writing

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.

Next Level Annotations

As students grow older, the demands of their classwork evolve; rather than merely summarizing plot or retaining historical dates, students are challenged to think critically, as they take their base of skills and knowledge and use these tools to forge original analysis. In parallel with this evolution in their education must come an evolution in the way they read, and in the way they annotate. With luck, students will have been building up simple annotation habits for some time by this point — but now, the purpose of annotation shifts, from a tactic for staying engaged with the reading, to an active commentary that records insight and evidence with a grander end goal in mind: the analytical essay.

When students read with the aim of collecting evidence to use in an essay, they do so under a variety of different circumstances. Some teachers might provide a framework or prompt before reading begins — others will wait until after the class has finished reading a text before distributing the essay assignment. In either case the goal of annotation is the same: to activate the mind as students read, and start them down the path of critical analysis. The key here is reading with a clear purpose. If the prompts are distributed ahead of time, students should come up with a key — by numbering them for example — and mark the text with the appropriate number whenever they find a quote that could be of use in responding to that prompt. For visually-oriented learners, pens or post-it notes in different colors for different themes can enhance the process. Even if they don’t have the list of possible prompts before they begin reading, students should use a site like LitCharts to preview the text, searching for important themes that they can annotate in a similar way, as these are likely to be helpful for the eventual essay. It’s best to focus on two or three themes at a time — and remember that one piece of evidence might be helpful for more than one theme, and should be marked with more than one number or color. 

If they’re writing a research paper, and using sources that they find independently, many students will find that the challenge is sifting through the text to find relevant evidence. Here, too, there is a shift in the approach to reading; rather than starting from the beginning and reading a stack of library books through the end, students should begin with a focused question and use strategic searches to isolate the evidence they need. This means using the table of contents, learning to navigate an index, focusing on headings, and searching intelligently through online databases. As students encounter the information they will need, they should be compiling quotes into a central location, making sure to include source information and page numbers as they read and record to smooth the process of creating a bibliography later on. Online tools such as easybib.com, citationmachine.net, and the reference materials at Purdue’s Online Writing Lab make creating citations easier than ever, but most students will need an introduction to the process — both in order to understand the required formatting and its intention, and to avoid unintentional plagiarism. 

The right kind of annotation will make the process of writing a critical essay or research paper ten times simpler, and much more effective at the same time. Not only can annotation provide the kind of record that students can easily transfer into a brainstorm and outline, it will activate their way of thinking about the text as they read, setting them up for success as writers.

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.

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!