Monday, March 31, 2014

Memory Boosting Tips

I am a huge believer in "If there is anything you want to remember, read it, then write it,"--over and over until it's memorized. It's how I used to memorize my lines when I was acting. It's how I memorize speeches; it's just how I roll.

Here are some more memory boosting tips--good for strengthening the brain and making learning feel easier.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

SAT Announces Even More Changes. What Does it Mean?

Because I make a third of my living tutoring/coaching for the SAT, people have been asking me what I think about last week’s announcement from the College Board that it is revising the SAT.

I’ve been mulling over what I think because it is a multi-faceted, multi-layered reaction. None of it is bad. I have no complaints. I am sanguine; I accept it. 

My honest first reaction to the news the SAT is getting a major makeover?
Thank GOD they are dumping the essay section!

I say this not because I don’t believe in teaching students how to write essays, but because the SAT essay cannot, realistically, be graded fairly. Almost everyone gets an 8 on the essay--and that tells me the essays aren’t actually being read. At least, they aren’t being read carefully. 

The more carefully I read an essay, the higher the score I generally want to give it, to reward what it did well. 

And yet…almost everyone gets an 8 on the SAT essay. They have a bell curve, a quota, an expectation of two-thirds of writers scoring “average.”

That’s just stupid.

College Board, if you can’t get the essays fairly graded (and no, I don’t think using a robot or software program is the answer, either), then don’t bother making kids write the essay!

Of course, the essay will soon be OPTIONAL, not gone completely. Some people are still going to write it—just like kids who take the ACT often choose to write the optional essay.

The good news is that the essay will be a more sophisticated, response to writing--not just a generic prompt such as "Are heroes important?" Also, students will get more time to write the new, optional essay. Hallelujah--the old, 25 minute essay was an exercise in pointlessness. With more time to think and plan and concrete ideas to respond to, this new, optional essay should be better overall.

My second reaction to the news that the SAT is being revamped:
Thank GOD--this exam may be on its way out.

Note that I say, “may be.” I don’t know if this is the first death throe of the SAT, but I do know people are sick of rampant, high-stakes testing. All these tests are killing true education. 

I sincerely hope that the world will soon be a place where we stop taking these mind-numbing tests; I hope that my own kids won’t have to take them (but I am sure they probably will).   

I say this mostly because I know my own kids likely won’t let me coach them. No one ever wants help from a parent.

As much as I enjoy showing off by acing the SAT and the scores of practice questions I give my students each week (I am 43 years old, mind you, and I have taken the SAT a million times), I also know firsthand that money buys scores on the SAT. 

I mean, money buys coaching. And if you have the time and the money, I can teach you how to get a perfect, or near-perfect score.

If there is one thing I’ve learned over the past few years of intensive SAT coaching, it’s that those who want it badly enough--and, usually, those who are willing to pay for it--can get it. That says nothing about natural brains; it says everything about money, or simply determination.

There’s nothing wrong with determination, of course.

But when more people get perfect scores, then a perfect score becomes less meaningful. We don’t know, anymore, who is really smart, or who just tried really hard or who practiced a very long time.

Does it matter? Maybe it doesn’t.

I see that Khan Academy is offering free SAT prep online. One of my high school students asked me this morning if she should try it (she is only 15). I said sure, go for it. Online courses are effective for students who are motivated, individual learners. Most kids don't fit that bill.

We have known for a while that the new-new SAT was coming. I wrote about it a year ago (quite presciently, I am pleased to report.

The recently-announced changes to the SAT will take effect by 2016. That means my own kids might have an easier test. Or, to use the words of the SAT makers, they could take a test more closely aligned with school curricula.

That sounds fine. I just hope it doesn’t lead to an even-more-boring test. I want the SAT, or any college aptitude test, to measure actual aptitude.

I want to see if the exam can weed out the truly careful, smart readers and thinkers.

Yet, as soon as we know what the new, easier SAT vocabulary words are, we will start teaching those, instead of the other, more obscure ones. There will still be a market for coaching, I expect. Nothing is changing in that regard.

Whether the more realistic, practical vocabulary will prove to be a “dumbing down” remains to be seen. It certainly seems like this will finally be the end of “ennui,” since hardly any students take French anymore, but I really hope not. Ennui is a great word. It’s more than a word; it’s a feeling, a concept. It transcends language, in a way.

I don’t bemoan the difficulty of the current SAT. I don’t mind the hard vocabulary. I don’t even mind the essay. I am not unduly irritated by the ways the exam tries to trick students. I am used to all of it.

The only thing that really bothers me is the lack of analogies, but I am an analogy nerd. I rock at analogies. Why not bring THOSE back, College Board? Just for fun?

It’s not the old days anymore, when the SAT was sort of an  IQ test, when the A in SAT stood for Aptitude (it literally stands for nothing right now. That is not a metaphor; it is a fact. SAT means SAT and nothing more).

College Board is revamping the SAT to make it more like the ACT, because it has been losing market share to a mostly comparable but slightly less cruel, slightly more practical test.

I am not scared, because I also coach (and write) for the ACT, and either I will simply do more of that, or I will no longer have to juggle two different exams.

The SAT is changing, and I will have to change with it, but neither of us, it seems, is becoming obsolete.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

How Do You Say "Satire?"

Russian President Putin Declares U.S. Snowboarder Shaun White a “Pussy” 

for Bowing Out of Sochi Slopestyle Event 
February 5, 2014,
MOSCOW—7 p.m. local time: Russian President Vladimir Putin, upon hearing the announcement that American snowboarder Shaun White had decided not to compete in the Sochi Winter Olympics’ new “slopestyle” snowboarding event because he felt it was too risky, lashed out and called White “that pussy who try to ruin my Olympics.”

“A real man,” continued Putin (translated from the Russian by Ilya Popsacovich), “does not worry about getting hurt. This Shaun White is no real man. Look at his hair for proof.”

White recently had his trademark, long, red locks shorn, but this fact did not deter Putin from saying, “A real man, like Superman, leaps off building and is not afraid. Now, Shaun White says my jumps are too big, like jumping off a building? Bah!” Putin waved his arms dismissively.

The 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics boasts a huge, new slope for snowboarders to show off their tricks and jumps. Massive obstacles have been built into the slope. So far this week, two snowboarders have broken their collarbones, and White injured his wrist.

“All those American are trying to say bad things about Sochi, like toilets have no paper,” said Putin. “Men don’t need toilet paper! Do I use toilet paper? How you say, ‘hell to the naw.’ I have special toilet with warm, pulsating jets.”

Putin continued, “When I am away from home, I use baby wipes, like all the rap stars use. Rap stars are happy to come to Sochi, the site of the most challenging, most manly Winter Olympics ever!”

Strapping on a bulletproof vest, Putin walked out of the Kremlin conference room, calling back, “Tell Shaun White I, Putin, the emperor of Russia, say he is pussy!”

When asked for a comment, White explained that he cannot risk an Olympics-ending injury, and he will, as usual, be competing in the halfpipe event, for which he is the favorite.

“Dude, I got a documentary coming out,” said White. “I got a gum line; I got way too much riding on this. Just because the Russian President thinks it’s not cool for me to say no, I can't worry about that. I have to think of my shareholders.”—Reported by Elizabeth Collins

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Taking a Break While I Write a New Book

Thanks to everyone who continues to read and visit PRETTY FREAKY. I apologize for not posting much at all these past months, though I am glad to see that certain posts remain perennial favorites. I am not sure what to think about my consistent readership despite my not posting, but thank you!

In case you are wondering, I still teach--in fact, I teach more than ever. Teaching has kept me very busy these past few years. I am so busy teaching (college, high school, and tutoring) it can be hard to find time to write.

Besides that, though, the past year has been difficult because of an illness in my family, and that's the topic I am writing about now. I hate to use a pseudonym, but I likely will for privacy matters…anyway, I am working, bit by bit, on that project, which I expect will be a book. I don't think I will blog on this issue.

Also in the works are plans for online lessons. I will charge a dollar or a couple of dollars or something like that for my popular English/writing lessons. All those rockstar, millionaire tutors in Korea can't be wrong (hey, they told me to do this and charge $5, but we shall see).

More on that soon.



Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Symbol of the Horse Chestnut

The horse chestnuts are littering the ground. It's a great time of year.

The other day, I found the spiky whole shells and the half open ones and the glossy chestnuts. I took one of each with me. They are in my car's cup holder--waiting for me to have an opportunity to tell my kids how great these symbols of autumn are.

I adore horse chestnuts.

So did one of my Eastern religion professors at college, Albert Sadler.  

He had a pile of horse chestnuts on his desk. We'd talk about how useful they were.

"They're a beautiful color, and they're nice to touch and hold, and the flowers of the trees smell great in spring," I think he said. 

I agreed.

Professor Sadler used to walk around campus with pockets bulging with horse chestnuts.

He once told me that it was his personal mission to plant as many as he could.

"They were growing; they were saplings, maybe six inches tall," he told me excitedly. "I was watching them from my office window. I was thrilled that I could finally see some chestnuts I planted actually growing into trees."

And then, " come the weed whackers. I watched them go. Ah, well," he said, good-naturedly.

I always thought that was such a Zen thing to say.

This story is one I think about every time I see a horse chestnut.

I am also reminded of Professor Sadler when someone compliments me on my "flawless" Chinese accent (in all honesty, I only know about six or seven Chinese words, but I learned how to pronounce them from you-know-who).

Professor Sadler is dead now, I believe,

But I will always remember him when I see a horse chestnut. 

I think he'd like that.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

"...Struggling to Explain the Concept of a Grapefruit to a Man Who Just Didn't Get It..."

Comedian Aziz Ansari has a great bit on eavesdropping on a conversation in a restaurant, and, long story short (the video clip is below, so I urge you to watch for yourself; it's very funny and only two minutes long), some words and ideas, such as "grapefruit," are hard to explain.

The comedy sketch got me thinking: how do we explain things, and why are our explanations sometimes unclear? 

Almost every little kid has to eventually be told that grapefruit tastes nothing like grapes, and it's a mystery why these fruits were called grapefruit. Unless grapes are also giant, sour, citrus, and yellow/pink, then honestly, there is no rational reason for using the prefix "grape" in the word "grapefruit." It is a ridiculous name for this fruit; the name tells the observer nothing at all, and in fact, the name of the fruit is wildly misleading.

When my daughter was little and asked me, "Why is this called a grapefruit?" I first explained that there is no connection between grapes and grapefruit. Then, I said I thought it was called grapefruit in order to make it sound more appetizing. 

Grapefruit is okay, but it's not the first fruit I'd reach for. How about you? Grapefruit can be bitter and a chore to eat. Plus, it doesn't mix well with many medications (just a little health tip there, but I think it adds to the relative unpopularity of grapefruit--as opposed to apples).

The word "grapefruit" is probably a euphemism--or even a trick, like the way "Grape-Nuts" cereal is called that because this cereal is comprised of very hard, tiny nuggets that don't taste bad but bear a disturbing resemblance to kitty litter. The inventor of the cereal had to print more palatable-sounding (if utterly inaccurate) words onto the box so people would give it a try.

Tricks aside, simply trying to be clear and succinct in our writing is always a challenge. I know that I can be wordy; I can fall back on filler words that ought to be cut--and yes, there must be times when I could be more clear. 

Some ideas are, however,  difficult to explain.

I always come back to Madeleine L'Engle's description of fire in her classic novel, A Wrinkle in Time. L'Engle's main character, Meg, has to explain what "fire" is to strange beings on the planet Uriel that do not share our senses and comprehend life in an entirely different way. Describing fire to them is a seemingly impossible task--and yet, L'Engle does it masterfully.

The point the author is making is that words can be inadequate. I agree, but I'd add that words are our main form of communication, so we need to learn how to use them well.

Still, some concepts have no words. We must appreciate these ideas (or things) for what they are and not try to slap an inadequate label on them. Some ideas are ineffable. Grand, spiritual ideas and even our most basic emotions (such as love or fear) are difficult to explain precisely. We just have to know (and we know through experience, mostly).

I don't believe that grapefruit is ineffable. I think we could do a better job naming and explaining this fruit. 

We should all try to explain a difficult concept in simple words that our listeners will "get." It's a good exercise for writing and for life. Could you explain the concept of a grapefruit? Could you explain the concept of fear? How would you do both of these things?