Ellen’s Choice: Applying my rules of Effective Time Management to the SAT, Part 3: Mix and Match!

Ellen’s Rules For Effective Time Management, Part 3

5. Mix up your subjects.

Spending all day working on the same project can lead to feelings of frustration and inadequacy. Mixing up your subjects helps the brain to stay engaged, since it can’t fall into the trance of working on the same thing for hours. If you’re writing a paper and starting to feel annoyed or frustrated with it, take a break and work on your math for a bit. You’ll sit back down to the computer feeling refreshed and relaxed, even if you haven’t stopped for more than fifteen minutes at a time all day.

6. Make the delineations between subjects clear and firm.

When mixing up your subjects, keep them distinct and separate from each other. Take a short break between subjects, or place the rest of your notebooks on the other side of the room so that you’re forced to get up and move around in order to change subjects. Give your brain several minutes to clear and reorganize for the next subject before you dive back in.

The same goes for organization—if you’ve got six subjects all sharing the same notebook, use dividers or get a five-subject spiral notebook to keep them all separate. If you use a three-ring binder, be very picky about where you put your notes. Take a few minutes at the end of each day to sort through your notes and handouts, punch holes in anything that needs it, and arrange them in the correct places in your binder. Keep everything you need for a certain subject in one place. It’ll only take a few minutes per day, but you’ll be rewarded with a much more manageable notebook and far less time spent sifting through loose-leaf paper looking for the prompt for your essay or that one sheet of notes about summations.


These rules apply to the SAT too, though they now apply differently since the SAT’s 2016 Redesign. Before the redesign, the SAT was comprised of nine short sections that alternated subjects between math, verbal, and writing. That format synched up nicely with rule #5, keeping you on your toes by shifting subjects frequently. Not so with the new SAT. Now it more closely resembles the ACT, with one longer section for each subject. So you can’t really mix up your subjects in the same way, rather, you should be practicing staying focused for a solid hour of question-answering on a given subject.

Rule 6 still applies, though, because you will still need the ability to switch subjects quickly. Generally you are given between 2 and 5 minutes’ break in between sections on the SAT, and you’re often not allowed to leave the testing room during that time. So it becomes extremely important to learn to clear your mind quickly and reset for the next subject. Close your eyes, take some deep breaths, whatever you feel you need to do to let go of the previous section and recenter your mind for the next one. If you can, get up and walk around the testing room (or out in the hall if you’re allowed) for a minute or two; shaking the kinks out of your body helps to clear your mind. Try a quick observation exercise – see how much you can see, hear, smell, or feel about your surroundings. Opening up your awareness will help to get you out of the test for a moment. Try not to get too distracted, though – you’ll want to rest your mind while you can and prepare for the next section.

Stay tuned for part 4: Procrastination Sucks!

Ellen’s Choice: The Problem with Banning Books

Since Banned Books Week happens in mid-September each year, I’d like to talk today about the problem with banning books. Last year, my Bring Your Own Book club’s topic for September was to read a banned or challenged book. We had a great discussion during our meeting about common threads in all of the books we read, common reasons why books get challenged, and how that relates to the education system in general. One of the things that kept coming up was that often, the reason the book was challenged is the entire point of the book itself – of course it deals with that; that’s the main theme of the book! Whether it’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Looking For Alaska depicting kids smoking, drinking, and doing drugs, or it’s The Giver depicting a fundamentally broken society masquerading as a utopia (psst – that’s the definition of the genre – it’s a dystopia!), or even a gorgeous picture book called “And Tango Makes Three” telling a true story about a pair of male penguins who raised an orphaned baby penguin, people who challenge books often seem to miss the whole point of the books they want to ban.

Often when people want to ban books, their reasoning is that the book is ‘unsuitable for the age group,’ which seems to be code for “I don’t trust my kid to understand the nuances of this issue.” Other common reasons to challenge books include quote-unquote “adult themes” (often along the lines of drinking/smoking/drugs, gambling, nudity, sex scenes etc.), and these are even more likely to be the issue if the book centers around teenagers – heaven forbid we depict teenagers smoking outside the school building or drinking underage at a party!

But here’s the thing – literature is at its best when it forces the reader to confront uncomfortable subjects and ponder hard questions. That’s especially true of books for young readers; in my opinion we should be encouraging students to read books that will challenge their conceptions and get them to think hard about their own opinions. The crux of the issue here is that, yes, for the most part we all agree that these underage behaviors are bad – but there’s no denying that they do take place. My argument against banning books is essentially the same argument I have against abstinence-only sex education – if we simply remove all evidence of these activities from existence, we eliminate the chance to have important discussions with students about the ramifications of those activities.

As an example, take Looking For Alaska by John Green. This boarding-school story has been challenged many times, and usually it’s due to a single graphic sex scene in the middle of the novel. John Green has spoken about his rationale for including this scene several times. For just one example, visit his YouTube channel, “Vlogbrothers,” and search for the video titled “I Am Not A Pornographer.” He points out in this video that the language used during the scene is very cold, clinical, unemotional, and the participants barely know each other and their connection doesn’t develop any further in the rest of the story. He contrasts that scene with the scene immediately following it, where there is no physical intimacy yet the emotional bond shared between the characters is powerful and heady. His reason for including these scenes back-to-back is to show that physical contact is not necessarily the end-all be-all of romantic relationships, and that two people can share a closeness purely out of emotional connection even without physical intimacy. In John’s own words, “Looking For Alaska is arguing against vapid physical interactions, not for them.”

If you leave Looking For Alaska in the school library (or, better yet, include it in a curriculum!), you can use it to start a group discussion on these themes and explore them further with the very population you’re concerned about, encouraging them to think critically about the difference between physical and emotional intimacy and make reasoned decisions about how to incorporate both into their own lives. It seems to me that most of the worries people have that lead them to want to ban books could be solved by simply talking to their kids about the realities of the depicted material. Conversation is always better than censorship.

Ellen’s Choice: Applying my Rules for Effective Time Management to the SAT, part 2: Break Time!

Ellen’s Rules for Effective Time Management, Part 2

3. Know when it’s time to take breaks.
Spending a good chunk of time on one subject is good; it helps you settle into a rhythm and lets your brain get into the correct frame of reference for the subject. But there exists a horizon beyond which no progress can or will be made. It’s the point at which your brain has become over-saturated with the current material, and if you continue on you’ll just end up working yourself into circles of frustration. In paper writing, it’s the point at which anything you wrote would make sense to you regardless because you’ve been reading the same few paragraphs to yourself for hours. In math, it’s the point at which you will just end up confusing yourself more and more as you try desperately to work it out. When that moment arrives, you know it’s time to take your break.

I don’t care how much work you have, there’s always enough time for a fifteen-minute break. The trick is making sure that that fifteen minutes doesn’t turn into two hours. Stick to your schedule, take your breaks when you need them (and take one every couple of hours even if you don’t think you need one), and you’ll stay refreshed and energized much longer.
And on those days when you’re fortunate enough to have plenty of time to finish something, take advantage of the time to take more breaks. Feeling confused about that one paragraph in your paper you can’t seem to get right? Stop writing and go take a walk. Let your mind forget completely about your paper for an hour or so. Then come back and you’ll have a much better idea of how to progress. Sometimes, especially with paper-writing, you just have to give it time to process.

Once again, these rules apply to studying for standardized tests just as much as any other subject, but with a slight twist. My rule of thumb for studying for a standardized test is to simulate test conditions as much as possible as often as possible during the studying process. For a standardized test, this often means timed drills. Before the big SAT redesign of this past year, the SAT was comprised of nine sections averaging 30 minutes each, which meant practicing staying focused for 30 minutes and then quickly switching subjects. After the redesign, though, it works much more like the ACT, with fewer sections that are much longer, keeping each subject confined to one section. Now, the strategy is to practice maintaining concentration for an hour at a time. Take the first of the two points above. That horizon beyond which no progress can be made? We want to train that horizon to happen after the section is over, not in the middle of it. So practicing with a timer, noticing when your personal point of no return is, and adding just a few problems each successive time can help to extend your concentration past the end of the section, when it’s okay to stop thinking about it.

The second of those two points is important as well, though once again, on test day you don’t get to choose when you take breaks. You’ll be given a short break, possibly two, between sections at a predetermined time in the test. Training yourself to shrug off the previous section and start the new one with fresh eyes is important, because strictly speaking you’d want to take more breaks than the test allows you. Learn to give yourself a tiny break, even if it’s just five seconds with your eyes closed, to help re-center in between sections on the test. Even within a given section – if you’re one of the lucky ones who doesn’t struggle with finishing in time, that gives you more time to take mini-breaks. Take a moment between passes through the section or after a particularly daunting problem to shake it from your mind. No use dwelling on question 13 when there’s 45 more of them and you won’t get any new information from mulling it over and over.

Stay tuned for part 3: Mix and Match!

Ellen’s Choice: Applying my Rules for Time Management to the SAT

Way back in 2010, one of my first blog post series on WyzAnt took the form of a five-part series on rules for effective time management.  For the next few Ellen’s Choices, I’ve decided to go back through these rules and apply them to the world of preparing for the SAT (or any standardized test).

So let’s begin with Part 1: All-Nighters Are Evil

Ellen’s Rules for Effective Time Management

1. Never pull an all-nighter.
2. NEVER pull an all-nighter!

Seriously! I mean it. All-nighters are downright useless. Besides the fact that this concept breaks almost all of my other rules for effective time management in one go, all-nighters cause fatigue, stress you out, and just end up producing sub-par work. You can’t write well when you’re tired, and staying up all night studying just means you’ll be yawning all the way through the test the next day. If you haven’t learned the information on the test by the night before, you’re not going to learn it in one fatigue-inducing night of sleep-deprived cramming. If your paper isn’t written by the night before, then it’s not going to be a good paper, regardless of how late you stay up to finish it. Moreover, even if you do manage to retain something, depriving your brain of the rest and reorganization that sleep provides means it will be that much harder to recall it during the test when you need to. Bottom line is, your brain works best when it’s well-rested, so don’t deprive it of the one thing it needs to help you succeed.

This rule works well for prepping for any standardized test. Many times I’ve had a student come to me saying, “I’m taking the test next weekend and I just realized I need help!” Unfortunately, standardized tests don’t function like regular school tests, and just knowing the material covered won’t necessarily get you the score you’re looking for. To really do well on a test like the SAT, you need to know how to take the test itself – strategies and tricks for pacing yourself and figuring out the desired answer even when you don’t know the material in question. And to get used to those strategies and tricks, you need to practice. Prepping for the SAT involves leaving yourself enough time to practice taking the test repeatedly, so that you can analyze your performance and figure out where to focus your efforts to increase your score. If you haven’t gotten to your target score by the night before your test date, cramming won’t change that. In fact, most SAT prep books mention this specifically, recommending that you take the night before the test to rest and refresh yourself with something you enjoy – go see a movie with friends, have a nice dinner out, read a good book. Just don’t stay up too late; you need to get a good night’s sleep before your early test date the next morning!

Stay tuned for Part 2: Take Breaks!

Ellen’s Choice: What If You’re Not Supposed to Enjoy Reading It?

At a conference in town earlier this year, I presented several panel discussions centering around the difficulty of defining and quantifying art. Our discussions in these panels got me thinking about literature, and how one of my main points could apply equally easily to much of the literature that students read in high school. The point in question is this: one of the defining characteristics of art, in my view, is that it is something that creates an emotional response in the viewer. Experiencing it changes you in some way.

This is easy to see when the emotions are ones we generally see as ‘positive;’ if a play makes your heart swell with hope for the future, or a ballet duet makes you flush with the excitement of new love, or an epic novel makes your heart race with anxiety over the safety of the main characters, it’s easy to argue that those works are art and have changed you. But what if the emotions you experience are more negative – what if a novel bores you, frustrates you, or drives you nuts? For many high school students, it can be hard to recognize that even if your reaction to the work is boredom or frustration, the fact that you’re having a reaction that strong means that the book is affecting you deeply – and it’s probably intentional on the part of the author.

Here are a few examples of what I mean:

Waiting For Godot, by Samuel Beckett

Waiting For Godot is a play where nothing happens. Literally. The entire play concerns two characters, Estragon and Vladimir, who are waiting by a single scrawny tree for the arrival of someone they refer to as ‘Godot.’ They have various aimless conversations, run into a few odd characters, and at one point spend a good three pages of stage directions trading three hats between the two of them. Reading the play straight through is interminably boring, as you might expect. Many a high school drama student has been tortured with this play, as they groan and read through yet another pointless conversation about whether they were supposed to meet Godot here or somewhere else, today or yesterday.

The important thing to remember while reading (or watching) this play, though, is that this boredom is completely intentional. The play is an exploration of waiting, and the kind of non-events that suddenly become very important when nothing else is at stake. When you’re stuck in one place with nothing to do but wait, you can see how it might become immensely important to figure out who should wear which hat or exactly how far away you should stand from the others – anything to avoid dying of boredom.

In fact, I recall hearing a story once about a group of prison inmates who read this play and had it resonate so strongly with them that they self-produced it and performed it for the rest of the prisoners. Why? Well, it’s a story about waiting – while incarcerated, that’s pretty much all they were doing. It spoke to them on a much more personal level than it might speak to the average high school literature student. Beyond that, though, it can also be seen as a commentary on the non-committal nature and essential cowardice of mankind, particularly in the repetition at the end of each act:

ESTRAGON: Well, shall we go?
VLADIMIR: Yes, let’s go.
[They do not move.]

After spending an entire act waffling non-committally about what they should do, Vivi and Gogo finally decide to leave – forget waiting for this man, he’s never going to come! And yet…they can’t do it. They can’t leave even after they’ve decided to go. How many of us have experienced this failure of will before in our lives? It’s universal. And how many of those prison inmates do you think spent their days dwelling on past decisions, cursing their own cowardice? Sure, it’s boring, but it’s a very human kind of boring.

That’s a lot to chew on for a play about nothing, eh?

The Good Earth, by Pearl S. Buck

I remember HATING this book when I read it in high school. Finishing each chapter of homework was a slog – it was one of the only times in my school career that I had to force myself to keep reading through my interminable boredom. And then – I recall one night, midway through our unit, I suddenly finished the whole thing, reading the entire second half of the book in one sitting. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but re-reading the novel a few years ago with one of my students, I suddenly realized what had happened: the boring slog of the first half was entirely intentional!

The Good Earth follows the life of a Chinese farmer, starting just before the revolution and beginning with the purchase of his wife from a wealthy merchant. His life for the first half of the book is boring and cyclical – it is entirely governed by the harvest seasons and his wife’s yearly pregnancies. It is justifiably dull, as the life of a farmer would be. Standout events in his life – a good harvest, a lean year, an upsettingly-ill-timed pregnancy – seem meager and uninteresting to our modern-day imaginations, but to him they are his whole world. And then, in the middle of the novel, the revolution happens. Things start to take off – he finds an abandoned store of wealth and becomes a wealthy merchant. Intrigue. Arranged marriages. Bigger houses. The cycle is broken. And in the final scene, we see a repeat of the opening scene, only this time, he is the wealthy merchant and another poor farmer has come to purchase a wife from him. The cycle begins again, but our protagonist has a new place in it. No wonder I read the entire second half in one sitting – that was the exciting part of the cycle! What better way to prime the reader for the breakneck pace of the second half of his life than by exposing them to the boring cyclical stuff first?

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

I remember reading The Great Gatsby in high school and having misgivings about it. I wanted to like it, I really did, but I kept finding myself hating each and every character. I couldn’t get into their excitement, share their joys, because I found them so frustrating. Even the young ingenue Daisy, who I genuinely expected to like, turned out to be vapid and careless and thought little of the consequences of her actions. Looking back on it now I realize that once again, that was the intention! You’re not supposed to like any of the main characters – the idea is that they are completely undeserving of their wealth and prestige. It’s a commentary on the faultiness of the idea of the “American dream;” the people who supposedly are living the dream are thoroughly unlikeable and leave a bad taste in your mouth.

Looking back on my own high school literature classes, I find myself wishing my teachers had impressed upon us the idea that not all books are written to entertain you, and you can be bored, frustrated, or upset by something in a novel and still see the merits of the novel itself. Sometimes those negative emotions are what the author intended to bring out in you, and in the process of trying to articulate why you’re experiencing them you can learn something valuable about the work as a whole.

Ellen’s Choice: When The Story Affects The Book

I’m a huge fan of the novel structure known as epistolary, where the story is told through primary sources such as diaries, newspaper articles, or letters back and forth between characters. Bram Stoker’s Dracula is one of my favorite examples of epistolary, as the mystery is heightened by Stoker’s clever choices of whose diary to show at which point in the story. Epistolary form allows the author to strengthen the reader’s immersion in the story by allowing the story itself to influence the final form the novel takes. Leave off a character’s diary in a tense situation where he’s about to go do something dangerous and stupid, with the cry “Goodbye all!” and then cut to someone else’s diary for the next hundred pages, and you leave the reader begging to know what happened back there – did he make it out? Why are we not reading more of his diary? Is he okay? Tell me please!

I recently finished another epistolary novel that has quickly made it onto my list of great examples of the craft of writing – one I think everyone should read. It also takes the prize for longest title of any book I’ve read. The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume I: The Pox Party is a young adult novel written by M.T. Anderson. The Pox Party tells the story of a young boy growing up in a scientist-philosopher’s commune in revolutionary-war-era Boston. The first half of the novel is all from the boy’s perspective, and feels like a relatively standard first-person narrative with the exception of the fact that it begins with the statement “Drawn Primarily from the Manuscript Testimony of the Boy Octavian”. Already the epistolary format is working its magic, albeit subtly. Manuscript Testimony, eh? Why is Octavian writing this testimony – what happened that he needs to testify about? Is he testifying for the defense or the prosecution? He alludes several times to some kind of looming tragedy that he didn’t expect at the time, reinforcing the reminder that he’s producing this story as a testimony. The wheels are turning in the reader’s head, trying to piece the puzzle together ahead of the narrative and worrying over the possible outcomes they’ve imagined.

And then, in the middle – everything changes. I don’t want to go too much into it, because it blindsided me completely and was extremely effective that way and I don’t want to spoil it, but something happens that renders Octavian unable to continue to write. This plot point causes real changes to not just the story, but the book itself. The story so far has been told through Octavian’s manuscript, after all, so what happens now that he cannot continue his writing? The resolution of that question makes the second half of the novel a completely different reading experience and drastically heightens the dramatic tension. I’m sorry to be so vague here, but the surprise was part of the effect for me and I don’t want to spoil it. Suffice it to say that the story affected the book in a very real way, and I’m still thinking about it a week later. I highly recommend it.

Ellen’s Choice: The ‘Best’ Book?

At BYOBook Club last month, we were discussing possible topics for the final meeting of the year. Someone suggested “The best book you’ve read all year,” which seemed to be well-received in the moment as an option. Since I’m participating in the Reading Challenge this year, I set myself the goal in January to read 50 books over the course of the year. (Right now I’m on book 45, so I’m right on track.) So I started thinking about it, talking with friends about how to choose a ‘best’ book, and I’ve realized that’s a trickier question than I expected.

For one thing, how do you define the ‘best’ book? The one you enjoyed the most? The one you’re most likely to re-read? The one with the most well-crafted story? The one with the most interesting setting? The one you’re most likely to recommend to a friend, regardless of genre or other interests? The best nonfiction vs. best fiction? What about the one you’re most glad you read?

This is a tricky question, to say the least, and with 44 contenders for the title of ‘best’ book read this year there’s no way I can narrow it down to just one. So here, in my own sort of mini-Academy Awards for books, are my picks for best books I’ve read this year – for varying definitions of ‘best’:

Most Enjoyed – TIE: The Lotus War Series by Jay Kristoff, and The Gentlemen Bastard Series by Scott Lynch

I really have to apply this one to these two series as wholes – by far the most fun I had reading this year was while reading the first two entries in each of these series. I love Scott Lynch’s writing style and his characters, and I love Jay Kristoff’s setting and the smart way he handles the teenage protagonist’s insufferable crush on a boy she just met. Both of these series are just really enjoyable reads, the kind where you can’t put the book down because it’s just so GOOD!

Most Likely to Re-Read – “The Lies of Locke Lamora,” by Scott Lynch

While we’re on the subject of the Gentlemen Bastards, the first entry in the series needs to take this category as well. I feel like this is a book I could just dive into over and over and enjoy over and over. Fortunately, the series has around 8 installments, so I can read new ones for a while, but once it’s over, I will definitely be back for multiple re-reads. I love the premise, I love the setting, and I love the characters. The story is absolutely perfect given those three, and always keeps you guessing. It reminds me of one of my favorite TV shows, Leverage, but with young priests of the god of thieves. In fact, one of my favorite quirks of the story is the spirituality of the main character, since whatever else he may be, he is still a priest with a code of ethics that shapes his life.

Most Well-Crafted Story – “Before I Fall,” by Lauren Oliver

While I’m not generally a fan of mostly-realist YA set in high school, I really loved ‘Before I Fall’. The basic premise is similar to the movie ‘Groundhog Day,’ but with a popular girl in high school. She dies in a car crash at the beginning of the novel, and then has to repeat her final day over and over until she figures out how it was supposed to go down and orchestrates it to happen that way. She still ends up dead at the end, of course, but she is able to change the day’s occurrences to fix a lot of other problems in an incredibly selfless act that finishes her character arc out beautifully.

Most Interesting Setting – TIE: “Kinslayer,” by Jay Kristoff, and “A Darker Shade of Magic,” by V.E. Schwab

This one has to be a tie again – two different fantasy books blew me away in terms of setting. Jay Kristoff’s steampunk-dystopian-feudal Japan with insectoid clockwork atmosphere-suits and chainsaw-katanas is cool enough, but in the second book he shows us more of the world than we’ve seen yet and introduces such crazily inventive things as lightning-collecting towers and cultist zombies that flay off your skin and tattoo their histories on it. Meanwhile, Schwab’s worlds are intricate and distinct, from the coat that can be turned inside out multiple times to the thick, tangible nature of the magic and the way the characters can sense the presence of other magic-users nearby.

Most Likely to Recommend to a Friend, Regardless of Genre – “The Book Thief,” by Markus Zusak

This is just a beautiful book, one that everyone should read. It doesn’t matter if you don’t think you like YA, or if you aren’t a fan of historical fiction – read this book now. Yes, it’s a bit of a downer, but it’s a beautiful downer. I honestly don’t want to give away too much more about this one – just read it for yourself.

Best Nonfiction – “Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation,” by Bill Nye

How can you go wrong with Bill Nye? Seriously, though, I really appreciated the effort Nye puts into getting across the expansive nature of evolution as a theory. It’s about much more than just the origin of life, and this book really brings that point home. It’s careful not to disparage anyone’s viewpoints, it just brings up all the non-creation-related reasons why evolution has proven itself to work as an organizational theory. Nye’s writing style is informal and approachable, and full of quirky humor that fans of his show from the 90’s will have no trouble recognizing.

Most Glad To Have Read – “The Long Earth,” by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

I was devastated to hear about Terry Pratchett’s death this year; he’s always been one of my favorite authors. I was overjoyed to find a book of his I hadn’t read yet, and I loved getting to see what he did with a setting that wasn’t Discworld. It’s a bit quieter and more serious than the zany pogo-stick that is Discworld, and I really enjoyed getting to see that side of him.

Ellen’s Choice: Meet the Zoombinis!

I had a burst of math-fueled nostalgia earlier this week when I found out that one of my favorite ‘edu-tainment’ games from my childhood has just been re-released for modern systems, and I’d like to take this week’s Ellen’s Choice to tell you about it.

Allow me to introduce the Zoombinis.

“The Logical Journey of the Zoombinis” was a PC game back in the 1990’s that combined surprisingly challenging problem solving with adorable animations and catchy music to create an incredibly memorable experience. In the game you serve as a guide for the Zoombinis, a peaceful, fun-loving race of little blue creatures who need to escape persecution by traveling to a faraway utopia called ‘Zoombiniville.’ You guide the little guys in groups of 16, leading them through four different legs of the journey, each of which contains obstacles in the form of three different logic puzzles you must solve to get them past. As you get better at the puzzles the difficulty gets harder, so that it continues to be a challenge all the way through to the end (not that there really is much of an end; it can keep going until you’re out of Zoombinis in the starting area, and even then you can just make a new game or switch to ‘practice’ mode and keep puzzling!)

The Zoombinis have 5 options each of four different facial features (hair, eyes, noses, and feet), allowing for a multitude of different possible appearances (625 possibilities, to be exact!). Identical twins are allowed, but only two Zoombinis across any given play-through can share the same exact makeup, so you have to get creative. Roughly half of the problem-solving puzzles make use of this fact by involving various kinds of sorting and common-element algorithms, and part of what keeps the puzzles fresh is that each new group of 16 has very different characteristics in its makeup – you have to keep adapting your strategies to fit your current group. The puzzles are themed around comically-engaging premises, like stone guardians that only let certain kinds of Zoombinis through, an innkeeper who’s very picky about where everyone sleeps in her inn, or (one of my favorites) the Pizza Party, with three discerning tree trolls demanding very specific pizzas.

I loved Zoombinis as a kid and still had vivid memories of it, so when I heard it was re-released, I immediately plunked down my money and downloaded a copy. (It can be found on the App Store and Google Play, and their website says that desktop and Kindle Fire versions are coming a little later in the year.) And let me tell you – it’s gorgeous. They took the exact same designs from the 90’s version and painstakingly updated the graphics to use modern vector technologies (a la flash animation) without changing the designs at all. They re-used all the original music, voiceovers and sound effects – starting it up I had a sudden rush of emotion as the dialogue all came back to me, exactly as it was when I was little.

And you know what impresses me the most? It’s still an awesome game – even as an adult. I was concerned that since it was a game designed for kids, it might be too easy for me as an adult, but never fear – I spend just as much time yelping in frustration now as I did then! I love puzzle games, and I truly believe that getting kids interested in problem-solving is really important – a lot of my math tutoring turns out to be more about basic logic and problem-solving skills than actually doing math itself.

As an adult, I can see the places where Zoombinis mimics certain types of logic puzzles, cleverly camouflaged to fit in with the story. Remember I mentioned earlier that some of the puzzles make use of the range of possible combinations on the Zoombinis themselves? As an example, in the middle of the game there’s a puzzle where the Zoombinis need to hire a raftsman to pole them across a river. The raftsman is very picky about how they sit on his raft – each Zoombini must share at least one common feature with everyone he sits next to. It’s basically a sorting algorithm, and as the difficulty increases, the orientation of the seats on the raft shifts to give each Zoombini more and more neighbors to match with. As a kid, I remember solving this one by hacking the system – you can personalize your group of 16 Zoombinis exactly how you want it, so I used to make sure everyone in my group had one thing in common (they all had sunglasses, for example). If everyone shares one feature, they don’t have to worry about where they sit! I tried that after downloading the new version, and it still works, but now it feels a bit like cheating. So I’ve been having the game make random sets of 16 for me, and practicing my sorting skills by dealing with whatever distribution of features I get.

I highly recommend getting yourself a copy of this game, whether you enjoy puzzles or cute animations or even just cheesy dialogue spoken by a way-too-excited narrator. It’s a shining example of how learning can be fun, and how infusing learning into a game can get kids (and grown-ups too!) excited about the concepts involved.

Oh, and if you do get it, stick your tongue out at the Fleens for me!

Ellen’s Choice: Real-World Geometry

On Friday my TV broke.

Kind of a bummer, but we’d had it for many years and it was time for it to go. Now we needed to get a new one, so we headed out to the store. In the process of our search, we realized that our old TV was at the extreme smaller end of the TVs they now sell, so we were going to need to buy a bigger one. We found one we liked, that was only slightly bigger than our old one. The big question, though, before we plunked down our hard-earned cash, was this: would it still fit on our entertainment center?

Our current TV was sold as a 40-inch model, and the one we liked was 43-inch. However, TVs are measured across the diagonal, not the width, so we needed to know what the actual width would be. My hubby got out a tape measure, and I got out a pencil and paper. He measured our 40-inch TV across the diagonal and found that 40 was actually just the screen size; the full diagonal with the frame was 42.5 inches. We knew the new one’s frame was no larger than this one, so we rounded it up to 3 extra inches and made the diagonal of the new one 46 inches – better to over-estimate than under-estimate. Hubby then measured across the width of the old TV and found that it was 36 inches. The question then became: how wide is the new TV?

I immediately realized that this was a similar triangles problem – TVs are rectangles, which means that the diagonal is the hypotenuse of a right triangle, and they all have the same proportions these days since everything’s in wide-screen. So I drew up two right triangles, labeled the sides accordingly, and set out to write up a proportion:

36/42.5 = x/46

I cross-multiplied:

42.5x = 1656

And then divided by 42.5:

x = 38.965

To find that the new TV would be ever-so-slightly shy of 39 inches across. Hubby measured the entertainment center and found that it was 41 inches across, so we’re safe!

I point this out for those of you who think you’ll never use any of the math you’re learning after you finish school. Math is everywhere, and having the ability to decipher a word problem and the techniques to follow up on it will help in all kinds of unusual situations. In fact, during the process my hubby pointed out that I could use the Pythagorean Theorem to figure out that third side of the TV, and I responded that yes, I could, but I actually don’t need to. I have two sides of the triangle and a corresponding side of the new one, and that’s all I needed to figure it out.