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Topic: customization

How to experience math as your own unique creation

Thursday, December 26th, 2013

A great way to check if your son or daughter really understands what they’re working on is – once they’ve already spent some time practicing a particular problem type – to ask them to create their own original “designer” problem.

I frequently use the words, “Now I want to see a [student’s name] Original!” (Like if I was tutoring a student named Sally, I would say, “Now I want to see a Sally Original!”)

Why does this help?

1. First, being asked to create an original problem quickly reveals whether or not the student has truly internalized what they’re working on. If they can create and solve their own unique problem similar to what they’ve been working on, it means that they understand the material on a deeper level than just being able to DO it – they can actually CREATE it from scratch.

2. Second, it’s fun! Usually kids are really excited for the opportunity to create their own problem.

3. Third, when students do this, sometimes they’ll actually create and solve something much more complex than they have been working on. It’s like they want to take it to the next level, and they can without anyone stopping them, because they’re totally in the driver’s seat.

(Also, sometimes the opposite will happen, where a student will be reluctant to do this because they haven’t been asked to do it before, or they don’t feel ready. If this happens, you can just offer to go first or take turns, or if you really sense they’re communicating they need more practice first, do more practice problems before coming back and asking them to create their own.)

4. Fourth, it really helps them take ownership of their own learning. When you’re making and solving your own problem, it means you understand math is something you can CREATE – not just something random you’re being asked to do. This is a major confidence builder.

And it also really brings home the fact that math is a human creation, with its own beautiful idiosyncrasies!

Are you tired of not even having time to create dinner for your family because your kid’s math homework has become an overwhelming family-wide project? Do you wish that your kid could experience math creatively, as a source of fun, confidence, and security, instead of dread or incompetence? Are you ready to invest in high-level, super-customized tutoring support?

Just click here to get started with your special application for my one-on-one math tutoring programs. Once your application is received, we’ll set up a special phone call to get clear if my approach would be a good fit for your child.

Sending you love,

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How to incorporate a tutor into your homeschooling or unschooling environment
A Cosmic Imperative to Customize
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Topic: customization

What I learned on the streets of Paris…and in a Dutch grocery store

Thursday, December 12th, 2013

Rebecca and Alex in the Netherlands
Me & my new friend Alex at our training in the Netherlands

I recently had the opportunity to travel to the Netherlands for a very special training! I got to spend two days in a huge, luxurious barn (now outfitted for humans) and experience the beautiful southwestern Dutch countryside, full of incredible trees…

Rebecca in the forest in the Netherlands

spirited horses…

Rebecca with horses in the netherlands

…unexpectedly considerately quiet chickens that made no noise until long after I’d awoken, and amazing smells! (Unfortuately I don’t have a picture of the chickens or the smells.)

On my way to the training, taking the country-wide commuter rail from the Amsterdam airport, I was checking out the commuter rail map, and I couldn’t believe it.

At the bottom of the map was… Paris!

My heart leapt. This felt like looking at the Washington DC Metro map and finding it went all the way to Cuba or Buenos Aires!

So the morning my training was complete, I did one of the craziest things I’ve ever done. My leaping heart led the way, and I decided that later that day I was going to Paris with absolutely no plans.

I bought myself a ticket and got to experience the European high-speed rail (which felt kind of like a cross between the Hogwarts Express and the Starship Enterprise). On the train I managed to find a hotel room … and the adventure began.

It was a crazy blend of having moments of complete euphoria, where I just felt overjoyed for no reason except that I was in Paris and everything was so beautiful that I felt like my head might just explode. And then moments of complete overwhelm, where I was totally exhausted and confused.

Me & shelly in paris
(That is me and my friend Shelly in the ferris wheel in front of the Eiffel tower, during one of my awesome Paris moments, not one of the overwhelmed moments!!!)

But what surprised and delighted me the most of all wasn’t that I could buy roasted chestnuts from the street vendors at the Christmas market. It wasn’t that there was gluten-free patisserie run by incredibly sweet people. It wasn’t the autumn beauty of the Jardin de Tuleries, or walking into the Sacre Coeur cathedral in Montmartre and realizing that nuns were singing.

What surprised me the most of all was that I could actually communicate in French! After not using it AT ALL, whatsoever, for AT LEAST 11 years.

Me & alex in front of the eiffel tower

Just to give you some context, I had been to Paris before, right after I graduated from high school, and just two years or so after studying French academically.

On that trip, even though my French was WAY fresher in my mind, I didn’t actually have much success communicating with anyone. Plus my parents, who both speak some French, were happy to lead the way.

But on this recent trip, somehow I was having conversations, in French, about relatively complex topics like, is this dog lost at the Christmas market, or does he belong to someone nearby? (In case you’re worried, his name is Elvis and he belongs to the lady who works at the nearby restaurant, and just likes to walk around in front).

Even more surprising to me was how the vast majority of Parisiens went out of their way to talk to me in French, and how patient and lighthearted they were as I expressed myself with my limited vocabulary, and how much we were actually able to talk about together.

I really tried to figure out, what is it that had changed?

Then I realized.

It was my Indonesian language training.

Several years ago, I learned Indonesian in a total immersion environment, that coincidentally also seemed to train me to be extremely friendly, polite, and assertive in a foreign language.

It also trained me to be playful, experimental, and completely not worried about doing something wrong (unlike my more typical French language courses where any mistake I made out loud could dock my grade).

Somehow, this experience was SO internalized that it came out when I was speaking a completely different language!

I noticed it again when I was at a Dutch grocery store, trying to figure out which type of jam I should take home to my family. The grocery store guy spoke great English but couldn’t remember the names of the berries, so I just guessed what I thought it might be and he would tell me whether or not it was right. It was a totally fun game, and he kept exclaiming, “You should work here!” because my berry guesses were somehow so accurate!

At one point, there was one jar we couldn’t figure out. He went to grab a colleague. This guy was a berry expert, and told me what everything was, and what he thought was the best.

Somehow, this completely ruined the game. My heart sank.

Why? Why was it so fun and successful with the first guy who couldn’t remember the English names?

With the first guy, I felt safe, I felt like I could make mistakes, and I was having fun! And I was LEARNING. With the second guy, it was all about his expertise and had nothing to do with me trying to figure it out. It was completely passive and while informative, sadly boring. And I wasn’t learning. I was just watching.

It made me realize that not only is it super helpful as a learner to be playful and experimental, but, that you need to have someone who is willing to be playful and experimental with you. If they just want to tell you everything while you stand there and listen, it doesn’t matter how playful and experimental you are.

For me, when I’m learning, it is so important to be in an environment with someone else where I feel safe, where I feel like I can make mistakes, and where I can have fun.

In fact, these elements are so important to me, that’s how I work with all my own students! (So much so that this is what I think about even when I’m on vacation!)

So, if you or your kid is struggling with math and having a “overwhelmed in Paris moment” instead of a “euphoric beauty in Paris moment”…

if you are sick and tired of being in a math situation where someone just tells you everything and doesn’t help you learn to figure it out on your own…

if you want to not only transform your relationship with math, but also gain skills that help you become way more experimental, assertive, and proactive in other subjects…

I would love to talk to you.

Just click here to get started with your special application for my one-on-one math tutoring programs. Once your application is received, we’ll set up a special phone call to get clear if my approach would be a good fit for your child.

I can’t wait to hear from you!

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Topic: customization

Stuck on a math problem? Call your brain on the phone

Thursday, March 15th, 2012

Today’s tip is my first shot “in the wild” — on the streets of Times Square, NYC!! Super special thanks to my camerawoman and amazing friend, Missy Mazzoli, who made this episode possible.

A little while back, I was working with a student who got stuck on a math problem.

“Can I call my brain on the phone?” she asked.

“Sure,” I said. I didn’t know where this was going, but I wanted to see what my student meant.

She held her hand up to her ear in “fake phone” position. “Hello, brain?” she inquired. “I need some help with this problem. Okay, I need to do this… all right, and then I need to do that… Uh-huh….. Okay….All right the answer is….Thank you brain! I’ll talk to you later! Bye!”

It totally worked.

Why? It’s so silly. It’s a little crazy. Why does it work?

1. You’re talking out loud. Researchers in Spain found that students who talk through a problem out loud have a greater chance of solving the problem correctly. I’ve often wondered if part of the reason tutoring works so well is just because it forces students to talk through what they’re doing. Paradoxically, we are frequently conditioned in school to think that when we’re working on math by ourselves, it needs to be a silent solitary activity, but talking through a problem out loud can really get the math juices flowing.

2. It’s totally proactive. Instead of letting your eyes glaze over, moving on to the next problem, saying “I hate this and I’ll never get it,” or giving up completely, my student took an active approach.

3. You’re trusting yourself and relying on yourself. Even though my student was characterizing her brain as something “else,” she was really trusting herself, trusting that she had some untapped inner resources she could access if she came at the problem from a different angle.

4. You’re being yourself. When you’re really yourself when you’re doing math, you plug into all kinds of resources that you would cut yourself off from if you believe you have to behave a certain way or be a certain kind of person in order to succeed at math.

5. It’s a little bit silly. In my experience, being a little silly — doing something crazy like “calling your brain on the phone” or doing math in a silly voice — not only keeps things fun but also prevents students from shutting down or going into panic mode. And like talking things through out loud, it seems to open up more possibilities.

I’m proud to report that my student has used this same technique several times since she first introduced it to me, with great success.

So today’s tip is, when you’re stuck on a math problem, talk it out!!! Whether that means calling your brain on the phone, just talking it through out loud in a silly voice — or in a normal voice.

Have you ever called your brain on the phone? Is there a special (possibly silly) technique you like to use when you’re stuck? Leave a comment because I’d love to hear all about it!

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Topic: customization

The seven learning spaces

Monday, January 31st, 2011

While I’m on the topic of designing new schools, here’s a great article by Ewan McIntosh on applying the seven digital spaces to creating new school spaces.

The seven spaces are:


McIntosh points out that every school needs all of these physical spaces, even though most schools are primarily geared towards “watching spaces” and prevent people from collaborating or talking to each other.

The article asks, Can we design schools around the kind of teaching and learning you’d like to do, instead of the teaching and learning you already do?

Can we design schools that, instead of being “big things that do wonderful stuff for people” “allow people to create great things for themselves”?

This article is chock-a-block with great links and thoughtful ideas. Check it out!

I wonder what Ewan McIntosh and the creators of the Green School would think about each other. I feel like they’d have a lot to talk about!

Thanks to Vicki Davis for posting about this on her blog and bringing this post to my attention!

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Topic: customization

Could every school be this enchanting (and sustainable)?

Thursday, January 27th, 2011

Is it a spaceship made out of bamboo and grass? Flood-proof housing in the shape of a cupcake? A love song to the double helix?

It’s a school! I am enchanted by this gorgeous wonderland of bamboo, gardens, and goats. It truly looks like nothing I have ever seen before. If I went to school here, would I ever want to go home?

The Green School is the brainchild of John Hardy, an undiagnosed dyslexic who, growing up, struggled academically and frequently cried all the way to school as a child. After creating an internationally recognized jewelry business and expecting to quietly retire, he saw the Al Gore documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, and decided with his wife, Cynthia Hardy, to do something to leave a better world for his children and future generations.

They created the incredible bamboo Green School in Bali, Indonesia.

The classrooms have no walls. The desks are not square. In addition to normal international school subjects, everyone also gets to plant, harvest, and cook organic rice. All students plant bamboo and have the opportunity to harvest it and build with it. There’s no concrete. The toilets are composting (and surprisingly cute). These kids are leaving and breathing sustainability.


There’s a buffalo, pigs, a school cow, and 20 acres of gardens that feed 400 people lunch every day (cooked with reclaimed bamboo sawdust, no less)! A unique water vortex generates hydropower. And even the blackboards are made out of bamboo. It’s all a way to communicate the idea, as Hardy puts it, that the world is not indestructible.


Hardy talks about how he went to a school that was built by the same people and with the same materials as the local jail and insane asylum. He points out that students spend 181 days each year inside of a box. Hardy decided to create a school that is NOT a box, that bears no resemblance whatsoever to a jail or an insane asylum. A school where kids do not have to be inside a box literally or metaphorically.


I have never seen a school design demonstrate this philosophy so dramatically and so beautifully. In my own work with students, my goal is always to mentor them as a whole person and help them learn in whatever way works best for them. When I look at photos of this school, I’m overcome by a feeling of openness. I’m uplifted and inspired by this school’s vision.


When sustainable living is approached as a pain in the butt or a deprivation, it will never be embraced on the scale it needs to be. But when it’s approached so imaginatively, who can fail to be intrigued? Who would choose to go to school in an air-conditioned box when they could be learning in this gorgeous, light-filled space?


I’m also totally thrilled for my friend Elora Hardy, director of Ibuku, the company that designs the gorgeous bamboo furniture used throughout the school. I love these designs! Way to go, Elora, creating all this gorgeousness!!


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Topic: customization

How to incorporate a tutor into your homeschooling or unschooling environment

Sunday, January 2nd, 2011

While the decision to homeschool or unschool is highly personal, and reasons to do so are as diverse as each family, many homeschooling and unschooling parents are motivated because they want to be much more involved in their kid’s education. But what about when you want to add another person to your instruction team?

Whether you’re bringing someone on board to help your kid explore an academic or artistic interest at a deeper level, or calling in backup for a topic you don’t personally feel comfortable instructing, here are some tips on how to incorporate a tutor into your homeschooling or unschooling environment.

Define the tutor’s role in advance. The clearer you are at the outset about what you want the tutor’s role to be, the easier it will be for them to meet your needs. So before you contact potential tutors, ask yourself what you want a tutor to provide.

Some homeschoolers/unschoolers want the tutor to be the sole instructor for a core subject they do not feel comfortable teaching themselves. Others just want a tutor to give their kid some extra one-on-one attention and practice in a subject they’ll be receiving instruction for at home or elsewhere.

Homeschooling/unschooling parents might to want to hire a specialist to help their kid explore a specific interest, recover lost confidence in a once-favorite subject, or provide more challenge and enrichment.

Communicate this from the outset.
Many tutors are used to working with non-homeschoolers/unschoolers whose priorities are determined by the deadlines and structures imposed by outside authorities. Without these exterior pressures, it’s even more important to be clear what your goals are so your tutor can structure sessions accordingly.

Choose someone you feel comfortable with. The more you feel you can trust a tutor, the easier it will be to incorporate them into your homeschooling/unschooling curriculum. So choose someone who can attune to how your kid learns and support their goals.

Maybe you got a great recommendation from another homeschooling/unschooling parent. Maybe you just feel really comfortable talking to the tutor on the phone the first time you call.

Whether you hire someone in your neighborhood or decide to connect with a specialist not available in your area by doing tutoring online, go with your instincts and choose a tutor you feel you can trust. And if, after a few sessions, the tutor isn’t helping or your kid doesn’t feel comfortable, it’s okay to switch.

Facing new challenges can get emotionally intense, so the more comfortable your kid is telling the tutor what they do and don’t understand, the more he or she will get out of the whole tutoring experience—and the more fun it will be.

Also, the more honest you can be with the tutor and the more candid they can be with you, the better you’ll be able to work together as a team.

Keep the lines of communication open. If there are any learning breakdowns or epiphanies between sessions, pass that information along. If your kid is really struggling with a certain type of problem or discovers a cool learning strategy, knowing that will only help the tutor do a better job.

If you feel comfortable sharing personal information, let your tutor know if there are any family crises or emotional issues that are affecting your kid’s focus. (If you need to tell your tutor something your kid is sensitive about, make a point to talk to the tutor where you can’t be overheard.)

Ask your tutor what’s the best way to keep each other informed. When and how you check in will vary depending on the situation—what really matters is just making a regular effort to communicate.

A good tutor will keep you up-to-date about what they’ve covered during sessions, as well as any stumbling blocks, behavior issues, or discoveries. Be receptive to your tutor’s observations—they may even help in other subjects.

Reevaluate curriculum as necessary. As a homeschooler, you probably have ideas about what curriculum you’d like your tutor to use. Maybe you’d like them to review materials you’ve used in the past, or you want to put some hand-me-down textbooks to good use. Or maybe you’re just excited about a curriculum you’ve researched.

A good tutor will be receptive to your ideas, but will also share their professional assessment of what will help your kid learn best. Your tutor may ask you to purchase a different curriculum than you’d planned, or recommend that you buy other materials to use in conjunction with the materials you’ve chosen yourself. Try to be supportive if this happens.

Reinforce outside of tutoring time. Kids will get the most bang for their buck if they practice what they’re learning outside of tutoring time.

The more time your kid puts into learning and practicing outside of tutoring, the more they’ll get out of the sessions themselves. That way you can use tutoring time to introduce new concepts, overcome roadblocks that have cropped up since their last tutoring session, or go over the most challenging material.

*I’m very glad to be included in today’s Carnival of Homeschooling, Princess Bride Edition. It’s the wittiest blog carnival theme I’ve seen yet, so check it out!

*If, on the other hand, you’re visiting from the aforementioned Carnival of Homeschooling, Princess Bride Edition, welcome! I’m so glad to see you here! If you’ve chosen to incorporate a tutor into your homeschooling/unschooling environment, I’d love to hear all about it, so feel free to leave a comment!

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Topic: customization

All kinds of minds

Saturday, January 1st, 2011

I love this image, “New Worlds” by Javier Mariscal — all those different kinds of beautiful, intriguing minds!

To a year full of learning and growing — both finding new ways to get what you need to learn into your brain –

AND new ways of bringing your own unique vision and passion forth into the world!


Topic: customization

Greater than / Less than signs – taking the alligator thing to a whole new level

Wednesday, October 6th, 2010

Growing up, I remember learning to remember the difference between the greater than and less than signs by imagining a hungry alligator with an open mouth getting ready to “eat” the bigger number.

I recently got to work on this concept in an online tutoring session with a student of mine who’s a fifth grader.

First we had a regular < sign and we talked about the "alligator" idea. 2010-10-05_2349

He drew in some pointy alligator teeth:

Then he spontaneously drew a whole alligator:

As we worked on different inequality problems, he took it further. He drew a picture of a bird and explained that the bird’s closed little beak is shaped like an inequality sign. The bird would go for the smaller meal, while the alligator would go for the bigger meal.


And he topped it off – with sound effects.

The smaller number, which the bird would eat, has a “peck peck” sound. The larger number, which the alligator would eat, has a “chomp chomp” sound. Oh my gosh, I love it!

I’d never seen the alligator metaphor pushed this far before, and I wanted to share my student’s creative ideas!

What’s your favorite way to remember (or teach) the difference between the two signs?

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Topic: customization

I was a crazy course shopper

Wednesday, September 8th, 2010

After four years of Arena Scheduling at my high school, I had some serious experience designing my own schedule and customizing my education.

I’d taught myself French and trigonometric functions over the summer to skip ahead. I’d gotten high school credit for apprenticing with an orchestra and performing in a professional play. I’d created an independent study for Advanced Placement 12th grade English so I could get credit for being in the Folger Shakespeare seminar for high schoolers.

I was prepared to make my education my own.

So I was pretty disappointed my first semester of college when I ended up with an ineffective music theory teacher, an unhelpful French professor, and a modern dance instructor who didn’t seem to notice that no one could perform her combinations.

I was not going to let this happen again.

For the rest of my college career, I used my mad scheduling skills to spend the first two weeks of each semester (before the add/drop period closed) trying to ferret out hidden jewels and find people who could really help me learn. It was extremely instructive.

I’d thought it would be great to learn Hindi to help me with my Indian music studies, but the class I visited seemed completely ineffective. I thought Yoruba language skills would be useful for my project on Yoruba drumming, but the class did not seem to actually exist when I tried to track it down. I wanted to take a self-defense class for women, but the one offered consisted of running in laps around the gym, which was not going to give me the skills I was looking for.

Instead, I ended up working with an encouraging, helpful Francophone French teacher. I found good Spanish instructors who prepared me for my trip to Cuba. I got to work with an incredible professor of eastern religion who helped me contextualize my experiences with non-Western music.

My search for great classes even led me to shop at other schools in the Boston area for classes I wanted that weren’t offered at my own university. It’s true, I had an exceptionally flexible advisor!

The beginning of every semester was chaotic, but definitely better than wasting my precious college credit hours in situations that weren’t going to help me learn. Whenever I heard a fellow student complaining about a poorly designed curriculum, a disinterested instructor, or a negative classroom environment, I knew it had all been worth it.

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Topic: customization

I was a t(w)eenage (scheduling) gladitator

Monday, September 6th, 2010


Does it sound crazy to expect a 12-year old to be able to determine their requirements, decide what electives they’re going to take, fit them all into a schedule, and formulate a back-up plan (or three) in case the classes they want are full?

Does it sound even crazier to release them into an entire gym full of t(w)eenage scheduling gladitors, dashing from table to table to sign up for the classes they want?

Maybe, but it worked: at the unusual public school I attended from 6th to 12th grade, starting at the end of 7th grade, we all designed our own class schedule in an annual ritual called Arena Scheduling.

To prepare to enter the Arena, each student would plan a schedule according to their own priorities, and also prepared a few back-up schedules in case they didn’t get their first choice of classes.

After our advisors looked our plans over, we’d stand in nervy anticipation outside of the school gym, waiting for our turn to be admitted. The sooner a student was graduating, the sooner they’d be admitted into the gym to run around and write their name down for the classes they wanted.

In the gym, there was a table for each subject, a piece of paper for each course offered in that subject, and a line on that paper for each spot available in that class. When it was our turn, we’d strategically dash from table to table, securing a seat in each class we wanted, or execute our back-up plan if our first-choice classes were full.

I think each of us scheduling gladiators had a moments of panic. And probably everyone, at least once, was disappointed or had to make a tough decision.

But even in the midst of all the dashing, no one split a lip. No one came to fisticuffs with their fellow students over the last seat in a coveted class. No one failed to graduate because they had to pick their own classes and they somehow didn’t fulfill their requirements.

Not only did nothing bad happen, but this seemingly chaotic process had numerous major benefits:
We learned how to go for what we really wanted.
We learned how to make a plan and execute it.
We learned how to activate a back-up plan if we didn’t get our first choice.
We learned to advocate for our own educational goals, instead of just doing what we were told.

Arena Scheduling also had the (probably unintended) effect of contributing to a culture of passion. Instead of groaning over being assigned to a challenging class, kids schemed about how they could get into one.

It might sound chaotic, but I honestly think it works better than the alternative, which is having students’ schedules created by administrators—a task which cannot be enjoyable for the administrators either, and presumably takes weeks of brain-numbing planning.

I’ve seen students with administrator-designed schedules have their math classes scheduled for the absolute last class period, which totally didn’t work for them. I’ve seen schools were students were only able to request a different math teacher if they had already failed a class with that teacher.

In my opinion, letting students choose their own schedules is way more practical and realistic. And it empowers students to make choices that work better for everyone.

Photo credit: these great pictures of playmobil gladiators are from bloggerCosmicBaby.

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