learning

Helping Your Child Discover a Passion

As children grow and mature, they slowly but surely discover those things that excite them and figure out the activities they do not enjoy. Little kids are generally up for anything, so they will participate in just about any activity their parents sign them up for. As they get older, however, children develop more specific tastes and interests, and learn more about who they are and what special skills or passions they might possess. With this in mind, it is important that students begin to explore a wide range of extracurricular activities at an early age, so they can discover the passions and interests that will enable them to thrive inside and outside of school.

There are many ways to encourage your child to get involved in extracurriculars; you might start by asking your student what he finds appealing or what she has always wanted to try. Because kids at this age don’t always know what appeals to them, you might ask a teacher or counselor if they have observed any special or specific aptitude your child might possess and then encourage him or her in that direction. The truth is, however, that at this age, your student might not yet show a passion or talent for any one activity as they simply have not yet been exposed to all the options. With that in mind, the more you can encourage them to try a wide spectrum of activities, the better. Below are many extracurricular options and the potential benefits they might provide your child:

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Arts: the arts are a great way for your child to develop and express those parts of themselves that they may not be able to find in an academic setting. These might include, visual arts (painting, drawing, photography), drama (acting, singing, set design), writing/reading (newspaper, yearbook, poetry, book club), music (chorus, band, voice), dance and design. Involvement in the arts, even if they do not end up loving the activity, instills the values of self-confidence, communication, intrinsic motivation, creative problem solving, self-expression and improved cognition. Even if your student ultimately decides that the arts is not where their passion lies, by exploring an artistic extracurricular early on, he/she will still develop a deeper self-understanding.

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Sports: taking part in a sports activity can provide a healthy outlet for young students who might feel constrained by academics. Most schools offer a wide variety of sports activities, whether intramural or clubs, competitive or not, and there is usually something for everyone. Encouraging your student to join a sports club can offer a nice counterbalance to the hours they spend sitting at a desk in school. Students at this age have a lot of physical energy, and there has been a great deal of research correlating participation in athletics with improved academic performance. Beyond the obvious physical benefits, taking part in a sports team teaches teamwork, perseverance, skill-building, commitment and time management and allows for important social bonding. 

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Volunteering: when young students take part in an organization or extracurricular that focuses on giving back, your developing child will gain insight into the lasting social and health benefits of volunteer work, both on their community and themselves. Many schools offer volunteer programs within the school, (National Honor Society, peer tutoring, community gardening, library work, etc.) and in the community at large, (tutoring at under-privileged schools, parks and museum work, Big Brother, Big Sister, YMCA, etc.). Volunteer programs for middle schoolers have been shown to have the greatest positive impact on the social and mental health of students; he/she will gain a sense of agency, learn about teamwork, develop a passion for community building and allow the child to feel that they are giving back and accomplishing something, which can often translate to accomplishment in academics. 

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Leadership: for those students who enjoy academic work but would like an outlet to display more agency and assertiveness, you might encourage them to join an academic extracurricular such as speech and debate or student council. Many schools have a Student Court, a Debate, Mock Trial/Mock Congress or Model United Nations club. This provides a great opportunity for kids to develop their public speaking, writing, and debate skills. Additionally, they will learn about diplomacy and problem solving, cooperation and leadership, while also developing self-confidence and grit. This provides long-lasting benefits to your child as they enter high school and transition into professional careers that will inevitably require strong writing and oratorical skills. 

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Science/Math: some students, even in middle school, find certain academic subjects so exciting that they would like to explore them outside of the rigid school requirements. If your child has an interest in science, technology, engineering, and math, you might consider encouraging them to join an extracurricular program, such as STEM, that allows them to experiment, play and explore those elements they might not get to tackle in class. Taking part in an academic extracurricular allows students to get messy, explore real-world situations and take part in alternative learning methods. These clubs can also be beneficial for those students who might struggle with the structure and presentation of material in their math and science classes. Ideally, they can discover the potential love of learning through risk-taking, hands-on work and creative problem solving. This positive reinforcement and increased confidence can, in turn, improve academic work within the classroom. 

Extracurricular activity has long been linked to academic and mental health and there is no more important time for extracurricular exploration than in middle school. Students at this age are often vulnerable and unsure of themselves as they navigate a new social setting; joining a team, an organization or a club can give these young students the chance to be a part of something, and begin developing valuable life skills such as teamwork, cooperation, leadership, and problem-solving. If your middle schooler begins to explore options early on, and tries activities at which they are afraid they might fail, they will begin to conquer the fear of failure that plagues all students. Ultimately, the way middle school students spend their free time can have a huge impact on their academic work and hopefully plant the seed that will blossom into a full-blown passion as they focus their interests in high school!

Passion and the Well-Rounded High Schooler

With the increasing demands of high school academics, it can sometimes feel difficult to find time for extracurriculars — but the danger of feeling overwhelmed by schoolwork is all the more reason to carve out a balanced schedule that includes time for development outside of the academic sphere. Of course you have continued license as a high school student to explore new interests, but by now you have hopefully also found an area or two in which you know you can thrive, whether playing a sport, learning an instrument or art form, or advocating in support of a particular cause. Pursuing these extracurricular interests with sincerity is more than just a signal to colleges that you are a well-rounded, passionate individual; it is the time-tested formula for becoming one. 

The first step toward extracurricular development is setting ambitious but appropriate goals for yourself. In your first year at a new school, seek out older students whose example you can follow. Next cast your net more widely — look online for students who have excelled at something that interests you, and absorb what you find about the steps they took to get where you want to go. You will find students your age who are conducting independent research projects to compete in national contests, forming their own bands, making short films, volunteering with the elderly—almost anything you can imagine. You can even research the biographies of established professionals you admire to give yourself something to aim towards; let yourself be inspired!

Next, take the initiative to start down the path you find most compelling. Does your school already have a jazz band you can audition for, or a speech and debate team? If not, consider starting one yourself, gathering a group of like-minded peers to form a community that might well become an important part of your high school experience. You can also look outside of your high school for opportunities. If you’re living in New York City, the possibilities are endless — aspiring veterinarians can nurse wounded birds back to health at the Wild Bird Fund, and budding journalists can apply to the New York Times’ Summer Academy. Often the hardest part is getting started, so avoid procrastination by setting a clear timeline for applications and find a friend who can help you stay on track. 

Finally, remember that the more sincerely you can pursue the thing that interests you—rather than the one you believe will look best on a resume—the better you will do. It’s not a bad thing to consider how your skills and experiences will be perceived by colleges, and to work strategically to present yourself in the best light. However, it is also important to trust your instincts, and go after the goals that excite you. The authenticity that this kind of activity will show to colleges is not something that can be easily replicated, and so long as you chase your own particular passion with a dedicated effort, your work will pay off in one way or another. 

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.

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.

Creativity and Learning

My first teaching position was at the Parkside School, which is a school for children with speech and language based disabilities. For so many of my students, it was plain to see that standard academic assessments would not be a fitting measure of their brilliance or potential. They were masters of topics that captured their curiosity, while it was a real challenge to engage them with material that didn’t speak to their strengths or interests. 

At the same time, as a New Yorker with a lot of creative friends, I was surrounded by adults who had struggled their way through school. Some had learning disabilities that made the task of being a “good student” incredibly difficulty no matter how hard they worked, while others struggled with ADHD and were labeled “trouble makers.” Plus, there were those who simply weren’t interested in or motivated by standard academic curriculum. School was a largely miserable and disheartening experience for all of them. 

I founded Smarten Up with these two groups of learners in mind. Our guiding principle is that learning should be fun. While school is not always easy, and understanding new material is often difficult, at Smarten Up we believe that every child is capable of learning. All it takes is creative instruction. That is why we strive to connect each student’s interests to classroom material. 

April’s blog posts are a celebration of creativity and the many ways in which the arts can enrich learning. Our increasingly structured, competitive, and engaged world leaves less and less time for the sort of sensitivity, flexibility, and self-exploration that comes with creative expression. Hopefully these posts will remind all of us to make a little more time for the arts in the lives of our children (and ourselves)!

Creative Writing for the Teenage Soul

A central part of the human experience is finding effective ways to express ourselves and be understood by others. As children we can work through complex feelings, emotions, and ideas, with our parents, teachers, or a trusted caregiver. As adults we have partners, siblings, and life long friends to hash out our thoughts with. Unfortunately, though, it’s during the tumultuous teenage years when it is often feels most difficult to find a good listener. For many students, creative writing can be a great outlet that leads not only to emotional catharsis, but also to improved writing skills!

Whether writing poems, stories, plays or lyrics, the process of putting thoughts down on paper is a great way to reflect and process without fear of judgement. Troubling thoughts that might otherwise fester and breed negativity, anger, and self-consciousness can be exorcised from the brain as teens acknowledge them and attempt to move on. There is no fear of confrontation and no need to be on the defensive or offensive; instead, creative writing offers students the opportunity to reflect and hopefully learn from experience.

Apart from being a therapeutic form of self-expression, creative writing is also good for communication and problem-solving. A writer must describe an experience or scenario in a way that will make the reader fully believe and even feel the things the writer is feeling. This requires an amazing vocabulary, heightened awareness, and empathy. When students translate abstract observations and feelings into well-formed sentences and paragraphs, they are engaging in the human experience: learning, listening, and decoding. After all, storytelling is the oldest form of human communication and exists in every culture and society; when a student is able to engage another person in their story, not only does it feel good, that child is also learning how to create a meaningful social bond.

Creative writing is beneficial to students on so many levels. It encourages emotional development and self-confidence, and improves teenagers’ ability to empathize and connect with others. At the same time, creative writing also leads to academic gains as students learn how to analyze the world around them and communicate their ideas about it with more clarity and sensitivity. We are all driven to reflect on and understand our environment, and to try and make things better both for ourselves and those around us. By encouraging independence, empathy, catharsis and expression, creative writing is one of the best ways to ensure a child becomes a conscientious and well-rounded adult!