Marina Koestler Ruben

Blog Posts: August 2011

Discussion Questions -- Oprah's Documentary Club: "Life 2.0"

This weekend I watched Life 2.0 (2010), the August film for the Oprah Winfrey Network's (OWN's) documentary club.  Life 2.0 follows players of Second Life.  If you're new to the name, Second Life is "the Internet's largest user-created, 3D virtual world community." Every user creates an avatar, an in-world character whose physical characteristics the user controls.  Once enveloped in Second Life, an avatar might DJ at dance parties, sell custom-built homes, or even develop an in-game romantic relationship that will destroy a real-life marriage--all scenarios that occur in Life 2.0.

Given some mild pillow talk and other PG content, parents might find this film most appropriate for middle and high school students.  And while the film doesn't openly endorse use of Second Life, do consider whether knowing about Second Life might inspire your child to want to check it out and how you feel about that possibility.  (Users of Second Life must be at least age 13, though their avatars can be younger.)  

Here are a few questions that can get you talking before/during/after the film:

1. An adult male whose avatar is an 11-year-old girl says, "I call Second Life the best and worst thing that has ever happened to me."  Before you watch the film, consider what this might mean.  In what ways could a virtual world both help and hurt its users?  After watching, can you identify the pros and cons of Second Life for each of the people you saw?


2. What makes Amy and Steven's relationship different in real life than in Second Life?  What struggles might a couple face when trying to continue a virtual relationship in the real world?


3. Asri makes a living designing homes and clothing for Second Life clientele.  The film introduces the idea that there's no lesser significance to a job based in Second Life.  In fact, Asri's brother says that he's jealous of Asri's ability to work from home.  What do you think?  Does it matter that Asri designs virtual homes rather than "real" homes?  Does it matter if someone's job is based in Second Life rather than in his or her "first life"?


4. One of Second Life's developers sees it as a perk that interacting in a virtual world means a person is safe from physical harm.  While this may be true, what are the trade-offs that the individual must make?  Are they worth it, and, if so, in what cases?


5. How much computer time is too much?  Does it depend on who you are?  Consider the screen time that's appropriate for a teenager.  What about an adult?  Does it matter whether the adult is in a relationship?  Replace "computer time" with "screen time," "Second Life time," or "electronics time" and think about how your answers change.


The film doesn't address whether Second Life can be used for educational purposes.  Can it?  If you know of any, I'd be interested in hearing about them.


Previous OWN documentaries:

June -- Sons of Perdition, about Mormon young men who have run away from or been kicked out of their polygamist communities

July -- Serving Life, about inmates in the Louisiana State Penitentiary who volunteer in the prison hospice

Upcoming OWN documentaries listed hereRead Full Post.

How to Build on a Child's Natural Interests

This weekend, I perused a review copy of Suddenly Homeschooling: A Quick-Start Guide to Legally Homeschool in 2 Weeks, by Marie-Claire Moreau, Ed.D.  This guide provides a 14-day plan for parents who need to prepare to homeschool very quickly--intended for a child who had to leave school unexpectedly, for example due to health, social, academic, or emotional reasons.

Though the book itself is geared toward a subset of homeschoolers, Moreau's website has broader appeal.  Among other resources, she provides articles that describe different styles of at-home education and videos about homeschool organization and approaches.  (Have you ever heard of Enki education?  I learned about it for the first time here.)

As part of Day Four of the Suddenly Homeschooling plan, Moreau prompts parents to list times when their children got excited about learning.  For example:

When he went to a friend's house and talked to the dog breeder.

When she learned how to edit her photos using the online tutorial.

Any time she talks to people about music.

Moreau advises parents to use this list to determine what materials students might enjoy using when learning (books, online lessons, etc.) and what subjects he or she might find most compelling.  Parent-tutors who don't homeschool can follow Moreau's advice as well.  Think about when you've seen your children really want to explore a subject.  Did your young son collect a handful of leaves at the playground?  Did your teenage daughter figure out how to dismantle and repair the DVD player?  Then consider what these examples say about your children's proclivities.  Are you encouraging your children to learn by way of these interests?  Maybe you can use those leaves to teach your son about the seasonal changes in deciduous trees.  Or you can encourage your daughter to learn more about the inner workings of mechanical devices and help her find out about college-level engineering programs.

Likewise, think back to your own childhood.  What did you do that fostered your love for a particular subject?  Think about whether your parents helped build on your interests.  If so, how?  If not, what could they have done? 

In short, make the most of your child's natural passions.  Your child's school may not have the time to educate each student this way, but it's a luxury that you, as a parent-tutor, can enjoy! Read Full Post.

What Talking to My Baby About Cats Has to Do with the Duggars

When I spend time with my four-month-old daughter, sometimes I get caught up figuring out how I'll explain things to her when she's older.  When she's two, I think, I'll talk about how cats have furry paws and tails.  When she's five, I'll describe what it means that they're mammals.  When she's seven, we'll talk about breeds, identifying everything from Siamese to Cornish Rex.

Talking a walk earlier, I realized I'd been so caught up in this line of thought that I wasn't saying anything at all to the baby.  I reminded myself that, though she's young, there's no better time to start with any and all of these "older-kid" discussions than now.  After all, what good does it do her if stay silent--or even if I restrict our cat conversation to her current level of comprehension?  "Caaa," I could say, pointing to a picture of a cat. "Caaa, caaa, caaa."  Those sounds are along the lines of the ones she makes, but why limit our interaction to one syllable?

One of the complaints about traditional school systems is that students spend too much time with children at the same level of development.  If we only ever communicate with our same-age peers, we may not be challenged or prompted to grow.

My two most recent posts have been about the 19-child Duggar family, all of whom have been homeschooled by their mother, Michelle.  This one is also inspired by the Duggars' educational philosophy as it relates to the ideas above, and as described in A Love That Multiplies: An Up-Close View of How They Make It Work.

Though the Duggar children range in age from newborn to adult, there is a time each day when they all sit around one table and participate in the same lesson.

The youngest ones may not understand the ideas the moment they hear them, but we believe the information goes into their brains and accumulates like a big pile of snow.  The snowdrift gets bigger and bigger as the children hear new information, especially when it's presented appealingly.  Then, gradually, as these children mature, the ideas they have heard start melting and soaking into their hearts and minds, and they begin comprehending.

In short, speak to your children in a way they understand--and, also, in a way they will understand. Read Full Post.

Writing at the (19-Child!) Duggar House: Thank-You Notes

On Friday I posted about a large homeschooling family, the Duggars, and the way they actively engage their children in learning by doing.

Now I'm reading Jim Bob and Michelle Duggars' second book, A Love That Multiplies: An Up-Close View of How They Make It Work.

In it, Michelle describes an activity she gives her children:

Sometimes as a homeschool writing project, and other times just out of the blue, we ask our children to write notes of thanks or appreciation to someone outside the family who has done something good.  It might be a thank-you  to someone at the nursing home who told them a story, or it could be addressed to firefighters and police officers in our area who serve our community with such dedication and courage.

What a great idea.  Why?

1. It's a kind act.

2. Thank-you notes allow students of any age to hone their writing skills.  In fact, correspondence in general is good for this, though thank-you notes may provide more focus, as they have a narrower purpose.

3. It's easy to respond to your child if he or she tends to ask when assignments will be useful in "real-life."

4. Your child might get a response to his or her letter, which (A) is exciting and (B) encourages continued letter-writing.  After Michelle Duggar's son Joshua wrote to the mayor of Fayetteville, Arkansas, to commend him on decisions he'd made in office, here's what happened:

 A few days later Josh received a handwritten letter from the mayor saying how much Josh's letter had meant to him.  Mayor Hanna said he had shown the letter to several others and had displayed it in his office.  He said many times people will write or e-mail to complain about something, but few take the time to say thank you.

Besides the academic value of Josh's thank-you note, it was beneficial in that it created a ripple effect, improving life for the mayor, others in his office, and perhaps even members of the community, depending on how the contents of the letter came to mind when the mayor made future decisions.  What traditional essay assignment can accomplish all that? Read Full Post.

How the Duggars Homeschool their 19 Children

As part of my quest to learn about individual families' homeschooling experiences, I read The Duggars: 20 and Counting! Raising One of America's Largest Families--How They Do It, by Michelle and Jim Bob Duggar.  In case you're trying to reconcile this blog post's title with the book's, the "20" refers to Michelle, Jim Bob, and the 18 J-name* children who existed as of the book's publication in 2008.  Since then, Josie has been born; if you watch TLC's show 19 Kids and Counting, you may be familiar with the health struggles Josie faced after she arrived three months premature.

The Duggars: 20 and Counting! describes why the Duggars have so many children (they're leaving their family size to "God's will"), how small a space they've lived in with how large a brood (900 square feet with five children, 2200 square feet with 14 children), how large a space they now live in (7000 square feet!), and how they manage (lots of washers and dryers, not much sleep).

The book discusses elements of the family's homeschooling regimen.  Though the family lists the particular book series they use for their formal lessons, I was more interested in the ways they informally educate their children.

The Duggars give their children firsthand exposure to career skills.  When their son Josh was a toddler, 

I installed a toddler car seat [in the tow truck] so the little guy could come along on daytime towing calls, and he loved it!  We dressed him in little coveralls like mine, and he happily accompanied Daddy on calls all over the area.

As we rode together, I talked constantly to Josh, teaching him the names of the things we saw, even the names of the streets we were crossing.  Later, I did the same thing with our twins Jana and John-David.  Soon, going anywhere in Springdale with one of our little ones was like having our own personal GPS system!

The family continued this practice when Jim Bob worked as a representative in the Arkansas House of Representatives:

Just as I had done when I was driving the tow truck, I often brought one, two, or three of the six oldest children to work with me in the legislature.  They would watch the House proceedings from the gallery or sit in the audience during meetings.  Sure, some of the meetings ran long, but they learned a lot, and later we would discuss what they had heard to reinforce the lessons.

Michelle and I would chuckle, overhearing them "play legislature" back at home.  "Mr. Chairman!" one of them would cry out, trying to get the others' attention.  A little later we would hear, "All in favor, say aye."

The Duggar parents realize how effective it is to learn through action:

Michelle and I like to take our children with us when we vote.  We want them to learn how elections work, including what happens in the voting booth.

Have you ever done home improvements?  Consider how you could involve your child in the process.  The Duggars dealt with their need for more space by building their own house, which became another hands-on learning opportunity:

...the children studied the dimensions, square footage, and weight loads of the structure as well as all the processes involved in the new home's construction.

You don't need a huge family or a yard full of steel I-beams to implement the Duggars' practices yourself.  To the extent you can, share your work life with your child.  Likewise, share your passions.  When educating their children, Michelle and Jim Bob follow a maxim that writers also value: Show, don't tell.  They teach through movement and by doing.  You can do the same.


* Joshua, Jana, John-David, Jill, Jessa, Jinger, Joseph, Josiah, Joy-Anna, Jeremiah, Jedidiah, Jason, James, Justin, Jackson, Johannah, Jennifer, Jordyn-Grace, and (post-publication) Josie Read Full Post.

"Read This Before Our Next Meeting" -- Brainstorming Tips

Through the BzzAgent program, I've been getting free Kindle copies of publications by The Domino Project.  Most recently, I received Read This Before Our Next Meeting: The modern meeting standard for successful organizations by Al Pittampalli.  (Anyone can download the digital edition for free until Tuesday, August 9.)

The gist of the book is that meetings often hinder rather than help; Pittampalli describes how to run a "modern meeting" to maximize benefits for companies.

One section of the book addresses brainstorming, and it reminded me that students often skip this crucial step in the paper-writing process.  They shouldn't, because preceding a research or analytical paper with an idea-generating session is what makes for a rich, thoughtful paper.  Students can then group related material and use it to craft a strong, thesis-driven paper with logically organized evidence.  

In short, brainstorming gives you more to work with, which means students end up culling the best material from a pool of possibilities rather than straining to think of something to say and experiencing "writer's block."

Parents, keep in mind what Pittampalli advises regarding brainstorming sessions:

Let's praise liberally.  No criticism.... Let's make sure that the measured output of the meeting is the breadth and quantity of ideas.

You can encourage your child to aim for a certain number of ideas:

This method forces people to let go of their filters in service of meeting the target number of ideas.

Or set a timer:

It's toward the very end that people start flinging up last-minute ideas to meet the mark.

Try getting up from the table:

Encourage people to stand up, walk around the room.  In fact, get out of the room.

In all the fun of brainstorming, be sure your child keeps track of the ideas.  It may be hard to recognize what's most valuable until the end.  So:

Let's write it all down ... even the silly stuff.

Is there anything else that you think parents or children should keep in mind about brainstorming?  If so, feel free to share below! Read Full Post.

Publication Day!

Dear Friends and Readers,

Do you interact with a school-age student--or know anyone who does?  If so, read on:

I'm pleased to announce the publication of How to Tutor Your Own Child: Boost Grades and Inspire a Lifelong Love of Learning--Without Paying for a Professional Tutor, which was released today, August 2, 2011.  The book is available in print and digital forms from Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House.

How to Tutor Your Own Child is appropriate for parents, grandparents, and caregivers of students of all ages (kindergarten through high school).  It aims to further the intellectual development of children by enriching their relationships and home environments.  The book draws on my experience as a professional tutor and covers the basics for parents: the Six-Step Session, communication tricks, ethical dilemmas, technological resources, and organization.  It includes a special chapter about supporting teenage students.

Gerald Richards, the CEO of the tutoring company 826 National, was generous enough to write the book's foreword.

You can purchase copies online from Amazon (where reviews are welcome!), Powell's, IndieBound, and Barnes & Noble, among other retailers.  If you live in the DC area, I encourage you to find a copy at Sullivan's Toys and Art Supplies, Barton's Child's Play, Kramerbooks, or Politics & Prose.

How to Tutor Your Own Child has a companion website, blog, Facebook page, and Twitter account, and here it is on Goodreads.  I'll be using all of these locations to post additional resources and share questions and comments from readers.  I would also be happy to hear from readers at

The book has gotten great feedback so far.  From Dr. Fran Walfish, a child psychotherapist and the author of The Self-Aware Parent:

Marina Ruben uses wisdom, experience, and laser-sharp intuition coupled with support and concrete tools and strategies.  This is a must-read for parents of every school-age child.

From Dr. Lea Ybarra, the recent executive director of the Center for Talented  Youth (CTY):

A thoughtful, humorous, and practical guide for parents and anyone interested in child enrichment.  Reading and discussing this book will be time well spent.

Reviewer Sara McGrath also recommended the book to homeschoolers and unschoolers, writing that its "obvious respect for children quickly won me over."

I'll be appearing at book festivals and speaking engagements throughout the year.  See here for details, and please do contact me if you'd like me to read or do a presentation or training session at your school, educational organization, book group, or conference.

If you know of others who might be interested in the book or its companion sites, I'd love for you to share this message with them.

Thanks so much!

Best wishes,
Marina Read Full Post.