Back to School

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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!

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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.

Making the Most of Summer in NYC with your Child

 
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It’s finally summer! Can you feel that heat and the outdoors beckoning? These two months can mean a much needed break from the stress and rigidity of school and a chance for students to let loose and be creative. 

While it is important for kids to have fun, that doesn’t need to come at the expense of their learning! If your child is not heading out of town this summer or will be spending a few weeks in the city, it can be difficult to figure out what he or she can do to keep their bodies active and their minds engaged. But don’t despair! New York is an incredible playground for kids to have fun and learn at the same time.

Here are some great ideas to keep your kid's mind engaged and body active this summer:

Arts

Take a Photography Class: Encourage your child to take up a new skill like basic photography. Most classes for beginners don’t require any fancy equipment in the beginning. It is a great way to see if a passion turns into a profession as they grow older. Check out the teen offerings at Photo Manhattan and Photo Uno

Children's Museum of the Arts: Most of the amazing original sculptures, paintings and multimedia creations at the Children’s Museum of the Arts are made fresh everyday by the artists...which are actually the visitors. Little ones from across the city and around the world convene at this kid’s museum to let their imaginations and creativity run free as they take part in the daily workshops and studio activities.

Queens Museum: Your child can make his or her own piece of art at The Queens Museum, which offers free art activities on Sundays.

Wave Hill: Your little one can get their creative juices flowing at the beautiful Wave Hill Garden and Cultural Center in Riverdale. They have a variety of forest and woodland programs as well as its weekly Family Art Project. Head over on Saturdays and Sundays from 10am—1pm to participate in the craft extravaganza. Although the class itself is free, admission to Wave Hill is $2 for children 6 and up.

Shakespeare in the Park: Get your kid excited about Shakespeare in the best way; The Public Theater offers free plays and big stars every summer at Shakespeare in the Park, one of the city's most beloved cultural events.

Theater Walking Tours: If you have a child interested in theater, they will love the Broadway Up Close tour of the Theater District, where guides not only share stories about the iconic stages and their actors, but also can get into the behind the scenes fun and history of the real life Alexander Hamilton, with a trip downtown for the “Hamiltour.”

Free Museum Days: Museums in NYC are filled with awesome exhibits, and many museums offer free entrance on select days and times. Expose your kids to as much arts and culture as possible, for free!

MoMA Art Lab: The Art Lab, one of many family-friendly programs at MoMA, is an all-ages space that encourages hands-on experimentation, play, and creativity through activities directly connected to the MoMA collections that mom and dad love to look at. Art Lab visitors—ranging in age from toddlers to teens—get to touch anything, make a mess and even be artists themselves.

Whitney Museum of American Art: A great experience for parents and kids, at the Whitney Museum you can enjoy private tours of their most popular exhibitions, led by Whitney Teaching Fellows and Ph.D. candidates. On Saturdays and Sundays, kids can even use inspiration from the galleries to make a masterpiece during Open Studio For Families.

Science & Math

Liberty Science Center: The Liberty Science Center lets kids be their best scientist selves at over four floors of exhibits. At their MakerLab, they offer hands-on classes with LSC educators who will show your kids (age 10 and up) how to use the latest programming and fabricating tools; Make a costume, saber, wand, Minecraft model or even your own, original video game. There is also an IMAX studio, which includes features on robots, humpback whales or the Hubble telescope.

G.O.A.L.S. for GirlsG.O.A.L.S. stands for Greater Opportunities Advancing Leadership and Science, so if you have an 8th or 9th grade daughter who's really into STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) subjects, then this is for you: participants will engage in field studies, workshops, and hands-on STEM activities. The program runs for six weeks in July and August.

Robofun – This coding camp  is great for absolute beginners and middle school kids, RoboFun teaches Game Design and Lego Robotics for young aspiring coders.

Launch Math & Science Centers – Students in first through eighth grades can learn computer programming with Scratch, Python, and mobile apps. Summer camps are available at the UWS location, plus two satellite locations during the summer.

Science Saturday at Hudson River Park: On June 2 (at Pier 45), July 14 (at Pier 84) and Aug 11 (at Pier 25) from noon–4pm, families can experiment with hands-on activities at Hudson River Park. Hudson River Park’s Estuary Lab backs the programming, so you will get an ecological-focused itinerary such as touch tanks, performances from Mad Science and catch and release fishing, among other activities.  Dates: June 2 (at Pier 45), July 14 (at Pier 84) and Aug 11 (at Pier 25) from noon–4pm

Rose Center for Earth and Space: The American Museum of Natural History houses the Rose Center for Earth and Space, a glass enclosure that houses the 87-foot-diameter Hayden Sphere. Families can explore the 13-billion–year history of the universe, pick up cool facts about planets, stars and galaxies and watch space shows. The Museum collaborates with NASA to keep all of its visual maps up to date.

New York Hall of Science: At this great Queens museum, kids can get hands-on with hundreds of interactive exhibits and activities that bring science, technology, engineering and math to life. Built for the 1964 World's Fair, NYSCI is home to a revolving lineup of displays about light, 3-D printing, outer space and robots, plus the Design Lab, where kids can tackle activities at five stations: Backstage, Sandbox, Studio, Maker Space and Treehouse. Kids can also climb on a rope web and play mini golf at the massive Science Playground and Rocket Park.

Children's Museum of Manhattan: The Children’s Museum of Manhattan’s has two permanent exhibits that activate different aspects of kids’ imaginations: “EatSleepPlay,” where kids can crawl through a digestive system, help pump a giant heart, and burn energy by ducking lasers and balancing on a beam, and “PlayWorks,” for younger kids.

History

Snug Harbor Cultural Center: A quick ferry ride to Staten Island will get you to Snug Harbor, home to a scenic cultural center and the Staten Island Children's Museum. There are hands-on exhibits, interactive song and dance activities and a multitude of craft projects. Also home to the Connie Gretz Secret Garden, here kids can wander through the maze-like shrubs inspired by Frances Hodgson Burnett's classic novel, The Secret Garden. There's even a miniature castle and rose garden at the end of the trail.

Historical NYC Walking Tours: Take your kids on a fun and engaging walking tour, especially for history fans! Learn about New York during the Revolutionary War, or the local history of your neighborhood like Chelsea or the Lower East Side, with the extremely well-informed and engaging tour guides at Big Onion Tours.

The Cloisters: The Cloisters are located on four acres overlooking the Hudson River in northern Manhattan's Fort Tryon Park. Deriving its name from the medieval cloisters that form the core of the building, it presents a harmonious and evocative setting Devoted to the architecture of medieval Europe (and home to the wonderful, “Unicorn Tapestries”), this branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art is full of incredible medieval artifacts and indoor-outdoor gardens. Within the museum, you can view jewelry, sculptures, paintings, metalwork and furniture. After, go for a walk overlooking the Hudson or the Fort Tryon Park.

American Museum of Natural History: The American Museum of Natural History houses one of the most impressive collections of dinosaur fossils in the world. While the dinosaurs collection is certainly awe-inspiring, make sure to also take your young science and history enthusiast to visit the Hall of Ocean Life, the Hall of North American Mammals and the Hall of Biodiversity.

Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum: At this museum, you will get to climb aboard this former aircraft carrier, which fought in World War II, the Cold War and the Vietnam War, and survived five kamikaze attacks. You can also board the Bell 47 helicopter, navigate the interacting submarine, and steer an airplane in the Exploreum hall. Make sure you visit the Space Shuttle Pavilion, which houses the giant NASA orbiter Enterprise. In 2018, visitors can explore the history of USS Growler through "A View From the Deep" to learn about the world's first nuclear submarines.

The Tenement Museum: At this Lower East Side museum, kids can see how their ancestors and New Yorkers who came before them lived on a one hour tour of the former tenement, which covers in great detail how the German-Jewish and Irish families struggled to find their way in their new country through tough labor and living conditions. You also get to taste how these immigrants ate, with a sit-down meal of various foods that were sold around the neighborhood with a tasting at the tenement. If you plan well, you can introduce your kid to a costumed interpreter playing a past resident of 97 Orchard Street!

Brooklyn Children’s Museum: This big yellow-roofed Crown Heights museum, which opened in 1899 was one of the first museums in the country geared specifically to kids. It has permanent exhibits that pay homage to the borough, such as “World Brooklyn,” a mini cityscape where kids can shop at fake Mexican bakeries and international bodegas, or “Neighborhood Nature,” which explore the creatures and plants found in everyday Brooklyn backyards. There are also daily free workshops where kids can learn and get crafty.

New York Transit Museum: At this museum, true to its name, your child will learn fascinating facts about our city’s transit system, in an authentic 1930s subway station. The museum uses pictures, models and vintage cars, which you can ride, to tell the fascinating story about how New York got its underground tunnels and subway system.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art: While the Met can be overwhelming and it is hard to know where to start, for your history buff kids, start by walking through the Temple of Dendur in the museum’s Egyptian Wing, visit the Sphynxes, the statue of the Nile crocodile and even check out the coffin of Khnumhotep, where you’ll see a real mummy

Outdoors Activities

Adventure Course Sunday series: For older (and braver!) kids, they will love this outdoor zip line and elevated adventure course (all for free) on Sundays. This year, the Adventure Course Sunday series runs from May 6–Oct 18, and each event is free and available to kids ages 8 and up.

Queens County Farm Museum: You don’t have to travel far from the city to get goats, sheep and other farm life! At the Queens County Farm Museum, the the oldest continually farmed site in the state, barnyard animals are available for feeding and petting. You can also take a walk around the 47-acres on a tractor-pulled hay ride, or do it yourself through their beautiful gardens. For a more educational bent, consider enrolling your agrarian enthusiast child in their summer program where they will get hands-on instruction on running a small-scale farm!

LeFrak Roller Rink: In Prospect Park you can find a fun summer spot for biking or roller skating on the 16,000-square-foot roller rink. For those looking to beat the heat, bring bathing suits in preparation for the 20 water jets of the LeFrak Center’s Splash Pad!:

Battery Urban Farm: At this city park, your kids can get down and dirty in garden soil and learn about/take home fresh produce. At Battery Urban Farm, the student farmer-run one-acre educational plot has more than 100 varieties of organic veggies, fruits, grains, flowers and other plants. It also donates its produce to food pantries and local school cafeterias and everyone is welcome to volunteer every third Saturday of the month from 10am to 1pm (register in advance).

NYC Audubon: If your kid loves animals and has a soft spot for birds, the nYC Audobon can open their eyes and ears to hundreds of species they may never have seen before! The New York City Audubon not only protects the birds, wildlife and their natural habitats in the area but they also have fun workshops and school programs to teach kids how to identify their birds and offers hope and tips for caring for the environment.

Brooklyn Botanic Garden's Edible Academy: This branch of the New York Botanical Garden has the goal of immersing children in nature. It offers planting projects, cooking demonstrations or hands-on activity in the greenhouse.

Bronx Zoo: Bronx Zoo is New York City’s biggest zoo, with more than 5,000 animals, including lions, tigers, the World of Reptiles, an outdoor baboon reserve, a sea lion pool and an exhibit dedicated entirely to animals of Madagascar. The zoo is also dedicated to conservation and science and offers daily summer camp programs.

New York Aquarium: This branch of the Wildlife Conservation Society, located off the Coney Island Boardwalk, has plenty of fish, sharks, starfish and the mammals and birds that live among them. Otters, seals, penguins and sea lions show off their crazy behavior and skills in the aquatheater during shows. 

Randalls Island Park: This beautiful island park is on the edge of the East River near Harlem, the Bronx, and Queens, and includes a huge complex for football, soccer, baseball, and other field sports, as well as trails for walking and cycling. 

Must Read Books for All Ages

A great book is an amazing gift - it can teach you something new, transport you to a different world, help you realize you aren't alone in your feelings, and so much more. In today's fast-paced digital world, though, the pleasure of a great book is often forgotten. That's why it is extra important to help your child build a love of reading, and summer break is a great opportunity to encourage your little one to get lost in a book. Here are our favorites for all ages!

Elementary

You can't go wrong with classics like Frog and Toad, the Wayside series, Harriet the Spy, or Charlotte's Web, but here are some of our newer favorites.

   The Notebook of Doom series    This series is perfect for boys who like things a little bit creepy and a lot action-packed. Each book features a new mystery, new monsters, and new problems for Alexander and his friends to solve.

The Notebook of Doom series

This series is perfect for boys who like things a little bit creepy and a lot action-packed. Each book features a new mystery, new monsters, and new problems for Alexander and his friends to solve.

  Zita the Spacegirl series   This graphic novel features Zita, a fearless girl on a journey through another world to rescue a kidnapped friend. Zita is brave, adventurous, and loyal. She refuses to be intimidated and she never gives up. 

Zita the Spacegirl series

This graphic novel features Zita, a fearless girl on a journey through another world to rescue a kidnapped friend. Zita is brave, adventurous, and loyal. She refuses to be intimidated and she never gives up. 

  Ivy and Bean series   Ivy and Bean is perfect for kids who like realistic fiction with a touch of fantasy. These two girls make more mischief than they can handle. The series is a celebration of overactive imaginations and independent girls who can solve any problem.

Ivy and Bean series

Ivy and Bean is perfect for kids who like realistic fiction with a touch of fantasy. These two girls make more mischief than they can handle. The series is a celebration of overactive imaginations and independent girls who can solve any problem.

   Here's Hank series    Hank is an endearing protagonist, always making his classmates (and his readers) laugh with his funny antics and adventures. 

Here's Hank series

Hank is an endearing protagonist, always making his classmates (and his readers) laugh with his funny antics and adventures. 

   Stink series    Readers may recognize Stink as Judy Moody’s little brother. Funny characters, wacky escapades, and sibling shenanigans make this a perfect series for budding readers to dive into.

Stink series

Readers may recognize Stink as Judy Moody’s little brother. Funny characters, wacky escapades, and sibling shenanigans make this a perfect series for budding readers to dive into.

   Franny K. Stein, Mad Scientist series    Franny is a mad scientist who conducts experiments in her attic bedroom. Though her experiments often get her into trouble, she always manages to fix the problems she creates. 

Franny K. Stein, Mad Scientist series

Franny is a mad scientist who conducts experiments in her attic bedroom. Though her experiments often get her into trouble, she always manages to fix the problems she creates. 


Middle School

Your child is bound to love classics like the Chronicles of Narnia, the Indian in the Cupboard, anything by Judy Blume or Roald Dahl, or Harry Potter or Percy Jackson if those are still on his or her reading list, but here are a few newer favorites just in case!

   Fish in a Tree    Sixth grader Ally struggles with school and is considered "dumb" and a "pest" by most teachers — until she gets in Mr. Daniels's class. Her life turns around when this teacher realizes she struggles with dyslexia and brings out the best in her.

Fish in a Tree

Sixth grader Ally struggles with school and is considered "dumb" and a "pest" by most teachers — until she gets in Mr. Daniels's class. Her life turns around when this teacher realizes she struggles with dyslexia and brings out the best in her.

   Goodbye Stranger    The story centers on three seventh graders, Bridge, Tab and Emily, who are dealing with typical middle school issues — taking selfies, liking boys, staying friends when your interests start to diverge, divorced parents — but this story takes it a few layers deeper. 

Goodbye Stranger

The story centers on three seventh graders, Bridge, Tab and Emily, who are dealing with typical middle school issues — taking selfies, liking boys, staying friends when your interests start to diverge, divorced parents — but this story takes it a few layers deeper. 

   Middle School, the Worst Years of my Life    Rafe just started middle school, and it’s … horrible. To survive days at school and problems at home, he comes up with Operation Rafe where he earns points for breaking oppressive rules like running in the halls and pulling the fire alarm

Middle School, the Worst Years of my Life

Rafe just started middle school, and it’s … horrible. To survive days at school and problems at home, he comes up with Operation Rafe where he earns points for breaking oppressive rules like running in the halls and pulling the fire alarm

   Doll Bones    Zach, Poppy, and Alice have been best friends forever, playing one long game of make-believe centering around the Queen, an old china doll. But now that they are in middle school, they are starting to drift apart, but a great adventure might change that. 

Doll Bones

Zach, Poppy, and Alice have been best friends forever, playing one long game of make-believe centering around the Queen, an old china doll. But now that they are in middle school, they are starting to drift apart, but a great adventure might change that. 

   The One and Only Ivan    This winner of the 2013 Newbery Medal celebrates the transformative power of unexpected friendships. Inspired by the true story of a captive gorilla known as Ivan, this illustrated novel is told from the point-of-view of Ivan himself.

The One and Only Ivan

This winner of the 2013 Newbery Medal celebrates the transformative power of unexpected friendships. Inspired by the true story of a captive gorilla known as Ivan, this illustrated novel is told from the point-of-view of Ivan himself.

   Counting by 7s    Holly Goldberg Sloan’s beautiful novel about being an outsider, coping with loss, and discovering the true meaning of family will move readers of all ages. 

Counting by 7s

Holly Goldberg Sloan’s beautiful novel about being an outsider, coping with loss, and discovering the true meaning of family will move readers of all ages. 


High School

Here are some of our favorite recent works of fiction!

   The Book Thief    Liesel Meminger is a foster girl living outside of Munich in Nazi Germany. Her life changes forever when she encounters something she can’t resist–books. With the help of her foster father, she learns to read and her books help her and her neighbors through the war.  

The Book Thief

Liesel Meminger is a foster girl living outside of Munich in Nazi Germany. Her life changes forever when she encounters something she can’t resist–books. With the help of her foster father, she learns to read and her books help her and her neighbors through the war.
 

   The Kite Runner    The unforgettable story of the unlikely friendship between a wealthy boy and the son of his father’s servant, caught in the tragic sweep of history,  The Kite Runner  transports readers to Afghanistan at a tense and crucial moment of change and destruction.

The Kite Runner

The unforgettable story of the unlikely friendship between a wealthy boy and the son of his father’s servant, caught in the tragic sweep of history, The Kite Runner transports readers to Afghanistan at a tense and crucial moment of change and destruction.

   Looking for Alaska    Miles Halter is fascinated by famous last words—and tired of his safe life at home. When he heads to boarding school he finds clever, beguiling, and self-destructive Alaska Young, who will pull Miles into her labyrinth and catapults him into the Great Perhaps.

Looking for Alaska

Miles Halter is fascinated by famous last words—and tired of his safe life at home. When he heads to boarding school he finds clever, beguiling, and self-destructive Alaska Young, who will pull Miles into her labyrinth and catapults him into the Great Perhaps.

   The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao    Oscar is a sweet but disastrously overweight ghetto nerd who—from the New Jersey home he shares with his old world mother and rebellious sister—dreams of becoming the Dominican J.R.R. Tolkien and, most of all, finding love. But Oscar may never get what he wants. Blame the fukú—a curse that has haunted Oscar’s family for generations, following them on their epic journey from Santo Domingo to the USA.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Oscar is a sweet but disastrously overweight ghetto nerd who—from the New Jersey home he shares with his old world mother and rebellious sister—dreams of becoming the Dominican J.R.R. Tolkien and, most of all, finding love. But Oscar may never get what he wants. Blame the fukú—a curse that has haunted Oscar’s family for generations, following them on their epic journey from Santo Domingo to the USA.

   The Perks of Being a Wallflower    The story follows observant “wallflower” Charlie as he charts a course through the strange world between adolescence and adulthood. First dates, family drama, and new friends. Sex, drugs, and  The Rocky Horror Picture Show . Devastating loss, young love, and life on the fringes. 

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

The story follows observant “wallflower” Charlie as he charts a course through the strange world between adolescence and adulthood. First dates, family drama, and new friends. Sex, drugs, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Devastating loss, young love, and life on the fringes. 

   Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time    Christopher John Francis Boone, the 15-year-old autistic narrator of this widely lauded novel, is a brilliant and sensitive kid who feels a kinship with animals more than people. So when Wellington, a neighborhood dog, is mysteriously killed, Christopher is compelled to figure out who did it, documenting all his findings despite the discouragement from those around him

Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time

Christopher John Francis Boone, the 15-year-old autistic narrator of this widely lauded novel, is a brilliant and sensitive kid who feels a kinship with animals more than people. So when Wellington, a neighborhood dog, is mysteriously killed, Christopher is compelled to figure out who did it, documenting all his findings despite the discouragement from those around him

Meet a Student: Lizzie

What is your favorite book?

My favorite book is The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. I love this because of Katniss’s bravery and courage. She took a big risk to save her sister, and I think that is very admirable in a person.

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

If I was a teacher, I would teach English. I love reading, and I enjoy reading and analyzing passages from books, and especially poetry.

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

Since I started with tutoring, I have loved learning about my challenges with learning, and learning about my brain and how I best obtain information.

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

I love theatre. I have been a competitive dancer since the age of 3, and I have been in school productions such as Mary Poppins, as Mary, and The Lion King, as Rafiki.

What is something you have done or accomplished that are you most proud of?

I am proud of the steps I took to make the National School Walkout on March 14th happen.

What is your favorite word?

My favorite word is whimsical. I think that the definition perfectly matches the emphasis and way you say the word.

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

I would like to get a good part in the school production next year:)

Here is Lizzie's letter she wrote to make her case for the school walk out to protest gun laws.

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Meet a Tutor: Trinity

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

I grew up on the Texas coast, where I spent nearly every weekend swimming at the beach.  I lived in North Texas after college, where I taught high school English and coached softball and volleyball.  I moved to New York in 2014 to get my master’s degree in poetry at The New School.  

What was your favorite subject in school? 

My favorite subjects were English, Art, and Spanish.   

Is there a particular lesson or concept that you remember learning very clearly, either because of the way that it was taught, the way you came to understand it, or the way it changed the way you look at the world? Tell us about that experience. 

When I was twenty years old, I moved to England to study at the University of Leeds. I was a young American poet, and I wanted to prove myself.  Though I wrote a lot, I was hesitant to call myself a writer.  I thought I had to earn the title by being published, winning awards, and having a little fame.   

My new friend Beth challenged my idea of success.  She was a writer and artist who spent all her time (gasp!) writing and making art.  She wasn’t concerned with making the right impression on the right people; she considered herself a successful writer because she wrote every day.  

We spent a lot of time together then, poking away at old-fashioned typewriters and printing little chapbooks of our own poetry.  Thanks to Beth, I learned to take ownership of my dreams, instead of waiting for someone else to give me permission to be the writer I knew I was.  

What is your favorite book?

My favorite fiction book is The Secret History by Donna Tartt. It was recommended to me by my high school English teacher (she was a genius, but that’s another story).  The first time I read the book, I swear I didn’t look up from the pages once. It’s dark and fascinating, and the characters are artfully built.  

My favorite book of poetry is Reconnaissance by Carl Phillips.  I’m astounded by the leaps he makes in poetry; it’s like watching a magician conjure a miracle.  I don’t know how he does it, but I’m glad I’m in his audience.  

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

Find a kind of creative practice that makes you happy, something that sends you into the zone where nothing else exists.  Maybe you like to write, draw, dance, make films, sing, make puppets, sew, tell jokes— the possibilities are endless— but make regular time for that in your life.  I think nothing satisfies human beings like the act of creation, and no matter what happens in your life, relationships, careers, you can always have that little zone for yourself.  

What’s your favorite word? 

This is a difficult question for a poet.  I keep a running list of words that interest me in my notebook, so I’ll lift my answer from that:  plum, notch, coin, pillowslip, la boca (spanish for mouth)

How do you spend your free time?

I write, read, swim, bike, doodle, cook, watch Texas Rangers baseball, and look at Doug the Pug’s Instagram. 

What does learning mean in your life?

Learning means all the doors are open and I can do anything. 

Smarter Summers

It's hard to believe, but the summer countdown is on. Sure, it's only May and the break won't officially begin until June, but as the flowers bloom and the temperature rises, and as finals are scheduled and camp packing lists go out, summer feels like it's around the corner. It brings a sense of relief for all of us - sunny days, weekend adventures, more time to spend with family, and happier, less stressed kids (and hopefully adults too)!

At the same time, as an educator, I also look at the summer break as a valuable time for learning. While kids deserve a break, it is important for them to not totally check out. Most students lose about two months of grade level equivalency in reading and mathematical computation skills over the summer months – what educators and researchers refer to as “summer learning loss” or “summer brain drain.” However, by keeping kids more engaged over the break, we can help to ensure a smoother, more confident transition into the new school year. For elementary students, this means building a stronger foundation for reading, writing, and mathematical growth. For middle schoolers, this means learning how to think bigger by making meaningful connections between academic skills and the greater world we live in. For high schoolers, this means planning ahead for their many very real and very big next steps - honors and AP classes, internships and volunteer opportunities, test prep, and college applications.

May's blog posts are all about how to avoid that summer slump and make the most of the break. We offer suggestions, programs, and support for students of all ages over the vacation. For more information on our group classes or individual tutoring you can visit the Smarter Summers page, or email me at mara@smarten-up.com.

 

Smarter Summers: Elementary

For so many kids, the end of the school year is synonymous with a total break from learning. Sure, they may (and should!) read books over the summer vacation, but math is out of the picture, writing is forgotten, and spelling is given little to no consideration. However, this lack of engagement can have a serious impact on growing minds. Studies show that students on average lose 2.6 months of math skills and two months of reading gains when they check out over summer break. With this in mind, here are some tips for keeping your little one engaged.

Be a book worm!

- Take lots of trips to local libraries or book stores so your child can continue to consistently explore new books, just like they do in their classroom and school library.

- Read with your children! Chances are they are interested in books that are a bit too complex or challenging for them to read on their own, but with your help, these stories become accessible. Plus, these higher level books will include great vocabulary words for your child to learn.

- Have your child keep a journal of her summer adventures. Not only will serve as a great way to continue writing, it is also a really nice way to encourage creative story telling through a combination of words, pictures, drawings, mementos, and more. Plus, they'll have an incredible book of their own creation to look back on to remember their super fun summer break!

Don't forget about STEM!

- Building math fact fluency is central to later mathematical success, and luckily there are tons of great apps to help kids master their facts. Some of our favorites include Operation Math, Sushi Monster, Number Run, and Marble Math

- Legos and puzzles are a great way to develop visual thinking and problem solving skills. Let students work on their own creations, or give them a challenge to solve.

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Learn with Smarten Up!

We will also be offering a two-week elementary academic workshop for rising 1st and 2nd graders this summer. We want our students to return to the classroom with confidence, feeling excited to show off all that they’ve learned, and eager to learn even more! Our carefully planned half-day program is designed not only to prevent learning loss, but to actually keep kids moving forward with the important skills that will help them excel in school. We target foundational reading, writing, and math skills using research-based programs within the context of a fun, game-based learning experience.

For more information visit the Smarter Summers section of the website, or email mara@smarten-up.com.