About Jill Di Donato

Jill Di Donato is a writer and educator in New York City. Her debut novel, Beautiful Garbage about the New York City art scene in the 1980s is available on Amazon. She is an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Liberal Arts Department at the Fashion Institute of Technology and teaches fiction and nonfiction workshops in Barnard College's Pre-College Program. In 2006, she founded Brooklyn Bridge Tutors, a holistic approach to learning that bridges individual student tutoring, student advocacy, small writing salons, parent seminars, as well as expert guidance in the middle, high school, and college entrance process. As a learning expert with pedagogical training from Columbia University's School of the Arts, Jill has over 10 years experience in student advocacy and offers a holistic approach to learning. What does that mean? She will work individually with a student to diagnose his or her learning style and tailor an approach that meets each student's needs. She uses a mindfulness practice to help students alleviate academic anxiety, and has piloted writing programs that activate agency through the discovery of voice. Her services include subject tutoring, (fluent in private and public school curriculum grades K-12) essay writing support, standardized test preparation, (state tests in math and ELA, ISSE, TACHS, SSHAT, SAT I and II, ACT) study skills, school entrance support, as well as mind-body strategies to relieve academic anxiety. She is an expert in working with students with learning differences and disabilities, and maintains strong relationships with parents, school administrators, psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, and community outreach programs.

We’re Back (and in the news) Just in Time for Back-to-School: Check Out Our Article In the Huffington Post

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Whether you’re starting middle school or your sophomore year at college, the phrase “back to school” is laden with anxiety. The first word of the phrase, “back,” connotes a return, the forceful act of embracing routine. Fresh starts, clean slates — all of these ideas are awesome in theory, but in practice, take effort. It’s one thing to be fresh and clean, and a whole other to stay fresh and clean. So much of the back to school anxiety comes from the pressure to keep up the momentum that comes with the new school year, so full of potential. It can be a time for growth, which also presents students with its antithesis — the fear of failure. (Failing can actually make you stronger; it’s fearing failure that trips us up.)

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So how to deal with school anxiety? Do homework! The very root of school anxiety can be solved by taking a proactive stance in the most simple way. By turning homework into an exercise to actively fight anxiety, students can not only find academic success, but also personal growth and self-determination. So many of my students have a hard time standing in their own accomplishments because they put intolerable pressure on themselves to succeed. When they achieve a goal they feel only a temporary sense of relief, rather than pride. Anxiety is such a terrible monster because it’s always lurking beneath the surface, poised to disrupt the upward flow of progression at any time.

That’s why time management remains a steadfast homework skill. By breaking down work into manageable tasks, students teach themselves how to structure time. I tell my students as they are reading a passage or analyzing research, to get a sense of what ten minutes feels like doing this type of thinking. When you continue this work for, say, 30 minutes, what does that feel like? Being mindful of learning skills punctuates the process in a way that reduces anxiety by increasing the student’s sense of agency. So many times, doing the work takes much less time than you anticipate it will — because avoidance is a form of anxiety.

And, guess what? There’s an app for that. Digital flashcards like gFlash+ or note-taking apps like Notability and Papyrus are available for the tech-savvy student (or child of tech-savvy parents) to accommodate the lives of tweens and teens who get a sense of ease and comfortability with technology. If they’re peer-sharing information via digital media, who cares, as long as learning is taking place.

But old school egg timers work just as well. Not all students are tech savvy, and they’re doing just fine. Tried and true learning practices don’t rely on innovative gimmicks. When a student sets a time limit to achieve a certain task, and then he or she reaches that goal, there is a momentary feeling of success. Students should take these moments as sparks of positive reinforcement to keep moving forward.

Students should work at a designated work space while doing homework.Ideally, this is any place but the bed. Education pioneers like Maria Montessori have documented the value environment plays in learning. Students should assess what environmental factors determine optimal learning, by taking a learning-style quiz.

To work efficiently, schedule breaks into a homework plan. Balance is key, and knowing there is a limit to time spent on homework is essential. Just as important is penciled-in relaxation time, which usually comes upon completing a task. Parents should try as hard as possible to let students take homework plans into their own hands. Study plans build agency, but only when they come from the students themselves.

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[Students Only: Get Organized a.k.a. Spring Cleaning]

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You might be tempted to roll your eyes when your parents tell you to clean your room — but the truth is, chaos breeds chaos, and order breeds clarity. Having a clean and clutter-free study space will help you focus (I could cite studies here, but it’s logical, right?)

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At the same time, keeping track of assignments, organizing notes, filing old papers, quizzes, and tests, lining up textbooks, and cleaning out your schoolbag(s) has many practical purposes:

  • You will feel more in control of your schoolwork. Greater agency will lead to empowered learning.
  • If you are behind on assignments, you will know exactly what assignments you are behind on. Only then can you develop a plan for catching up. Organizing your work is the first step in catching up if you are behind.
  • Organizing is a practical results-oriented task. There will be  direct, positive results from organizing your work. VOILA! Guaranteed satisfaction. Start small and develop your own system. Do what works for you. This small step will propel you forward.
  • If your school is tech-friendly, chances are your assignments are on your computer: they can be organized on a folder (or one of many) or an online system. I’ve heard horror stories of computer crashes, deleted files, viruses, and mysterious tech versions of the dog eating your homework. So, back up your work. Seriously. Get a flash drive for each subject. Or, print out assignments (prompts and your work) and keep them in a binder. Call me old-fashioned, but holding your work in your hands can often give you a sense of pride in your efforts and achievements.

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  • Organizing can help you celebrate your accomplishments. Stop and re-read your teacher’s comments on that fantastic history paper. Reflect on what made your paper so darn good. Then file away your paper (where you can find and access it), to give it the respect it deserves: hey, it’s the product of your hard work. You deserve to pat yourself on the back.
  • Organizing can also help you face your disappointments. If a grade on your algebra test has you feeling down, burying that test in your school bag isn’t going to help matters. In fact, pretending that no-so-terrific test doesn’t exist will most likely add to your shame and embarrassment about a not-so-terrific grade. You have to get over it. Look over your mistakes with your teacher or tutor and see where you went wrong. Make corrections whether you get credit for them or not. Then file that test away as well. We all have things in our “binders of life” that we’re not so proud of, but facing them makes us brave and ready to take on the next challenge.
  • It’s really not that hard to get organized. In fact, you can make the experience pleasant by doing it with a friend, blasting your favorite music, or enjoying some much needed time alone. What makes getting organized difficult is when we procrastinate getting organized. Avoidance is a form of anxiety. But we can easily tackle that nagging dread by just doing it. Trust me, this is a relatively painless exercise that can garner positive results.
  • Organize regularly. The key to being organized is to do it consistently.

Personal Qualities Not Measured By Tests: Thank You, Maria Montessori

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Maria Montessori, the educator, physician, innovator, feminist, and mother of the Montessori child-centered method of education is an influence on my holistic approach to learning. One rudimentary Montessori philosophy includes creating a learning environment that stimulates active learning (for more on active listening click here) and community building. How do you do this? As parents, you might think this means covering your child’s walls with posters of multiplication tables or the quadratic formula. Sure, that might be helpful, but that’s not exactly what Dr. Montessori had in mind. To create an environment that stimulates active learning, tap into your child’s interests. Find ways to use those interests (dinosaurs, ballet, rap music, photography, gardening, drawing) as motivating forces. Inquisitiveness breeds empowerment, and the more a child can discover the interconnectedness of the world, the more apt he or she will want to engage with it in a meaningful way. In practical terms, create a safe, empowering, and, yes, “cool” study environment for your child, whether he or she is 6 or 16. Trust me, even adolescents will appreciate the gesture, (though they might have more of a say into creating a study space than a six-year-old).

As test season is upon us, here are a couple of principles to bear in mind: these are principles that are valuable human qualities that standardized tests do not measure. Fill your child’s study space with reminders of these qualities. Perhaps you can create a craft project with your child or use refrigerator magnets to spell out these words to remind young people that the following qualities have just as much value (if not more) than the SAT word of the day:

CREATIVITY, CRITICAL THINKING, RESILIENCE, PERSISTENCE, HUMOR, EMPATHY, SPONTANEITY, RESOURCEFULNESS, CURIOSITY, MOTIVATION, RELIABILITY, LEADERSHIP, ENTHUSIASM, SENSE OF WONDER, HUMILITY 

Cartoon by Dave Walker

Cartoon by Dave Walker

If you need to speak your child’s language, add a hashtag. #justdoit and remember the power of words (hey, I still love encouraging texts from my parents).  These signifiers, or reminders, will reinforce how much you believe in your child or adolescent, who has so much to offer the world.

 

 

 

The Body-Mind Connection Boosts Learning (And Makes Life More Fun)

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In my work with children and adolescents, I practice techniques to draw on the powerful and proven connection between the body and mind (see The American Psychological Association article for information on coping with stress and how to manage it for tips to boost mental and physical health). How we treat and inhabit our bodies can vastly improve mental functioning (and vice-versa) — from how we approach study habits to dealing with the mental stress of school, testing, and being a child and adolescent in today’s accomplishment-driven culture.

Some skills I incorporate into my practice (and encourage students to do on their own) include:

  • Deep breathing
  • Positive imagery exercises
  • Healthy sleep, exercise, and eating habits
  • Being physical and having fun with our bodies (exercise, play)
  • Getting in touch with sensory awareness
  • Breaking down academic successes and reliving them (we tend to remember the failures more than our triumphs)
  • Finding the connection between thoughts, emotions, and body changes (such as headaches, stomachaches, and back pain)
  • The power of positive thinking to inspire new perspectives

“Some people grumble that roses have thorns; I am grateful that thorns have roses.”
― Alphonse KarrA Tour Round My Garden

Here’s a sample sensory awareness exercise I’ll assign students to help activate mindful thinking, and build upon their powers of observation:

  • On your route walking to school or an after-school activity (usually a route that you girl-blowing-dandelionare so familiar with you are probably preoccupied with your own thoughts while walking it) and instead of focussing on your thoughts, concentrate on noticing the details of your surroundings. What are the sounds, smells, sights you encounter? Do these sounds, smells, or sights make you think or feel anything? What? Parents can help guide younger children through this exercise. The result: mindfulness emerges, and we will become more in tune with immediate experiences rather than dwelling in distracting thoughts.

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Breaking News! College Board Announces New Changes to the SAT

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Today, the College Board announced some MAJOR changes to the SAT. Starting in spring 2016, the new SAT will:

  • Have three sections: Evidence-Based Reading and Writing, Math, and the Essay.
  • Return to the 1600 scale. The essay will provide a separate score. For about a half a century, the SAT had a math and reading section, each scored from 200 to 800. Then in 2005, the College Board implemented a new writing section, introducing a perfect score of 2400. Now the test will go back to a 1600 scale.
  • Be approximately three hours in length, with an additional 50 minutes for the essay. The precise time of the exam will be affirmed through research.
  • Be administered both in print and by computer in 2016.
In addition, major changes to the exam include:
  1. Relevant words in context: “SAT words” will no longer be vocabulary students may not have heard before and are likely not to hear again. Instead, the SAT will focus on words that students will use consistently in college and beyond.
  2. Evidence-based reading and writing. Students will be asked to support answers with evidence, including questions that require them to cite a specific part of a passage to support their answer choice.
  3. Essay analyzing a source: The essay will measure students’ ability to analyze evidence and explain how an author builds an argument to persuade an audience. Responses will be evaluated based on the strength of the analysis as well as the coherence of the writing. The essay portion of the writing section will no longer be required. Two major factors led to this decision. First, while the writing work that students do in the reading and writing section of the exam is deeply predictive of college readiness and success, one essay alone historically has not contributed significantly to the overall predictive power of the exam. Second, feedback from College Board member admission officers was split; some found the essay useful, many did not. The College Board will promote analytical writing throughout their assessments and instructional resources. The organization will also sponsor an awards program modeled after the Pulitzer Prize for the best student analytical writing. The Atlantic magazine has agreed to publish the winners.
  4. Math focused on three key areas: The math section will draw from fewer topics that evidence shows most contribute to student readiness for college and career training. The exam will focus on three essential areas: problem solving and data analysis; the heart of algebra; and passport to advanced math. Students can study these core math areas in depth and have confidence that they will be assessed.
  5. Source documents originate from a wide range of academic disciplines, including science and social studies: The reading section will enable students to analyze a wide range of sources, including literature and literary non-fiction, science, history and social studies.
  6. Analyzing data and texts in real world context: Students will be asked to analyze both text and data in real world contexts, including identifying and correcting inconsistencies between the two. Students will show the work they do throughout their classes by reading science articles and historical and social studies sources.
  7. Founding Documents and Great Global Conversation: Each exam will include a passage drawn from the Founding Documents of America or the Great Global Conversation they inspire — texts like the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist Papers and “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
  8. Scoring does not deduct points for incorrect answers (rights-only scoring): The College Board will remove the penalty for wrong answers — and go to the simpler, more transparent model of giving students points for the questions they answer correctly. Students are encouraged to select the best answer to every question.
Finally, the College Board also announced that low-income students will receive four waivers to apply to college for free (The College Board already sponsors free waivers to low-income students to take the SAT)A full test document example, which will include sample items, will be available April 16, 2014. For more information on the new redesigned SAT, CLICK HERE and … stay tuned! 
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The Debate Over Standardized Tests

testing toolsWhether you are pro or anti standardized testing, you or your child are going have to confront them. They are a part of our education system, and since the NCLB (No Child Left Behind) Initiative, their value in our education system has skyrocketed. Whether you’re a third grader prepping for a state wide assessment exam, or a professional gearing up for the GRE, when asked to perform on a standardized test, you are essentially being asked to “think within the box” (or bubble). Standardized tests are a beast of their own: they require not only that you access retained information, but can decode a question, process it, use critical reasoning to find an answer, switch from topic to topic effortlessly, all under pressure to perform.

Proponents of standardized testing argue that “teaching to the test” is not so terrible, as it keeps teachers on track and committed to making students motivated to excel in a goal-oriented fashion. In this way, “teaching to the test” can also easily identify what areas a student needs to work on in a definitive way. And lastly, performance anxiety is a part of life, one that we will all have to face eventually, and standardized testing is one way for young people to practice excelling under stress. Students can also learn to manage the stress they experience under these conditions rather than let it control the entirety of their scholastic testingexperiences.

On the other hand, detractors of standardized testing argue that test performance is not an accurate, and certainly not holistic measure of learning. NCLB is more about policy making than it is about a commitment to education and the empowerment that comes from learning, thinking critically, the ability to ask rather than answer questions. “Teaching to the test” might have temporary effects in a student’s performance, but is not a reliable way of measuring academic growth. (As an aside, I think within “teaching to the test” there are various methodologies to explore aside from rote learning and regurgitating facts — but that’s another post!) We just have not figured out how to use test-based incentives to improve education (which is the goal of education based policy making). There is also much to be said for the objectivity of standardized test questions (meaning that questions are not in fact objective) and even with appropriate accommodations given to students with learning differences, uniform questions do not address the complexity of learning styles.

Given all the pros and cons of standardized testing, one thing is clear: a test cannot measure some of the most valuable learning skills like empathy, creativity, resourcefulness, integrity, and critical analysis. Testing relies on the notion that there is a right and a wrong answer, and while that may be the case with many situations in life, there isn’t always an absolute truth. Low test scores can damage a student’s self-esteem and create a poor self-image, especially the younger we start mandating tests. However, testing can also build resilience, teach students how to reason under pressure, perform under stress, focus, and complete a task. There’s no easy answer to this debate, but there are solutions on how to approach standardized tests.

  • Preparation is key.
  • Organization and methodical study habits can be motivational.
  • Manage the importance you or your child put on testing.
  • Separate how you think about learning and achievement.

If you are seeking accommodations DO NOT WAIT, before filing the appropriate paperwork — whether that means an IEP report or private testing from a neuropsychologist. In order for the Board of Education or private testing board, like the College Board, to grant accommodations (like extra time, having questions read aloud to students, a computer and or scribe) students must have a track record (with the appropriate paper trail) that precedes the test date.

 

 

 

 

SAT Study Guides: Apps & One Cool Book

Acing the SAT … there’s an app for that. No, really, College Board has a question of the day Twitter account you call follow to give your social media a little more substance.

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Available on iTunes, is a new SAT Math app by Michael DeRosa featuring digital flashcards that focus on learning concepts rather than memorizing information. Find over 2,600 question combinations here.

Also available on iTunes, is the English vocabulary app by ExamBusters with over 1,000 common SAT words. Find synonyms, antonyms, sample sentences and parts of speech.

But are apps as effective as taking pen to paper? My two-cents, you want to overload your brain with as many ways to study and learn information as possible. If you’re an auditory learner, apps may be the way to go (in addition to taking as many practice tests as possible, and working with a tutor). If you are a tactile learner, perhaps you might want to make your own flashcards. Take my learning style quiz and figure out what kind of learner you are. You can never be too prepared for standardized tests, and although you may dread studying, the more prepared you are, the less you will experience anxiety. Remember, avoidance is a form of anxiety, so the more you procrastinate and put off studying, the more anxious you are making yourself. If apps can help you get into the study groove, why not give them a try? But don’t rely on them.

I also recommend this cool not-your-everyday SAT study guide, written by my colleague, writer, former tutor, and Bonobo enthusiast, Elliot Schrefer, Hack The SAT for strategies and sneaky shortcuts on how to up your score. 51WrSpr2Q0L._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_

 

UPCOMING SAT TEST DATES: March 8 and  May 3, 2014 Register Now!