Creating Creativity

Can creativity be taught?  Yes, it absolutely can.  To understand why, we need to understand what creativity is first.  Creativity is, simply put, the ability to produce something new and of-value.  It is a skill valuable in any class, any activity, and – in looking to our children’s future – any industry.  Creativity is not just for “artistic types,” but available and useful to everyone, in whatever they do!  Learning to be creative, like any complex skill, is something we can train our mind to do.  Like lifting mental weights, the more we practice the easier it becomes and the more we can handle.  Let’s look at one strategy for developing creativity:

When encouraging one of our tutoring students to be more creative, this is a technique that I find very helpful.  The technique has 4 easy steps, that can be repeated over and over again:  Discussion, Planning, Trying, and Observing.

Discussion.  In the Discussion step, we (big surprise) talk about the problem we are tackling.  What is it we are trying to achieve?  What is easy about that?  What is difficult?  If we can’t see all the way to our solution, what would be one possible way to start?  Another name for discussion is Brainstorming.  That means that there are no wrong answers.  Get it all down on paper!  The term “Discussion” is framed within the context of people talking together – student and tutor.  However, this is definitely something that someone can do on their own, especially after a bit of practice.

Planning.  During the planning phase, we look at what we’ve achieved during the Discussion phase, and we decide on a first step.  Remember, the process repeats and repeats, so there’s no need to worry too much about where to start, just start somewhere!  If you can see your way a few steps down the road, great!  Otherwise, don’t stress.  You’ll have plenty of time to analyze later, during the Observation stage.  For now, just figure out that crucial first step forward. Sometimes it’s helpful to have a specific goal in mind.

Trying.  Here’s where you execute your plan, or maybe even just one tiny step in your plan.  This is the part that most people think of when they talk about creativity.  But the other steps are just as important.  If Discussion is when you let your brain go wild with possibility, then Trying is when you give yourself permission to give it a go.  Assume that you are the number-one expert in whatever you are doing, and act like it!

Observing.  This is the time you’ve set aside to look at what you’ve achieved.  How has it brought you closer to your goal?  What are the positive aspects of what you did?  What could you have done differently?  It’s very important to remember, there are no failures here, only success.  When students are hesitant to create, because of a lack on confidence in their abilities, this is often the step where they surprise themselves by seeing that they’ve achieved so much more than they thought they would.  Did things not turn out the way you planned at all?  Great!  What did that teach us?  Are we someplace new because of the unexpected result?

Repeat.  Once you’ve made your observations, it’s time to go back to Discussion and move forward some more!  I find it helpful – but not strictly necessary – to sometimes attach time limits to certain steps, depending on the complexity of the task and the maturity and experience level of the students.

Happy creating!

Proofreading Tips

I met with a student recently, who asked me about good strategies for proofreading. She told me that, try as she might, she had trouble catching all the mistakes in her typed papers and reports, and needed some guidance. Since this is the sort of educational topic that will benefit everyone, I thought I would list my suggestions here as well. Hope these help!

First, I recommend, if at all possible, printing out your paper and proofreading it that way, rather than trying to correct it on your computer screen. There’s just something easier about the tactile page, and the chance to mark up your work with a colorful pen. The physical page gives you an opportunity to draw arrows, circle things, write notes to yourself in the margins, and generally keep track of any of the side-thoughts that might arise during your proofreading process. I’ve found this strategy to me especially helpful for long, multi-page assignments, where the list of things you will need to fix is potentially much longer.

Second, I recommend doing several different passes reading through your assignment, each with a different focus: One for grammar and spelling, one for punctuation, one for making sure your sentences work well together, etc. Take your time as you run through your work, and really zero in on the particular aspect of your work that you are focusing on. Be sure to take breaks to refresh your mind between passes!

Third, I highly recommend that you consider reading your work out loud, at least once. You’ll pick up on many mistakes that you might have otherwise missed. There’s also something about hearing it aloud that helps you determine if the prose you’ve written flows the way you intended.  You can hear how your written words will sound to other people.

I’ve been told that reading your work backwards, sentence by sentence, is very helpful. Although I haven’t utilized this strategy much with my own writing or with my students’, it’s probably worth passing along.

Finally, having someone else proofread your work is an excellent idea. A fresh set of eyes can be so helpful! But don’t let the someone else reading your work stop you from doing your own proofreading – a very valuable tool for correcting and improving your writing!

Summer Learning Fun!

As we come to the close of another school year, we want to let you know that StudyShop Tutoring is offering some great summer courses this year: music lessons, study skills help, “head start” classes in math and English, creative writing, computer programming classes… We strive to makes these lessons both fun and productive, all individualized to your child’s learning style, all in the comfort of your own home.  Call or email us today to find out more.

The Gift of Music in Education

Kwasi Enin is a 17-year-old From Long Island, NY, and has been receiving a great deal of media attention lately.  Rightly so, because he was accepted to, not one, not two, but all eight Ivy League schoolsThis young man’s story is the kind of thing that should lead every newscast, every night.

He has worked hard to excel, not just in his schoolwork, but in sports, student leadership, theater and music as well.  His college essay brims with youthful optimism and insight.  His essay, entitled “A Life in Music,” states the truth about the value of music education so succinctly and so elegantly, I just had to reprint it here.

“Music has become the spark of my intellectual curiosity,” he writes. “I directly developed my capacity to think creatively around problems due to the infinite possibilities in music.”
Well said, Kwasi.

Hunger for Knowledge

“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.”
-Mahatma Gandhi

I am so lucky to be a tutor, to live a life where, not only do I have the opportunity to teach and guide young minds, but I also have the chance to learn something new each day. My best days tutoring are the days that I’m able to put aside my preconceptions about where my students are coming from – about their motivations, about their hang-ups and fears, about their self-image or their supposed laziness – and really listen to what they have to say. It’s those days that my students really teach me a thing or two.

Paradoxically, it’s these same days that I reach my students the best. Maybe that’s because they have the opportunity to be really heard. Maybe it’s because those are the days that they are able to trust in their tutor and the tutoring process. This reminds me of something Albert Einstein once said:

“I never teach my pupils; I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.”

Ultimately, it is my job as a tutor to provide these conditions for each of my students, to help them feel secure and confident, so they will open themselves up to the knowledge at hand. Of course, a mastery of the subject matter allows me to direct that learning. But really, it’s the student that does all the heavy mental lifting. I’m just there to light the way.

A Great Tutoring Tool

Scratch is a wonderful tool that I’ve slowly been working into more and more tutoring sessions. The educational value of Scratch is in the fact that it is so open-ended and flexible, yet easy to learn, and dare I say, fun to use!  It’s applications in learning mathematical concepts, and computer programming techniques are pretty obvious, but I’ve also used Scratch to tutor in other academic areas, such as vocabulary building.  A student was having trouble motivating himself to study his assigned words and their definitions, so I encouraged him to create a short scratch “movie” about the vocabulary words he was learning.  He created short little colorful animations for each word.  Some of the animations had sound.  Some even had interactive elements.  Just the very act of creating the Scratch program seemed to embed the vocab words into his awareness; and every time he showed his creation to a friend or family member, the concepts were reinforced.  I’d call that educational success!  With another tutoring student, studying astronomy, we made simple little Scratch game that challenges the player to move the planets into their correct order.  This activity sparked the students interest in the “Is Pluto a planet?” question, and she really ended up going far above and beyond the parameters of her original assignment.

Scratch allows students, especially homeschoolers, to approach their assignments in a personal way.  For students in a more traditional school environment, Scratch is a great tool for students to use in making dynamic presentations for class, especially considering the ever-growing involvement of computers in classroom learning.  For an experienced Scratch user, it can even provide a way of studying for upcoming tests!

Some interesting Scratch projects:

Want to get your child excited about math, art, logical thinking, music, computer programming or just about anything else education-related? Check out

Ending Homework woes – part 3

When it comes to a student struggling with a homework routine, a clear and consistent system of expectations and rewards is crucial.  My experience demonstrates that, though they may complain about it at first, in the end, students find this liberating.  I believe this is because when they know exactly the parameters within which they can act, they feel freer to make good choices.  By giving them the power to make decisions and live with the consequences of those decisions, they will be less motivated to continually push boundaries, and more motivated to push themselves.

The trick is coming up with a system that works for your family and your situation.  As a private educator, I love the opportunities I get to “figure out” each of my students – to really see where they are coming from and how best to reach them with the information, skills, and encouragement they need.  I try to always go into a tutoring session with no preconceived notion of the “right” way to teach a student.  When it comes to education, as every child is different, so are the needs if every child.  Each has a different view of school, a different level of self-motivation, a different ability to organize and schedule time effectively, etc.

This means that your system of expectations and rewards must reflect the reality in which your child exists.  The expectations must be clear and realistic.  Telling a failing student that they are expected to get all A’s within a month’s time is neither; it doesn’t give them the tools for success.  Start with something like “I expect your homework assignments to be written in your assignment pad every day.” Let your child be an active part of coming up with these clear expectations (or goals).

The rewards, which a child will earn by fulfilling an expectation, must fit your child’s age and temperament.  A cookie might be a great reward for a six-year-old.  A teenager is going to be motivated by the opportunity to play their Xbox for an hour or have private use of their cell-phone for the night.  The key is coming up with a system, and being consistent in it’s application.  Use small rewards for daily expectations – like Xbox privileges for completing all assignments.  Larger rewards act as an incentive for long term goals – like taking your son and a few of his friends to his choice of restaurants if  when he brings is English grade up from a D to a B.  When a student sees that they can make their own choices, but need to live with the results of those choices, they make progress instead of excuses.

Ending Homework woes – part 2

For Part 1 of this discussion go here.

The most important homework tool you can give a child struggling with homework is a set routine. I get the feeling that I’m going to be repeating variations of that sentence many times on the StudyShop blog.  Routine is crucial to any learning endeavor. (There I go again…)

First, pick a location.  Each night, your child should do his homework in the same place.  The ideal homework spot is (relatively) uncluttered and free of distraction, yet not too isolated.  A kitchen table is often a good place, as long as there isn’t too much foot traffic coming in and out.  When a child regularly struggles with homework, I suggest that they work someplace where the parent can easily check up on them every few minutes.   What do I mean when I say check up on your child?  Well, that’s a topic for a future homework help post.  For now, let’s just say that “checking in” on your child simply means observing their behavior.Sometimes, just your presence is enough to help them focus on the task.  We’ll get into specifics later.

If possible, try to schedule homework time for the same time each night.  It’s very important to make this time mandatory. If your child is sure that he doesn’t have any homework, the time can be spent reviewing concepts, and planning for future long-term assignments.  Some families find that before dinner works best.  When both parents work, “homework time” may need to be scheduled later in the evening.

Knowing how much time to schedule can be a challenge. The National Education Association has guidelines for teachers and parents regarding homework schedules.  They say that a child should have approximately 10 minutes of homework per grave level.  (A first grader should have about 10 minutes, a third grader should have 30 minutes, a seventh grader 70 minutes, and so on.)  This should help give you an idea on how much time to reasonably expect your child to devote to homework each night.  Some flexibility is required here; some nights will have lighter workloads than others.  Also, your student may need to take an occasional break or two. Time these breaks to make sure your child doesn’t slip back into “free time” mode.  A 10-minute break for every 30 minutes of work seems reasonable to me.  A few minutes spent moving around a bit or grabbing a quick snack will do wonders for their motivation and concentration.

Consistent parental behavior is also a vital part of the homework routine.  Clear expectations and clear rewards will be our next topic.


Ending Homework woes – part 1

When I get a call from a worried parent whose child has experienced a drastic drop in grades, usually the main cause is that they’ve fallen behind with their homework assignments.  This can be an extremely trying cycle for parent and student alike.  As grades fall, parents experience increasing worry and frustration about their child’s behavior, motivation, future, etc.  The student, in turn, gets discouraged, and little-by-little, begins a process of slowly tuning out their parents’ (and teachers’) disapproval, until the students seemingly “doesn’t care” anymore.  Often, by the time I meet with a student, their grades have fallen sharply, and they seem to have all but given up on the school process entirely.

Time and time again, I hear the same lament: “I just can’t get him to care about his homework!”  Let me say that, as a parent of two, I’m SURE that I’m as guilty of this as anyone; but the fact of the matter is that you can’t force your child to care.  It has been my experience that in these situations, the heart will follow the hand.  As children gain the tools for staying on top of homework assignments and see their grades start to inch up, they begin to feel empowered.  In the end, I believe that’s what motivates them more than anything – the feeling of increased control over their lives.

The next few StudyShop blog posts will explore strategies for parents that want to guide their child out of homework troubles. Stay tuned!

StudyShop helps with Haitian earthquake relief

During the month of May, for every hour of tutoring we provide, StudyShop will donate $1 to AmeriCares for help with the Haitian earthquake relief effort. In addition, we’ll donate $30 for every new student . The plan is to continue this program in the coming months, so please contact me with more charity ideas! Let’s make the world a little better every day by educating ourselves and helping others!