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“Ask the Tutor” Provides Tips and Answers on Schoolwork, Homework, Standardized Testing and More…

Question: "Dear Tutor, How should I balance my family’s need for vacation and recuperation time with my child's need for academic support and enrichment?"

Answer: "Dear Parent, The solution is not a simple cookie-cutter one that will work for all families the same way. I believe you already identified the key concept when you asked the question. That key word is “BALANCE.” You’ll have to find it for your family as I will for mine. The bottom line is whether our choices help our children's minds stay active throughout the year. I know that this is definitely possible, for all ages.

Human beings are born to learn, so learning should be a mostly pleasurable activity; it doesn't have to be drudgery. However, adults and children alike seem to crave a break from school and work week routines. Vacations can be a healthy luxury, allowing families to enjoy adventurous or tranquil good times outside of their everyday environments. These escapes or breaks feel even better, of course, when they stand in refreshing contrast to the activities your child ordinarily pursues. If TV, computer (e-mail and IM’s) and video games are what your son uses to chill out at home, then a vacation setting that includes the same array of media access might not really refresh or energize him. If your daughter tends to do the minimum daily required reading for school and no reading for pleasure, and then puts away all her books for an entire summer; that isn't a break from work, it's backsliding.

So what do I suggest we do to achieve vacation-time balance for each learner in our households?

Suggestion #1:  Let’s ask our daughters and sons to have some academically-oriented independent work to do while they are vacationing. During a one week spring break (assuming there is no research project outline to do for school), your child should have some time every day for self-selected silent reading and/or journal writing. Doing it by the pool is fine!

Suggestion #2:  As we agitate ourselves with complex multi-variable planning models for our family’s summer camps, tutoring, sports, etc., let’s be sure to keep each child’s balance in mind. Action-oriented camps can be great, but let's keep our children’s brains exercised as well as their bodies. At any age, two and a half summer months without any organized reading, writing, math, science or arts would be far too long. The best camps are intellectually stimulating as well as socially and athletically, so the desired balance is inherent in their programs. (This is especially important for those children who sleep away for as long as two months.)

Suggestion #3: When we have children who won’t be away at camp for extended periods, we have more flexibility (and more confusing choices) in our summer planning. The simple way to look at it is this: each child deserves some safe and healthy fun and solid intellectual growth opportunities during the summer holiday. Academic enrichment and skills development workshops, tutoring sessions and arts programs should all be among the platters on the summer activities buffet table. Let’s try to alternate our children’s weeks of activities so that reading, writing and mathematics skills don’t go into a warm weather hibernation. We want our kids to be peak learners all year, in school and out.

Please click here to view David’s bio.

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Break Down Long-Term Projects

Question: Dear Tutor, My son seems to be getting more and more homework every night, with long-term projects also due each month. We’re having a hard time juggling what to do when. Can you help?

Answer: Dear Parent, So often, the task before us is more daunting than the actual assignment. With the goal being to reduce these feelings of being overwhelmed as well as getting everything done on time, organization is key. 
Everyone has their own style, my suggestion is to get a large desk calendar and list all of the assignment and projects that are due. Then, each day, chip away at the project.

Break a project into sections – like pieces of a puzzle. This will make everything seem less overwhelming. It may only take an additional 15 minutes a night if you break the project down,  opposed to an entire weekend – when left to the last minute when resources and time are scarce.

List on the calendar what you want to accomplish with those 15 minutes. Here’s an example:

  • Monday: organize library books, magazines and flag important pages
  • Tuesday: do internet searches, print information, highlight web site addressees for the bibliography later.
  • Wednesday: coordinate internet information and books into “like piles”. Rough draft the first page.
  • Thursday: rough draft 2nd page and so on…

My final suggestion is set a due date for yourself 1-2 days before the teacher’s assigned due date This allocates extra time in case unforeseen problems occur such as a broken printer, lost information, misplaced books, or final questions. Good Luck!

Our guest tutor this month is Kathleen. Please click here to view Kathleen’s bio

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SAT Writing

Question: "Dear Tutor, My son has always done well on tests, but the "new" SAT will require that he write an essay on the spot. Writing is his most challenging subject. What is the best way to get him ready for the writing section of the SAT?”

Answer: "Dear Parent, The first thing you should know is that you’re in good company. Since the essay portion of the SAT is a recent addition, many students are worried about it – even if they already tend to do well in classes that require essay writing. Actually, it’s desirable to have a little nervous energy in testing situations rather than feel complacent, but on the other hand we don’t want your son/daughter to be excessively jittery on exam day. First let's talk about the legitimate reasons for performance anxiety, and then let’s discuss remedies.

Why is there any cause for upset about a simple five-paragraph paper? First, there’s the possibility that the timed 25 minute essay is a very different task from what the student has typically experienced. Possibly s/he is used to some short essay sections in timed history or English tests in high school, and probably s/he has had to write papers at home and submit them in a week or so (preferably after re-drafting and revising). However, it is unlikely that s/he has frequently practiced writing opinion pieces or editorials when given a surprise topic as a prompt. The no-more-than-two-page, handwritten essay is the first item your SAT taker will tackle. If, when time is called, s/he has the sinking feeling that s/he left out some key example that would have driven the point home, s/he will have to shake a feeling of discouragement while working through the other sections of the test for three more hours!

Now, here’s the good news. If your son/daughter already has a good command of Standard English grammar and usage and has an adequate vocabulary, then s/he can develop strong skills as a short essay writer. (Of course I mean, "a writer of short essays" – tall people are at no disadvantage!) Practice is the key to developing stamina in a runner, and it helps with graceful fluency in a writer. Sharing practice essays with a parent, teacher or tutor should help the student develop some versatility with a wide variety of topics. Since the topics are not pre-announced, the testing folks do not expect expert knowledge. In making his or her case, the writer can do just as well with relevant personal anecdotes as with citations from literature, history or current events. It’s mostly about the quality of the presentation. The test readers will not penalize a student because they disagree with his/her thesis that, "Sometimes it is necessary to be dishonest." Rather, they will judge the overall rhetorical quality of the essay’s arguments and the grace of its language. Timed practice sessions, both self-administered and coached, should help the student feel comfortable and well-prepared, if not actually eager for the test!"

Meet this month’s guest tutor columnist Dave M.

Ways to Say Thank You

Question: "Dear Tutor, The holidays are coming, and I'd like to show my children's teachers how much we appreciate their hard work and dedication. Do you have any tips about appropriate gifts or original ways to say "thank you?"

Answer: "Dear Parent, Oftentimes classroom teachers receive more gifts than they know what to do with! Try to plan with other parents in your child's classroom - get together and purchase one gift. Does your child's teacher have any specific hobbies or collections? Sometimes a homemade gift is the perfect alternative to one purchased in a store. I still remember a favorite gift given to me during my first year of teaching. It's a denim bag that has the personal signatures of every child written in puff paint. I still use that bag to carry books and materials to school, and looking at the children's names brings back fond memories of that first class. That was nearly ten years ago! I also love to receive simple, personal notes from parents or kids about what they have learned in my class.

Teachers are an important part of children's lives. Always remember to say "thank you," especially during the holiday season. The teachers will continue to remember you, and your children, for years to come!

For more great gift ideas for teachers, please visit Scholastic at

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Know Your Child's Teacher

Dear Tutor: "I would like to start the school year by getting to know my child's teacher. I know that she's very busy, and I don't want to be in the way. What approach can you recommend?"

Answer: "Dear Parent, The beginning of the school year is an exciting time for students, teachers and parents. It is a time to get to know new faces and learn new things. The best way for a parent to get to know their child's teacher is attend a back to school night or a meet the teacher night. This is a great way to get to know the teacher and their expectations for the child. If your child's school does not offer a time to meet the teacher in person just send in a note or make a phone call. It is important to remember that the beginning of school is a hectic time for the teacher. Give him or her a few days to get to know your child before expecting a response."

Please click here to view Kelly's bio

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Parent-Teacher Conferences

Question: "Dear Tutor, Our parent-teacher conference is coming up next month. Our appointment is only 20 minutes long. What should I expect to hear from the teacher? Is there anything I should do to prepare for this meeting?"

Answer: "Dear Parent, At the start of the school year, the parent-teacher conference is an opportunity for both you and the teacher to exchange information. You may hear the teacher discuss her initial impressions about how your child is adjusting to the new grade level. He or she will likely talk about your child’s learning style by highlighting observed strengths and weaknesses in various subject areas. She will also comment on your child’s social development – how your son/daughter is relating to peers.

In order to make the most of the time set aside for your conference, it is important that you write down any questions ahead of time. Try to find out about the teacher’s homework policy and how much assistance you should provide at home, if any. Be sure to ask about ways to help out – does your child’s teacher welcome parent volunteers in the classroom? Does she invite a “Mystery Reader” (usually a parent) every week? Does she ever need an hour or two of clerical assistance? 

The parent teacher conference is an excellent way to start building a partnership with your child’s teacher that will last all year. For more information about tips for how to prepare for parent-teacher conferences visit Discovery School. Thanks for writing!

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How to Excel in Math

Dear Tutor: “I have heard many reports about the academic performance of United States children lagging behind that of their peers from other countries (especially in math and science). What steps can I take as a parent to insure that my child can excel in these areas?”

Answer: "Dear Parent, Alas, those reports are true. Despite the best efforts of parents, educators, administrators, and government, children in the US are not reaching their potential when it comes to learning math and science. I like your question, because instead of fixing blame, it seeks a solution. The good news is that there are many ways parents can help:

  1. At the top of the list is to have high expectations. People perform better when more is expected of them; so do children. Fight to keep tests from being "dumbed-down". Expect your children to do more than go through the motions.
  2. Start new concepts concretely and move gracefully and gradually to the abstract. There are techniques that help a parent or educator know whether or not a student is learning; one is the Three Step Approach pioneered by Montessori (see for a simple explanation).
  3. Use all the senses. Have students run, jump, sing, throw, and dance to learn math concepts. Use manipulatives with different textures, weights, and color.
  4. Don't teach. Instead encourage learning through discovery. Students who discover new ideas for themselves remember and apply these ideas much more effectively. Good luck on your path to math success!"

Click here to meet this month's guest columnist Larry Shiller of ShillerMath.

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Too Soon for Calculators?

Question: "Dear Tutor, My daughter’s teacher allows the use of calculators in class while the children are learning new concepts or solving word problems. (She’s only in the 4th grade.) I'm worried that she’ll never really learn her math facts if she’s allowed to use a calculator. What do you think?

Answer: "Dear Parent, When I go to the theatre, I am positively grateful that the players have memorized their parts. When an English teacher has students memorize lines of Shakespeare, it is regarded as perfectly acceptable. It is hoped that the lines will come to the mind of the student unbidden, and thus reveal meanings that were not previously apparent. It is also hoped that they will be available whenever desired. Insofar as having sample mathematical patterns to consider, the same notions apply. My feeling about the use of calculators by students before they have mastered arithmetic is the same as my feelings about forcing a student to study art history without looking at any pictures."

This week’s guest tutor is Michael F.

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Evaluation for Learning Disabilities

Question: "Dear Tutor, The teachers at my daughter's school suspect that she could have a learning disability, and have asked for my consent to perform testing. What is a "full evaluation," and how do I explain what this testing is to my daughter?"

Answer: "Dear Parent, The purpose of a multi-disciplinary evaluation is to find your child’s strengths and weaknesses across a variety of disciplines. A full evaluation completed by the school must be completed within 45 school days. Your child will be seen by several professionals – all who will complete testing with your child in their areas of expertise.

The school psychologist will often do an I.Q. test, evaluate your child’s memory and processing speed, and ask you and your child’s teacher to complete some checklists. These checklists will provide information about your child’s overall behavior that will be important to consider during the evaluation process. 

The special education teacher will complete achievement testing, which looks at your child’s performance in reading, writing and mathematics. S/he may also do a classroom observation in order to see first hand how your child is adapting to the classroom setting.

Sometimes the evaluation will also include additional testing by the Speech and Language Pathologist, Occupational and Physical therapists if the team agrees that more information in these areas is needed.

As far as what to tell your daughter about the process…I recommend simply telling her that she will be working with some adults at the school on some special tests. (Yes, use the word “test” – she’ll know it’s one anyway.) Tell her that this is an opportunity for her to show everyone what she knows. You can also explain that she’ll be doing this so that we (you and her teachers) can find out how she learns, so that we can teach her in the best possible way for her learning style. 

Remember that you, as her parent, are an important part of the PPT (Planning and Placement Team). Your participation in this process is crucial – be sure to ask the school to clarify any questions that you might have during the course of the evaluation. Best of luck!"

This month’s guest tutor is My Tutor and Me Co-Director, Shannon Converse.

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Retaining Learning During School Vacations

Dear Tutor: “Last year, my daughter seemed to fall behind academically after coming back from the long 2-week holiday break. She's a good student, but she seemed to forget a lot of her previous lessons. Of course, I want my daughter to enjoy her time off. But, is there something I can do at home to help reinforce what's she's already learned?”

Answer: "Dear Parent, Good News! It only takes about 10 minutes a day to reinforce previously learned concepts! During these 10 minutes, your daughter should:

  • Skim and scan information from her test book. This includes: reviewing boldfaced vocabulary, reading the chapter summaries, and scanning through each chapter while looking only at the diagrams, pictures and captions.
  • Review class notes and handouts. Just skim, without trying to memorize. Remember – the goal is to keep all information "fresh", not to memorize.
  • Allow your daughter to invite a friend from her class over. The girls could bake some cookies, and then enjoy them while studying for 20-30 minutes. 

Of course if your daughter has had difficulty learning the coursework to begin with, she may need more help. Consider hiring a mature "homework buddy" – an older student who has done well in the course previously. You could also consider hiring a private tutor for a couple of hours. The teacher could re-teach difficult concepts, and preview upcoming coursework. This will give your daughter a head start to the New Year!"

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Retaining New Vocabulary

Dear Tutor: “My 6th grade son has always had difficulty learning new vocabulary. As the demands increase with each grade level, content area subjects like science and social studies are becoming more of a challenge. Flash cards aren’t doing the trick, and his attention span is not that long. Are there other ways to learn and remember new vocabulary?”

Answer: "Dear Parent, Because children have different modalities through which they learn best, it might be helpful to use visual supports. If your child is a visual learner, he can draw pictures to accompany vocabulary words and definitions. If your child is a tactile learner, he can experiment with clay models of new vocabulary. It is also helpful to pre-teach vocabulary before the student begins a new chapter with new content."

This month’s guest tutor is Michline LaBounty. 

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AP Preview

Dear Tutor: “My daughter is taking 2 Advanced Placement classes next year. I want her to receive the college credits, but I'm concerned she will be overwhelmed. What can I do to help her prepare?”

Answer: "Dear Parent, In order to help your daughter feel confident in her coursework, she should consider doing preparatory work prior to the academic year. As your daughter knows which courses she will be taking, a suggestion would be for her preview the key concepts of those AP courses with a tutor. This will give her a framework to better grasp the core material of these challenging courses."

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PSAT Study?

Question: "Dear Tutor, I was just wondering what your take is on tutoring for the PSATs?? My son will be taking them this year (11th grade). Does it pay to do anything for preparation? Or is it best to go in cold, and then use it as a benchmark for preparation for the REAL THING?"

Answer: "Dear Parent, I would say that the only reason for a person to do any significant studying for the PSAT is if he or she has a reasonable chance of scoring 1400+ combined on the math and reading sections (thus qualifying him or her for a National Merit Scholar). Otherwise, I would go in cold and use it as a benchmark."

This month’s featured tutor is Shannon T.

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Easing SAT Angst

Dear Tutor: “I am a junior in high school with a 3.4 average. I'll be taking my S.A.T. exam next month. I've been studying really hard, but I'm still worried. What happens if I don't do well on the test… Am I doomed?”

Answer: "Dear Parent, You can relax and take a deep breath because you are definitely not doomed. First of all, it was a great idea to sign up for the March SAT of your junior year. This should take some of the pressure off of this test since you will have an opportunity to retake the SAT either later this spring or in the fall of your senior year (or both) if you want to improve your score. Also, you said that you have been studying really hard, which is terrific. Continually practicing the strategies that your tutor has taught you, working on managing your time and learning new vocabulary words will undoubtedly ensure that you do your best come test day.

Finally, SAT scores are not the only things that count on a college application. A strong grade point average, persuasive essays and interesting extracurricular activities are also important to colleges. Remember, schools are interested in the whole applicant, not just one part of the application."

Click here to meet this month's guest tutor columnist Alissa.

For more information on the S.A.T. exam, visit

Reduce Test Anxiety

Dear Tutor: “SAT’s are coming up in December. Although my son is a good student and studies hard, sometimes he just freezes up during important tests. There is a lot riding on this SAT test. How can I help him deal with the pressure?”

Answer: "Dear Parent, While it is true that the SAT probably has more bearing on your son’s future than any other single test he has taken to date, nonetheless, effective stress management strategies are available and can significantly reduce the pressure he feels and, in turn, help him to perform at his peak.

  • Probably the most important aspect of stress reduction is preparation. Your child can benefit from knowing exactly what to expect. He should complete several practice tests under conditions identical to those of the actual administration to include having the same calculator he will use on the SAT and doing the tests in an environment where there are some (but not too many) distractions such as a public library.

  • In practice as on the exam, students often benefit from focusing exclusively on the question before them and doing their best to avoid thinking ‘big picture’ thoughts such as the consequences of the SAT. What we are seeking to foster is an environment where students do the best they can for the time period of the exam one question at a time.
  • Preparation also entails familiarity with question types and strategies as well as an ability to accept that for all but the very best test takers (less than 1 percent), there will be some questions which will be unanswerable. In preparation, students should seek to develop reflex approaches to questions based on the type of question they are facing. In this way, they may avoid wasting time getting their bearings on a given question, and be gainfully engaged in the question within seconds of seeing it even if they are uncertain as to what the precise path to the answer will ultimately be.
  • Successful test takers will understand that they needn’t answer all questions correctly to receive an outstanding score and will be prepared to answer selectively those questions which they stand the best chances of answering correctly. Stress reduction involves an acceptance of an approach which recognizes that some questions should be skipped or receive only minimal attention.  
  • Stress reduction is also facilitated by getting rigorous exercise or engaging in some strenuous activity on the day prior to the administration and getting a good night’s sleep."

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