Wednesday, November 13, 2013

If You Want Your Kid to Be a Better Student, Make Them Your Teacher

How do you know when your child is actually ready for a test? 

We meet parents all the time who are willing to spend hours the night before, doing endless flashcards with their child, or asking the same vocabulary words over and over. By the time the child goes to bed, he or she can recite the correct answer, right on cue, 100% of the time. But then, a week later, the test comes home, and somehow it didn’t pay off. The grade is a C, and the kid feels horrible. But what more could you possibly have done?

Before you conclude that your kid is one of those infamous “naturally bad test takers,” think again. There are plenty of students who can recite the right answers after studying in one particular way. But today, we want to once and for all make a huge distinction between being able to recite answers and actually understanding the material.

In order to be truly ready for a test, a student should be able to answer the questions in any form: give the word when they hear the definition, give the definition when they hear the word, use the term in a sentence...and then use it in a second, different sentence, and so on. Hearing this is, understandably, stressful for parents. Going once through flashcards is something that you can always find time to do. But how are you supposed to think of every possible way that a piece of information might ever get asked to your child??!!

You’re not. The best way to test your student’s understanding--their actual ability to comprehend, use, and apply the information--is to have them teach it to you. Teaching requires such a firm grasp of the concepts that you can bend them into whatever shape or form is going to allow your listener to understand them. Anybody can simply recite a fact; the true test of whether you really understand something is to see whether you could teach it to someone totally new to the material. Chances are, you, the parent, have not been brushing up on Ancient Mesopotamia lately. That makes you the perfect pupil!

Ben Franklin: Writer-Electricity-Guy?
What’s more, as a parent, you’re the expert on your own child’s facial expressions. You know when they feel confident about what they’re saying, and when they’re sort of weaseling their way out of giving a straight answer. Based on the inflection of their voice, does it sound like they’re making a statement or asking a question? “Umm…Ashley ate the last cookie?” “Umm...Ben Franklin was...a...writer-electricity-guy?” If, as the pupil, you feel that your “teacher” is not making the lesson 100% clear for you, then ask questions and make them look up more details or explain it better. You’re not leaving here until you’ve learned!

One great way to push your child to better understanding is to ask for connections that relate the material to aspects of everyday life or to other subjects. For example, if your child is learning the parts of the cell, and that includes lysosomes, then they might say, “Lysosomes are responsible for, like, proteins and other chemicals.” This certainly does not feel like a clear-cut lesson. Ask for more help. At that point, you and your child can look at the parts of the word to see if any of them are familiar in something you know. “Lyso… lyso… that sounds like Lysol!” Lysosomes are responsible for breaking down everything from tiny food particles to bacteria. Oh, wait! Lysol kills bacteria. That’s a great way to remember it. (Actually, both take their name from the Greek root lys- which means to separate, but that’s not important. What matters is that your kid finds a connection to what he or she is learning that makes sense and is memorable.)

Having your child be the teacher guarantees that he or she actually understands it. But even better, it’s much more fun than going through flashcards. Studying becomes a game, and the rule of the game is that you play dumb until your child has really taught you to understand the concepts.

Vocab: Pretend that you don’t speak English. Have them explain what the word means in a way that is CLEAR. (This cannot be, “Um, dubious is, know, sort of...not good…”) Then, have them explain when you’d use that word in life. Again, break it down and relate it to other words if it still seems fuzzy.

History: You are an alien who just landed on Earth. You have never heard of this “Ge-ORG-EY WASH-ing-TONE” fellow. Make your child tell you the story of the American Revolution. It’s not just a list of separate terms--it’s a narrative, and all of these terms are connected through the events. You’re done when you understand all that happened…and why each of those terms or major players mattered.

Science: Play dumb. Have your child explain the cell, not just in terms of the separate parts, but in terms of the processes and connections involved. And they’d better make sure you appreciate the big picture too! Why are cells SO COOL? If you’re not excited, then they haven’t done their job.

No chemistry? No problem.
Playing dumb is the best way you can help your kid!
Perhaps, you’re one of those parents who is panicked because your child has officially surpassed the level of high school knowledge that you remember from way back when. When your child had questions about subtraction, you felt like a superhero. Now that the questions are about physics, you feel like running out of the room. Thankfully, playing dumb is the best thing you can do! Have your child teach advanced chem to you; not knowing anything about it makes you the perfect guinea pig student. You may not know chemistry, but you can certainly tell if a lesson is fuzzy, if you can follow along, and if it’s making sense.

How do you know when your child is actually ready for a test? When they can teach it to you. Next time your kid asks you to study, hand them the chalk and get ready to be schooled.

Monday, November 11, 2013

The College Conspiracy: Make Your Personal Statement Work For You

Many years ago, when I first started helping students through the college application process, I found myself up late one night, editing essays. I had read three or four at that point; my eyes had that burny-glaze that comes from staring at the computer screen for too long, and all of the claims the students made were starting to blur together. I opened the final essay of the night, expecting more of the same and suddenly, it was as if I’d been doused in a bucket of ice water. I was wide awake. The topic of this essay...was earwax.

I won’t get into the gory details. While I don’t condone--or at least don’t encourage--telling admissions officers about your bodily functions, there is an important lesson about college app personal statements to be taken from that brave student. It’s a lesson that almost every applicant with whom I’ve ever worked has needed to hear, and it has to do with understanding what the application essay is really for.

In the wake of this year’s Early Decision deadline, I’ve already seen many, many student essays. And the biggest mistake that students make is this: they write what they think a college wants to hear. Generally speaking, this approach produces formal, stilted essays, full of vocabulary words the student would never use, and covering topics that are so trite and immediately forgettable that they do the student no service at all. If your personal statement is about the American Dream, the importance of diversity, or why love matters, then chances are, it won't stand out.

The SAT scores, the transcript, the resume--those things all show what you are, and they tell a college whether or not you can go there--whether you will be able to handle the academics. The essay is the part of the application in which you actually get to show the college who you are. What are you like? What’s your personality? Would you make for a fun roommate? Be someone interesting to have in a class discussion? That’s what the essay is all about.

What’s more, you need to imagine what it’s like to be in the admissions officer’s shoes. Admissions officers have to read thousands of personal statements. Most of them all sound pretty much the same. So if an essay about earwax came across your desk...well, that’s an essay you’d be sure to remember.

Students, when you’re working on your essays, throw out any notion you had of what colleges will want to hear. What do you want to say? Challenge yourself to include specific stories and vibrant details from your experiences. Tell the reader exactly what it was like for you to be in those moments, or to do what you did. Give the reader touchstones, like the moment you first became interested in the hobby you’re describing, or how you felt when you first heard that you’d be moving to a new town in the middle of your junior year. You’ll be amazed; once you give yourself permission to just share your experience and tell it to the reader the way you’d tell it to a friend, writing the essay becomes so much easier.

Finally, take the time to make sure the reader knows why you chose this topic in the first place. Really dig deep, reflect on the experience, and try to understand how it changed you or what you learned from it. What about this makes it so significant in your life?  For example, I worked recently with a new student who had an essay draft about how, because of her parents’ jobs, she changed schools three times between eighth grade and senior year. Initially, the essay was really just describing what those different schools were like; we saw what she’d been through, but it didn’t really teach us much about who she is; only what she’s done. So, we applied Katie’s famous So What? Test.

I changed schools three times.
So What?
Well, it was hard, because I kept leaving the friends that I’d made and feeling out of place.
So What?
So...for a while it made me a bit of a wallflower. I didn’t really reach out or try to make friends.
So What?
Well, now that I’m in a school I love, I’m not anymore.
So What?
I ended up meeting every kind of classmate across every walk of life. And now I know how to get along with and understand all of those people. And I’ve gained confidence to be in any situation and figure out how to make it work for me. And I think that will be important in college.

Your essay can’t just be reporting the news. Take the facts and then show us why they matter. Did this experience teach you to push yourself out of your comfort zone? Did you learn the pitfalls of leadership? Was this the moment when you discovered what you want to do in the future? Why? If you can use the So What? Test to get to that level, you’ll have an essay that really tells the admissions office who you are, what you value, and what kind of person you’ll be in the incoming class.

Bottom line: have fun and be yourself. No one likes a stuffy essay, and that’s just the kind that blurs into all the others. Think of the kinds of specific, interesting stories that are most memorable to you, and share them in your own voice. Give the reader that jolt awake that he or she needs. And find the surprising details or topic that make your essay truly stand out. You know. Like earwax.