sell to individuals, you can find many of their magnets on Amazon.
Building blocks from Uncle Goose: Maybe I just have a thing for wooden building blocks, but I can't get over how great these are.  Their high-quality blocks come in upper and lower case, Braille, foreign languages from Arabic to Chinese to Swedish (among others), Egyptian hieroglyphics, nursery rhymes, and US Presidents.
Mini easels and canvases: So cute, with obvious value for children (or adults) who want to create tiny art displays.  They can paint their own works or try to mimic other artists' styles.
The store was jam-packed with other recommendable toys, books, and art supplies.  I'll jot down notes about others on my next trip.  If you know of any other particularly great educational toy stores I should check out or recommend, please let me know. Read Full Post.

Greek Families Spend 18.6% of Their Money on Tutoring

Greece tops the EU countries in total family funds spent on tutoring services. Read Full Post.