Sunday, September 27, 2009

Tutor Roundtable Question #1

Each month, we at Tutorpedia come up with an education related question to pose to a group of tutors, teachers, school administrators, or counselors. We call it a "Roundtable Question." This is the first of many monthly installments of the Tutor Roundtable.

I sent out an e-mail with our first question:

What is the most important thing a student needs to learn in school?

Here is an interesting response:

"I taught in an inner city school for 2 years so my answer is more specific to this group of students. I think that looking back, one of the most important things for me to teach my students was morals/values. Although it is equally important to teach them basic skills so that they can succeed in the future, I found out through my experience that these lessons on skills were useless if students did not learn to value them. The parents of most of my students were hardly ever home to spend time with their children, thus I had to take on a parenting role as well as a teacher role. "
-Romina Kim

It's worth noting that this response focus on something other than just having students memorize facts, dates and other protocol. The most important part of an education to me is teaching my kids how to be better learners. At my school, we often stress that we want students to be "life-long learners." I try to accomplish this daily by making sure they complete the little things like copying important information on the board to help improve their note-taking skills. If they start to make connections between learning and real life, learning becomes easier and easier.

Thursday, September 24, 2009


We've all heard the old joke: a concertgoer is lost in Midtown Manhattan, and stops to ask someone on the street how to get to Carnegie Hall.  Their response: "Practice."

Practice is the key to refining any craft.  Practice isn't always fun; indeed it's often tedious.  But if any of us are interested in becoming masters of our craft, practice is the only way.  As Rafe Esquith has quipped: There Are No Shortcuts.  Musicians practice their scales for hours on end, not because their recitals or concerts will involve playing those simple progressions, but because they know that they are developing a foundation for greater things.  Even Miles Davis and John Coltrane, incredible musicians remembered for improvisation, practiced scales for up to 12 hours every day.

Coltrane, Esquith, and the Karate Kid all understand the value of long hours spent practicing the basics.  Most of us do not have the discipline (and the ear) of Coltrane, or the obsessed passion of Esquith, but we can learn from them.  Our success in school is often no different from Daniel-san whitewashing the fence or Coltrane practicing his scales - in fact, we need to spend concerted amounts of time plowing through algebra problem sets if we are to master the distributive property or thinking and rethinking all angles of a historical event if we are to fully appreciate it.  Put simply, there is no substitute for practice.

Yet, our culture is filled with those who promise a short and easy way to the top.  Fad diets, get-rich-quick schemes, and test preparation services that guarantee a boosted score with minimal preparation are rife.  Many test prep companies focus on the structure and setup of standardized tests rather than the content of the tests, and then imbue students with a set of test-taking strategies and tricks.  These have their place - it is absolutely crucial to understand the beast you are to do battle with - but equally important is time spent acutally learning the content and skills that will serve you on these tests.  And that involves practice.

Whether we choose to excel at standardized tests, music, the martial arts, or anything else in this world, we need to practice.  Psychologists put the amount of time one needs in order to achieve expertise at 10,000 hours (that's about 4 1/2 years of full-time work!).  Whatever the number may be, the point is that in order to achieve our goals, and achieve them well, there is no shortcut.  We must put our time in and practice the basics.  Only then will we be able to find our ways to the respective Carnegie Halls in our lives.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Standards & Standardization

So much going on now that school is back in session... There are potential walk-outs at UC campuses across the state due to budget cuts and tuition hikes. Todd Gallagher, a 33-year old author and former ESPN writer, is writing a new book about going back to high school - by going back to high school. And as I try to keep my eyes open writing this, I am reminded of the early start time to school (and work!) that has serious effects on students, teachers, and schools in general.

None of these stories, however, get me more riled up than standardized testing. Deborah Meier and Diane Ravitch, two of today's most influential educators, share a common passion for improving schools, yet are often at odds about how to do so. In a recent post to their blog on Ed Week, "Bridging Differences", Ravitch wrote a letter to Meier about her beliefs on testing, what she calls the NCLB Paradox. She reprimanded NCLB's misguided approach to high-stakes testing, and talked about the harmful results that come from punitive discipline (closing down schools instead of reforming them) to unfair rewards (NYC teachers received $33 million in bonuses after they reported allegedly phony test scores).

Educators have argued about standards and standardized tests for years. Teachers constantly debate the value of learning "hard content" vs. "soft skills". How do we measure what students learn? And more importantly, what should students learn? When studying history, is it more important to learn specific facts (when World War II broke out, where the major battles took place, etc.), or is more important to understand general ideas (what led to WWII, what effect the war had on technology, education, politics, etc.)? When studying science, is it more important to learn how to balance chemical equations (photosynthesis: 6H2O + 6CO2 + sunlight = C6H12O6 + 6O2, for those currently in chemistry class), or is it more important to understand the general idea that if we feed plants water, carbon dioxide, and light, they'll give us glucose (sugar) and oxygen in return? How should we measure literacy (language, science, math, and history)? Just like everything, probably a little from column A, a little from column B...

We need to set high standards for all students, not just those in low-performing public schools, and not just those in high-performing private schools - ALL STUDENTS. This is an assumption that is lost among proponents of standardized testing - just because I don't like standardized tests does not mean I don't like standards. We just need to have different ways of measuring standards, and bubbling in a multiple-choice test in a timed situation is not the best way, and it certainly is not the only way. Not only have many studies shown the biases of such tests, but these tests can also be so ineffective that they result in conflicting conclusions. The stress and anxiety that comes from a timed, multiple-choice, pencil-and-paper exam (see the SAT, CAHSEE, and STAR assessments, just to name a few) do not show what students know and are able to do. The best educators - teachers, tutors, and parents - know that we all learn differently, so we must measure this learning differently - through authentic assessments. This can be in the form of narratives (using standard rubrics designed by teachers), exhibitions (public presentations of student work), and performance assessments (testing know-how, along with know-what). These are all ways to assess students according to their individual learning styles, be they audio, visual, or kinesthetic.

Combine these assessments with computer-based learning and student-centric technology, and we will have successfully disrupted class. Until we figure out a better way to measure student achievement, we will continue to waste millions of dollars on failed schools, failed tests, and failed policies that do more harm than good. Sure, authentic assessments - based upon high standards - will cost more money and take more time than sticking a piece of paper and pencil in front of a student, but consider the alternative: students held back, schools shuttered, and an entire generation of kids who think they're dumb because a dumb test says so.

Sunday, September 20, 2009


Adaptability is probably the most important skill I've had to employ in my first month as a teacher. As I said in an earlier post, I do not see my students nearly enough to make a huge impact on their knowledge of Spanish language and culture. This week will be no exception because both my seventh and eighth graders will be hard at work on the ITBS standardized tests all next week and unfortunately, I will get to see them even less.

The three days I will have with students this week will be of the utmost importance because along with the eighth graders completing a quiz, all my students will be asked to prepare for the visit from Father Frank's Kids. Father Frank's Kids are a group of students from Latin American countries that come to the school each year and meet our students. This year they will perform a dance and I am expected to lead a Spanish bingo game with the kids and my eighth graders.

The visitors arrive in two weeks. So far, my students and I have discussed different questions to ask them, such as "Te gusta futbol?" and "Cual es tu comida preferida?" but the real test will come when my students are forced to interact with the visitors. I will see firsthand how my own students will adapt to the task of serving as ambassadors by communicating with confidence in a language other than their own.

It's difficult to plan lessons when classes are cut short and I don't see my students as much as I'd like. However, during my first month, I've made it clear to my students that though I may have a rapid teaching style in the short time I spend with them, I'm always available to give extra help. I've given them extra time to study the "Expresate" Textbook for tomorrow's quiz. Just as I have adapted to their style of learning, they will be expected to adapt to my style of teaching.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Debunking the SAT

Of all the hoops students are made to jump through on their road to college, few are as disliked as the SAT. The test stands apart from content learned in school, and is rarely - if ever - thought of as having any amount of intrinsic value, but it nevertheless weighs heavy in the minds of countless college-bound students.  To many, the four hours spent sitting this standardized test is a make-or-break when it comes to college admissions. 

It's unfortunate that one's SAT score can be the pivotal deciding factor for admissions counselors.  Students' grades, accumulated over four years of work and study, seem to be a much more valid and reliable indicator of ability and performance than one number generated on one Saturday morning.  Yet, colleges still rely on the SAT to tell them something about their applicants.  Why?  What does the SAT tell you, exactly?

According to Edward Carroll, whose job it is to take the SAT over and over again, the infamous test tells you nothing except how good you are at taking the SAT.  He elaborates in this Washington Post article:

The SAT, more than anything else, shows how well you take the SAT. It is NOT a measure of a student's raw math or verbal ability. The College Board itself does not claim that the SAT predicts subject skills, but rather that it is a predictor of performance in college (along with the rest of a student's application).

Personally, I think it also filters out students who can't perform quickly. The test is rigidly and tightly timed. It is very, very difficult to finish each section and the [College Board] knows it. They design it that way so that they can assure a nice range of scores to the colleges for comparison.
 In this light, the SAT seems like cruel and unusual punishment.  To many students it may feel that way.  And they might be correct.  But just knowing these simple facts - that the SAT is not a measure of one's academic ability and that it's designed to be very hard to finish in the allotted time - might put some people's minds at ease.  The SAT, more than almost any other part of a young person's school experience, is about learning how to abide by the rules put in front of them, and play by those rules as well as they can.  Many other test prep companies make money (A LOT of money) teaching students tips and strategies on how to play by those rules as craftily as possible, and this does result in improved scores.  Knowing the rules and how to work in and out of them is an important skill, but at some point there must also be a recognition that this is simply a game that is being played, a hoop that students are being made to jump through.

Tutorpedia offers SAT prep both for individuals and as a small group workshop.  Tutorpedia's directors are also available to give free speaking engagements about the SAT to students, families, or school.  We do examine the context - the structure - of the test, but we prefer to focus on the content, the actual substance of what is being tested.  In this way, SAT success is directly tied to generalizable skills and habits of mind that students can use in school and in life.  And in this way, the SAT becomes a little more meaningful. 
Some colleges have de-emphasized the SAT in their applications, and some have gone "test-optional," that is, they have stopped requiring the test altogether.  The list of forward thinking schools like this is growing.  We at Tutorpedia applaud this stance, and hope to see more critical analysis of tests like the SAT from institutions of higher learning.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Good Value Colleges

Today's tough economic times make college decisions even more difficult. If it wasn't tough enough deciding between in-state or out-of-state schools, public or private, big or small, liberal arts or not, now your (or your parent's) pocket book will play a big role in where you decide to continue your education. The University of California schools have raised tuition 10% this year; even our beloved community colleges have increased their sticker price. The Ivies have been - and always will be - outrageously expensive. (The average hot liberal arts college costs $39,000/year, and four years at Harvard will set you back over $200,000!)

So where can you find the best bang for your buck? Or, in today's ed-speak, the best learning for your lifestyle? Check out these 10 interesting, quirky, yet very cost-effective colleges that Mother Jones Magazine put out this month. Here's a few highlights:

Berea College (Kentucky)
Tuition: Free!
All 1,549 students get free tuition for four years. Some live in the Ecovillage, environmentally friendly housing that features a "permaculture food forest" and a contraption that makes sewage so clean you can swim in it.

New College of Florida (Sarasota)
Tuition: $26,300/$4,700 in state
The Sarah Lawrence of the South favors tutorials and evaluations over giant lectures and letter grades. In the past 14 years, it's cranked out more Fulbright Scholars per student than Harvard, Stanford, or Yale.

California State University - Monterey Bay (Seaside)
Tuition: $3,845 + $339 per unit
The nearby Monterey Bay serves as the classroom for the school's popular Environmental Science, Technology & Policy major.

The University of Minnesota-Morris
Tuition: $8,830
This public liberal arts college has academic chops and green-energy cred: By 2010, it expects to go carbon neutral with help from an on-site wind turbine, which already produces 60 percent of the power on campus.

The College of New Jersey (Ewing)
Tuition: $16,825/$8,718 in state
Students at this small public college can make a four-year commitment to participate in service projects in return for a scholarship that covers up to full tuition. And they swear that the annual LollaNoBooza bash isn't totally lame.

So as you can see, lots of good colleges, lots of good cost. Harvard will give away $150 million this year in scholarships, but the University of Kansas, which has a fraction of the endowment that Harvard has, hands out $25 million every year. Point being, don't let this financial mess get in the way of finding the right college for your specific needs, interests, and budget. It might take some more research, some more patience, and some more time, but in the end, the next four years are well worth it.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Importance of a Foreign Language

This week I decided to test the prior Spanish knowledge of my seventh grade students by asking them to interview a partner in the language and then write a newspaper article about their subject. I didn't expect them to know how to conjugate every verb or even form complete sentences in Spanish. What I was looking for was creativity and their ability to use the book or ask questions when they needed help. Thankfully, many of them did and I enjoyed walking around the room and seeing the learning process in action.

The experience of having a foreign language class is invaluable. However, a recent article in the New York Times suggests that as schools face budget cuts, foreign language classes are among the first to go.

From the article:

"And in New Jersey, the Ridgewood district is replacing its three elementary school Spanish teachers with Rosetta Stone, an interactive computer program that cost $70,000, less than half their combined salaries."

I believe that a teacher who inspires students to learn not just the basics of Spanish but also its utility in the real world is far more beneficial than any software program. I try my hardest to tell my students that Spanish will benefit them beyond their wildest dreams in the future. I explain that in California it is vital to at least have conversational knowledge of Spanish because it will help them communicate with the growing Hispanic population. Knowing a foreign language will also give them a leg up on the competition in the global economy.

I am fortunate to teach at a school that includes foreign language in its curriculum. The unfortunate part of my job is that I do not see all of my students every day because of a rotating schedule. This makes it difficult to gauge the progress of my students. However, I make the most of it by inspiring creativity and interest in the language. I believe an assignment that tests their knowledge is a solid foundation on which to build their Spanish skills.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Obama's Back To School Message

President Obama's back to school message to our country's students may have been overshadowed this week by his health care message to Congress, but to those of us who care deeply about the future of our society, it could not be more pertinent. The President spends most of his time grappling with issues in education on a very broad policy level. He, of course, should continue to do this, but it was very good to see that he recognizes that all his work - indeed, all work at any level above the classroom - is ultimately intended to serve individual students. And ultimately, education is a very personal endeavor.

Here are some of the take home points from Obama's Back To School message:

1. School helps you discover what you're good at. Sometimes you don't know what you're good at or what you like until you try. School - and high school in particular - is a place to try everything out. Everyone has preferences, but it's impossible to know what you prefer until you try a wider range of things. My sister, for example, never much liked studying languages. She took an American Sign Language class in college as a way of meeting her distribution requirements, and ended up majoring in ASL and becoming an interpreter.

2. You need to have an education for a good job. It's often a student's gripe that their coursework has no relevance to their lives, that they'll never use it in the "real world" (and as an aside, what's so un-real about school?), and so on. What they are often missing is that the process is itself a valuable thing that they are learning. And it is exactly these processes, what are often called "21st Century Skills" or "soft skills" that employers are most often seeking.

Or, if you'd rather, we can let the data speak for itself:

3. There is no excuse for not trying.  This may be the most important thing that Obama said.  While it is true that some people have certain social advantages over other people, nothing is insurmountable.  Each of our destinies lie in our own hands, and while we have to contend with the randomness and chaos of the universe from time to time, each of us ultimately charts our own course.  Our success in school and in life, though, depends on whether or not we try.  Or, in the words of a great 20th Century philosopher, you can make it if you try.

This sort of empowerment, the knowledge that each of our education is up to us, is at the same time a heavy responsibility.  Teachers, principals, administrators, Senators, Presidents, and tutoring companies will do everything they can to do set students up for success, but ultimately, the responsibility of education falls onto the shoulders of every student.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Disruptive Innovation

I'm reading a good book called Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns by Harvard Business Professor Clayton Christensen. His previous books introduced the idea of "disruptive innovation." Think about the computer revolution, and how Apple's personal computers of the 1980s and '90s disrupted IBM's mainframe computers (which filled entire rooms) and Digital Equipment Corporation's minicomputers (which, though smaller than mainframes, still cost $200,000) of the 1950s and '60s. He explains,
a disruptive innovation is not a breakthrough improvement. Instead of sustaining the traditional improvement trajectory in the established plane of competition, it disrupts the trajectory by bringing to the market a product or service that actually is not as good as what companies historically had been selling... by making the product affordable and simple to use, the disruptive innovation benefits people who had been unable to consume... people we call "non-consumers."
Christensen goes on to explain several other interesting points. For one, disruptive innovations take root in simple, undemanding applications, where definitions of quality and improvement mean very different things (the PC was not as big or powerful as minicomputers, but they were way less expensive and easy to use, thus creating demand in a market that was never there). Secondly, think about what society has determined to be the purpose of schools, and note the different metrics that we use to define quality and improvement:
  • Job #1: Preserve the democracy and inculcate democratic values. Along with teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic, early educators taught ethics and morals through mostly Greek and Roman history. School was not for everyone, but rather to assimilate everyone into American values and culture.
  • Job #2: Provide something for every student. Honors courses, APs, special education classes, ESL education, vocational studies, and extracurricular activities expanded to provide something for everyone. Schools could no longer be de jure separate but equal after the Supreme Court's 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education. (Although by all accounts they were - and many still remain today - de facto separate but equal.)
  • Job #3: Keep America competitive. The landmark 1983 report by the National Commission on Excellence in Education, "A Nation At Risk," began solemnly: "Our Nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world." The report said the United States was losing ground to the Japanese and Europeans, and as evidence, cited data showing subpar performance on standardized tests.
  • Job #4: Eliminate poverty. The passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001 no longer made it good enough to raise average test scores. Individual metrics had to rise as well: for low-income students, minority students, ESL students, students with documented learning differences, and more. The goal posts were moved yet again.
It's unfair and nearly impossible to continually improve if we continually change how we measure improvement. Chistensen says, "the public schools have been required to do the equivalent of rebuilding an airplane in mid-flight." So what's the disruptive innovation that will change the way the world learns - according to all measurements? It takes root in two phases: computer-based learning, and student-centric technology. We know we all learn differently, so why don't we teach differently? Today's software can accommodate different paces and styles of learning, so students can choose differently ways to learn the material. He goes on: "Whereas computer-based learning is disruptive relative to the monolithic mode of teacher-led instruction, student-centric technology is disruptive relative to personal tutors. Tutors today are largely limited to the wealthy; and for those privileged few, good tutors come as close as possible to helping students learn each subject in ways that match the way their brains are wired to learn."

My final point: tutoring doesn't have to be limited to the wealthy. In fact, by some estimates, I've heard of schools that claim 60% of their students have tutors (I'd say 15-20% is more accurate across your average school, if there is such a thing). In any case, tutors cater to the individual needs of their students - so whether they're studying for an AP exam (that their school doesn't offer), writing an essay for their college application (that their college counselor doesn't have time to read), or trying to understand the difference between sine, cosine, or tangent (because their teacher has a class of 30 students and it's tough for even the best teacher to reach all 30 kids), a tutor can focus on student-centric learning. Eventually, education companies will develop creative software that adapts to students' learning styles (see the Florida Virtual School and Apex Learning) and questions answered (see Knewton and Grockit, or anyone who's ever taken the GRE). I still maintain that Web 2.0 is only half the picture - in Tutorpedia's hybrid tutoring model, you work with a tutor to deliver the maximum potential of student-centered technology - someone who can cater to individual learning styles and abilities, all through personal relationships and shared experiences.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

To New Beginnings: Classroom Management

I stood in front of the 36 faces staring back at me. They were watching my every move as I took roll and explained my plan for the class. Nervousness consumed me. I'd never had to get the attention of so many students at one time, let alone try to teach them a lesson. I was used to a much smaller group. I took a deep breath and explained my syllabus. My school year had begun.

I'd been hired to work as a junior high Spanish teacher at a private school in Danville at the beginning of the summer. My girlfriend's sister, a teacher at the school, had suggested I try my hand at the position since I speak Spanish and have tutoring experience. I showed up to give an impromptu lesson for a class of sixth graders. The Principal and other teachers told me repeatedly that they would be looking at my classroom management skills. The term "classroom management" seemed almost foreign to me since I had no formal training as a teacher. I got up in front of the class and was able to engage them in an activity where I taught them some summer Spanish vocab words.

Fast forward a few months and it was finally the first day of school. I've always had a love for the Spanish language and culture so the goal of my lesson was to inspire my students to find that same love. I showed the students a power point presentation of my year in Spain that showcased a variety of pictures of my life in Madrid. I was excited to show my presentation but was not prepared for what would happen to disrupt my plan.

One class of eighth graders would not quiet down and give me the respect and attention I deserved. They talked while I was trying to explain my syllabus. They made jokes while I was giving my presentation. When I tried to give them all Spanish names, some tried to be funny by picking names like "Jose Jalapeno" just to mess with me. I'm usually very patient, but this class pushed me so far that I had to raise my voice just to compete with the volume of thirty-six voices. Since I was a new teacher and had no training in classroom management, it made it all the more difficult to try and regain control.

It has been a few weeks since that first day and things have already calmed down quite a bit in that particular class. I've learned never to raise my voice in an attempt to talk over them. I've also let them know that I'm there to help them learn Spanish but at the same time, I have no problem zeroing in on a talker and asking for their attention in front of everyone. It's especially effective if I give the order in Spanish because I'm guaranteed a reaction AND their attention. It will probably take me all year to develop an effective classroom management system, and for that matter, learn all of my students' names, but now that I've let them know I mean business, I feel that I actually have time to teach Spanish.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

From Day One

Day One of school can - and should - have the feeling of a spiritual cleaning. When I was teaching high school, the first day of every school year was a renewing experience for every student. Every one of my students started fresh. Nobody had late homework assignments, nobody had made careless mistakes on test questions, nobody had amassed tardies or unexcused absences. There were no blemishes on any of my students' records whatsoever. Everyone had an equally fair shot at earning high marks.

This, of course, didn't last for many of my students. In the subsequent 180 days of school, homework was forgotten, tardies were accumulated, and mistakes were made. This is to be expected, of course; nobody is perfect. Students expected similar things of themselves, it seemed. Many of them fully expected to be less than perfect (some far less than perfect) when it came to school, and for many of them, this was not something to worry about. It wasn't something to worry about, at least, until the end of the quarter when grades were due.

Everyone who looks after a young person or teenager can attest to the fact that they often don't face the consequences of their actions (or inactions) until the consequences are imminent. The homework assignment that was missed in the second week of school does not seem to be of great consequence, as (goes the young person's thinking) there will be plenty of time to make up that lost assignment. The truth is something slightly different. When students do come to teachers asking if they can make up or revise work, it almost always happens in the eleventh hour, when time is short, teachers are stressed, and grades hang in the balance. At this point, it's sometimes too late.

To the students of the world, here's a little secret from the teacher's lounge: with rare exception, homework due on the first week of school counts exactly as much towards your grade as homework on the last week of the semester. Big projects and tests will count more than daily homework, of course, but a one night assignment due on September 4th is generally weighed the same in your teacher's gradebook as a one night assingment due May 25th. There is no warm up, it all counts. And moreover, you won't be able to make up the assignment due on September 4 at the end of the semester.

What does this mean for students? It means that from Day One, while you are struggling to break out of your summer sleep habits and your record remains relatively unblemished, be vigilant about your school work! If you miss an assignment or hand in homework late, do not wait until even the end of the week (and certainly don't wait until the end of the semester) to do something about it! Stay on top of things from Day One. This will save you (and your teacher) a great deal of unnecessary stress when grades are due.

We at Tutorpedia want to wish every student a very successful and fruitful school year, and hope that students develop and internalize vigilant work habits from Day One, when their records are unblemished, everything is possible, and they feel like they can do no wrong.