Marina Koestler Ruben

Blog Posts: February 2014

Forgot Your Book?

If you've forgotten a great, un-copyrighted (i.e., old) book at school but needs to complete a reading assignment at home, here are a couple of free online resources that can help.   You can also use these sites without an official school assignment, of course.

1. Read using Project Gutenberg.

2. Listen to LibriVox.  This site can also be useful if you'd like to read along with a book that you have in print. Read Full Post.

Gifts for the Globally Aware

If your holiday wishes include spreading awareness about global needs--and, by extension, making a big-picture difference in the world--consider the following gifts.

1. For even the youngest children, see Barbara Kerley's books, which feature her vibrant photographs of parents and children around the world.  Thanks to A Little Peace, my toddler knows that all it takes to make a difference is, as she says, "uhn hand!"  We also own You and Me Together, which has prompted discussions about everything from the brass neck rings of a Padaung mother and daughter in Thailand to the colored powder decorating a mother and child celebrating India's Holi festival.

2. Gerda Muller's beautifully illustrated picture board books serve as a starting point for discussions about each of the four seasons: WinterSpringSummer, and Autumn.  

3. If you'd like to make a monetary donation in your child's name, consider the International Rescue Committee, which provides support for refugees in humanitarian crises, and Heifer International, which allows donors to select from among 30 different animals to donate as a form of sustainable agriculture to families in need around the world.  To make a Heifer gift more tangible for a child--and to increase the likelihood that he or she will remember and think about this type of giving--attach a matching stuffed animal (or a small animal figurine) to a note in which you explain the donation.

4. Several photojournalists have used their art to document the differences between and within borders.  Peter Menzel photographed families posed in front of their homes with all their worldly possessions, a project you can see in Material World.  He's also put together a similar book focusing solely on women's issues and three others depicting what families and individuals eat.  (What the World Eats is intended for kids.  Menzel's other books are intended for adults, so you may want to pre-screen them to determine whether you think their content is suitable for your children.  Though fascinating, Material World contains sad background information about some of the families, and the extreme inequity between families could be too troubling for some readers.)

Another book along these lines is Where the Children Sleepwhich uses James Mollison's photographs and descriptions to document the range of accommodations in which children sleep, from mattresses in fields to luxury bedrooms in the suburbs.  (The same warning I issued in the previous paragraph applies for this book.  Perhaps best as a gift for an adult or older teen.) 

5. Also for adult gift recipients (or mature young adults), try the Half the Sky documentary (2012), an incredible look at the oppression of women worldwide--and the way that select activists are making a difference to females who would otherwise live without literacy, shelter, safety, or respect.  I have not read the Half the Sky book on which the documentary was based, but I've heard it's also outstanding. Read Full Post.

Finally, an Intelligently Designed Building Toy for Girls

A couple of months ago, a friend brought Roominate to my attention.  It's a building toy designed for girls, intended to inspire females to enter the male-dominated fields of science, technology, engineering, and math.  There are no excessive frills, glitter, or princesses.  Instead, girls (or boys) snap together basic wooden pieces to build rooms and furniture, then use circuitry to illuminate and otherwise electrify their creations.

According to this article from GOOD, the project has exceeded its requested funds on Kickstarter, sold out its initial 1,300 units, and has a waiting list for its next batch.  Parents, consider:

The women say they were all given the tools at a young age to eschew gender stereotypes. Brooks got a saw when she asked for a Barbie. Kessler loved to solve math riddles. Chen grew up building Lego creations with her brother, never being told that the toy was intended for boys.

I have had the pleasure of knowing several brilliant female engineers, and this strikes me as exactly the kind of toy that they (and I) would have liked as children.

Speaking of building opportunities, check out Brightworks, a project-based, private, nonprofit K-12 school in San Francisco, and Tinkering School, which aims to "explore the notion that kids can build anything, and, through building, learn anything" and runs summer programs in Austin, Baltimore, Buffalo, Chicago, LA, and Northern California. Read Full Post.

The Best Facebook Groups for Parents to Follow

If you've read How to Tutor Your Own Child, you probably saw Chapter 6, "iDon't Think iKnow Where My Homework Is: Helping Kids Connect and Organize for the Twenty-First Century."  In it, I address how to maximize the educational impact of 21st-century technologies.

Now, I wish I could go back and augment the section about Facebook--since the book's publication, I've become much more familiar with Facebook accounts worth following.  While I can't amend the book, I can share information via this blog.  So here, in no particular order, are some of my favorite Facebookers.  For the most part, I'm letting their sites' descriptions speak for themselves:

1. How to Tutor Your Own Child -- Obviously this recommendation is biased(!), but I do try to provide information that will benefit parent-tutors, from book recommendations (e.g., Cheaper by the Dozen) to educational conversation starters ("The 45 Most Powerful Images of 2011") to video resources (YouTube's education channel).

2. Children's Book-a-Day Almanac -- "Daily children’s book recommendations and events from Anita Silvey."

3. Play at Home Mom -- "We are a group of moms who have a firm belief in positive parenting and play based learning. We hope to inspire, educate, uplift, and empower you all to be the best moms (and dads) you can be. "

4. Read Aloud Dad -- "Read Aloud Dad is all about children's book reviews, read aloud tips and advice for all those who are involved with reading to and with children!"

5. Tinkerlab -- "TinkerLab aims to help parents tap into a child’s natural curiosities through creative experiments that support independent thinking, enthusiasm for the wonders of the world, problem posing and solving, and the imagination. The projects and ideas shared here are child-centered and value the processes of exploration, experimentation, and curiosity."

6. Grammar Girl -- I did mention Grammar Girl's podcast in the book, but not her Facebook page.  "Grammar Girl provides short, friendly tips to improve your writing. Covering the grammar rules and word choice guidelines that can confound even the best writers, Grammar Girl makes complex grammar questions simple with memory tricks to help you recall and apply those troublesome grammar rules."

7. I Can Teach My Child! -- "Helping you be your child's first teacher--Activities and resources for parents of children birth to 5 years."

8. Our Montessori Home -- Advice and resources from a Montessori family.

9. -- "My goal is to sneak in a little bit of learning for my kiddos--disguised as fun--every day."

Thanks to all of these Facebookers for their contributions to families everywhere!

Readers, what sites provide you with inspiration?  Do you use any of the same resources that I do, or do you have other recommendations?  Use the comment section (below) to share your favorite Facebook groups. Read Full Post.

Q&As from Parents at St. Patrick's in DC

Thanks so much to St. Patrick's Episcopal Day School (K-8, DC) for the well-organized book event yesterday!  A great group of parents packed into a classroom to hear my presentation about tutoring, and they asked smart questions.  I'd like to adapt parts of the Q&A here, for everyone's benefit:

Q: How do I encourage a distractable student to stay on task when I'm out of the room?

A: Ask your child how long a particular task should take.  Then set a timer and challenge your child to see whether he can finish by the time it goes off.  You can set your own alarm and check back at intervals (and at the end of the time) to see if the time pressure has helped your child stay focused.  This can also help your child develop time management skills and a more accurate sense of how long particular tasks take.

Q: My child works too quickly.  How do I teach him/her to slow down and check his/her work?

A:  If your child consistently rushes--for example, when working on math problems--ask him to talk you through the process of completing a problem.  As you do it, model the pace that you think is appropriate.  Then ask him to teach you how to check your work.  Do so slowly and deliberately, doing the process while speaking the language that you want your child to be using in his head while reviewing.  It can be hard to TELL a child how to slow down, but he may change his speed if you SHOW him how you'd do it.

Q: When my child reads a book that I haven't read, what's a productive way to engage him/her in conversation about it?

A: You can certainly try, "Tell me about your book," but if you want to get more specific with your questions, allowing your child to think about the reading in a new way, you can attempt these as well: "Would you recommend this book to me?  To students of a certain age or interest?  Why?"  "Who's the main character and what does he/she want?"  "Is there something that's standing in that character's way?"  "Did you think this author has a particular way of writing?" OR "Do you think you could identify this author by his/her writing?  Is there something unique about it?"  Asking more directed questions will allow your child to create focused responses, which will be a useful skill to have when responding to writing prompts or just trying to make a concise point in conversation.


I ran out of time at the event, so I didn't get to recommend two other ideas for reading matter.  One is the book I recently raved about, Guerrilla Learning.  The other is The Teacher's Calendar, an annual publication that lists each day's historical, literary, and cultural anniversaries.  It's a good resource for parents and children, providing fodder for interesting, timely, and educational conversations.  Enjoy! Read Full Post.

Online Educational Resources

For the past several months, I've been posting links to education resources on my Facebook and Twitter pages.  I'm categorizing all the links here, for easy access.  I hope you find these useful.  I'll plan to update and organize this list as I accumulate links.  (Last updated 12/1/11)



Leafsnap, an electronic field guide (free)

My First Classical Music App ($4.99)



Chalkboard contact paper

Felt rolls and flannel boards

"Five Favorite Museums to Visit with Kids"



Light panels

List of "Top 25 Picture Books"

List of "Top 25 Teacher Mom Blogs"

"Pumpkins and Place Value"

Sensory boards

Window writing



"Q&As from Parents at St. Patrick's in DC"


Caldecott Medal Winner, 1938 - Present

Newbery Medal Winners, 1922 - Present

Other book and media awards

About Encyclopedia Brown

About Guerrilla Learning

Material World: A Global Family Portrait

Math for Grownups, by Laura Laing



College application tips


"DC parents choosing to home-school their children" (includes names of support organizations)

Don't write lesson objectives on the board.

Franz Liszt as first rock star

"A home-schooler goes to college"

NYT: Waldorf education in California: "A Silicon Valley School That Doesn't Compute"



"Video game playing tied to creativity"



How to "Prepare for the Science Fair"

"To Remember Better, Build a Mansion in Your Mind"

YouTube's educational videos



Calendar of writing prompts

"Crafting a Thesis Statement"

Jokes from McSweeney's to use as lead-ins to grammar/punctuation review

  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.