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: struggle & persistence

What changes when someone believes in you?

Sunday, January 21st, 2018

Math Butterfly

(Here’s a “math butterfly” one of my students and I created during a recent tutoring session!)

What changes when someone believes in you?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately.

I just had a huge performance breakthrough on my cello with my acting coach, and I’m getting ready for my quarterly business retreat with my business mentor. I’m going to be spending over a week surrounded by people who love me and believe in my highest potential and biggest vision.

In both of these situations, I feel so safe and accepted to really go for it, and I cannot believe how much better my music and my business and teaching gets as a result.

It completely changes my concept of what I’m capable of. It makes me believe that my dreams really can come true, because I can see it already happening.

Let me tell you, though, it hasn’t always been like this! At ALL.

Just as an example, not so long ago, when I was in graduate school for cello performance, I went to audition for two different summer chamber music festivals.

At the first audition, the person I was auditioning for radiated skepticism about me and my abilities. I didn’t feel very comfortable – I could tell she thought I had something to prove. She asked pointedly, “Do you have anything fast you could play for me?” I don’t even remember how I responded to that, but I remember thinking that if she accepted me into her festival, she would think she was doing me a favor, and I would feel seriously inferior.

The very next day, I went to audition for an amazing violinist, and took the commuter rail all the way out to New Jersey to meet her at the festival location. Her demeanor was so warm and welcoming and enthusiastic. I felt so comfortable!

I had fun playing for her, and when I was finished, she said very firmly, “You DEFINITELY have what it takes to be accepted to this festival!”

So guess which festival I ended up attending?

Yes, the one with the enthusiastic and welcoming teacher!

This experience was a real turning point for me. At this festival, I played the Cello 2 part in the Mendelssohn String Octet, which is both one of my most favorite-est pieces of music in the WORLD, and has an unbelievably hairy and notorious cello solo at the beginning of the last movement – that I had to learn!

This amazing violinist teacher went completely out of her way to set me up to really rock it. She even demonstrated how to play this solo holding a GRAPEFRUIT instead of using her fingers! And her musical partner and husband, also an incredible teacher, gave me a great fingering. I learned how to do it!

When we performed, I just went for it. And the audience response was so phenomenal. We were playing in a church, and the audience members stood up and BANGED on the pews, they were so excited! We were riveting!

This experience gave me the rock-solid conviction that classical music can be just as electrifying as anything else – and can truly bring an audience to its feet with RAUCOUS joy, not just polite or intellectual appreciation!

Looking back on this experience, it is so funny to me that that first person I auditioned for was skeptical that I could play fast. Because the second person, the amazing violinist, trusted me and helped me learn a SUPER FAST cello solo that I completely rocked (if I do say so myself)!

So what changes when someone believes in you?

I think it’s really simple.

1. When someone believes in you, they automatically ask you to do more.

2. Ideally, they also give you the TOOLS to actually DO it.

3. You have the opportunity and the tools to go beyond what you thought you were capable of.

4. You experience mastery! Breakthroughs happen! People respond with incredible enthusiasm! You are so excited and happy!

5. You believe in yourself, and you keep going. You begin to inhabit a COMPLETELY DIFFERENT REALITY.

Amazing, right? But – let’s look at the shadow side.

What happens when the teacher or mentor you trust DOESN’T believe in you?

1. They don’t trust you, so they don’t ask you to do more.

2. They usually don’t give you the tools to do more because they actually don’t know how to really help you, or they don’t even think you would “get it.” (A lot of times this is subconscious or unconscious on the teacher’s part, I’ve found.)

3. You don’t go beyond what you thought you were capable of. Your idea of what you can do starts to shrink.

4. Super important: you subconsciously pick up that they don’t believe in you and you start to entrain with that. You start to believe in yourself less, and you don’t do as well.

5. Or you start pouring an enormous amount of mental, emotional, and spiritual energy into defending yourself in your own mind. But inside you really just feel like you suck.

6. Downward spiral continues until you shift the pattern or reincarnate and start over!

Trust me, I know, because I’VE BEEN THERE! I have wasted so much time and energy with people who did not believe in me… constantly feeling insecure and defending myself in my mind. And I did not bloom. If I improved, it was so slow and painful. And I did not shine at my fullest light. This was not helpful for me or anyone else!

Two caveats:

1. Caveat #1: It doesn’t work if your teacher or mentor wants it for you more than you want it for yourself. You have to want it as much as your teacher or mentor, or even more.

2. Caveat #2: Don’t get me wrong. I know that there are times in life where we are going to encounter people who don’t believe in us. I’m not saying that we can only talk to or work with people who are constantly cheerleading us and telling us we’re awesome. (In fact, that’s not really what this awesome teacher did – she challenged me and gave me the tools I needed, which is so different from empty praise.)

But it IS up to us who we choose to study with and learn from. It IS up to us who we trust with our unfolding dreams. And it is so much more FUN and so much more POWERFUL and everything happens like a BAZILLION times FASTER when we choose to spend time with people who believe in us. It’s like the difference between picking crumbs off the floor of a MacDonalds and feasting on your favorite foods with people who love you!

If you or your kid is suffering in math right now because of a crisis of confidence – if you are feeling like your kid’s teacher doesn’t believe in them anymore, or you’re worried that your kid doesn’t believe in themselves, or that they feel deep down inside that “math doesn’t like me anymore” or “I’m not good at math” even though they’re busting their butt and trying their absolute best, 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, and we’ll get you all set up with a super special complimentary appointment, just me and you, to get clear on what’s going on with your kid’s math learning and whether or not it would make sense for us to work together!

Topic: struggle & persistence

Tips for a Happy Math Year – #3

Monday, October 7th, 2013

It’s time for tip #3 in my special series, Tips for a Happy Math Year!

And here it is…

Normalize error.
Getting an answer wrong is just part of the natural learning process. So is getting an answer right. Neither situation calls for high drama. If a kid makes a mistake, say, “Okay, try again,” and ask them what’s the first thing they have to do. This tip comes from Doug Lemov’s great book, Teach Like a Champion.

If you notice your son or daughter beating themselves up over their mistakes, saying things like, “I’m such a bad kid since I got that answer wrong,” “I’m really not good at this,” or “I guess I’m just not a math person,” explain that everyone makes mistakes while they’re learning.

Normalizing error is a powerful way to support your daughter or son in developing a “growth mindset” and being resilient in the face of a challenge – whether that challenge is in math, or in life!

Would you like your kid’s math experience to be less like crying themselves to sleep over their math homework, and more like twirling a sparkly parasol of confident self-expression?

Less feeling like they’re stuck in a mire from which they fear they cannot extricate themselves, and more like Indiana Jones on a great math adventure?

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.

We’ll get clear on what’s going on in your kid’s math situation and explore whether or not it would be a good fit for us to work together!

Related posts:
The rhyme and reason of making mistakes
Failure is not the enemy
I think I see a mathematician!
Algebra tears

Topic: struggle & persistence

Tips for a Happy Math Year – #2

Monday, September 23rd, 2013

Hey there! It’s time for the second tip in my five part series of Tips for a Happy Math Year!

And here it is…

Slow can be fast. Sometimes kids need more time to digest or absorb information than is planned for in their classroom curriculum. Maybe their teacher expects them to memorize all of their times tables from 2s through the 12s by the end of the grade, and but they’re panicky and spotty about their 4s.

It’s okay. If your kid needs more time, just keep working on it together and be patient. It’s better to thoroughly learn one new multiplication fact a day than to try to cram stuff in their brain that’s not sticking because the pace is too fast.

In my experience as a tutor, it is far more powerful and paradoxically, faster, to slowly learn something really well the first time, instead of having to go back and re-learn it over and over, or deal with the repercussions of everything else that doesn’t make sense because the prerequisite concepts are shaky. It’s all about staying focused on the process and not giving up.

Do you know that your kid needs more time than they’re getting in the classroom, but feel like it’s just not possible for you to give them that one-on-one undivided customized attention yourself? Do you want to invest in your kid having a safe space to ask any question they want without feeling embarrassed, and get all the practice they need to truly get math deep in their bones? Do you dream of your kid having a huge smile on their face about math, and embodying the attitude that, “hey, nothing can stop me from choosing to go for my passion, because I know I can do math, and it will never get in my way!”?

TJust 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’m excited to connect!

Sending you love,

Related posts:
Tips for a happy math year – #1
How to learn math when you’re in the car
How to find a good math tutor
When a math problem just takes For-EV-ah
How to help kids be okay with things being hard

Topic: struggle & persistence

When a math problem just takes for-EV-ah

Thursday, June 21st, 2012

What do you do when a math problem just takes, like, for-EV-ah?

In other parts of life, it’s considered normal if it takes a little while to …. complete a book report, learn how to serve a tennis ball, or bake a cake.

But a lot of times, when a math problem takes a while, many people start to feel like something is “wrong.” Why haven’t I figured it out by now? Did I take a wrong turn 15 minutes ago? Am I lost? OMG when am I EVER going to finish my math homework?!

How do you deal with these situations? Watch today’s video for specific tips!

Do you wish there was a way to actually enjoy math problems that take a long time to finish?

Then I invite you to apply for my very special one-on-one math tutoring programs!

Just click here to get started with your special application. 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’m looking forward to connecting with you!

Sending you love,

Related posts:
Malcolm Gladwell on Math and Persistence (1)
When Persistence Isn’t Enough
Interesting, not complicated
It’s not just about math

Topic: struggle & persistence

What about the parts of math that you just… hate?

Friday, April 27th, 2012

Today’s video tip is about how to deal with the parts of math that you… just… ok, I’m going to say it… hate.

I mean, how are you supposed to cope with the parts that are just niggly-wiggly, yucky, or don’t make any sense? Are you doomed to feel this way forever? Should you just accept that there will be certain parts that will feel incomprehensible?

No — there is hope! Watch the video below for more details!!

Do you wish someone would explain the parts of math that you hate right now in a way that really makes sense – and might even be fun?

Then I invite you to apply for my super special one-on-one math tutoring programs!

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 look forward to hearing from you!

Sending you love,
Related posts:
Failure is not the enemy
Dealing with math overwhelm (1)
Stuck on a math problem? Call your brain on the phone
Face your fears, get a higher grade

Topic: struggle & persistence

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!

Related posts:
How to help kids be okay with things being hard
When in doubt, talk it out
Is multi-sensory learning hardwired into our humanity?

Topic: struggle & persistence

Math Mindset Lessons from the movie “Moneyball”

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012

Moneyball — it’s a movie about baseball. And statistics. And underdogs succeeding against “impossible odds” – wait – make that, underdogs succeeding by stacking the odds in their favor in ways no one else had thought of before.

But Moneyball is also a movie about the battle between two mindsets: the mindset of the old-school baseball managers, who recruit and hire players based on “talent”, and new-school baseball managers, Billy Beane and Peter Brand, who hire and develop players based on their potential and overlooked, proven ability.

I see Beane and Brand’s approach as an awesome example of “growth mindset” – the belief – which is true – that human ability and intelligence is something that you develop with effort over time, instead of something that you’re born with a certain amount of which you just demonstrate throughout your life.

Related posts:
Self-made heroes: the dancers of Planet B-Boy
A Disorder can be an asset
Self-taught heroes: William Kamkwamba, the boy who harnessed the wind
Tip of the day: what to do when your kid makes a math mistake

Topic: struggle & persistence

The Rhyme and Reason of making mistakes

Wednesday, August 17th, 2011

“It has been a long trip,” said Milo, climbing onto the couch where the princesses sat; “but we would have been here much sooner if I hadn’t made so many mistakes. I’m afraid it’s all my fault.”

“You must never feel bad about making mistakes,” explained Reason quietly, “as long as you take the trouble to learn from them. For you often learn more by being wrong for the right reasons than you do by being right for the wrong reasons.”

Princess Reason in The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster; illustration by Jules Feiffer

I’ve recently been working with a student who frequently beats herself up for making mistakes. Today I paraphrased this quote to her and explained that it’s okay to make mistakes as long as you learn something from them. She listened, but I wasn’t sure if it had sunk in.

Later in the session, *I* made a mistake, and I jokingly berated myself about it. She matter-of-factly responded: “it’s okay to make a mistake as long as you learn from it,” and smiled at me.

That’s when you know they get it. When they tell you what you told them.

Related Posts:
Failure is not the enemy
How to help kids be okay with things being hard
Is multi-sensory learning hardwired into our humanity?
How to make it safe for kids to fail

Topic: struggle & persistence

How to help kids be okay with things being hard

Monday, January 24th, 2011

A while back, I was working online with a younger student on a math problem that was challenging for him. He was getting frustrated.

“Look, kiddo,” I said (or words to that effect), “when you’re doing something and it feels hard, it doesn’t mean anything is wrong with you. It just means that you’re learning something challenging. Everyone feels that way when they’re learning something new that’s hard. You’re not alone.”

My student got really quiet. There was a long pause.

“Thank you for that,” he said quietly.

I wasn’t expecting such a solemn response, and I wasn’t expecting gratitude, either. But then I realized—maybe no one had ever told him this before! Maybe every other time he had struggled over something new, he’d thought he was defective or inadequate.

I brought this up when I was talking shop with a friend who also teaches. She shared a similar story about having a new piano student break down in tears at his first lesson with her. When she mentioned this to the kid’s mother, the mother brushed it off and just said, “Oh, yeah, he’s been crying through all of his piano lessons for at least a year.”

But when the kid cried, my friend took it upon herself to ask him why. He talked to her about how he was frustrated and talked about what he’d rather be doing than playing piano. They had a whole discussion about stuff that, apparently, everyone else had ignored or glossed over.

Coincidentally, after that talk, he never cried again in a lesson with my friend, and ended up being one of her best students.

How can we make kids okay with things being hard? I think it helps to state the obvious, even if it seems … too obvious. It’s normal if something feels hard. Or, If you’re crying, something’s wrong and maybe we should talk about it.

As adults, it’s easy to forget that things that now seem obvious to us were not always so clear. But at some point, someone explained these things to us, or we figured them out the hard way, on our own.

Sometimes I’m afraid to tell my students these obvious things because I’m worried they might think I’m being cheesy or meddling in their emotions. But it hasn’t happened yet, which leads me to believe that they really need to hear this stuff.

Related posts:
I cried myself to sleep over my math homework
On optimal challenge
Algebra tears
Case study: confused by math instruction in a foreign language

Topic: struggle & persistence

Is multi-sensory learning hardwired into our humanity?

Monday, September 20th, 2010

I was really struck by Oliver Sacks‘s description of a recovering stroke victim in his June 28th New Yorker article, A Man of Letters.

Sacks describes a letter he received from writer Howard Engel in early 2002. One morning, Howard woke up feeling fine. However, the newspaper now appeared to be printed in a foreign language.


After determining that what he was experiencing wasn’t actually a practical joke, Howard realized he had suffered a stroke. The diagnosis was “alexia sine agraphia”: Howard could still write just fine, but he couldn’t read.

The article insightfully explores how, even though we think reading and writing are part of one seamless whole, they actually involve very different neurological processes. But my favorite part of the article describes Howard’s rehabilitation, which involved keeping a journal of his life in the rehab hospital:

Occasionally, with unusual words or proper names, Howard might be unsure of their spelling—he could not “see” them in his mind’s eye, imagine them, any more than he could perceive them when they were printed before him. Lacking this internal imagery, he had to employ other strategies for spelling. The simplest of these, he found, was to write a word in the air with his finger, letting a motor act take the place of a sensory one.

Increasingly and often unconsciously, Howard started to move his hands as he read, tracing the outlines of words and sentences still unintelligible to his eyes. And most remarkable, his tongue, too, began to move as he read, tracing the shapes of letters on his teeth or on the roof of his mouth. This enabled him to read considerably faster… Thus, by an extraordinary metamodal, sensory-motor alchemy, Howard was replacing reading by a sort of writing. He was, in effect, reading with his tongue.

First, Howard’s determination to regain his ability to read, even through seemingly strange methods, is totally inspiring. But his experience also made me wonder if multi-sensory learning is hardwired into our humanity.

We’re socialized to learn primarily by sitting, listening, reading, and writing with a pen or pencil. Other ways of learning—through song, dance, movement, or writing words in the air with your finger, are frequently regarded as kids’ stuff.

Sure, it’s fine to rap about the multiplication tables, but rapping or singing to remember material isn’t encouraged in during medical or law school! Adults are supposed to learn quietly, politely—invisibly.

Or multi-sensory learning methods are viewed as a back-up plan—something to try when nothing else works, even though active, multi-sensory learning seems to work a lot better than the passive kind.

The relative ease with which Howard, in his late 60s or early 70s, found multi-sensory ways to read again—by tracing words in the air with his finger or moving his tongue as he read—suggests that the instinct to use all of our senses to learn is somehow essential to who we are as human beings.

Three months ago, I acted out what the different parts of the brain cell do with one of my students to help her remember. I still remember the roles of the dendrites, axon, and synapses. If it had been written on a flash card, I probably wouldn’t remember any of it.

What if multisensory learning is actually plan A, and it’s just been socialized out of us?

Image by Lev Yilmaz for NPR.

Related posts:
When in doubt, talk it out
Ana Reynales earns her BA at 82!!
Self-taught hero: Pearl Fryar