Smarten Up's Favorite Tech Resources

Students nowadays can barely fathom a world without digital flashcards, video tutorials, online learning games, and the powers of Google to handle just about any task. The wealth of online resources and apps to support student learning and organizational skills is seemingly endless, which is why it is so important to narrow down the field to identify the best tools to effectively support our students. With that in mind, this month’s blog posts highlight our favorite tech resources for elementary, middle, and high school students. From math and reading games, to instructional videos and 21st century literary guides, we’ve featured sites and apps to help learners of all ages.

Best Apps and Sites for Elementary Students

QuickMath

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QuickMath is a great tool for students in Grades 1-6 to build fluency with their addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division math facts. With three different levels for each operation, and the ability to track progress after each round of play, this app is an excellent alternative to standard flash cards. Plus, students love that they can write their answer directly on the screen! There are also more wonderful apps in the QuickMath family, including QuickMath Jr. for students in K - 2, and QuickMath Fractions for students in Grades 3-6.


Math Playground

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Math Playground is an incredible site with a wealth of math games, logic puzzles and a variety of 
problem solving activities. It is a great resource for arcade style math games, digital manipulatives for illustrating mathematical concepts and operations, and even coding practice. With over 500 different activities to choose from, it will be hard for any child to complain about being “bored” with the games.


Epic!

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Epic! is a digital library for children offering over 25,000 high-quality ebooks, audiobooks, learning videos, and quizzes for kids 12 and under. This app’s award-winning service includes a wide variety of high-quality books and learning videos from leading publishers like Scholastic, National Geographic, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Smithsonian and many more. The Epic! library contains everything from picture books to chapter books, early readers, audiobooks, graphic novels, non-fiction titles, educational books, videos and more, and it even offers books in Spanish and Chinese.


Homer

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Homer is an incredible literacy app for children age 2-8. With thousands of lessons and activities that target the development of phonics skills, sight word knowledge, the ABCs and more, this app is a great way to build confidence with the earliest of reading skills. In addition, the app also includes tons of digital books and interactive stories to promote independent reading from a young age. Homer Reading has been proven to increase early reading scores by 74% with just 15 minutes a day. And with stories and activities customized to each child’s interests, they’ll learn while having fun.


BrainPop Jr.

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BrainPop Jr. will help kids as young as 5 learn something about any topic they can dream of in a developmentally appropriate way. Ideal for kids in Kindergarten through grade 3, BrainPOP Jr. spans topics across Science, Social Studies, Reading, Writing, Math, Health, Arts, and Technology. The gentle, humorous, and relatable characters Annie and Moby serve as guides through each topic, empowering kids to form their own ideas. BrainPOP Jr. is designed to cultivate critical thinking skills and encourage children to ask questions and make connections.

Digital Tools for Middle School (and beyond)

Flashcards of the Future

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Quizlet is an online and app-based interactive flashcard system that is invaluable for digitally minded students who can progress with relatively little friction through flashcards sets they create in advance of tests or quizzes. Creating a basic account is free, and offers access to the platform’s quiz games and “learn” feature, which tracks performance and selects the cards that continue to give students trouble, effectively tailoring the test to what the student knows and doesn’t know. A recent update makes Quizlet especially easy to use with vocabulary lists — when you enter a word into the list, Quizlet will automatically generate definitions for you to choose between from its built-in dictionary. Another under-explored feature of Quizlet is the library of crowd-sourced lists — while usually students will want to make their own lists based on their specific material, study lists already exists for many common courses (such as AP US History, or Spanish II). These can be used as a way to check student work and preview or review a difficult textbook reading. 


Student News

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Newsela is a news aggregator focused on providing articles for students - this means that its staff gathers articles from news sources across the web, and then adjusts them to its audiences in schools. The articles are organized by topic area, and often published ‘adaptively,’ so that students can select their reading level and the article’s text will subtly change (in its vocabulary and syntax) according to their individual skill. 


The Digital Classroom

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Khan Academy is a fantastic resource for short video lessons, generally focused on math, science, and computer science at all grade levels. This is a great place to go for additional practice in a particular subject area — along with videos, there are short tests and practice questions that students can use to test their understanding. There are also diagnostic quizzes that will help place students along the spectrum of skill levels, and a point system that allows students to earn badges for mastering content. The core feature, though, is video content that can be paused, replayed, slowed down, so that students can review a challenging concept from class at their own pace while working through a difficult homework task. And heads up for the high school years — Khan Academy recently partnered with Collegeboard to offer a completely free SAT prep curriculum, including practice tests and problem breakdowns. 


Brainpop

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Brainpop is another resource for educational videos and games—but with an animated, cartoon look that is approachable and engaging, better for some students than the blackboard aesthetic of Khan Academy (and with a wider range of topics). 

High School Helpers

Online Reading Guides

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 Lit Charts is a competitor of SparkNotes, and offers a well-designed theme-tracking interface that makes it easy to ‘chart’ the development of a major theme from chapter to chapter, which can be very helpful when seeking out evidence for an analytical essay — there’s even a section on important quotes organized by theme. It’s also a source for very thorough summary and analysis breakdowns, chapter by chapter and page by page, so that students can preview difficult texts or review before an exam. Two more helpful features: the literary devices and terms reference guide, and a modern, line by line adaption of every play by William Shakespeare. 


Academic Writing Centers

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Academic writing centers can provide guidance as students begin to embark on more challenging essay assignments. The Harvard Writing Center site offers tips for each step of the writing process, from breaking down an assignment to developing a thesis, and from rough draft to final copy. The Purdue OWL (Online Writing Lab) is another great resource for academic writing — when we use Purdue OWL with students, though, it’s most often specifically to explore the comprehensive guide to citation practices. Whether your student’s teacher prefers MLA, APA, or Chicago Style citations, Purdue OWL is one of the web’s best references for the nuanced formatting requirements of a well-made bibliography. 


Citation Tools

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BibMe, or any of its comparable competitors (such as Easybib, Citationmachine, Citefast), is a quick and easy upgrade to the traditional approach to creating a bibliography. Students can enter the title of a book, journal article, or website, specify a style of citation, and then sit back while the site seeks out the relevant publication information and generates a complete citation. As with any time-saving digital shortcut, though, be sure to double check the site’s work, so that the occasional glitch does not slip by undetected.


The Google Toolbox

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Google Drive, Google Docs, Google Slides, Google Sheets — Students today will no doubt already have encountered the most common of these Google Apps before high school, but now is the time to master them. It’s worth taking the time to create an organizational system for docs and slides in Google Drive, broken down by school year and subject. Students should also play around with the different collaboration tools, learning how to make suggested edits and respond to comments. With the right adjustment in settings, Google Docs can also be edited and composed offline, which can be incredibly valuable when students are fighting to remain focused in the always-connected cybersphere. One under appreciated app in the Google toolbox is Google Keep, an intuitive checklist maker and digital bulletin board that can be a useful place to track assignments and gather notes - an easily installable extension in Google Chrome will allow students to pin any article from across the web on their Keep platform, and notes can then be tagged to a specific category and color coded for organization. Encourage students to explore how they can customize their experience with these apps to work more efficiently and increase their productivity.


Spellchecker 2.0

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Grammarly is an online grammar checking app that can effectively proofread both academic papers and everyday emails; if students submit an essay to the Grammarly platform, they can receive a detailed breakdown of grammatical errors with short explanations or suggested fixes, cleanly and clearly displayed. The app will also automatically detect plagiarism, using a web-scraping capability similar to that now used by many teachers to check over digitally submitted assignments. With this function, students can be alerted to any quotes or ideas in their work that haven’t been properly cited before they turn it in as a finished product. 

Letter from Mara

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While December is synonymous with holiday cheer and a well deserved holiday break, it also marks the end of a semester, which means one thing - finals! With that in mind, this month’s blog posts are dedicated to study strategies and project planning, two big ideas that are front and center in just about all of our middle school and high school tutoring sessions at the moment. Central to both is the question of what it means to learn.

For many students, the ability to recite definitions for a given set of terms is synonymous with being prepared for an assessment. However, if that same student has to identify a synonym for a vocabulary word, explain why a single event is important within a revolution, or illustrate the importance of a specific organelle to a cell, he is often at a loss. That is because there is a difference between memorizing and understanding, and effective learning is arguably a hybrid of both. If a student works to truly understands the material he is working with, he will also be able to remember important terms, names, and dates without explicitly focusing on memorizing those isolated details. I would argue that any good assessment will challenge a student to demonstrate their understanding of the material through a variety of different exercises, which is why it is so important for students to take a thoughtful and active approach to studying for assessments.

With this in mind, this month’s posts include a discussion of how to develop an effective study plan, strategies for effective project management, and suggestions for how to avoid cramming by engaging in meaningful learning throughout the semester, rather than in the weeks before finals. Hopefully these articles will help you help your child navigate the stresses of summative assessments this semester, and if you need additional support, our team of excellent tutors is always just a phone call away.

Happy holidays and good luck!

The Finals Stretch

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Depending on the specifics of your child’s school schedule, December regularly brings with it the promise of impending holidays and a much needed break, along with the specter of final exams. This last hurdle before the break requires a final sprint of concentration right at the moment in the fall semester when students are increasingly ready to leave the classroom behind for a time. Of course, though, that is why it is so important to help your student clamber over this obstacle successfully and finish the term on a high note. With that in mind, we wanted to be sure to go over Smarten Up’s smart studying tips. 

The first step of any strong study plan is figuring out exactly what knowledge will be tested on the exam, and in what format. Cumulative final exams can feel overwhelming, since they might cover 3-4 months worth of material — but attempting to learn every fact and detail from every reading or lecture in that period will often be not just stressful, but counterproductive, depending on the specific requirements of a given teacher. Encourage your student to communicate with their teacher proactively to ask for any guidance on what areas to focus on, and in what way they will be tested: will the test feature multiple choice, short answer, or essay questions? Smart studying is targeted to the content and format that students will actually encounter on test day.

Smart studying is also active, rather than passive. Many students will put in time ‘studying’ by reading through their old notes, or skimming through textbook pages, and then find themselves at a loss on test day when the information they’ve been looking over has vanished from their memory. Instead, students should create opportunities for active engagement with past material every time they sit down to study. If they are looking through textbook pages, they should always use the comprehension questions that are often found at the end of a chapter to test their understanding, or write out a set of questions they can ask themselves about the reading the next day to make sure they’ve remembered the main idea and key details. If they’re expecting to write an essay — or even if they aren’t — writing an outline with bullet-pointed evidence will require students to actively process the information they’re committing to memory and slot it into an argument or narrative that will be easier to retain than a collection of unrelated facts. Rather than memorizing a list of words for a foreign language test, students should write out example sentences, create flashcards, and devise creative connections between similar words. 

One way to activate the study process is to find a partner. Studies have shown that teaching material is the best way to gain full mastery of it, and if two or more students can divide and conquer on a particularly lengthy study guide, they can make efficient use of studying time to quiz one another and probe for weak spots in their comprehension. A reliable study partner is a very valuable resource, but be sure that he or she does not become an excuse for waiting to start work individually! The best way to feel confident on test day is to study smart by engaging with the material over time and maintaining an active approach to learning.

The Future Project

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Another common feature of December in the classroom is the long-term project, the culmination of a semester of work that sometimes replaces a written final. This project may take many forms, from a research paper to a creative portfolio or analytical essay. Each of these different tasks has its own challenges and opportunities for learning, but common to any type of long-term project is the importance of effective planning. 

People are notoriously bad at projecting ourselves into the future, consistently choosing to privilege short-term benefits over long-term goals in a phenomenon known by economists as temporal discounting. In the context of the long-term project, this means that we must consciously work to devise a clear plan with real incentives for gradual progress and disincentives for procrastination. We’ve all been in a situation where — even knowing how much better our work would be if we afforded ourselves a proper drafting process, with various rounds of revision — a months-long project floats along in the background until a few days before the deadline, when work must be crammed into the available hours and then submitted in a rush. School projects are a chance to build good habits for this type of project from a young age. 

In some cases, helpfully, a teacher will provide a set of intermediate deadlines for the project, so that in the final few days before the project is due, all that remains to be done is to stitch together the different components that have already been completed and revise them together. If these intermediate deadlines are mandatory, all the better — if they are merely ‘suggested,’ they should be treated as mandatory whenever possible, with some flexibility if an exam or major project in another class is pulling focus. If there are no intermediate deadlines, students should absolutely create their own. This can be accomplished by reflecting frankly on similar assignments they have completed in the past to accurately estimate how long each component — brainstorming a question, initial reading and research, the annotated bibliography, outline, first draft, second draft, etc — will take them, and then creating a project planning document with the deadlines written out together (and entering each into the general academic planner). If students have someone — a parent, a friend, a tutor — who they can ask to help hold them accountable to these independently chosen deadlines, all the better. 

Of course, the day-to-day work of sticking to this schedule contains its own executive functioning challenges. Students might benefit from using a timer to work in twenty-minute distraction-free chunks without their phones, and they’ll need to balance the long-term needs of the project against short-term work and tests in other subjects. This is all the more reason to break the larger project down into manageable pieces, so that progress can be made in 20-30 minute chunks over the course of a week. Planning for the future is inherently difficult, but doing so in a pragmatic, proactive way gives students a chance to take more control over their schedule, reducing stress and improving the final result.

Taking (some of) the Stress out of Testing

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While testing and finals are always stressful, and the Finals Stretch Article covers helpful study strategies to prepare for the big day, it is also valuable to discuss the importance of developing a more proactive approach to long term learning. If a student really engages with and understands material as it is presented, she won’t need to stress (or at least not stress as much) before finals as she will already have a firm grasp of important concepts and their related details. While we are all guilty of cramming at one point or another in our academic careers, the short term gains of memorization for a big test cannot compare with the confidence and knowledge earned from steady, active engagement. With that in mind, here are a few small learning habits that will lead to big learning gains. 

Note taking

Both in class or at home, taking well organized notes offers endless benefits. Whether a student chooses to create an outline, take two-column or Cornell notes, or create a graphical representation of big ideas and their related details, the key to a useful set of notes is structure. They must clearly represent the hierarchy of details for a given topic - big ideas and their related details, key words or figures and their meaning and importance. In addition, notes shouldn’t be overly wordy; students should learn to use symbols and abbreviations, and write in phrases as opposed to complete sentences. Not only will this help students engage more deeply with the material as they are listening and reading, a good set of notes will also serve as an excellent study guide as well. They should be reviewed regularly and utilized as a central part of the test preparation process. 

Annotation

Active reading was the theme of last month’s posts for a reason! Just like note taking, annotations promote multi-sensory engagement and help students create a road map of sorts to navigate a text and their thoughts about it more easily.  A test on an unmarked book can feel impossible to prepare for, and finding information to add to a study guide from a noteless textbook often requires extensive rereading; however, a well annotated text solves both of those problems, plus the material it contains will be better understood thanks to an efficient and effective initial read. 

Mixed review

Most students have to take both formative and summative assessments; while the former are more like quizzes or unit tests, the latter come at the end of a semester or year and assess a student’s mastery of all material covered in the class. It is also worth noting that even formative assessments take on summative characteristics as topics covered in previous units are considered to be learned material and thus fair game to include on a quiz or test. When it comes to knowledge, especially with things like formulas or vocabulary, “use it or lose it” could not ring more true. That is why students either need to either be sure to generalize and apply their knowledge (think: using new vocabulary in writing, actively making connections between learned concepts and new material), or actively review their notes and/or study materials on a regular basis. Consistently finding just a little bit of time to engage with material this way will make a summative exam so much less intimidating. 


Reading for all Ages

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LETTER FROM MARA

Reading is such a fundamental part of our everyday existence, we often take for granted what a complicated task it can be. We read emails and work communications to do our jobs; we read the news and articles of interest to stay abreast of what is happening in the world; we read directions and agreements to make decisions; many of us read academic texts for work; and when we have time, we read for pleasure. Each of these tasks requires us to read differently, but because of practice and experience, our brains understand how to adapt the way we read to get the most out of the task at hand - for example, looking for important details and taking notes when reading for work, versus skimming the news or getting lost in the story of a book without worrying about remembering every detail. These are subconscious choices we make as experienced readers that come to us as second nature, which is why it can be so hard to understand why kids have difficulty with reading comprehension.

For children, mid-to-late elementary school marks the transition from learning to read to reading to learn. At this stage, we expect students to be fluent decoders capable of investing their mental energy into making meaning of what they read. We want kids to learn to make connections to the text based on their knowledge of the world, their personal experiences, and other books or articles they’ve read. While this is the expectation, though, it is important that we help students along as they learn to think more deeply as readers. With that in mind, Talking to Kids About Books includes a great list of questions you can use to guide more meaningful conversations with your child about what they are reading, and Reading to Learn offers a list of helpful strategies to support comprehension.

For more advanced students, 7th and 8th grade is when kids must learn how to analyze a text. Knowledge of reading must go hand-in-hand with ideas about how an author used subject, form, and diction in order to create a more compelling story. Learning to read closely in this way can require a lot of guidance and practice, and that is why it is so important that students understand how to go about this process strategically. A 7th grader isn’t likely to pick up on themes of isolation or male companionship when reading Of Mice and Men, just as so many high schoolers (and, at times, adults!) struggle with Shakespeare.However, understanding how to utilize online resources to preview themes, or watching a performance of Romeo and Juliet before unpacking the text, can make a world of difference by assisting students to read and annotate with purpose. Next Level Annotation provides useful ideas for helping kids develop these more advanced reading skills.

Talking to Kids about Books

Independent reading time is a standard part of the late elementary and early middle school homework routine. Beginning around 2nd grade, students begin to keep reading logs to keep track of the names of their books, and how many pages they read or how long they read for. And while many of these texts are quite simple to start, the early reading habits that students build with books like Frog and Toad, Ramona and Beezus, and Mercy Watson, are the habits that will enable them to become immersed in the world of Harry Potter, enthralled by the battles of Percy Jackson and Catniss Everdeen, and moved by the emotional turmoil of Holden Caulfield and Ponyboy Curtis. That is why it is so important to talk to your children about books and ask questions that encourage kids to actively make connections as they read - to events in their life, to things they know about the world, to other books that they’ve read, to other characters they’ve met - because it is this sort of reflection that brings books to life and creates a love of reading. Below we’ve included a list of guiding questions to get you started!

Before your child begins a new book, ask:

  • Why did you choose this book?

  • What makes you think this book is going to be interesting?

  • What do you think the book is going to be about?

  • Does this book remind you of anything else you’ve already read or seen?

  • What kind of characters do you think will be in the book?

  • What do you think is going to happen?

While he or she is reading a book, try asking:

  • Will you catch me up on the story? What’s happened so far?

  • What do you think will happen next?

  • If you were that character, what would you have done differently in that situation?

  • If the book was a TV show, which actors would you cast in it?

  • Where is the book set?

  • If the main character in that story lived next door, would you be friends?

  • What does the place look like in your head as you read? Would you want to visit there?

  • Did you learn any new words or facts so far?

After your child has finished the book, ask questions like:

  • What was your favorite part of the book? Why?

  • Who was your favorite character? Why?

  • What was the most interesting thing you learned from the book?

  • Why do you think the author wrote this book?

  • Would you have ended the book differently? Did it end the way you thought it would?

  • Did the problem of the book’s plot get solved?

  • If you could change one thing in the book, what would it be?