Rebecca Zook is no ordinary maths tutor.
Firstly, she runs a blog called Triangle Suitcase where she publishes great articles such as How to Help Kids Be OK with Things Being Hard and Could Every School Be This Enchanting (And Sustainable)?
Secondly, she regularly contributes great advice here in the Maths Insider comments and was recently featured in my article 7 Savvy Ideas From Maths Insider Readers.
Thirdly, she’s an online maths tutor, using cool technology to share her love and in-depth knowledge of maths with students around the world.
This is a maths enthusiast you need to meet! Read my interview with Rebecca to find out more.
Meet Rebecca Zook!
Have you always loved maths?
Actually, no! In middle school I felt totally overwhelmed and spent many nights crying myself to sleep over my algebra homework. So when students come to me and they’re really stressed out, I can absolutely relate. I’ve been there, and now I know how to help students move past that place.
Apart from maths, what are you passionate about?
I’m also a musician, and I’ve spent a lot of time learning and performing the music of other cultures where the pedagogy is really different than the classical tradition in which I was trained as a cellist. This made me a much more flexible learner, and had the unexpected benefit of making me a more flexible math instructor.
I also love going on adventures to collaborate with musicians in other countries, learning new languages, eating scrumptious food, reading, doing yoga, and riding my bicycle.
What made you become a maths tutor rather than a teacher in a school?
I really love the challenge of working with individual students to figure out how to get math into their brains. I also really enjoy the one-on-one mentoring that happens when I get to work with an individual student over a period of time.
Who are your mentors? Where do you get your ideas from for tutoring?
When I first started teaching, I got to work with an awesome teacher trainer who taught me how to use a series of questions to walk students through problems interactively. It’s like dancing—you’re always one step ahead of the student, but you’re pushing them to do as much of the work as possible without them really noticing. This approach is still at the heart of my work with students.
Now that I have my own business, I get inspiration from various educators, like Doug Lemov’s book Teach Like a Champion: 49 Techniques that Put Students on the Path to College, Steve Demme’s Math U See curriculum, and Danica McKellar’s series of math books for girls. I talk shop with friends of mine who also teach, and read math bloggers like Sam J Shah and Kate Nowak. And I love following new research on motivation, the brain, human achievement—journalists like Dan Pink, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, and researchers like Carol Dweck and Edward Deci.
How exactly does online personal maths tuition work?
When I decided to start working with students online, I wanted to make it as intuitive and personal as possible.
During tutoring, we talk over the phone or on Skype. We write using a digital pen tablet (that I mail to the student). When students write with the digital pen on the tablet, their handwriting shows up on the computer screen. We see each other’s work by using the pen tablet to write on an interactive online whiteboard. That way, I see what the student writes as they write it, and they see what I write as I write it.
It’s like sitting next to each other writing on the same piece of paper, except we don’t have to be sitting next to each other! (Here’s a quick online math tutoring demo.)
Why do some families choose online rather than face to face maths tutoring?
Most parents come to me for online tutoring because they believe I can help their kid. Sometimes their kid has a unique learning style and they’ve tried tutors in their area but haven’t been able to find one that’s a good fit. Also, parents call me because they see online tutoring as a way their kid can work with an experienced math tutor even if they’re in a rural area or living abroad.
For most students, if the trust and connection is there, whether the tutoring happens online or in person doesn’t really matter. They’re just different ways for students to get the customized help that they need.
Give us your Top 3 pieces of advice to parents looking to support their children’s maths learning.
1) Math is a skill, not a talent. Math is not something that you demonstrate that you “have” or “don’t have”—it’s an ability that’s developed over time with practice. This is the most important thing you can demonstrate to your kid. Tell them it’s okay to make mistakes. Explain that when something feels difficult, it’s just a normal part of the learning process that everyone goes through.
2) Also, if what you’re doing isn’t working, try something different. If a kid has been trying to learn multiplication tables with flashcards and they can’t remember 7×8 to save their life, it doesn’t mean they’ll never get it; it just means it’s time to try a different tactic, like Rockin’ the Standards’ multiplication songs, or building the facts with manipulatives.
Same thing with textbooks—if a textbook really doesn’t make any sense to your kid, try a different one, get a copy of a Danica McKellar math book, or watch some youtube tutorials together. There’s a ton of good math information out there, and there’s no reason to suffer if you’re in a situation where your kid’s not learning.
3) Be patient and stay positive. Don’t take what they don’t understand personally. They might not yet have learned stuff you think is easy or basic. If your kid doesn’t get an explanation right away, try explaining it another way. Ask them to explain the parts they do understand to you. Get out their notes, handouts, textbook and work through some examples together.
Likewise, even if you haven’t added fractions or done long division in decades, be patient with yourself. Don’t be afraid to get in there and re-learn the material. It’s okay to tell your kid that you don’t know how to do it, and then model what to do when you’re stuck. That’s one of the most important skills you can ever demonstrate to your kid!
Which was your favourite piece of advice that Rebecca gave? Would you consider using an online maths tutor? Tell us in the comments below!