March 23, 2012

Hunger Games Essay Questions

 With the movie being released the Hunger Games book series by Suzanne Collins is getting even more attention.  Awhile back we wrote some essay questions to review some of the central themes found in The Hunger Games trilogy.  Some questions apply to the entire of the trilogy.  

If you have not read the book I encourage you to read it along with your kids.  I will be posting some book discussion questions as well after our teen book club tonight.
Pick one of the following themes of the Hunger Games Series and discuss it in a 1-3 page paper.

1)  The Hunger Games series shows how old habits die hard.  People will continue old traditions even though they know that they are unfair and unjust. Discuss how the people in the different districts and the capital felt about the hunger games.  Why did they continue to participate?

2)  The Hunger Games series shows that good people can be especially cruel and violent if the situation allows for it or even demands it.  The Hunger Games and then the civil war required some incredibly violent actions by people who were not "bad" people.  Discuss your thoughts on if and when violence and cruelty is OK.

3)  The Hunger Games shows that the ends justify the means and that if the final outcome is good, that makes the strategies, tools and actions getting there OK.  The final tactic that won the civil war was the dropping of bombs on the civilian shield around the presidential mansion.  We don't know who ordered the attack.  If it was the rebels, was this OK?  Was it worth the price of those who died to stop the war and even more killing?

4)  The Hunger Games shows that good leadership often requires morally questionable decisions and actions.  Discuss 3 specific actions that the rebel president did or that Katniss did over the course of the books that was morally questionable.  How did these actions contribute to their leadership?

5)  The Hunger Games shows that television plays a very important role in society.  Discuss how the televised games were received in the Capital.  Discuss how the televised games were received in the Districts.  How did people's actions change because they were going to be on TV?  Did it make them try to be more "sensational" than they would otherwise have been?  If so, was it really "real" or was it a simulacrum?

6)  The Hunger Games Series shows that honor is sometimes assumed where it is not warranted and found where it is not expected.  Who was the most honorable in the book and why?  Who was the least honorable and why?  Who was assumed to have honor but demonstrated a moral and ethical ambiguity when it came time to act on that honor?  Who is more honorable at the beginning of the series Gale or Peeta or Haymitch?  How did this change by the end of the series?

March 10, 2012

Why read biographies?

Every summer we pick a reading challenge for each of our kids.  The summer between fifth and sixth grade has been "Biography Summer".  Ciaran is coming up on that this year and I am beginning now to try to encourage him to be excited for it. So far my enthusiasm has not been contagious, even Maria's good reviews have not helped.  The summer Maria read biographies she averaged about 3-5 juvenile non-fiction books a week because she found she really enjoyed them. For Ciaran I am going to require 1-2 a week, maybe he will find a similar passion for reading them. Like it or not he will be reading biographies this summer.  Here is to hoping he enjoys them :) 

Why biographies? They are a unique way to teach kids about invention, creativity, ingenuity, fame, power, and gifts of all sorts.  Biographies offer people to relate to, real life examples of success, and a different approach to learning history.  Giving the student freedom to pick the biography allows them to learn more about areas they are passionate about and discover some new areas of interest.

I do not pick the biographies.  I bring the student to the biography section and make them select a variety of individuals across different disciplines.  The only rule is the biographies must be varied and about someone you already do not know a lot about.  It is fine if you pick an athlete, an artist, a scientist, an inventor and a politician.  The point is to learn about a variety of disciplines through the story of a specific person. I also find that by requiring them to read so many biographies at once they start to discover the similarities of famous people across disciplines.  I like encouraging inter-disciplinary thinking and studies whenever possible and reading a variety of biographies is one easy way to do so.

I find even as an adult I still enjoy reading biographies.  It helps me understand some of the similarities and differences  between the lives of famous people.  I enjoy seeing the creative ways different people approach solving different problems and questions they face.  I enjoy learning about the creativity and determination and discipline of many different people throughout history, both ancient and modern. I enjoy my kids discovering the same sorts of things for themselves.

If you have never read biographies yourself I encourage you to try.  Your library is full of them.  Encourage your kids to read biographies and then discuss them together.  You may be pleasantly surprised by what you discover.  

March 9, 2012

Preparing for the ACT or SAT in High School

Recently I wrote about the importance of testing and how and why to begin preparing for the college entrance exams in junior high.

If you have not read that post yet please start there before you begin this one.  There is some important foundational information that you should know first. 

Remember testing is important in our culture and college entrance right now whether we like it or not so begin planning for that instead of avoiding it and hoping it will go away.

As an ACT tutor and a parent with three kids who hope to go to college one day this is an important topic to me.  I have put together a list of skills to work on with your high school student to best prepare them for their ACT.  Do not wait until they are a junior, begin these in their freshman year if at all possible and continue to build their skills and confidence over the years so their testing situation is not stressful but successful. Remember there are some skills you can start preparing for in junior high as well.

High School Test Prep Strategies

Read strategy books on how to beat the ACT or SAT

There are many different types of strategy books designed to help prepare you for the exam.  Your local library will carry most of them.  Check out a few and find one that works really well for you.  A few good names in the business are Princeton, Barron's and Kaplan.  For the ACT I think the Princeton Cracking the ACT book is the best for strategy and I recommend it for the students I work with.  Whatever book you decide on, read it and practice the strategies outlined even if they feel weird at first.  Help your student to understand and adopt the strategies that will work best for them to beat the test.

Set target goals 
The internet makes college applications easier in many ways.  Just a few google searches will help you discover what the requirements for the various colleges you want to apply to are.  You can type in any college name and ACT scores or SAT scores after it to be taken to a website that gives you the range of acceptance scores for the particular college.  Digging into a college's admission page and you can find the scores needed both for admission and the ever important financial aid. Look at several schools and set goals for yourself.  Have ranges (reach schools and safety schools) and determine what ACT score your student needs and can realistically expect to get. Start with a target composite range.  You will determine the individual section goals soon.

Understand your students strengths and weaknesses

Have your student take a practice ACT under test like conditions.  There is a complete free past ACT available online for this purpose.  This document is put out by the official ACT company and can be downloaded here.  It can also be picked up at any high school guidance counselor's office.  If your student has already taken an official ACT look at the breakdown and results for the official and this diagnostic test, average them and see where the strengths and weaknesses are. Talk with your student and ask them what felt hard and easy for them and create a plan for them to work with their strengths to increase their scores.

Make a plan based on number 2 and 3 and stick to it 
After understanding goals and actual present abilities create a plan to help you get from current ability to desired outcome.  The ACT and SAT are predictable and if you know the score you need you can easily discover about how many questions you need right on each section of the test.  Once you have that goal in mind you can create a study and practice schedule to help your student achieve it.

A practiced ACT tutor can help you with this as well.  One of the biggest advantages students get from working with me is a tailored practice plan based on their individual strengths and weaknesses.  We work together to discover how many questions they truly need to get right in each section to achieve their goals and then we build our strategy around that. What many people do not realize is that few students will actually need to get all of the questions right to achieve their goals.  Many students only need to get half the questions right in each section of the test to achieve their goals, some may only be able to miss 5 or 10 questions a section, and only the exceptional students will really go for accuracy in every single question.  Knowing and understanding your particular student and their goals makes a huge difference to your students success on the test. Working with someone who truly understands the test at this point can be very helpful. 

Practice real ACT and SAT tests. 
Bottom line your student needs to practice a lot.  Just as with any other activity to get good at it you need to practice. Your student needs to build up familiarity and muscle memory with this test so when they sit down to take the test nothing is unfamiliar and much of it will feel easy or at least routine.  By practicing with the skills they adopted after reading a strategy book or working with a tutor they will begin to make the skills part of themselves so on test day it is natural and habit.  Practice with a timer, practice with distractions, practice under test like conditions.  Practice. Practice. Practice. 

Practice some more. 
Now repeat the above.  Seriously the biggest difference to your student's score is likely to be how much they have practiced.  I often get asked how much time I recommend practicing.  The answer is as much as your student will.  I don't believe you can over practice.  If you have a young student they have many years to practice and could go at a slow pace.  If you have a senior I would sit them down and tell them to prepare for a lot of work over a short course of time.   I recently worked with a student who only had 8 weeks to prepare and some high goals I let her know you are looking at two hours of homework a day to properly prepare, are you ready for that?  She was and she did it and she reached her goals. She practiced a lot and she was rewarded. I had another student who practiced an hour a day for over 4 months and also saw much improvement to his test and achieved his goals. 

Bottom line, the practice matters more than anything else.  Hold your student accountable to whatever practice schedule you set up.  Do not just hand them a book and expect them to do it themselves.  Create a practice schedule with assignments they have to hand in to you.  Evaluate their work, continually discover patterns to their correct and incorrect answers and help them work on the areas they need to.

If you get nothing else from either of these posts pay attention to this.  For most students success will depend on the amount of practice they put into the test.  Make them practice! 

I already about the next three areas in the junior high prep section but they still all apply here in high school, especially if you have not done so before they reach high school age.   If you have already developed these skills in your student now is not the time to stop, keep at it :) 

Build your vocabulary 
A good vocabulary will help with the test in a variety of ways.  The SAT directly tests for this, the ACT indirectly tests for it.  Your writing will get a higher score with good vocabulary use.  The science and reading and english sections will all seem less scary if big words are not scary to your student.  Develop their vocabulary. 

There are many books available at your library and local bookstore that highlight words for the SAT.  Give your student these to read and practice.  Encourage unique vocabulary words.  Improve your own vocabulary to help your student improve theirs.  Subscribe to word a day emails or apps. There are also many free website with word lists such as this one

Practice decoding strategies for unfamiliar words.  Look at roots, use context clues, show how to use the answers to discover clues about the actual word.  Teach them to rephrase unfamiliar words and to discover relationships between words and analogies.  The more you practice the less intimidating big and unusual words will be for your student.  No matter how much you practice there will likely be unfamiliar words on test day, the key is being comfortable with unfamiliar words and understanding how to approach them.  This sort of practice is far more important than memorizing a bunch of words and definitions. 

Remember building vocabulary is not just studying for this test it is giving your student a life long skill that will help them in all areas of school, college, writing, business and just general intelligence. 

Write 20 minute essays often 
I encouraged you to start this in junior high or even younger if your student is ready.  If you have not started yet start as soon in possible and practice often.  I would encourage writing one 20 minute essay every week in high school.  Yes I can hear the groans.  But really how many minutes a day does your student spending texting friends, surfing the internet, or watching TV?  Surely they can find 20 minutes in the course of a week.

By the time a student is in high school these essays should be about real topics, similar to the ACT and SAT writing prompts.  Pick topics both of interest and non-interest to your student so they get practice writing both things they enjoy and know little about.  Pick topics that have two sides to an issue and force your student to take a position on one side. Set a timer. Allow them up to 10 minutes to outline before they start writing the essay.   After 10 minutes set another 20 minute timer and they hand it in when the beeper goes off no exceptions, no finishing sentences.  This is how it works on test day, this is how it must work when they practice.

Read the writing section in your strategy book and help your student structure their writing around this outlined structure.  A good standardized test essay will have an introduction, three body paragraphs,  and a conclusion paragraph. The body paragraphs should contain one showing the opposite side of the issue from your conclusion and two paragraphs supporting your conclusion.  Learning to write five complete paragraphs in 20 minutes is a learned skill and not a natural one. 

Organizing ideas, drawing conclusions and writing complete ideas in a short amount of time is another lifelong skill.  This will serve them well in college as well as the business world.  While they may not have to ever write another complete essay in less than 30 minutes they will be required to organize complex issues into coherent thoughts and arguments quickly for the rest of their lives.  Practicing 20 minute essays develops this skill and helps prepare them for test day essays as well.  

Read. Read. Read. 
Highschoolers are busy.  I get it.  They are balancing school, homework, sports, clubs, social lives and for many work.  Now mom and dad have added test prep and writing homework every week!  Where in the world are they going to find time to read?  Help them find and make the time.  Reading now is just as important as it was when they were learning to in elementary and when they did for fun in junior high. 

Avid readers score better on tests.  They have better vocabularies.  They tend to be better writers.  They can simply spot errors in the english section of the tests because something doesn't sound "right".  They have an advantage because so much of the test requires reading and they are comfortable with reading and likely faster readers. Being a good reader will also serve them well in college.  Being a good reader will help them be life long learners.  Reading is important, make them read. 

Not all books are created equal.  Encourage reading good books.  There are many lists of classics, award winners, books that have stood the test of time.  There are books with intricate plots, character development, and amazing vocabularies.  Few of them are about vampires :)    Assign good books, or place some around the house and encourage them to pick up some of your favorites.  If you don't read, try.  Set a good example.  Create a book club for your student and their friends.  Read and discuss the book with them.  Either way encourage them to

Keep a list of all the books they have read in junior high and high school.  Consider sending it with their college applications to show them as a rounded and well read individual.  Reading will always bring more rewards than the work that went into it.  Encourage your kids to read!

Get help where you need it 
There are many tutors and prep classes available to you.  If you are overwhelmed just reading this post consider finding help for your student.  If you start the process and feel like you need some extra help get it.  You may find your student only needs a few meetings with a good tutor to set them on the right path or you may discover they work really well with a particular tutor and keep them working with the tutor through the duration of their preparation. 

Keep in mind not all help is the same.  There are big name agencies that charge a lot of money per hour or per class for their tutoring and there are local tutors that may charge substantially less.  Tutoring for this type of test typically runs between $30 - $100 an hour depending on where you live.  More expensive does not necessarily mean better, and cheaper does not necessarily mean bad.  Both can be good, both can be bad, the key is finding the right fit for your student.  Also when working with an agency you may want to understand how much of your money the company gets and how much your tutor receives, people are often very surprised at these numbers when they examine them. 

When interviewing a tutor be sure to understand their method and approach and what is expected of your student when working with them.  If they don't require outside work I would keep looking until you found someone who did.  While taking a class or meeting with a tutor to review strategies is better than going into a test cold it is not as helpful as actually practicing the skills and strategies with a seasoned tutor.  I would recommend you find someone who focuses on individual test strategy as well and not a cookie cutter presentation of each section of the test that is the same to each student. 

Not everyone needs outside help.  A motivated student and an involved parent willing to read strategy books and manage practice can be just as effective for many students as a tutor.  But you need to put in the time and energy to make it work.  

If you do choose to work with a tutor remember this is an investment you are making in your child.  For many students a few hundred dollars spent on tutoring may translate into thousands of dollars in college scholarships. 

Until colleges change their admission and financial aid scholarship policies the college admission test is here to stay.  It is important and it needs to be faced.  Don't bury your head in the sand, cross your fingers and hope for the best.  You can be sure the students your kids are competing against to get into school and a piece of the financial pie are not. 

Take the time needed to create a plan for your student to succeed on these tests.  Follow through with it.  This is an area in your control, don't miss the opportunity to help your student.  Remember the more your student puts in the more they will get out of it. 

If anyone has further questions.  Feel free to drop me an email or leave a comment.

March 8, 2012

Preparing for the ACT and SAT in Junior High

Recently I have returned to tutoring for the ACT.  For those who do not know, the ACT is like the SAT for the Midwest, it is a college entrance exam.  I did well on my ACT's when I was in high school and then I tutored some in college to make ends meet.  When our lives changed last spring I began tutoring again and of all the odd jobs I have been doing recently I have discovered I truly love this one and I am fairly good at it.

I will keep tutoring as long as I am able.  The reason is I believe it is important and getting good test scores can make a substantial difference in the life of a high school kid soon to be in college and to the lives of their parents. I love seeing my students confidence and test scores rise.  I love watching them achieve their short term goals with the understanding that it is a first step to helping them achieve their long term goals.  I love knowing that together we have opened a door for their future that might have otherwise been closed to them.

Why Testing Matters
For better or worse testing has become extremely important in our country.  Your college entrance standardized test score will make the difference between what college you get accepted to and how much financial aid you will receive.  The test becomes that much more important for home educated students as colleges will put more weight on these scores and sometimes ignore all together the transcript grades of the home educated believing they could be inflated or fabricated if they come from mom and dad.  In addition often home school students have little testing experience under their belt and are used to knowledge being tested in different ways than by the bubbles they must rush to fill in.  Home school students also rarely have experience with the time crunch of these standardized tests and can feel more anxious about them.

If I can communicate one thing to home school parents with kids in the junior and senior high age group it would be START PRACTICING for these tests with your students NOW.  They are not too young to start gaining the skills they need to beat this test and secure a better college future for themselves.  The first thing I tell my tutor students is: the ACT and SAT are not truly a test of your knowledge or intelligence, they are a test of how well you can take their particular test.  They are not a test you can "study" for but they are a test you can and should practice for. Together we work to develop a strategy that is unique to them to help them maximize their score working from their strengths and not fighting their weaknesses. You can do this with your own child at home as well.

Junior High Strategies

Practice Bubble Tests
There are hundreds of standardized test practice books on the market.  There are many free tests you can find and print online now.  There are computer programs that give you multiple choice options.  The resources are there, use them.  From about second grade on I make my kids go through a grade appropriate test review book filled with bubble questions.  We use the Spectrum series and that has worked nicely for us.  This serves two purposes.  It acts as a catch all review for things most schools are teaching at their grade level and it helps my kids get acquainted with the style of bubble testing of their knowledge.  They get practice in these types of questions in a low pressure scenario and I get a general review of their knowledge each year.  Win. Win.

Practice Time Crunch Situations
Every once in awhile set a timer while your student works.  Give them five minutes to finish a math page or one minute to do a math problem.  Make it a game if you want, challenge them to see how fast they can do a page while still getting everything accurate.  As they get older do it more often.  Make them practice moving quickly through a math page or seeing how fast they can read a passage and still understand it.  While in general I don't believe busy or fast work is the key to knowledge and understanding I do think it is an important skill to learn so long as standardized testing has so much weight in our children's future.  Set a timer, don't tell them why, don't make it stressful but get them used to occasional time crunches so they are not facing it for the first time as a junior in high school!

Learn Vocabulary 
 Good vocabulary is very important on these tests.  The avid reader will just naturally have a good vocabulary if they read good books.  Other students will have to work harder at it and should.  The SAT will test it more directly than the ACT but having a good vocabulary will improve your score on both.  It will also help your student feel more confident in all sections of the test if big words do not scare them or they understand how to decode unfamiliar words using context, roots, or other work a rounds. The stronger their vocabulary the stronger their test results.  Build vocabulary skills by talking to them as you would talk to other adults from a young age.  Challenge yourself to use better words.  Make friends with Google Define and never say "I don't know" to what does a word mean.  Play synonym and antonym games, use vocab workbooks.  Occasionally assign reading from a dictionary during reading time.  Get out 1000 best word books from the library.  Keep a vocab list.  Build your students vocabulary.  This can only help them in life and translates to a life long skill not just a test prep one.

Get Comfortable with the Uncomfortable 
Too often in home school situations the uncomfortable gets pushed aside or worked around.  Challenge yourself and your kids to work through the uncomfortable testing, vocabulary, or math situation.  Face the challenge head on together to demonstrate and build the skill they will need in the test when faced with a topic they are unfamiliar with.  Practice reading really hard science or literature textbooks.  Read something translated from a different language.  Look for the hard and uncomfortable every once in awhile and teach your kids to embrace and work through it.  Then when they see it on a test they will have built the skills up to deal with it.  Science tends to be a test section that scare many on the ACT until they realize it truly is a reading comprehension section with charts and graphs and data.  All the information they need to answer the question is in front of them they just need to decode it as uncomfortable as it feels.  Practice this type of skill whenever you have the opportunity and create the opportunities from time to time.

Make sure your math program teaches what is on this test
I am not at all a fan of "teach to the test" but I am also not an ostrich.  Your kid does need a substantial amount of math knowledge to do well on this test and they need particular knowledge, make sure they will have it.  Not all math programs are created alike in the home school world.  If you love your math program and it has holes in it when it comes to standardized test material fill the holes with other material.  Make sure by the time they are a junior they are going to have all the math they need down.  Math is the one test you can't really get around having outside knowledge in.  No matter the tips and tricks you learn you need the math knowledge to do well on this part of the test.  Kaplan has a 100 Math Key Concepts that is worth looking over in junior and senior high to be sure your student understands what they will need.

Practice writing 20 minute essays often
For some reason the time crunch in the essay part always seems to surprise people even though they know it is coming.  This is a skill you can work on from the time your kids are young.  Make them write 20 minute essays on various topics from older elementary years on.  I start with creative writing and my expectation of my third grader is substantially different than my expectation of my 6th grader or it will be of my junior in high school.  As they get older transition them to non-creative topics where they must take a position on a controversial or two sided issue.  The point is they have to get used to writing fast, neat and complete in a short amount of time.  Their brain practices organizing thoughts and getting them down on paper in a quick amount of time.  They are training themselves in an unnatural skill as most people like to take their time to write, which in general is preferable.  It is still important to learn how to organize and communicate thoughts in a quick amount of time. 

Read. Read. Read
Well it is me writing this post so you knew this was coming :)  I honestly believe the amount of time a student spends reading throughout their life will increase their scores overall.  If you are a good reader you have a higher vocabulary, you can read a variety of topics and subjects and language arts does not scare you.  The Reading and English sections will likely go well for you if you have always been an avid reader or even forced to read and retain.  There are time crunch and test strategies you will need to work on later for these sections but if you start with a good reading base all of it will come easier.  I have always made my kids read an hour a day since they were independent readers and I always will.  Some of my kids choose to read more than that in a day. In the end I honestly believe there is no better preparation for college, for testing, and for life than a solid reading foundation.  Make your kids read!

Advanced Testing for the Gifted 
This last recommendation is not for everyone but it is important to consider for some.  If your kid is truly gifted they could qualify for early advanced grade testing through an organization like NUMATS out of Northwestern University.   Programs like this allow advanced students to take the ACT and SAT as early as 6th grade and see how they compare to other advanced students their age as well as the college juniors and seniors who typically take the exams. This experience can be very helpful for the gifted student and gives them early testing experience that will help them years later.  It also allows them to compare their skills with other advanced students.  It is not for everyone as the student goes to an area high school or college testing center and takes the test along with the seniors and juniors taking it, no exceptions. For some students the experience may be anxiety increasing and I would not recommend it for them.  For others it is not stressful but rather rewarding and some even say fun! Our oldest tried this year and enjoyed her experience and was glad she did it.

When to Start
Everything I wrote above is appropriate to do and should be done with kids from sixth grade on.  I have done these things naturally with my kids since about second or third grade so they have no idea I am giving them test prep skills, it is just another "weird" thing they accept about the way they are educated :)  We don't do all of this daily or even weekly.  It is rather peppered throughout their education from time to time.  In this way I believe it is building natural habits that will serve them well later on.  If you have not started these types of things I encourage you to do so in junior high.

Read the followup post.  Preparing for the ACT or SAT in high school.

March 5, 2012

Growing Up and Letting Go

Some weeks are big in the lives of our children.  This past week was one of those for our oldest.  So many things happened all at once.  Some highs and some lows.  As I walked the journey with my daughter I was just awed by how she handled it all.  With grace and humbleness and with tears and then stubborn resolve.  With determination, with sadness and disappointment, with joy, with passion and with a deeper understanding of herself.

I loved the moments she just needed me to be there with her and know those are going to be fewer and fewer as she builds her resolve to deal with it all herself. I was there to encourage, praise, support, and just hold.  I know after this week I will look at her through a different lens.  I know she grew more all at once this week than she has in a long time.  I know I see something different in her, or I suppose it has always been there just harder for me to accept and see for myself.

My daughter is growing up and she is doing a great job of it.  I suppose this makes it somewhat easier to let go, though that is never the easy part for us mothers is it? Part of me just wants to fight her battles for her but I know the time for that has in general passed and it is her turn to fight them for herself.  Of course I am still here with her and walking this journey but I am slowly learning to hand the reins of control over more and more to her and to step back an watch and support from the sidelines when she comes to me. 

She is facing things now that I can't do for her, fix for her, or even really help her with at all.  I can encourage and support her, let her know I love her no matter what, encourage her and be there to lift her up whenever she needs.  I can not do the things she needs to do, or even understand how she is able to accomplish all she is.  I can not determine her success or failure at tasks she puts so much of herself into.  I can not determine whether it will go well or poorly for her.  I can not make it happen for her as I could in so many areas when she was younger.  I can not protect her from the failures and hurts but I can help her cope with them and get through them.  I can not claim victory for her successes but I can celebrate them with her. 

I can be proud of her and who she has become and is becoming.  I can tell her this and show her love in all her favorite ways and support and encouragement in the ways she needs even if she does not prefer them.  She is growing up and letting go and I am growing and letting go too.  It is both painful and beautiful at the same time. Here is to many more years of growth for us both and may we always be gentle and loving with each other

Kiss those babies!