Literature Spotlight: Actions Speak Louder Than Words

Ragtime, by E.L. Doctorow, is a story about the American dream. Set in New York during the “period of Ragtime” between the turn of the 20th century and the beginning of World War I, Ragtime tells the story of three different families struggling to find their place in this new America.

Doctorow makes use of an unusual writing style in Ragtime. He eschews the use of quotation marks and line breaks during dialogue, making the visual appearance of the novel one of long, blocky paragraphs. In addition, Doctorow writes the novel in third person from the perspective of not one but all of the main characters, allowing us to see the innermost thoughts and feelings of everyone in the story in turn. The characters have various degrees of name specificity, ranging from simply “Mother” and “Father” to “Sarah” (nobody knows her last name) to “Coalhouse Walker Jr.” All of these stylistic decisions come together to make a surprisingly fluid novel where actions speak much louder than words.

One of the themes running through Ragtime is the begrudging nature of the tolerance given to ethnic minorities during the period. Prejudice is rampant, and often times what someone says is quite different from what they actually think. In such a society, actions are often a much better indicator of a person’s true feeling than their voiced opinions. By removing quotation marks Doctorow downplays the dialogue in the novel, to the point that the reader stops really listening to what the characters are saying and instead looks to their actions to find their motivation. When the firemen antagonize Coalhouse, they do it with pleasant smirks and genteel words that are obviously concealing the disgust and hatred beneath. The minute Coalhouse leaves his car unattended, the firemen set to work vandalizing it and making it unusable. Their actions show their true feelings about him, even when they deny touching the car upon his return. With no quotation marks their statements run together and the reader almost doesn’t notice they said anything at all; their words have no more visual significance than the rest of the narration.

Doctorow emphasizes this effect often by juxtaposing a character’s statements or thoughts with a frank description of their actions. While he does not overtly state the discrepancy for the reader, placing a specific action next to a contrasting comment or thought allows the reader to make that jump for themselves. Father stating that it made the most sense for the Captain to take only his (African-American) manservant with him on the final leg of the journey to the North Pole so that the discovery could be “his and his alone” speaks to the ingrained inequality of the time – having an African-American with you didn’t really count as having another person there. In the same way, the team of Eskimos who helped them get to the pole (and without whom the trip probably wouldn’t even have happened) are seen as not counting either. The group takes a picture at the pole, and it’s described as a group of figures so bundled up that you can barely see their eyes. Doubtless any explorers the Captain would show that picture to would probably completely ignore the other figures and only see the Captain himself.

Ragtime is a beautifully-woven story of different families coming together and learning from one another in an era of change. Doctorow’s writing style makes it surprisingly readable and engaging, and he leaves just enough implied to allow the reader to make the final leap themselves.

WyzAnt Wants to Know: Preparing for your first lesson

“What advice would you give students to prepare for their first session with a new tutor?”

This is a great question! Overall, I think the most important piece of advice I can give is to put some thought into exactly what you want to get out of your tutoring sessions. Many people come to tutoring simply because their grades (or test scores) are low, and they’re hoping that private tutoring can “fix” the problem. Which it probably can, but if that’s all you bring to the table then your tutor has to work that much harder to figure out exactly how to go about helping you.

Before you arrive at your first meeting, spend some time thinking about your classes. Which subjects in school do you feel most comfortable with, and which ones least comfortable? Think over your answers like a detective – what common themes do you see that could be the real root of the problem? Were you easily able to ace an open-ended, discussion-driven English class, but this year your teacher runs class like a lecture and isn’t as open to opinions that aren’t his own? Did you instinctively understand your math class when the teacher used humor to keep you engaged, but this teacher simply drones on and on and you can’t focus on the problems at hand? Do you have trouble with the figures and illustrations in geometry even though you aced the more analytical, linear algebra class? Think about the differences between your classes and see if you can pinpoint what makes it difficult for you to learn. Then bring this information to your new tutor to help them formulate a strategy.

It’s also a good idea to bring a sample problem for the tutor to help you with, just to see how they teach. I always try to work a miniature lesson into my first meeting with a new student, since tutoring is really all about explaining the concepts in a way that the student understands. Everyone teaches differently, and a good tutor should be able to respond to your reactions and explain things in a variety of ways until something clicks. If you like the tutor’s teaching style, you’ll be more likely to look forward to lessons and you’ll get more out of them.

Once regular lessons begin, my top piece of advice is to come prepared, and remember that your tutor is here to help you. If you are unprepared for a lesson, there’s not much your tutor can do. No tutor wants to feel like they’re just there to watch you do your homework. Come in to each lesson with at least one concrete idea of something you’d like to work on – it can be as simple as working through a few homework problems or reviewing for a math test, or talking about a theme in your current English book. If you got a quiz back and don’t understand why you missed a question, bring that in and ask about it. If you just can’t figure out a topic, bring your book and ask for a review. If you want some extra writing practice, ask for some prompts. But whatever it is, ask! Don’t be afraid to be direct about what you want – your tutor is there to help deepen your understanding of the material, so if you’re clear and upfront about what you don’t understand your tutor will know what to do.

And remember, there’s no shame in tutoring – often you find that all you really needed was someone to take the time to explain it differently!

Mathematical Journeys: Inverse Operations, or “The Answer is Always 3”

Four years ago, I posted this math trick on my blog.  Take a look at it, and at the end I’ll show you why it works!


Let’s play a game. I’m going to let you make up a math problem, and I will be able to tell you the answer from here. I can’t see what you’re doing, I’m not even in the same room as you, but I will still be able to tell you the correct answer.

Trust me. I’m a professional. Ready?

Okay. First, pick a number. It can be any number you wish, large or small. Now add 5 to that number. Got it? Okay, now double your new number (multiply by 2). Alright, now subtract 4 from the double.

Next, divide your new number by 2. Now, finally, subtract your original number from this new quotient. Got it? Okay. Here comes the cool part. Ready?

The answer is 3. Nifty, huh? What’s that? How’d I do it? Oh, magic.

Okay, okay, it’s not magic. The answer will always be 3, no matter what number you pick. Let’s illustrate this by writing it out as an algebraic expression.

Pick a number, any number. Since your number could be anything and is therefore a variable, we’ll call it b.

Add 5.

b + 5

Double that.

2(b + 5)

Subtract 4.

2(b + 5) – 4

Divide by 2.

[2(b + 5) – 4] / 2

Now subtract your original number.

([2(b + 5) – 4] / 2) — b

Okay, so let’s simplify this expression and see what we get.

([2(b + 5) – 4] / 2) — b

Let’s get that fraction out of there. Divide each term in the numerator by 2.

(b + 5) – 2 – b

That’s better. Now simplify that.

b – b + 5 – 2

5 – 2


See? It doesn’t matter what number you pick, because the variable cancels itself out at the end. The answer is always 3. Now, go forth and amaze your friends!


This game is a perfect example of the concept of inverse operations. Inverse operations are operations that cancel each other out; what I sometimes refer to as “undoing” each other. Addition undoes subtraction and vice versa, multiplication undoes division. Early in the problem you double your mystery number, and then later on you divide it by two. Those two actions cancel each other out – one makes the number larger and the other shrinks it back down.

In an algebraic equation, you can effectively move a term from one side of the equals sign to the other by performing the inverse operation to both sides. Y = x + 5 becomes y – 5 = x, which can tell you the value of x instead of y. Algebra, at its heart, is the process of using these inverse operations to rewrite an equation so that it tells you the piece of information you want to know.

Ellen’s Choice: Are You Taking the SAT this Year?

Well, the new school year has started, and that means SAT test dates are fast approaching. In fact, the first one is this coming weekend. To anyone taking the SAT on Saturday, good luck! Remember to get a good night’s sleep on Friday!

If you are thinking about applying to college in the next few years, it might be time to schedule an SAT date! Remember, you can retake the test as many times as you need to, so don’t be afraid to schedule an early date.

Also, remember that the big SAT Redesign will be kicking into effect in the Spring of 2016, so if you are in the class of 2016 you may want to start your testing early, to make sure you have time to retake the current style of test and not have to relearn everything for a completely new test the following year.

This semester’s SAT test dates and registration deadlines are as follows:

October 11th – Registration ends September 12th
November 8th – Registration ends October 9th
December 6th – Registration ends November 6th

I still have tutoring openings available this season. The SAT is not a test of the material; it’s a test of how well you take the SAT, so I highly recommend that everyone get at least a few private sessions in to discuss strategies and develop an individual game plan. Feel free to contact me if you’re in need of some help this semester!

Writing Rundown: Three Things Your Spell-Check Won’t Tell You

Computerized spell-check can be a handy time-saver when writing papers, and many students swear by it. However amazing it may be, though, spell-check is still just a computer program, and as such should not be considered a substitute for proofreading with human eyes. As evidence, here are three common mistakes that spell-check won’t catch.

Proper Nouns
Spell-check uses a dictionary to compare the words you type to existing words. Proper nouns, like names of people or places, usually won’t be in the computer’s dictionary, and so the spell-check will flag them as misspelled. This means that when you proofread, you’ll have to ignore the wavy underline under those names. But this can also backfire – what if you happened to misspell that name? The computer will underline it same as before, but your brain is already prepared to ignore underlining on that name so you run the risk of not catching it yourself. This is one reason I advocate actually printing out a hard copy of your paper and proofreading it old-school, with a red pen – you won’t have any spell-check markings to distract you, and you’ll be more likely to catch that misspelled name.

Homophones are words that sound alike but are spelled differently. Common culprits for this category include assent versus ascent, affect versus effect, and which versus witch. The key here is that all of these words are spelled correctly, and your spell-check doesn’t have any way of knowing which one of them you meant. Some programs have a grammar check tool as well, but these programs can’t really catch context-based errors. Take the first example above. Do you mean assent (a statement of agreement) or ascent (a climb up a mountain)? Both are nouns, so their usage in the sentence would be similar. Your grammar check tool has no idea whether you are writing a legal document or a mountaineer’s biography, so as far as the computer is concerned, either one could be correct.

Typos that Convert One Word to Another
I recently read a book that was obviously proofread by a computer rather than a human, and the way I knew that was the presence of many errors of this type. Remember, a computer spell-check is only looking for words that aren’t in its dictionary – so if a typo causes one word to become another, your spell-check won’t catch it. An example from this book was the misspelling of “rib” as “rig.” Rig is a word, so the computer didn’t catch it. For that, you need a pair of human eyes.

The overall theme with these mistakes is the computer’s inability to discern context. Spell-check is there to make sure that you’ve spelled your words correctly, but it has no idea what you’re really trying to say and cannot fix things that don’t involve misspelled words. This is one of the reasons that I advocate students not rely on their spell-check – in much the same way that I encourage math students not to rely on their calculators. The computer doesn’t know the context – you do. Print out your paper, grab a red pen, and read through for errors without the computer around. Asking a friend to proofread your paper is also a good strategy – someone who hasn’t been staring at the same paragraphs for days will be more likely to notice the mistakes that your brain has learned to gloss over.