Rebecca Zook - Math Tutoring Online

Get your free copy of 5 Tips You Must Know to Stop Freaking Out About Math!

Call me free of charge to discuss your situation, and we'll see if I can help.


Triangle Suitcase: Rebecca Zook's Blog About Learning rssfeed

Topic: failure

What to do when your kid makes a math mistake

Thursday, May 15th, 2014

In my work with my students, it’s really essential to me to also create a relaxed, playful environment. 

And a big part of this is how I handle it when students make mistakes.  I create a growth-oriented environment by asking very specific questions which support their mastery process.

Here are four simple ways that you can also respond to your kid’s mistakes in a positive way that will really support their long-term mastery. 

1.  Don’t be afraid to let your kid know that they did something wrong when you’re working through math together.   When we’re learning, it’s super important to get feedback as to whether or not we’re on the right track or off the rails!

Keep it lighthearted and matter-of-fact.  It’s no big deal.  There is no sense of failure or punishment.  You’re just giving them feedback – it is just information.

A lot of times I will say, “Actually, no” if a student makes a mistake, or just say, “No,” with a smile.

You can also use a question to direct them to re-do a step.  Like if you see them write out “7+7=15,” you can say, “What is 7+7?”  I probably use this one the most of all.

2.  If they don’t know they made a mistake, or you’re not sure if they know there was a mistake, ask them to find the mistake.  Invite them to locate it.

I prefer to use the specific wording, “Where’s the mistake?”  Or, “OK, where’s the mistake?” as opposed to “Can you find the mistake?”  (I wouldn’t be asking them if I didn’t believe they could.)  

3.  If they know they made a mistake, ask them, “What’s the mistake?” to invite them to tell you exactly what it was.   Invite them to analyze it.

Routinely analyzing one’s mistakes helps you raise your awareness and increase your odds of not making the same mistake next time.

A lot of times a kid will exclaim, “Oh, I understand what I did wrong!!” once you’ve started to re-do a problem that they originally did incorrectly, and this question is a great way to invite them to really break down exactly what happened.

4.  Don’t be afraid to talk about your kid’s mistakes on tests and quizzes.

Research has shown that if we don’t talk to kids about their mistakes and failures, kids internalize the message that they have done something so shameful it can’t even be spoken about.  (Even though this usually is just an unintentional byproduct of adults not knowing what to say, or not wanting to “make the kid feel bad.”)

If the student hasn’t already been asked to do this for school, you can invite them to analyze their errors by making a log where they identify the error, analyze why it happened, and correct it.  Just like analyzing it verbally, this really gives the student the opportunity to reflect, increase their awareness, and not make the same mistake next time.

One of my students, who loved doing this, and gave this process the playful name “Mistakes Log Blog.” 

And just be sure to keep it lighthearted – it’s not a chore or a punishment, it’s just an opportunity for further insight and growth.

If talking to your kid about their math mistakes seems overwhelming, just start using one of these steps to begin.  As long as you’re lighthearted and matter-of-fact, you’ll be helping your kid develop their capacity to reflect and analyze and think critically about their own work, with is a major life meta-skill that goes way beyond math!

Are you afraid that your kid’s math mistakes are going to close doors for them down the line and prevent them from living their dreams?  Are you tired of trying to handle this alone?  Are you ready to receive high-level one-on-one support? 

Then I invite you to apply for my one-on-one math tutoring programs. To begin your application, just click here.

Once your application is received, we’ll set up a special, complimentary appointment to talk about what’s going on in your kid’s math situation, and explore whether or not the way I work would make sense for your family! 

I’m excited to hear from you!

Sending you love,

Related posts:
Tip of the day: what to do when your kid makes a math mistake
Case Study: a 5th grader emerges as an enthusiastic student and confident mathematician
Tips for a happy math year: normalize error
How to help kids be okay with things being hard

Topic: failure

It’s eraser time! (And other math mantras)

Monday, November 28th, 2011

Apparently, there are certain things I tell my students over and over. One of them, with a twinkle in my eye and glee in my voice, is, “It’s eraser time!” (Whenever I say, “It’s eraser time!”, I think, “It’s Hammer Time!”, even though that was a hit long before most of my students were born.)

Then my student will jubilantly erase their mistake and then correct their work.

I didn’t realize how much I would say “It’s eraser time!” until my students started saying it *back* to me. Which made me ask myself–how did this become a permanent fixture of my teaching vocabulary? Why does “eraser time” work so well?

Three reasons:

1. Most importantly, “eraser time” normalizes error. It shows students that when they mess up, it doesn’t mean that THEY are messed up. Instead, making mistakes is just a normal part of the learning process.

2. “Eraser time” is fun, even at a moment when students have made a mistake. So it’s energizing, but doesn’t distract from the task at hand. It’s fun and silly but still leads them to what they need to do next — erase.

3. By being part of a special “math tutoring language” that we share, “eraser time” helps students feel like they belong. They are “in the know” because they get our special “insider lingo.” It helps create a culture of trust and camaraderie.

As usual, my students have taken eraser time and made it their own. Variations include an Eraser Race, where we both erase on the whiteboard as fast as we can. There’s also “Strategic Erasing” (careful erasing to remove what you don’t want but leave some previous work up for reference).

Another big mantra that my students started saying back to me is, “When in doubt, write it out.” I love this because instead of me nagging the student to write out the work instead of guessing, the student will happily say, “When in doubt, write it out!” and then go ahead and write out their work.

“When in doubt, write it out” works for the same reasons — it normalizes *effort* (it shows that it’s okay and normal to have to write it out and do the work); it directs them to the next step, but in a way that is fun and helps them “own” the process; and it creates a culture of fun and belonging.

Related Posts:
How to make it safe for kids to fail
The Rhyme and Reason of Making Mistakes
On optimal challenge
Self-made Heroes: the Dancers of Planet B-Boy
Five tips for a happy math year

Topic: failure

How to make it safe for kids to fail

Monday, January 17th, 2011

I had the great pleasure of meeting one of my intellectual heroes, science journalist Ashley Merryman, and seeing her speak about her book, Nurtureshock: New Thinking About Children.

In her talk, Merryman passionately spoke to the fact that we absolutely need to make it safe for kids to fail. We live in a culture where parents want their kids to succeed at everything they attempt, without realizing that without making mistakes, it is not possible to take risks and actually reach our full potential.

After Merryman’s talk, I overheard moms discussing this in the ladies’ room. How can we make it safe for our kids to fail?, they were asking themselves. From the urgency in their voices, I could tell that Merryman’s message had hit home.

But even though I’ve been mulling over Merryman’s book, NurtureShock, for over a year now, and have several chapters more or less memorized, I wasn’t sure I knew what the answer was either.

I found a partial answer from a completely unrelated source: marketing mastermind Seth Godin’s blog. Godin points out: “There is no category of ‘does risky exploration, never fails.'”

Yet why do we persistently believe this category exists? Whenever I hear a story about an artist, scholar, or athlete who struggled to find success and acceptance, I never fail to be surprised. Jim Carey lived out of a car and bombed his first comedy gig? Drama coaches told Lucille Ball that she “had no future at all as a performer“? Madeline L’Engle’s first book, A Wrinkle in Time, was rejected by 26 publishers before winning the Newbery Medal? Thomas Edison was told he was “too stupid to learn anything”? Oprah Winfrey was fired from her job as a TV reporter because she was “unfit for TV”? Winston Churchill failed sixth grade?

We hear about the successes, but not the failures and struggles. We see the red carpet, the accolades, the public adulation. How would kids know that it’s safe to fail when the media just focuses on the polished final product, not the process of mastery?

One way to communicate to kids that it’s safe to fail is to tell these stories of our heroes’ early failures. If we mess up, it doesn’t mean that we’re not like them. When they were getting started, these heroes really weren’t all that different from us.

Related posts:
Failure is not the enemy
On seriously owning your mistakes
Tips on effective praise from Ashley Merryman
Self-taught heroes: William Kamkwamba, the boy who harnessed the wind

Topic: failure

Break things down so you don’t have a breakdown: the art of sequencing

Thursday, September 16th, 2010

How could a day full of fun things like yoga and thinking about cupcakes have ended in breakdowns for both me and my student?
yoga cupcake

I recently had the opportunity to work with a seven-year-old on the autism spectrum who absolutely adores math. He was way ahead of his grade level and he didn’t need any math help – his parents just wanted him to have fun and be challenged.

So I carefully prepared a lesson plan built around the problem, if you have five kids at a party and 12 cupcakes, how many cupcakes does each kid get? I was hoping it would be a fun, “real-life,” social application of what he was learning.

Breakdown #1

But the “cupcake challenge” precipitated a breakdown. This kid, who would literally jump up and down with delight when we worked on factor trees, who loved identifying prime numbers and listing equivalent fractions, dug in his heels and balked.

I tried to walk him through the steps of the problem. I tried to break down the steps of the problem. I tried to show him how he knew how to do it. But he insisted over and over that he did NOT want to do the cupcake challenge and that he did NOT know what to do.

It was the worst tutoring session I’ve ever had. Nothing like this had ever happened to me before in a math tutoring session, and I felt like a complete failure as a teacher.

Breakdown #2

Before I had time to figure out where I’d gone so horribly wrong, I had to bike to my yoga studio for five hours of yoga teacher training. Everything was going just fine until my yoga teacher asked me to do a practice teaching assignment on another student.

I wasn’t prepared, and I felt totally uncomfortable. I had spaced out and hadn’t really heard what the assignment was, so I didn’t know what I was doing. When my teacher observed me fumbling through the assignment and asked, “what about the original assignment?”, I felt totally humiliated. As soon as I finished the exercise, I started weeping quietly and cried through most of the rest of the teacher training.

Analysis: one day, two breakdowns

At first, these two events just seemed to make an extroardinarily bad day. Why had my student gotten so upset? Why had I gotten so upset? What happened?

After turning this over in my head for a while, I realized that, not only had I unintentionally caused my student to have a breakdown and had my own breakdown as a student in a single day, but that our breakdowns had been for the same reason.

My precocious seven-year-old student easily picked up equivalent fractions, prime numbers, and other topics so far above his grade level that I thought he’d take the cupcake problem in stride.

Only after the disastrous tutoring session did I realize that we’d rarely done word problems, he’d never learned to do division with a remainder, and we’d never talked about fractional remainders before.

And I had asked him to do all of these new things all at the same time. I hadn’t prepared him for the challenge by teaching him each of the skills separately. I hadn’t “scaffolded” the problem.

My yoga teacher later explained to me that everyone else in the yoga teacher training had spent several hours doing practice teaching the previous weekend (which I’d missed because I needed to meet with my tutoring students).

So for all of the other students, the practice teaching assignment was just a small baby step forward. For me, having missed those hours of practice, it was a huge leap, just like the cupcake challenge had been a huge leap for my math student.

Conclusion: break things down so you don’t have a breakdown

All of this boils down to a giant lesson about the value of breaking things down into small bits on purpose so we’re learning one thing at a time, in order, instead of breaking down not-on-purpose when faced with a task that’s too big of a leap.

This way, we can cover the same amount of terrain, but with confident small steps instead of big, scary, breakdown-inducing leaps.

Photo credit: this fun yoga cupcake is from The Flavor Lab.

Related posts:
Algebra Tears
I cried myself to sleep over my math homework
My favorite math teacher is a woman

Topic: failure

On seriously owning your mistakes

Wednesday, June 16th, 2010

From The Week:

[Jim] Joyce, a veteran major league baseball umpire, last week mistakenly called a runner safe on a close play at first base on what should have been the final out, therefore costing Detroit Tigers hurler Armando Galarraga a perfect game.

Over 135 season and tens of thousands of major league games, only 20 times has a pitcher retired 27 straight batters without a walk, a hit, or an error. Joyce’s blown call denying Galarraga that 27th out, therefore, caused a national uproar.

To his credit, Joyce freely admitted after viewing the videotape that he should have called the runner out, and sought out the 28-year-old Galarraga to apologize. Clearly shaken, Joyce told reporters, “I just cost the kid a perfect game. It was the most important call of my life.” Galarraga hugged Joyce and told him to forget it. “Everybody’s human,” he said.

I was so moved by this that I cried. Mistakes are essential to learning, and we need to make it safe for kids to make mistakes so that they can learn. But we live in a world where it is so rare for anyone to publicly admit they made a mistake. Most public figures, instead of owning their failures, minimize or deny them. To see two public figures handle this huge mistake with such dignity and compassion really inspired me.

Related Posts:
Failure is not the enemy
Power of Praise (1)