Archive for November, 2009

Curiosity Lane: 5 Tips to Get Writing Rolling

Monday, November 30th, 2009

I love to write but on some days the words flow more easily than on others.

So many students resist writing and it’s often because they can’t get started. With them, and with myself, I try several approaches:

1. Brainstorming ideas and simply jotting them down as they emerge can help by getting those ideas out without worrying about the shape they’ll take. I tell my students that Step One is to locate your thoughts and Step Two is to worry about how artfully you express those thoughts. Keep those steps separate!

It’s quite surprising how many kids do a good job of organizing and expressing their thoughts coherently, once they’ve identified what those thoughts are.

2. The opposite strategy may also work: begin with a blank outline. I sketch the bare bones of a five-paragraph essay outline…

I. Introduction

II. First Point

III. Second Point

IV. Third Point

V. Conclusion

…and from here encourage the student to fill in as much as he can, in whatever order it occurs to him. Again, so much of what intimidates kids (and all of us?)  about writing is this feeling that what they write needs to come out perfectly right away. They don’t realize that writing is a tool for thinking and that it can start out sloppy and incomplete and disorganized and imperfect.

3. I’ve had a few kids who need me to write the first three or four words of the first sentence of their essay, and it’s as if that little start uncorks all the rest of their thoughts and they flow.

4. I love this trick from my writer friend, Jane: Pretend you are explaining your subject to one person, and write down what you “say.” Edit it later.

5. I recently discovered this last trick as I was preparing a presentation I’m giving tomorrow: Use your computer’s PowerPoint program. It has all kinds of outlining suggestions and templates. Brainstorm or write your outline or rough draft on PowerPoint, then copy it onto a Word document and finish up.

Little Kids Learning to Count

Thursday, November 26th, 2009


Parents are thrilled when their child first gives evidence of  “knowing her numbers.” Little Suzy has learned to count! And sure enough, four-year-old Suzy can point to objects and recite One, Two, Three…

But what does Suzy really know? What’s really going through her head as she rattles off these words?

Doing the Math: Math Instruction Should Be More Brain-Friendly (Including Five Study Tips)

Tuesday, November 24th, 2009

I’ve been tutoring math my whole life (since I was twelve! No kidding!…a topic for some other post), and I’ve never met anyone who couldn’t do math. It always seemed to me that the problem was not with the person, but with some preconceived expectation they were being forced to meet.

I met my own Waterloo in college calculus. I was used to the high-school pace of going to class every day for 50 minutes, and that daily dose of math instruction worked well for me. But now class met only twice a week and each class was two solid (VERY solid!) hours long. We covered five or six textbook lessons in each session. My brain simply could not handle all this.

And my freshman calculus experience was a cake-walk compared to my graduate-school statistics course. The class met once a week, from 6 to 10 PM. Imagine! After a full day’s work, there we doctoral students sat, laboring to absorb advanced statistics, for FOUR hours straight.  At 10PM we all staggered out like zombies. (My tutoring skills came in handy here; the textbook was pretty good and I was able to teach myself the material by working at it slowly, every day, during hours when I was awake and alert).

I’m a good student and I like math, but these classes just did not work for me. I find that I often need to adjust instruction to make it more brain-friendly. Whether you’re an adult or a kid, perhaps the math you’ve been getting isn’t right for you.

Our educational system is still structured on an outdated “blank slate” or “empty vessel” model of learning. It assumes that all people should learn the same material at roughly the same pace given the same instruction. We fill a classroom with same-age children (or we fill a college classroom with adults) and we expect them to receive and retain whatever material the teacher delivers.

Basically, we imagine the learners’ heads as containers into which knowledge is poured. Then, if learning doesn’t happen well enough or fast enough, we go looking for some flaw in the learner (perhaps a crack or a …

Five Tips for Helping Your Child (or Yourself!) Learn Math

Sunday, November 22nd, 2009

Many kids (and adults) struggle to learn math because classroom instruction isn’t enough to master this subject.

For one thing, math is cumulative.

  • A student needs to master the earlier concepts before being able to understand the later ones.
  • This means that if a kid falls behind the pace of the class he’s going to rapidly become more and more lost and confused.

Another problem is that becoming good at math requires active practice.

  • Listening to a teacher explain math simply isn’t enough.
  • Even if a student feels like she “gets it” at the time, she must practice on her own to really entrench that understanding in her head.

Five Tips for Coaching Your Child in Math

(Adult learners: Be your own coach, or help each other!)

1. Remind him that it’s hard work

I tell my students that their brains are going to do hard work and sometimes feel a little bit sore. That’s to be expected! Just like exercise, math requires effort and sometimes you have to push your brain and tire it out somewhat.

2. Enforce regular practice

Math should be practiced every day. On light- or non-homework days, go back and review concepts from previous lessons. Take hard problems and rework them a day or two later. If your child is struggling, she should be doing some math for at least ten minutes every day, even if it’s just reviewing the basics. It will get easier over time!

“Math” and “School” Are an Imperfect Fit

Saturday, November 21st, 2009

P6290014It’s no wonder that learning math is quicker or easier for some people than for others. Math is not a natural skill. There’s no “math part of the brain” that automatically seeks out and absorbs algebra.

We learn math by painstakingly linking each new concept or procedure to what we already know. Our brains do this by building complex webs of connections between neurons leading to multiple brain areas. This process can’t happen overnight!

Your Brain on Math

Friday, November 20th, 2009

P6290013So many of us have negative feelings about our experiences learning math, and we walk around thinking of ourselves as “not math people.” And there is so much hype these days about math being easy and natural and fun for kids to learn, but then again we see so many of our children struggling.

Why, truly, is math so hard (let’s face it, it is!) for kids and adults alike? Part of the answer lies in our brain structure and the sorts of mental contortions math requires.

Doing the Math: A Tutor’s Bread and Butter

Tuesday, November 17th, 2009

Maddie artwork 2010 005This series of blogs is devoted to learning and mathematics.

Having said this, half of you are now on your way out the door…but please wait! We’re going to start by looking at why so many of us hate and avoid math, and why so many of our kids have trouble with this subject.

True Confession:  I’m a math tutor, but I’m not “a math person.” I’m much more of the literary, writerly, psychologist type.

But because I tutor math people assume I’m a whiz, and often they ask me very hard math questions I then can’t answer, or they challenge me to calculate big numbers quickly in my head, which I also cannot do.

I'm Always Learning

Tuesday, November 17th, 2009

When I was in graduate school my advisor had this sign on his door:

Life is the Only Game Where the Object is to Learn the Rules

Isn’t this a great way to think about life?… As a challenging game in which we’re constantly figuring out the twists and turns?

By the time I enrolled in my doctoral program I had already been a professional tutor for over 20 years. I made my living (and still mostly do) as a teacher without a classroom.  I sit with one kid at a time, shoulder-to-shoulder, working together on math or writing or science or SAT questions. We meet at the library, or the bookstore, or the coffee shop, or at my favorite location of all, the kitchen table.

It’s the greatest job I can imagine.

Tutoring is so much more than just studying for a test or helping write a paper. One of the great things I get to do is help kids understand how their own minds work. Why is math so hard? What’s the best way to learn those vocab words? How can you stop making careless mistakes? Why do you need to learn this stuff, anyway?…and how can you enjoy it more and feel better about yourself?

My other love is, well, Love! I spent almost ten years as a relationship coach and dating service owner, and I remain passionately interested in relationship dynamics and helping people learn more about their partners and themselves.

Learning is so much more than just this thing we do at school. Birds do it, bees do it… Rats and pigeons and even paramecia do it! People do it all day, every day, throughout life.

Every day my interactions with kids and adults teaches me some lesson, and I can hardly wait to share these things with you.

I’m excited to have this place to talk about learning and all its facets…learning and school, learning and work, learning and emotions, learning and relationships, Learning and Life.

Thanks for joining me in Always Learning!

Welcome to Always Learning!

Wednesday, November 11th, 2009

Welcome to our new blog, Always Learning, by Leigh Pretnar Cousins. Always Learning is about how learning is a life-long journey, one that continues long outside of school.

Leigh Pretnar Cousins is a private tutor and test prep coach, with a masters degree in education and doctoral work in educational psychology and child development. Leigh also spent almost ten years as a relationship coach and dating service owner. This eclectic background makes her curious about many topics and the connections between them, and finds her writing about education, relationships, personality development and more.

I’m pleased to welcome you to this new blog, and hope you gain some nuggets of wisdom and learning yourself from the entries published here in the months and years to come! Please join Leigh in Always Learning!



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