Renee Mazer is trying to help high school students get into good colleges — by teaching them silly songs and cheesy poems.
Mazer is the creator of “Not Too Scary Vocabulary!: For the SAT and Other Standardized Tests and Success in Life,” a boxed set of CDs (or audio tapes) aimed at beefing up students’ semantic skills. Using playful mnemonic devices and slang-studded stories, the discs teach hundreds of words that often appear on the Scholastic Aptitude Test. By presenting the words in a manner that’s easy to absorb and remember, Mazer said, she can help raise students’ scores on the verbal section of the SAT. And that can help turn a hapless Ivy League reject into an ebullient Harvard freshman.
What’s Mazer’s secret? She’s never dull.
With energetic and rambunctious delivery, she sings original, comic songs to explain such words as “paucity,” “clemency” and “atrophy.” She includes a quiz titled “Are You Romantic?” in the CDs’ accompanying booklet to see if students can tell the difference between a supercilious love letter and an effervescent one. And here’s the poem that Mazer uses to teach teenagers the word “abashed”:
Would you be abashed and have your hopes dashed
If you tried to get to first base
And the other person laughed in your face?
Would you be abashed?
“If I told my students to get any vocabulary book out there to use, they would buy it and not use it because it was so boring,” said Mazer, 42, who has been an SAT tutor for 15 years. “But when I would teach the material myself, I would make it more interesting, and their scores would go up dramatically.”
“Not Too Scary Vocabulary,” which is now in its third edition, has sold more than 20,000 copies since its debut in 2001, and Mazer claims that people who use her program have seen their SAT scores improve by an average of 80 points; she offers a money-back guarantee if a user’s scores don’t improve.
Mazer grew up in a Philadelphia household that was not outwardly religious, although she is directly descended from two famous rabbis born in the 1700s: Leib Sarah, a disciple of the Baal Shem Tov, and Levi Yitzhak, who helped spread Hasidism to Poland and served for 25 years as the main rabbi in Berdichev. Despite a lack of strict religious observance, Mazer’s family instilled in her a strong sense of Jewish identity and a connection to her Jewish roots: “Culturally, I was extremely Jewish,” she said. Today, Mazer does not consider herself religious in the traditional sense, although she does send her two sons to Jewish day schools.
When Mazer was in high school, she was tutored for tests. She learned firsthand which techniques were effective. Later, during her studies at the Wharton School of Business, she was looking for a part-time job to make some spending money, so she decided to try sitting on the other side of the desk as an SAT tutor, putting her experience to work.
Mazer went on to earn a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania. She worked as a lawyer for 10 years, including a three-year stint at the Environmental Protection Agency, and she taught college courses in sociology and psychology. But she continued to tutor on the side.
Mazer stopped practicing law a few years ago and made helping students prepare for the SAT her primary focus. In addition to selling “Not Too Scary Vocabulary,” Mazer continues to coach some students personally. While her apparent goal is to raise students’ test scores, Mazer sees her mission more broadly.
“I’m definitely doing a good thing for society,” she told the Forward. “I can’t even tell you how many parents and students write and e-mail me to say that ‘Not Too Scary Vocabulary’ has made a huge difference in their lives. You can change a person’s life by proving to them and their family how smart they really are, especially for a kid who ever knew it. It’s extremely rewarding.”