Teaching Technology


Letter from Mara

While it is hard to imagine a world without iPhones, iPads, laptops, and immediate access to information, in the not so distant past, personal computers and internet connected devices were specialty items. I vividly remember learning to type with a Mario video game on our boxy family computer, the sound of the dial up internet tone connecting to AOL, and getting my first laptop - a turquoise iMac that seemed like the coolest thing in the world. I also remember computer classes in school that were geared towards helping us learn how to use new technology to develop computer literacy. 

Nowadays, we see toddlers on iPhones, children who can navigate just about any app or program you put in front of them without a moment's hesitation, and teenagers who can't be away from their devices for more than a few minutes. Any child in school today has certainly earned the title of "digital native," yet we often assume they are more digitally literate than they actually are. With that in mind, this month's posts are all about helpful tips to teach students digital literacy - learning to touch type, how to do internet research, how to identify credible sources, and how to organize digital materials. It is never too late to develop these skills, and they are all central to being an efficient and effective student!

Students of the Digital Age

In a world of supposed ‘digital natives,’ we’ve forgotten that certain computer literacy skills still need to be taught. Although it’s true that kids growing up in a world of omnipresent gadgetry have a natural ease with certain aspects of the digital world that might escape their parents, this does not translate into automatic mastery of the essentials, such as organizing materials, evaluating the reliability of sources, safeguarding privacy, and even typing. Guiding students toward best practices in these areas is a vital part of teaching them to succeed both in and out of the classroom.

For a certain generation of students--those raised on instant messaging in a world of desktop computers--typing practice was a natural part of growing up, and a bit of guidance toward proper technique made all the difference. Nowadays, since most students learn to type in their free time on phones and iPads, touch-typing on a more traditional keyboard is a much neglected skill. As students enter middle and high school, a growing proportion of their work is typed, rather than handwritten -- but for many, this is a laborious process, one that hampers the transmission of thought from mind to page. A few daily minutes of practice with free online resources, including the appropriately named www.typing.com, can quickly improve a student’s approach, saving hours of time in the long run.

Anyone who uses a computer regularly -- which is to say, nearly everyone -- knows the importance of keeping an organized desktop, file system, and inbox. Computers serve as a portal to increasingly vast realms of information, and an important repository for personal data. Without some level of structure, this mix can quickly become chaotic. Parents and teachers can help by explicitly guiding students through the process of building nested folders by school year and subject, on the desktop and in cloud-based systems such as Google Drive. A long term research project might deserve a folder of its own, where source material, drafts, and notes can be stored together. 

Digital time management tools can also be of help to many students; iCal and Google Keep provide electronic alternatives to supplement traditional paper planners and to-do lists, with programmable reminders, color-coding, and the ability to share appointments and tasks. Many schools now have their own version of an online portal for students and parents, where teachers post assignments, grades, and course materials. This should be a resource for students that is checked daily and then processed and recorded in their own planners. 

Finally, students benefit from a clear explanation of the guidelines for evaluating the reliability of different sources online, and for keeping their own information safe from potential hackers or other unwanted eyes. In an online world without clear editorial standards, students need to understand how biases function and be guided toward reputable sources, learning to be wary of taking what they read at face value. Parents should also have a plan for discussing how to choose and manage passwords around the internet, what information to share and what to keep private, and how to deal with the dangers of operating in the public forum of the internet, while feeling like you’re in private. 

Meet a Tutor: Meg


Tell us a bit about yourself! Where are you from originally, and what brings you to New York?

My name is Meg Ryan. I grew up in Yorktown Heights, New York. After receiving my Bachelors degree from SUNY Albany, I quickly enrolled at Hunter College for my Masters degree. After going to school and student teaching in New York I realized I loved this city and moved here permanently. 

What was your favorite subject in school? 

My favorite subject in school has always been Math. I’ve always enjoyed the content throughout the years and continue to enjoy problem solving.

What is your favorite book?

I love way too many books to pick just one. Right now, I’m loving A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman.

What’s one piece of advice you’d like to give to every student reading this?

My advice to all students is to ask more questions. Ask for help when you need it and ask for more information when you want it. More often than not we associate questioning with not knowing, when it reality it’s the only thing that helps us continue to grow. 

What’s your favorite word? 

My favorite word is separate. It sounds odd, but as a young student I always misspelled the word. Every time I write it, I still remember how difficult it was for me back then. 

How do you spend your free time?

I enjoy spending my free time with my family and friends going to new places and trying new things. 

What does learning mean in your life?

Learning is critical in my life. As a teacher and tutor it’s easy to assume we are teaching kids to learn skills. As adults, it’s critical for us to continue learning in as many ways as possible. 

Digital Hunting and Gathering

Students today have more access to information than ever before. This can be both a blessing and a curse; unreliable sources are as prevalent as reliable ones and can easily mask themselves as credible, especially online. Once students begin to differentiate between reliable and unreliable sources, the next step is learning best practices for taking notes and citing sources online. While having specific and ready-to-go information at the tip of one’s fingertip can seem like a benefit, it can also lead to far more plagiarism and far less analysis and independent thought. It is important for these ‘digital natives’ to have a clear set of guidelines when collecting research, taking notes and keeping track of citations from online sources.

Once a student has established that an online source is in fact reliable (see blog post on Finding Reliable Information), he/she should create a research document. Depending on the teacher’s specifications, this document can exist online as a google document, on a word processing program such as Word or Pages, or on an old-fashioned piece of lined paper! The form doesn’t matter as much as the format; however, if using a digital document to collect research, there is more of a temptation to “cut-and-paste” information gathered online, and thus more of a risk of inadvertently plagiarizing. Students should collect online research the same way they might collect research from a physical book: read the information, jot down notes in their research document, and then analyze those notes in their own words. When students copy and paste information, either in the effort to save time, or because they believe it is articulated in a clear and concise way, they run the risk of not being able to distinguish their own words from the author’s once they incorporate their research into their essay. Any information that is pasted from somewhere else should be clearly marked as such. 

On that note, it is also important that students initially group their research by source; this way, they will avoid losing track of what information came from which source, and whether it is their words or the words of the source’s author. For every source from which they collect information, notes or evidence/quotes, they should keep track of the website, the author’s or organization’s name, and if applicable, the page number. This will not only help with citations when they start the writing process, but will also save them a lot of time and energy when it comes time to create the bibliography. If research is taken from a digital PDF, the student should always download or bookmark that PDF and keep track of the same bibliographic information that they might with a physical article taken from a magazine or journal. Once the information is gathered by source, students can then go back and color code the information based on subject, in adherence with their argument. This will make it easy to transition from the research phase to the writing phase and make it easier to visualize the diversity of opinions they are analyzing. 

Because it is easier to find information online, it is also easier to encounter biased information. As students collect research from different sources, they should be careful to read for language that might indicate author’s bias; this does not necessarily disqualify a source as unreliable, but it should alert the student to the need to find a different opinion or viewpoint, and to then make their own assessment of the validity of the information gathered. If an author uses “I think” or any inflammatory language to present information, it should be understood that that information is almost certainly subjective, if not biased. The same is true for fact-checking information from a source that is not a scientific journal or credible news site; facts and statistics should always be double-checked against at least two other sources before the student decides to use them in a paper.

Living in the digital age has made information accessible in a way that was never before possible. We are able to compare news and opinions from around the world and, in doing so, be more connected to the world around us. However, the saturation of information available to us also means that it can be difficult to parse out the credible information from the biases of partisan authors. It will take some practice and digital fluency to be able to fully distinguish between reliable and unreliable sources, but our most important tool is patience and perseverance; by searching for and finding a diversity of opinion and news, and then taking notes in a way that does not mirror those words found online, students will have a much higher chance of having a complex and well-thought out argument that in no way plagiarizes someone else’s work, whether credible or not.

Meet a Student: Sam

What is your favorite book?

I really love the Harry Potter series. Fantasy books are my favorite.

If you were a teacher, what subject would you teach?

I think I’d want to teach a STEM class. I went to a coding camp this summer and really enjoyed it, and I like anything having to do with computers.

What have you learned about yourself as a student since you started with tutoring?

I’m not a good editor! I know what I should do when I write, but it’s hard to pay attention to so many details when I read my own writing.

Outside of school, what do you like to do for fun?

Anything having to do with computers and electronics, and I also like to play tennis.

How do you like to prepare for a test?

I’ve only had spelling tests really, and I just practice writing the words out for a few days before the test. I’m a good speller.

What is your favorite word?

I have no idea. I know I use the word “like” too much so that is like a bad favorite word.

What is one goal, big or small, that you have for the next year?

To become a better writer.

Finding Reliable Information

In the age of the internet, when just about anyone can write just about anything online, the ability to judge which information is trustworthy (and which is not) is an important skill. Below are a list of sites that are trusted by most readers.

The New York Times is one of the the most widely-respected papers in the world, with articles on a broad variety of topics. Read 10 articles/month for free. [https://www.nytimes.com/]

NPR [National Public Radio] is a publicly funded news organization that, as its name suggests, mostly produces radio shows (that you can often listen to online). NPR also has written content across a variety of topics, which is reliable and engaging. [http://www.npr.org/]

The Wall Street Journal another well-respected paper, is focused first on business but offers articles on a variety of topics comparable to the NYTimes [https://www.wsj.com/]

The Washington Post is a paper based in Washington, D.C. focused on politics, but has articles on a variety of topics like the NYTimes or the WSJ. [www.washingtonpost.com]

National Geographic is one example of a “specialty” news site, which focuses on a few important topics. For NatGeo, those topics are geographic and environmental news, with famous photographic journalism. [http://www.nationalgeographic.com/latest-stories/]

Wikipedia: Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia with content created and edited almost entirely by users. This project has created one of the best all-purpose sources of information to start learning about background information on almost any topic you might be interested in, but most teachers will not accept Wikipedia as the final source — try clicking through the hyper-linked endnotes to find original source material. Wikipedia is also not the best source for news/current events, because when it does include writing on current events, entries and edits might be biased toward the writers’ point of view. [www.wikipedia.com]

News sites tailored to students:

“Kidspost” is a student-friendly collection of articles from the Washington Post. [https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/kidspost/?utm_term=.df5eaaafb7b5]

Newsela is a news aggregator that collects stories from around the web and adapts them for students. [www.newsela.com

PBS Newshour Extra has current news stories geared toward students grades 7-12 (but this is not a firm rule) - there is also a student voices section, with student-written articles and opinions [http://www.pbs.org/newshour/extra/]

Time for Kids is published weekly as a resource for student news, aimed primarily at elementary/middle school students. [http://www.timeforkids.com]

Kids Sports News Network (KSSN) has great examples of clear, simple writing about controversies in sports - unfortunately it no longer produces new content. [http://ksnn.net/]

Back to School


Letter from Mara

I don't think any of us are quite ready for the new school year to begin, but alas, it is just weeks away! As the Smarten Up team begins our first sessions of the year with students, two big ideas come to mind - organization and goals. In order for any student to have a successful start to the year, he or she needs to be organized, and it is important to consider the resources necessary to achieve that goal before the first day of class. With that in mind, our first article is all about the tools and materials students (and parents) should be thinking about in these last couple weeks of summer. On a related note, it is equally important for students to begin the new school year with a set of goals in mind. Our second article speaks to how goals can impact a student's mindset as he or she begins the year, and the importance of setting SMART goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound. Lastly, many families are also deep into the realities of test prep season, so we've also included an article on Smarten Up's approach and perspective on the ISEE, SSAT, and SHSAT. 

We look forward to learning with you this year! 

New Beginnings

Summer is winding to a close, and that means it’s time to head back to school. As with any fresh start, the new school year brings with it new opportunities, along with new pitfalls. How can you set your student up for success in the new year? 

At Smarten Up, we place a real emphasis on executive function skills — the skills that help students work smarter to meet deadlines and learn most effectively. If students can start the year on the right foot with regards to the organizational of their materials, task management, and engagement with their class materials, they will be in a better position to learn and thrive this year. Likewise, if students begin by procrastinating on readings and test review, lose track of their materials, or miss an odd homework assignment, they’ll quickly start to slide down a path that will only get more difficult as they fall further behind. 

Practically, this means insuring that students have a plan for managing their work with some sort of physical or digital planner, that they have all of the organizational infrastructure they’ll need to keep work and notes from different classes in order, and that they are held accountable to the systems they plan on using. The first few weeks will involve proactively figuring out where and when homework is posted for each class, navigating the rhythm of a new class schedule and the internal schedule of quizzes and assignments for each course, and getting to know the standards and requirements of each individual teacher.

Students should also be reminded of the importance of relationships with these teachers; behavior in the first few weeks of school can form impressions that last for the whole year. If students can demonstrate a willingness to work diligently, ask interesting questions, and support their classmates’ learning, they’ll earn a relationship that can pay off when they need a bit of extra help or flexibility with a deadline. For high school students, these relationships are also key for college applications as recommendation letter season rolls around. 

As part of building a positive relationship with their teachers, students should establish a channel of communication that is respectful and direct, without intruding unnecessarily on the teacher’s time. It can be very useful for students to be in touch with teachers over email when they need to ask a clarifying question about a major assignment or upcoming test, but given the informality of most digital communications, students will often need some coaching to understand the requirements of a more ‘professional’ email, with correct grammar and punctuation. As a young classroom teacher, I regularly received emails with no capitalization or punctuation from students—and while I was more forgiving than many of my older colleagues, in the worst case these emails risk being perceived as rude or lazy. Parents can help guide these emails with younger students, while supporting a movement toward self-advocacy that will serve them in high school and college.

The new year should be an opportunity for a fresh start for students—part of our role as parents and educators is ensuring that this fresh start includes an awareness of the extra work—not explicitly assigned or explained—of forming good habits and relationships. These executive function skills are central to being a strong student, and we often assume that students understand what it means to be “organized” or “prepared.” Now is a great time to begin to have that dialogue with your child, and should he or she be resistant to help from a parent, our amazing team of Smarten Up coaches are always here to help!

get ready for the year.jpg

Setting Goals

Setting Goals

Where would we be in a society without goals? Imagine if Martin Luther King Jr. hadn’t set the goal of civil and economic rights for African Americans in America? Or if John F. Kennedy hadn’t set the goal of putting a man on the moon? Presidents, athletes, artists, activists, students - all of us need a roadmap to set us on our course to achieve our desires and ambitions. Although not all of these ambitions will ultimately be met, and not all of our desires can possibly be sated, the very act of setting goals allows us to develop a sense of agency, commitment, and motivation, which eventually leads to success both in school and in life. 

For young students in particular, the stressors of school combined with the strains of a social life, can make self-development difficult. In fact, it takes many years to feel decisive in our actions and confident in our selves, but when we begin to identify and set goals for ourselves at an early age, we start to develop agency. When a young person develops agency, they are also developing maturity, persistence, and even creativity. Because goal-setting takes self-reflection, when we identify those personalized goals, we defacto identify our weaknesses, and can start on the path of self-improvement. The seemingly simple act of self-reflection can give a young person the empowerment that is often lacking in the other areas of their life. Empowerment can lead to more involvement in class discussions, a greater investment in risk-taking and creativity, and an increased perseverance in subjects such as language learning and math.

The dread of not accomplishing one’s goals convinces many people, adults and children alike, not to set them at all. However, the goal-setting process itself can positively correlate with commitment and thus, achievement. When we set action plans for ourselves, even if the steps are as simple as making our bed in the morning or adding three new words to our vocabulary every day, we are practicing self-regulation. When we commit to these self-imposed tasks, we are more likely to regulate our behavior to achieve our ultimate goals: to be neater or learn Spanish. Setting goals through a written, personalized action plan of small, yet achievable tasks, leads to a greater chance of commitment, which leads to an increased sense of competence and pride. This, in turn, encourages students to set more goals for themselves and eventually leads to a goal-oriented mindset. Ultimately, the metacognitive practice of self-regulation allows for students to internalize their goals and achievements over time and provides motivation in their learning and professional trajectories. 

It does not take a great deal of scientific data to convince one that motivation is a huge factor in achieving success. But motivation is hard to come by; when a student has convinced him or herself that she/he is not adept in a particular subject or at a particular skill, that feeling of self-deprecation can itself destroy motivation. Studies have shown, however, that when students set clear, written goals for themselves that are particularly concrete and attainable, they are more likely to develop the motivation that leads to greater success. Specificity is key; when a student has a meaningful engagement with the task or objective, and can identify how and when they are going to accomplish it, they are more likely to be motivated to do so. As motivation increases, performance also improves; specific goal-setting provides for students a structure for organization, prioritization and determination, three important ingredients for long-term success. 

Whether we acknowledge them or not, we all have goals. My goal for tomorrow may simply be to partake in more exercise, while my future goal may be to speak fluent Mandarin. The first step in achieving either of those goals is to write them down and to then create a plan of action to achieve them. While both are possible, we must learn to set goals effectively, within a realistic and temporal scope. Eventually, I may be able to achieve both my micro and macro goal, but that begins with self-reflection, commitment and motivation. As Einstein once said, “The value of achievement lies in the achieving.”

Testing the Waters: ISEE/SSAT/SHSAT

For many families who are preparing for the transition to a new middle or high school, a fresh challenge looms large in the fall months: standardized testing. Admissions tests such as the ISEE (Independent Schools Entrance Exam), the SHSAT (Specialized High Schools Admissions Test) or the SSAT (Secondary Schools Admissions Test) are often the first tests of their kind that students will encounter in their academic careers. Given their weight in the admissions process, it is important to help students create an individualized plan of study that will help them to feel as confident and prepared as possible when the big test day arrives.

The stated aim of these admissions tests—along with later gatekeepers like the SAT and ACT—is to measure students’ aptitude with certain essential academic skills in reading, writing, and math. In theory, the best way to prepare for such a general, skills-based exam is gradually, over years, with regular reading at an appropriate level, math practice to reinforce new concepts, and varied writing exercises. Still, there are several steps that students can take in the months before the exam that go beyond what they’ve learned in the classroom. 

At Smarten Up, we believe in teaching these skills in a way that will help students thrive on test day and beyond. We focus on active reading strategies and reasoning skills that will help students in any classroom, vocabulary building, and developing a rich understanding of math concepts that are central to the school curriculum. In addition, we also teach students pragmatic test-taking tips to help with pacing and accuracy. 

It’s also important to try and reduce stress that can often accompany these longer, consequence-laden tests; most of us perform better when we can stay calm and rely on automatic skills developed through practice. In fact, and not surprisingly, studies have shown that the pressure of higher stakes situations can hurt performance in athletes and musicians. Students and parents should let the stakes of the exam motivate them to plan ahead and prepare with commitment, but then try and leave the pressure behind as much as possible on the day of testing, relying on the hard work that has been put in already. In the end, this is the most dependable strategy for a student to do his or her best! 

Every student’s experience of these exams is different, but if we can focus on refining and practicing skills that will be applicable beyond the test, then every student will gain something worthwhile along the way. Smarten Up’s approach to test prep is individualized and holistic - we adapt our instruction to meet the needs of each student we work with in order to create academic and learning gains on the day of the test and beyond.