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Writing Rundown: Prewriting Techniques

Prewriting often gets the short end of the stick with students rushing to get that paper written before its due date. Since many teachers don't require prewriting to be turned in with the paper, many students feel that it's a corner they can cut to save time and launch straight into writing a first draft. In reality, prewriting is actually a great time-saver, particularly when you don't exactly know what you're going to talk about. It helps you to organize your thoughts, as well as make sure your points are clear and your concept isn't too broad or too narrow. Prewriting is especially helpful in situations where you're given a very broad prompt – or even no prompt at all (as was the case with my IB World History term paper, whose prompt consisted of 'Write a paper about something from 20th century world history'!) Prewriting is usually defined broadly as anything you do before writing your paper, and can take many forms. This blog post will discuss a few of the most... read more

Literature Spotlight: Nora Grows Up

Since I've been tutoring English literature students, I've noticed a pattern: every time we read a book that I remember reading in my high school classes, I enjoy it far more as an adult than I ever did as a teenager. Time and time again I pick up a book I remember hating in class, resigned to slog through it and discuss metaphor and symbolism with my student, only to find that I thoroughly enjoy it. Each time I come out of the unit with a fresh new appreciation for the work in question. As this happens more and more I've come to the conclusion that there are whole worlds of theme and subtext in many novels that are only apparent to a reader who has reached adulthood, because they require the reader to have experiences beyond those of an average high-school student. In today's Literature Spotlight I'd like to illustrate this point using a recently-transformed work for me, A Doll's House by Henrik Ibsen. One of the main themes in A Doll's House is the idea of Nora's reluctance... read more

Ellen's Choice: How I Feel About the SAT Redesign

A few weeks ago I posted an article about the impending SAT redesign and the changes that have been announced. I mentioned at the end of that article that I'd be posting another one soon with my thoughts on the redesign, once I'd had time to think more about them. Well, this is that article. Overall, I think the motivation for the redesign is good – that the College Board's heart is in the right place and they're acknowledging some of the very real problems that the current SAT has. I'm very happy with their partnership with Khan Academy as well. I'm happy to hear that they acknowledge that students really do need some kind of prep help for the SAT, and that if they're going to force every student who wants to apply to college to take it, they should be offering free prep help for everyone who wants it. Not everyone can afford a private tutor, and money should not be a limiting factor in every student's ability to thoroughly prepare for the test. (That said, I am... read more

Mathematical Journeys: Undoing the Unknown Exponent

This journey is heavily inspired by the youtube mathematician Vi Hart, whose videos describing mathematical concepts through doodling in a notebook were the inspiration for much of my mathematical journeys series. I'll put a link to her video on this topic at the end of the journey, and I highly encourage everyone to go check her out. Let's talk exponents. But to do that, first we should talk about multiplication. Multiplication is a shortcut for adding a bunch of the same number together. If I gave you: 5 + 5 + 5 + 5 + 5 + 5 = ? You could just add them normally, treating each of those 5's as a size-5 step along the number line. But since each of these addition steps is the same size, a faster way to figure out the result would be to determine two things: the size of the step, and how many steps we have. Then we can multiply the size of step (in this case, 5) by the number of steps. In this case, we have a total of 6 size-5... read more

WWTK: Online Resources

I've recently discovered several online resources that I find very helpful for the various subjects I tutor. Since my tutoring subjects break down into three broad categories (Math, English, and SAT Prep), I'll choose one from each category to discuss today.     SAT Prep For SAT preparation, you can't beat the College Board website (sat.collegeboard.org). There's no better way to prepare than to hear it directly from the test makers. In addition, twitter users can follow @SATQuestion to receive the official SAT Question of the Day on their feed each morning. Particularly now given the announcement of the impending redesign, staying connected to the College Board will keep you up to date on all the changes. There's a place on their website to sign up for email updates, so you'll never miss a thing!   Math Having recently started working with middle-school students, I found a sudden need for worksheets to practice with... read more

Literature Spotlight: The Lightning, The Tree, and The Chimney-Stones

Title choice is an often-overlooked aspect of literature. What the author chooses to call his or her work can serve as a window into their intentions, showing in a subtle way the aspects of the novel to which they wish to draw the reader's attention. As an example, take Emily Brontë's classic novel Wuthering Heights. According to the dictionary, “wuthering” means “blowing strongly with a roaring sound” when describing a wind, and “characterized by such a sound” when describing a place. The word also has close associations with the more common “weathering,” implying enduring harsh weather or coming through a storm. Throughout Brontë's novel are references to this idea of weathering out a storm or withstanding howling winds. Most of the major plot developments take place during thunderstorms, and the various characters are likened to different aspects of a storm. This theme comes to a head during Heathcliff's disappearance midway through the novel – not coincidentally in the... read more

The Redesigned SAT: What You Need To Know

The news broke recently that the College Board is once again changing the SAT. These new changes, scheduled to be implemented in spring 2016, represent a pretty large departure from the SAT of the past. The College Board states that this new SAT will “ask students to apply a deep understanding of the few things shown by current research to matter most for college readiness and success.” Here are the changes that will have the biggest effect on test preparation, as I see them: An Increased Focus on Evidence-Based Analysis The new SAT will place a higher priority on analysis based on evidence. In the critical reading and writing sections students will now be asked to support their answers with evidence, including citing portions of the passages. In effect, the new SAT will require students not only to know the correct answer, but to be able to explain why the answer is correct, and point to specific evidence in the passage that supports their choice. The essay... read more

Mathematical Journeys: The Unperformed Operation

Come with me on a journey of division. I have here a bag of M&Ms, which you and I and two of your friends want to share equally. I'm going to pour the bag out on the table and split it into four equal piles. For this example, “one bag” is our whole, and the best number to represent that whole would be the number of M&Ms in the bag. Let's say there were 32. If I split those 32 M&Ms into four equal piles and asked you how many were in one pile, you could certainly just count them. But a quicker way would be to take that 32 and divide it by the number of piles I'd made, which in this case is 4. You'd probably write that as: 32 ÷ 4 = 8 So there are 8 candies in each pile. Seems easy enough with a large number of M&Ms, right? But what if there were less candies – what if our “whole” was less than the entire bag? Well, for a while we'd be okay – if there were 16, for example, we'd do the same thing and come up with piles of 4 instead... read more

Good Luck SAT Students!

Good luck to all students taking the SAT this morning!  Remember: they're trying to trip you up, so watch your feet!   Don't feel like you did your best?  Anxious about how many questions you skipped?  Don't worry, there are more test dates this year.  Many people take the SAT multiple times, and if you get some tutoring in between (from yours truly!), you can dramatically increase your scores on the second time through.   The remaining test dates for the current school year are:   January 25 March 8 May 3 June 7 I recommend you start studying for the SAT at least one month in advance, longer if you plan on going it without a tutor. If you'd like to work with me for the January or March test cycle, send me an email ASAP. The sooner we can get to work, the higher your scores will be!

Mr. Lazur and the Volume of a Cone

I will never forget my favorite math teacher. Mr. Lazur taught ninth grade CAS Geometry (my school's version of AP) and also twelfth grade IB Calculus, so I was fortunate enough to have him as a high school freshman and then again as a senior. I'm incredibly thankful for Mr. Lazur because his fun and informal teaching style got even the most anxious students to actually enjoy math. In his classes I learned to think about math on a more “macro” scale, thinking about the concepts and how they related to each other rather than getting bogged down in numbers. He also knew exactly when and how to give a practical demonstration of a confusing concept so that none of us would ever forget it again. One of these demonstrations has stuck with me ever since, and I don't think I'll ever lose the knowledge it provided. We were in Geometry, working on volumes of solids. The previous day we'd learned the formulas for volume for cubes and cylinders, and today we were supposed to... read more

A Few Thoughts on Why We Learn Algebra

I recently responded to a question on WyzAnt's “Answers” page from a very frustrated student asking why he should bother learning algebra. He wanted to know when he would ever need to use it in the “real world” because it was frustrating him to tears and “I'm tired of trying to find your x algebra, and I don't care y either!!!” Now, despite that being a pretty awesome joke, I really felt for this kid. I hear this sort of complaint a lot from students who desperately want to just throw in the towel and skip math completely. But what bothered me even more were the responses already given by three or four other tutors. They were all valid points talking about life skills that require math, such as paying bills, applying for loans, etc., or else career fields that involve math such as computer science and physics. I hear these responses a lot too, and what bothers me is that those answers are clearly not what this poor student needed to hear. When you're that frustrated... read more

SAT Test Dates - It's Not The End Of The World!

Did you take the SAT on Saturday?  Are you freaking out about how confusing it was, and feeling like you had no idea what you were doing?  Never fear; many people take the SAT's multiple times, and if you get a little tutoring help in between (from yours truly) you can radically improve your score on the second go-around.   Here's the remaining test dates for the 2013-2014 school year:   November 2 December 7 January 25 March 8 May 3 June 7   I recommend you start studying for the SAT at least one month in advance, longer if you plan on going it without a tutor.  If you'd like to work with me for the November or December test cycle, send me an email ASAP.  The sooner we can get to work, the higher your scores will be!

WWTK: Mastering Challenging Subjects

When I was in high school, I was fairly skilled at most subjects. One that always seemed to be an effort, though, was French language classes. They just seemed to have a lot of little parts to memorize and drill, so many irregular verbs, so many special cases. I held on, but it always seemed like a lot of work. That is, until my senior year. Due to my ballet training, the IB-level French class that I should have been in didn't fit into my schedule. As a compromise, the IB 2 French professor agreed to give me an independent study in French, which would be a self-guided project. I decided I wanted to read a selection of plays by the French playwright Moliere, in their original French, and write a paper about each play, also in French. Over the course of that year, I learned more about the ins and outs of French as a language than any number of irregular verb drills would have taught me, and I chalk it up largely... read more

Mathematical Journeys: What's a Radian?

Buckle up readers, it's Trig time! Trigonometry can be scary to many students, and in my opinion, a lot of that is because one of the most confusing concepts in trigonometry occurs right at the very beginning, in the form of the Unit Circle and Radians. Let's start at the beginning. Give yourself a circle with a radius of 1.  Now center that circle on the origin of a coordinate plane, so that the line of the circle itself passes through the points (1,0) (0,1) (-1,0) and (0, -1). Got that? Now, this circle is referred to as the Unit Circle, because the radius is one unit and it is therefore easier for us to do various manipulations and calculations with it. Now choose any point on the circle (we'll call the coordinates of that point (x,y)), draw the radius to it (which will still be a length of 1), and drop a line back perpendicular to one of the axes. Do that and you'll have a right triangle with the... read more

Sloppy Math on Facebook, or "Who The Heck Would Write A Function Like That Anyway?!"

Does this look familiar? SOLVE IF YOU ARE A GENIUS! 99% OF PEOPLE WILL GET IT WRONG! 8 = 56 7 = 42 6 = 30 5 = 20 3 = ? No doubt every time you've seen this on Facebook, it's followed by thousands upon thousands of responses, each indignant that other people are getting the wrong answer. Generally there are two or three different numbers that keep coming up, with nobody able to see how anyone else could have gotten a different answer from their own. I hate these things. These things are designed to be vague. There is no answer, or rather, there are an infinite number of answers. The crux of the issue here is that they don't define the rule. So these things are basically a weird way of presenting a function. You remember functions from my previous blog post, right? Well, essentially what this thing is saying is “you take 8, do some mystery function to it, and... read more

WyzAnt Wants to Know: Preparing to go back to school

Got this topic from WyzAnt this morning: How should students prepare to go back to school if they only have a few minutes to spare each day? Good question.  I think it's important to spend some time thinking about the big picture of the coming year and getting organized, so that you start out on the right foot.  I believe it's a very personal question, since as a student you have to decide what you want to get out of the coming school year as opposed to the previous one.  What areas did you feel you were lacking?  What are you most excited about?  What are you least excited about or most dreading? And why? Here's something that doesn't occur to a lot of people: what format are you learning in? I'm talking about two distinct things here – your supplies and setup, and the way you approach classes. Let's look at supplies and setup first. Think about your usual note-taking setup... read more

Occam's Razor and SAT Math: Why the SAT Messes With Your Head

The SAT messes with your head. Don't feel embarrassed, it messes with everyone's head. It's designed to. The SAT is a test of your critical reasoning skills, meaning it's actually far more about logic and figuring out the correct course of action than it is about actually knowing the material. This is nowhere more evident than on the Math section. The SAT Math trips up so many students because they expect it to behave like a math test. The truth is, the SAT Math is about figuring out how to answer each problem using as little actual math as possible. It's all about working quickly, and the questions are structured such that they conceal the quick logic and context-based route behind the facade of a more complicated math question. They're trying to psych you out; to make you think the problem is harder than it is. In math class you're taught to be thorough, to show your work and not leave out any steps. On the... read more

Mathematical Journeys: The Function Machine

y = f(x) I can't tell you how many times I've had students come to me profoundly confused about their entire math unit, all because their teachers never fully explained this concept. Teachers throw this equation up on the board without discussion as if it explains everything – which it does, but only if you know what it means. So let's discuss! First off, it's important to remember that this is not just an equation; it's an indication of a larger concept. We'll get to that in a minute, but let's start at the beginning. Imagine that I have a little machine which I set on the table in front of you and turn on. You place a number in the slot in the top, and the machine begins to hum and churn. After a few moments, a drawer opens at the bottom and you pull out a different number. You can repeat this with any number you like, any number of times. Now this is a single-purpose machine, which means it has one rule that it uses to transform the starting number into the... read more

Part 5: Avoid the Swamp of Schoolwork

Ellen's Rules for Effective Time Management, Part 5: Avoid the Swamp of Schoolwork 9. Stay Active! Whether we like to admit it or not, your brain is contained within an actual physical body, and that body is designed to move. So don’t just cram it into a desk chair and leave it there all day. Get up. Move around. Stretch your legs, do some cartwheels, jump on your bed. On your breaks, take a walk to visit a friend, or go outside and lie under a tree. Do somersaults in the park. Anything. Just make sure you keep moving. I recommend that you get up and move for at least 5 minutes out of every hour that you are sitting. Moving around not only shakes the kinks out of your muscles and joints, it can also shake the kinks out of your mind. I even have one friend who does a handstand whenever she runs out of ideas, and you know what? It really works. 10. Change the Scenery We all have our favorite places to work; the place we study best, the place we do our best writing... read more

Part 4: Procrastination Sucks

Ellen's Rules for Effective Time Management, Part 4: Procrastination Sucks 7. Pace yourself. A ten-page paper is far easier when it’s spread out into two pages a day for a week. A big research project is far less daunting when it takes place over the entire course of a semester, with most of the research being completed before midterms. Most teachers are gracious enough to give their students ample time to complete bigger projects, but that only works if you actually take the time you’re given. That paper isn’t due for six weeks? No problem; if you’ve got time to work on it now, do so. That way, you won’t have to scramble later on down the line. This leads into the next rule, which is: 8. Pretend big projects are due the week before. For anything larger than a five-paragraph essay (and sometimes for those too), write down the actual due date in your calendar and then tell yourself it’s due exactly one week before that. Throughout the entire working process of... read more

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