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let’s get off the seesaw (false dichotomies)

May 21, 2012 13 comments

I find myself hearing certain talking points frequently in the world of advocacy, and I think I have some pretty reasonable responses.  Since I can’t be in every single one of your meetings or discussions, perhaps it would help if I shared.  Let’s try one…

The issue is a legitimate one, which is the importance of serving gifted kids’ “social-emotional” (which is what educators use instead of “psychological”) needs.

This applies to adults, too, by the way.  There is a lot of kerfuffle in the world about whether gifted adults exist (we do!) and whether we also might have psychological needs (yep!).  So please don’t assume I’m only talking about kids.  It’s just that in advocacy situations, it typically is a bunch of grownups arguing about how to deal with kids, and it’s easier for me to use that language.

I’m very sensitive to implied frames (if you want to read more about that, try the writings of George Lakoff or Drew Westen), and this one is important.  The metaphor is that of a seesaw — academic-intellectual needs are on one side, social-emotional needs are on the other.  But a seesaw is a zero-sum game: the more you serve one type of need, the less you serve the other.  That is, we cannot meet a kid’s academic-intellectual needs without sacrificing their social-emotional needs, and we cannot meet a kid’s social-emotional needs without sacrificing their academic-intellectual needs.

If you accept this metaphor, you will always lose.  Face it, you’ve accepted being in the position of saying, essentially, “I don’t care about my kid’s psychological well-being.  I just want him to win a Nobel Prize.”  You are playing right into the image of the crazed Kumon parent (anyone besides me notice that the kid face in their logo looks distinctly miserable?).  You are convincing the educators that they are right, that they need to save your vulnerable child from your demanding, and perhaps abusive, parenting.  Even if you acknowledge that some academic needs might need to be sacrificed so that the kid doesn’t commit suicide before proving the Goldbach Conjecture or curing cancer, you’re still accepting the frame that the one of these can exist only at the expense of the other.

Side note: while I would be the first to agree that some parents do take things way too far and do push their kids too hard, the overwhelming majority of the time when I’m sitting with parents and educators considering this problem, folks are actually going too far in the other direction in their attempts to avoid it.

By becoming aware of our implicit frames, we can step outside of them.  I don’t agree with the seesaw.  Except at the extremes, social-emotional needs and academic-intellectual needs are not a zero-sum game.  They are tied together.  We meet them at the same time, by doing the same things.

One of the most important social-emotional needs of every human is to experience and overcome meaningful challenge.  Every human.  Gifted humans included.  It’s just that school often does not provide meaningful challenge for gifted kids the way it routinely does for kids closer to the middle of the curve.  Wouldn’t you agree that an appropriate curriculum would be one that would enable a kid to develop self-efficacy, which is the fundamental building block of self-esteem?  You wouldn’t want to deny a kid the opportunity to develop self-esteem, would you?  I sure wouldn’t.  Glad we can agree on that.

Another one of the most important social-emotional needs of every human is to connect with real peers, people who can get your jokes, who can understand what it’s like to be you, who share similar experiences, who can support you and you can support them.  Gifted kids are just like everyone else in that regard, too.  For typical kids, though, if you randomly pick a bunch of other kids with a similar manufacture date (thanks to Ken Robinson for that phrase), you’ll stand a pretty good chance of finding similarity of experience and interest.  Go outside the realm of the typical in any way, and manufacture date is no longer your best bet for finding real peers.  We take it as given that people who have a particular disease, or who are in a particular cultural minority, or who have a particular gender or sexual identity, might want to flock with other birds of a feather without being accused of looking down on everyone else.  We tell heartwarming stories about those connections (particularly when they’re things like summer camps for kids with disabilities).  No one is rejecting the notion that it’s good to interact with a wide variety of people.  Of course it is.  But it’s not normal to give kids access to only one or two other likely friends (usually of the cootie-bearing gender, as gifted kids are spread around most thinly and “fairly” in most schools).  We normally give typical kids in school a lot of possible friends.  Why wouldn’t we do that for gifted kids, too?

Let’s think about what experiences friends in school often share.  Um… the experience of being in school?  Doing that work, having that teacher, you name it.  But if twenty-nine kids experience, “sweet teacher who gives tricky work that I can work hard on and do it pretty well,” and one kid experiences, “teacher who doesn’t know that much about genetics and has never heard of Doctor Who and whose work is trivially easy and who thinks everything I do is awesome even when I know for a fact that it’s terrible,” (more on that and the development of pathological narcissism in another post) that’s not a shared experience.  Does that kid ever call a friend to work on the homework together (one of the major bonding experiences of school-bound people)?  No, they just get called when someone needs them to act in loco educatoris (more on that and social isolation in another post, too).

So get off the seesaw.  One of the most important social-emotional needs for gifted children is, just like everyone else, to have real peers with whom they share real serious academic-intellectual challenge.  Now that we all agree, let’s talk about how to meet that need.

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hello excuse me, can you tell me where I am? (introducing yourself or your child)

September 6, 2011 11 comments

It’s the start of the school year, and we’re all agonizing over it… how to introduce our kids (or ourselves!) to the new teachers, professors, administrators, supervisors, managers, you name it.  And it feels deeply uncomfortable at some level… we don’t really know where we stand and already we’re trying to change something about it.

I have the same problem.  I have been staring at the “Parent/Guardian Information Sheet” for my younger child, Laughing Boy, for six days now, and I know I really need to finish filling out the part where his teacher asks what my “hopes and dreams” are for my child this year in first grade.  Last year I felt like we successfully pulled off “Operation Do No Harm” with half-day kindergarten, but this year is for real.  Laughing Boy is a great kid with tons of little boy energy and little boy sweetness (if I do say so myself), but I’m worried about whether he’ll be understood, challenged, mislabeled, ignored, suppressed, or something else.  I’m guardedly optimistic (the teacher has three male children of her own, plus a dog, and a good reputation from older sister Little Bird’s male friends’ parents), but it’s just hard for me to answer, “What are your hopes and dreams?” with something other than, “I hope the dream doesn’t turn into a nightmare!”

And I’m lucky — my kids aren’t markedly twice-exceptional, just gifted and intense.  When there’s some actual, “Um, I really need you to know about this,” aspect to the situation, as with many of the folks I work with (and even with myself as an employee or supervisee!), it’s even trickier.  “Maybe if I say something, then it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy — perhaps I should just say nothing and hope the teacher doesn’t notice, maybe the kid will be okay this year.”  “Maybe they’ll think I’m one of Those Moms.”  “Maybe I should give them a few weeks to get to know each other before trying to have ‘the Talk.'”  But of course, that trick never works.  Some time soon, usually before Thanksgiving, but the longer it takes the worse you know it’s going to be, they call you, and then you know it’s going to be bad.  By that point, they’ll have already noticed, they’ll have already been suffering in silence thinking that you didn’t think there was a problem or that you’re going to freak out or get them in trouble with their boss if they don’t handle you correctly, and building in up in their minds just as much as you’ve been building it up in yours.  We all do this.

Okay, enough denial.  So what do we say and when and how?

“When” is easy.  Not at Back to School Night — teachers are very stressed out and trying to manage all of the logistics.  The only thing you want to do there is introduce yourself warmly (so they know you showed up!) and say something positive.  If what you need to talk about is something that can wait a few weeks, you can let it wait a few weeks and see what they do.  If it’s something that’s going to need immediate understanding, then I would advise asking the teacher when you could have “just a few minutes, nothing formal, I just wanted to tip you off about some stuff before we get too far into the school year.”

Now on to “what and how.”  Here’s a basic outline of a proactive introduction to someone’s, er, quirks.  Replace quirk descriptions to fit your situation.  (I’m going to alternate genders, sorry all you English teachers.)

0.  Fredwina is really excited about RitzySchool, and so are you.  You want to make sure that this is going to be a positive experience for her.  In the past, she has had some problems, and you want to make sure we’re all on the same page so that there are no misunderstandings, so that we can all work together, and so that we can head off any issues before they get big.  (Hear all that nice friendly collaborative language?)

1. When he does the stuff he’s been doing that has been creating problems in other situations… Give a couple of short examples, such as, “She wants to make friends with other kids but isn’t sure how to approach them, so sometimes in the past she has gotten too much in their faces,” or, “He’s really excited about learning something new and gets so into it that he forgets that he needs to let other people talk,” or, “She has a lot of ideas but struggles to get them out in writing and really gets stuck on classwork or homework,” or, “He has finished his work and his hands are so eager to be busy that he tends to stick peas up his nose,” or whatever.  Frame them positively in terms of what the child’s motivation typically is, and realistically in terms of what the behavior is.  The goal here is not to give the worst-case scenarios, but to give the person some sense of what they might observe and misinterpret and to let them know that you’re not in denial.

2. … it’s not because he’s a bad or wilful or nasty or lazy or dumb kid.  Neither is it because you’re a rotten or clueless parent.

3.  She’s doing those things because she is well-intentioned, but really does struggle, really is confused, really does have a hard time remembering what the rules are, etc.

3a. If the kid has a diagnosed or strongly suspected disability, say so.  Most professionals (especially in schools, perhaps less so in camps and various paracurriculars) will have heard of many of the major players (Asperger’s, ADHD, anxiety, etc) that are often in the news.  I know, you worry about the label.  But without the label, the kid gets different labels — “obnoxious,” “willful,” “disrespectful,” and worse.  Remember that helping professionals tend to do best when we evoke their compassion and their desire to be good at helping.

3b. If the kid presents differently from the way most kids with that label present, say so, in a way that respects the teacher’s experience.  “A lot of times, people don’t realize what’s going on because he has put a lot of work into learning how to compensate.  But it’s still very much a work-in-progress for him.”

3c. If the “disability” is that the kid is gifted and you’re concerned that she may be frustrated (never say “bored” — it tends to be viewed as if you’d said, “I think you’re a rotten teacher with a stupid curriculum”), it’s a bit tricky.  I don’t think it’s productive to frame high intelligence as a disability, unless you happen to be in a public school in one of the few states that treats giftedness as part of the larger special education umbrella.  This conversation is not one in which political theory is appropriate.  But you can say things like, “He is a curious and eager learner, and it’s sometimes hard for him to manage his frustration when he’s not able to feed that.”

3d.  If you aren’t comfortable with your own ability to explain the issues, try bringing one, maybe two at the most, short articles written for a general audience.  But my experience has been that this is not the moment to give them paperwork, much less homework.  Your goal is to establish a relationship with this helping professional.  (If people have particular articles they like, feel free to suggest them in comments below… I will put up a few I have suggested in the past to clients with various issues.)

4.  He is bright and highly motivated.  When he isn’t sure what to do, he tries to do something that makes sense to him — it’s just sometimes the wrong thing.  Wry gently-self-deprecating laughter helps a lot here, because you want to communicate that…

5. You are aware of the issues and you have been working on them on an ongoing basis.  If you had a formal evaluation done, say so.  If there has been any professional intervention, say so.  You don’t need to give details, just, “He’s been working with a therapist for the last year or so, and we’ve found it very helpful,” or, “We had a comprehensive evaluation done about two years ago.”  (And be prepared to share the report or sign a release to have them chat briefly with the therapist, even if you don’t think they’re going to follow through.)  It shows that you’re serious about dealing with the issues you’re talking about and that you’re not expecting the person you’re speaking with to create miracles or to tolerate everything forever.  I often find myself saying, “She didn’t get this way overnight, and it’s not going to all be fixed overnight either.”

6.  But, of course, all professionals who work with kids this age have seen plenty who aren’t perfect in their ability to avoid nasal pea-stuffage or whatever, and you know that experienced professionals like them probably see lots of other kids who need a little extra guidance to make sure that the day runs smoothly.  This should not sound sarcastic and you should not think of it as sarcastic.

7.  You absolutely would like to be informed if there are any concerns or bumps in the road.  You want to present clear and consistent messages to him about what is okay and what is not okay, and you want to be supportive of the professionals.  This is key.  You. are. their. partner.  You’re not going to get all defensive if they call you and say, “Fredwina had a rough day.”  You’re going to talk with them and problem-solve.  What you don’t want is something I’ve seen way too many times: “We have been having problems with this all year and now we’re completely fed up, and by the way your child is not welcome back in our school / has failed the entire course / etc.”

8.  If there are strategies which are particularly effective or ineffective, share them.  In particular, I’ve found that school folk tend to react to most stressful situations by trying to control them, telling the kid what to do in a louder and more directive way and brooking less and less delay before expecting immediate compliance.  (Bad combination with most kids I know, especially the gifted kids — they tend to respond to these attacks on their autonomy by trying to, er, reassert their autonomy.)  Instead, say what does work:  “Recognize that he’s not trying to be oppositional, so if you can remind him gently to stop and think things through, that often works.  He responds best to a warm coaching style.”  “She sometimes forgets what the rules are, but if you ask her a question that reminds her of the rules, even better if you let her use a cue card we can send in with her, that really helps, and we’ve found that she learns better if we get her to be the one who remembers.”

9.  Invite them to preview their own concerns — how they could imagine the issues you described playing out in their own environment, and what approaches they have found helpful in the past in similar situations with similar kids.  Validate each other’s concerns and each other’s experience — you know a lot about your kid, but they also know a lot about kids in general and may in fact have quite a lot to bring to the table.  If they don’t, let them save face anyhow.  Don’t worry about proving anything to them or being right.  Your goal is to evoke the helpful problem-solving response and to validate that effort, regardless of how effective you think it’s going to be.  They may seem not concerned enough right now — don’t worry about it.  If the call in a few weeks is, “Wow, Mom, I thought you were overexaggerating, but you really meant it!”  you and the professional can share a laugh and then get on to problem-solving together.

The entire conversation should be no more than five minutes — ten at the absolute maximum — and should be warm and friendly on both sides.

If you get a nasty, intolerant, push-back, maybe-he-shouldn’t-be-here response, which I certainly have seen happen in some instances (but honestly, is much rarer than most of you are probably assuming!), recognize that a professional who cannot tolerate having the above conversation with you in a calm and productive way probably could not tolerate having any conversation about this topic in any calm and productive way.  If they cannot cope with that conversation, then chances are good that nothing you or I or anyone else could have done would have improved the situation.  And that is not useless — you have now learned something important which you’re going to take into account in your planning.

Do your best, let the professionals do their best, and recognize that none of these relationships will last forever.  If some of these experiences are going to be more about helping your kid learn to tolerate people who aren’t themselves very good at their jobs, then fine, that’s still an important learning experience.

And now I’m going to finish filling out that paperwork for Laughing Boy.

bubble, bubble, toil and trouble… (multiple choice exams)

December 23, 2010 24 comments

I hear a lot, particularly around late fall / early winter, about students who have a particular difficulty with multiple-choice exams, like the SAT, ACT, GRE, and so on.  I personally think bubble tests are nearly always worthless in terms of telling us anything we actually want to know about a kid (it is possible to create a really good multiple-choice exam to explore real understanding of content and mastery of higher-order thinking skills… but it is extremely rarely actually done).  Unfortunately, they are a fact of life for students.

Sometimes, bright kids are like me — I cordially despise these tests, but I’m very good at them.   Always have been.  Even when I haven’t actually learned the content (in fact, especially so, since I have a terrible memory for the kind of isolated facts these tests so often rely upon).   I consider them something of a competitive sport.   But very often, “bubble tests” are a bright-to-gifted kid’s personal nemesis — “I understand it all, but I just can’t get things right on the stupid test!  I can’t remember the nitty little details and I can’t decide what answer they think I’m supposed to give and it’s all just awful!”

Neither the research literature nor the professional lore would support the idea that some people should be diagnosed with 315.9 Learning Disorder, Not Otherwise Specified, Cannot Take Multiple-Choice Exams.  Typically, if a kid (or adult) has persistent problems with bubble tests, one or more of several things is going on…

Test anxiety:  These tests tend to push an already-slightly-anxious person’s buttons.   The pace tends to be very rapid (in the realm of one minute or less per question), the stakes tend to be perceived as high (will you get into such-and-such program?), there are more wrong answers than right answers but they’re all pulling at you… eek!  According to the inverted-U hypothesis (aka the Yerkes-Dodson law), overly-high levels of arousal tend to decrease performance.  Moderate levels of arousal are good (see below under EF/ADHD), but if you get too buzzy, you end up crossing the line into freaked-out, and no one can concentrate well or do their best when they’re freaked out.

Lack of test savvy:  While I don’t think there’s any value to the kinds of apocryphal loree. kids like to rely on (“if you’re not sure, choose C”), it is worth recognizing that these tests are written by human beings.  Your goal is not actually to get the right answer.  Your goal is to think like the writer of the test questions, to see the underlying question they’re trying to ask, to spot the trick they’re trying to lead you into, and to choose the answer they want you to choose.  This is absolutely a learned and learnable skill.

Executive functioning problems (including ADHD):  Most often, the kids with ADHD are impulsively choosing the first “pretty-good” answer they see, or they drift off before reading the question thoroughly and carefully considering all possibilities.  Many of them have a hard time keeping their arousal level high enough to stay focused, keeping their focus on the task, and maintaining a working tempo that will let them finish in time.  Note also that kids who aren’t getting enough sleep will also typically struggle with these things.   Coffee can sometimes help… but it’s not as good as having the brain properly rested in the first place.

Issues with speed and pace: This is properly a subset of “executive functioning” above, but it’s something that a lot of folks have trouble with specifically on this kind of test, even when they don’t have trouble with it in real life.  Timed test-taking is itself a skill.  It is difficult to maintain the pace and rhythm needed to get the whole thing done.   People often get bogged down in a few hard questions and then can’t pick up the pace after they extricate themselves from the bog (too much mud on the boots, if you will).  Also, many kids have a hard time maintaining the required effort over the long period of time the tests take (the high-stakes tests such as the SAT are often several hours long).  Staying focused that long without reorienting cues is something we don’t practice that much these days.

Language comprehension problems (including Asperger’s):  Test questions are often quite finicky in terms of language — they’re highly specific in their meaning, and if you don’t read really carefully and focus on (1) exactly what they’re saying and (2) exactly what they meant (yes, I know those might sometimes seem like opposites… that’s part of the game!), you will trip up.  The wrong answer choices are almost always based upon the typical misreadings of the questions — these “attractor” answers are the reason that some kids actually do worse than chance when they guess.  Kids who have trouble in this domain often also have subtle weaknesses in the rest of the “real world” in terms of reading comprehension, analytical writing, and oral direction-following.

Overthinking:  I’ve often seen bright-to-gifted kids overthink these stupid multiple-choice questions, choose the second-best answer on a technicality because, “Well, it could be that,” etc.  Sometimes they’re getting all proud of themselves for coming up with a technicality, like, “Lookit me, I’m smarter than the test, ha, ha!”  But in school, teachers only rarely grant credit retroactively for coming up with a clever justification, and on those high-stakes tests, you’re almost never going to get credit this way.  The goal is not to get the right answer.  The goal is to get the answer the test writer wanted you to get.  Personally, when I was taking the tests for my high school teaching credential in science, while I pegged the upper reaches of the scores, I found it interesting that I had a relative weakness in the areas of science I knew the best (courtesy of ten years of training as a molecular biologist).  Why? Because I got stuck saying things like, “Okay, B is the actual right answer.  However, the overwhelming majority of the population thinks it’s C, and lots of textbooks say it’s C, too.  Did the person who wrote the test know about B, such that C is the attractor answer, or am I supposed to say C because that’s probably what the person who wrote the test thought the answer was?”

So, what to do?

What I generally recommend in terms of intervention, regardless of the cause, is to provide explicit instruction and guided practice in the specific skills involved.

Numero uno, the most likely area of weakness.  Make it a habit.  Always.  Read the  question carefully.  Read all of the choices.  Think through what each choice means and why it would be a good or bad choice.  Then (and only then) choose the best one.

Practice solving items by thinking out loud with a test-savvy tutor.   When mistakes are made, go over the explanations for the answers and use these as learning opportunities to understand better how test-writers think.

If there are specific high-stakes tests at issue then get the Big Thick Book of Real Practice Tests from the local bookstore and study the test itself. Learn to identify common question types.  In fact, it’s often worth it to practice rapidly identifying question type as a separate skill.   When you’re good at knowing the general kinds of questions, your study can then focus on strategies which fit each type — that makes your work a lot more efficient.   It’s better to practice a whole bunch of questions of the same type and master the skill, saving the mixed practice for when you’re reviewing skills you’ve already mastered.

As with any sport or musical instrument, regular practice, on items that are difficult enough to be challenging, is what you need to improve.  Massed practice (“cramming”) might feel like, “Ooh, I’m doing something heroic, this has gotta work.”  But it doesn’t work anywhere near as well as regular practice.  I know, I know.  You think it does.  Everyone thinks it does.  Sorry.  It doesn’t.   You’re not special.

Frankly, I generally don’t recommend the courses from test-prep companies unless you’re a kid who honestly won’t do the Big Thick Book technique reliably.  The courses tend to be basically just the same thing as the books, only there’s a grownup standing at the front of the room keeping you on task.  If that’s the only way you’ll reliably study, well, okay, fine.  But if you’re trying to take a high-stakes test that will get you into, oh, say, college, where, did anyone mention, no one reminds you to get out of bed or do your homework, perhaps this would be a good time to learn to get yourself to do the stuff you don’t like to do.

Particularly if anxiety or drifting-off is an issue, practice, practice, practice, under the most realistic conditions you can muster up.  Try out different techniques for reducing your anxiety or getting yourself woken up to the right level, and figure out what works best for you and is legal under test conditions (that is, if you do best with music, sorry, you will almost never be allowed to have an mp3 player on a standardized test, so you need to come up with something else).  If the unfamiliar location of a high-stakes test is a problem, try taking practice tests in different locations (public libraries are good).  Take them timed.  No food.   No potty.  No breaks.  No standing up.

For timing or pace issues, practice with a loop timer, gradually decreasing the time per item, to work on tempo.  Set a tempo that will get you finished in approximately 80% of the time allotted — that leaves time to work on the really hard questions that will take more thought.

Practice a strategy that will maximize the number of items answered probably-correctly.  A lot of people get stuck on hard items and won’t move on until they’ve figured out the answer.   It’s much more advantageous to look at each question, and if you know or can quickly figure out the right answer, do it, and if you don’t, circle the item number and move on.  That both ensures that you get to all the easy ones (which have the same point value as the hard ones!) and puts the content of the hard ones into your head where it can cook.  Once you’ve done that, go back and do all of the moderately-hard ones, the ones you can get with some serious thought.   Cross off the circles as you answer them, so that you can easily scan for the not-yet-done ones on later passes.  The very-hard ones should not get time wasted on them until you’ve done the moderately-hard ones.

Yes, I know, if you’re taking a computer-adaptive test (where it insists that you answer each question because it’s adjusting the difficulty level of the next question based on whether you got this one right), you may not be able to use this strategy, but if you can, it is a huge benefit.  Note, by the way, that on some computer-administered tests, you can skip forward and go back as you wish.  If so, then use the scratch paper to keep track of the item numbers you have skipped and cross them off as you get them dealt with.

Know the scoring rules of the test. If there is no penalty for guessing, you should make sure to answer every question even if all you’re doing is bubbling randomly in the last minute.  If there is a penalty for guessing (typically -1/(n-1) where n is the number of choices, such that a purely random guessing pattern would result in a score of zero), you need to get a bit more strategic.   Some people are good guessers — they guess above chance.  If you’re one of those people who guesses at or above chance, again, you should always guess on every item.

However, some people are not good guessers, and actually guess below chance, typically because they’re getting caught up by those attractor answers.  The usual advice to guess if you can eliminate even one answer as definitely correct is wrong, or at least oversimplified. If you can eliminate one or even two out of four choices as definitely wrong, but then choose the wrong answer of the remaining choices often enough that your guesses are below chance overall (that is, if you work your way down from four choices to two but then still pick the wrong answer more than 3/4 of the time), then you’re still guessing below chance.  “Almost right” or, “It was my second choice,” doesn’t count (this is, as the proverb says, neither horseshoes nor hand grenades).  You need to gather data on your own guessing patterns to know whether guessing is an advantageous strategy for you.  This is a great use for the Big Thick Book.

Furthermore, if you’re a bad guesser, or even if you’re a decent one, study what is tripping you up when you guess wrong.  What are the traps you’re getting caught in?  Can you create specific rules and checklists for yourself to make sure you don’t forget about them?  For example, when I’m doing quantitative comparisons, I always check to see what happens if the variables have values of 0, 1, -1, some other negative number, and a fraction between 0 and 1, trying to find a situation where the obvious answer is wrong.    When I do reading comprehension tests, I always read the questions first, and then read the passage with a pencil in hand so I can mark it up.   Stuff like that.

What are the specific skills or content areas that they seem to always throw at you and you always forget?  How can you make sure you get it into your head long enough to write it on the scratch paper as soon as the test starts?  I’m a hawk when it comes to cheating, but even I don’t think it’s cheating if you write a “cheatsheet” out of your head during the test.   I knew one dyslexic young man who could not for the life of him memorize the quadratic formula, but he was a great conceptual thinker and could remember easily how to derive it.  He got to the point where he could rederive that thing in thirty seconds flat on the scratch paper (and he went on to major in mathematics in college).

Anyone have any special tried-and-true techniques that work for them for studying for bubble tests?  Inspirational stories on how you destroyed a stupid test that had been making you miserable?  Post them below!

letters of recommendation — some tips

November 24, 2010 4 comments

‘Tis the season… I get the polite-but-nervous phone calls for MIT applicants who are setting up their interviews (side note: if your alma mater does alumni interviews, and you’ve been thinking about it but haven’t tried it, try it!  This is my 12th year doing it, and it’s always fun and interesting to get to meet the kids), and, from parents and kids, I’m getting questions about how to handle the whole letter of recommendation thing.  I’ve also just gone through a six-year period of my life in which I had to be the recommendee on a yearly basis.  Ugh.   And I’ve been both a writer of letters and on admissions committees reading them.  All sides of the desk.

I also know that, well, let’s say this nicely… sometimes it’s hard for kids to hear stuff from their parents that might seem like common sense, and sometimes it’s easier to hear it from someone else.   So, let me offer a few tips.

Numero uno.   I know, this might sound dorky.  But really.  Make it easy and pleasant for the person writing the letter.  It may be part of their job (and, by the way, many people who write letters as part of their jobs, myself included, quite enjoy doing it), but it’s still a favor you’re asking, and it does take time.  (If you cannot listen to anything non-Machiavellian, then at least remember that people who are happy write more positive letters than those who are grouchy.)   If you’re applying to a large number of schools, particularly if there are lots of annoying forms they have to do along with their letter, be extra-nice about it.  For those who like scripts, I like to use phrases like, “Would you be willing to…?” “I really appreciate your offering to…”

Unless you are in one of those awful situations where the school dictates exactly who has to write the letters, choose intelligently.  Recent is good.  Long period of contact with you is good.  Contact with you in some in-depth collaborative endeavor is excellent.  Someone who can make it clear that you didn’t just do whatever it was that you were doing because you thought it would look good on your resume, someone who can talk about how they observed you persistently pursuing your passions, is terrific.  Long experience in the field is nice (some forms ask), but not a crucial thing.  If you happen to have a recommender who is a big name in the field, such that the recipient will know who it is and that getting that person to make a recommendation at all is meaningful, then that’s nice.  But a big-name highly-experienced recommender who had very little contact with you and can’t say much in detail about you is not as useful as a run-of-the-mill recommender who knows you well and who can speak in detail about you.

Ask not just if they are willing to write a letter, but if they are willing to write a strong letter.  A mealy-mouthed recommendation is a huge double-whammy, because it both says the kinda-sorta-okay things about you while everyone else is getting positive recommendations, and because it suggests that either you didn’t have any better choices, or that you didn’t realize that this recommender didn’t think as highly of you as you might have thought they did.  If there’s a particular area of concern, something you know the recommender might want to say or have to say about you that is less than complimentary, bring it up directly, and talk with them about how (or whether) it could be presented in an honest but not awful way.  If they cannot write you a good recommendation, it’s okay to part ways politely (I had a kid once who insisted that I write a recommendation, despite my clear statement that I would not be able to fail to mention her frequent, severe, and admittedly intentional disruptions of my class.  Weird choice.).  You are not asking the recommender to lie or in any way misrepresent their perspective — that would be unethical.   But you need to know where you stand.   Although this may be a one-time thing for you, it’s not a one-time thing for the recommender.  The school gets to know recommenders over time, and recommenders who are unreliable, who tell them candidates are terrific when they aren’t, lose credibility.  Plus, being aware of your weaknesses (in the shrink biz, we like to call them “growing edges” — doesn’t that make you feel all warm and fuzzy?) and being able to speak about them honestly, thoughtfully, and nondefensively is itself a good thing that a recommender might mention in a letter.

At the college level or before, most recommenders will not offer to share the letter with you.  As you move further up the food chain, it becomes more typical for letters to be shared and even, in very good relationships, to be collaboratively edited.  If someone does offer to share it, that’s very sweet, and can go a long way towards reducing the I-don’t-know-what’s-inside-that-secret-envelope anxiety.  Say an extra thank you for that if they do it, but don’t ask them to if they don’t do it spontaneously.  Similarly, I do come down on the side of checking the “I waive the right to see this letter” box — if they want you to see it, they will show you a copy anyhow.   I know some folks probably disagree with me on this, but it just feels like a covert, “If I don’t get in, I might see if you wrote something less-than-perfect about me and I might Take Retributive Action of Some Kind.”   Fundamentally, if you don’t feel you can trust the recommender, don’t ask them for a letter in the first place.  This is one of those areas where it really pays to listen to the niggling feelings in your gut.   (Been there, done that myself.   No, I won’t put the details on the web.)

What’s much more typical at all levels is for recommenders to ask you what you’d like them to focus on in the letter, and/or for a copy of your resume or curriculum vitae, and/or for a description of what you’re applying for and what you think they’re looking for, what attracts you about it, why you think you’re a good match, etc.  That doesn’t have to be well-written — a simple bullet list is just fine.   As both a candidate and a writer of letters, I like this system a lot.  It makes the writing process easier for the recommender, and it enables the candidate to make sure that the recommender doesn’t forget or misunderstand what the candidate thinks is important.

In fact, it’s a good idea to have  already thought about all that before you start asking people.  It’s nice to be able to put together a group of recommenders who can each speak well to a different aspect of your wonderfulness.   If a recommender doesn’t ask for information, ask them “if there’s any information that would help you.”  If they say no thank you, don’t worry about it.  It very likely just means that they feel confident in terms of what they would want to say about you to that audience.

Yes, you might have numerous forms for them to fill out.   If you’re applying to a ridiculously large number of places, (1) reconsider whether you really need to do that (2) warn the recommender ahead of time before they agree to write for you (3) say a huge thank-you both at the time and later on if they agree.   Many recommenders will write a single letter on their own letterhead and attach it to the forms, doing only the minimal checkboxes or sometimes ignoring the form altogether.  That’s generally no big deal.  Admissions offices understand that recommenders are not the applicants, so they give them a fair bit more slack in terms of being perfect with the paperwork.

Logistically, make things as completely easy as you can for them.  Fill out everything you’re supposed to fill out.   Pre-address all of the envelopes to individual colleges for them.   If the recommender is supposed to mail them to you, so that you can submit your recommendations in a single packet with your application, provide the recommender with a self-addressed large envelope to stick them all in and mail them back to you.  Include plenty of postage — assume that the recommender will have both the form from the school and a separate letter on letterhead, so a large packet of envelopes might add up to more ounces than you expect.   Frankly, I usually just spring for a priority-mail flat-rate envelope.

If the recommender is supposed to send them directly, then you’re fine with one stamp per envelope.  Also, inside each pre-addressed-to-the-college pre-stamped envelope, include a self-addressed pre-stamped 4×6″ card with the name of the school and the recommender on it, and a nice note asking the admissions office to drop the card in the mail to you when they receive it.  It’s an easy and cheap way to be sure that things got where they were going.   (I use the same system with the applications themselves, or at least use a trackable / delivery confirmation method for mailing them.  Things don’t get lost in the mail often, but it’s nice to know about it ASAP if they do!)  If they’re supposed to use any online system to submit the recommendations, I think it’s nice to write clear directions for them and offer to help them if there are any technical glitches.   Don’t assume that your recommenders are as comfortable with computers as you are, unless you have good reason to think so.  The good news with the online systems is that you can generally track what’s been submitted and what hasn’t.

Give the recommender a lot of lead time — a month is good, two months if you can manage it.   You’re making a major life decision here — procrastinating until the last minute isn’t a good move.  Colleges are usually slightly flexible with recommendation deadlines (shh!), because they know it’s usually not your fault if the recommender is a day or two late, but remember that you don’t want a grumpy hassled person feeling pressured to write a letter for you at the last minute.

If you’re getting close to the deadline and they haven’t written them yet, it’s okay to nudge gently.  My script is, “Hi, just checking in… just wanted to find out what your timeline was, in case you forgot…”  And smile nicely and be really super-nice about it.   Think about how nice you have to be when correcting a teacher… and then triple that.   Yes, they’re letting you down.  And you have to take it.  Yes, it’s not fair.   Resolve that when you’re the recommender, you won’t do that to kids.   And don’t. even. think. about. getting. mad. where. they. can. see.  If they appear likely to miss the deadline by any substantial amount of time, give them a graceful way out — “I know you’re really busy.   Would you prefer that I ask someone else?”  (Yes, I have a personal horror story here, too, which, again, I will not share with the intertubes.)

If you are a young-for-grade applicant, either because you skipped grades a while back, because you’re in some form dropping out of high school to go to college, because you’re homeschooling, or for whatever reason… all of this required professionalism goes double for you.  If you’re getting letters of recommendation written for you, then you’re entering the phase of life where “really amazing for his age” needs to start being replaced by “really amazing, period.”  If you’re not good enough on an objective scale to get in to whatever you’re trying to get into, then you don’t get extra credit or a bye or anything for being young when you try.  Same with the letters — there’s going to be a presumption on the part of the reader that you’re “normal” for your age and hence immature as compared to other applicants.  If the recommender can’t say honestly that you’re on a par (or better) maturity-wise with the other kids they write letters for, then you run a risk of being portrayed as “mature for her age,” which is the same thing as “not as mature as the older kids.”

Overall, your goal is to help your recommenders feel terrific about the whole experience.  Let them see that you can handle the whole situation in a professional, responsible, adult fashion.  And send a warm and personal thank you note afterwards.  Chocolates and flowers aren’t necessary, unless you had them write an inordinate number of the darned things.  It’s very anxiety-provoking, but if you choose well, realizing what others are willing (or even eager) to say about you can be tremendously validating.

a nice post from a fellow GT blogger

September 12, 2010 6 comments

I just read this post:

http://giftedparentingsupport.blogspot.com/2010/08/working-with-your-gifted-childs-teacher.html

and I think it’s really worth reading.  So often, I think, parents have had their own educational or social traumas, or they’ve heard countless stories about the problems and pain other people have had, that they come in assuming that all teachers are dumb, hostile, clueless, nasty, evil, you name it.  In the shrink biz, we’d call this a transference phenomenon, where your prior experience creates a distorted lens through which you view your current experience.  Quite naturally, you expect that what happened before is going to happen again.  But that often leads people to behave in ways that create the very problems they are afraid of happening.  Thus, the trauma becomes re-enacted, proving, of course, that you were right to expect that sort of thing to happen, and continuing the cycle.

Are a lot of teachers clueless about giftedness?  You bet.  Are some of them hostile?  Yes.  But they’re not the norm.  The overwhelming majority of educators do it because they like kids and because they like teaching.  (After all, the pay is pretty crappy and the working conditions are terrible.)  They don’t get up in the morning thinking, “Okay, how do I ruin little Freddie’s life today?”  Build the relationship and see if you can find a different ending to the story.

The portable brain (planners and task management)

September 12, 2010 14 comments

Okay, I promised some ideas on planners and how to keep track of assignments.  This got a lot longer than I thought it would… there is a lot of complexity!

As I feared, Little Bird’s middle school has handed out Their Official Agenda Book that they plan to Periodically Check that the kids are using the way they have decided is the One Right Way.  Given that the notebook system they’ve chosen is even worse than I’d feared (I might even need to do another rant!), let’s just say I’m a bit skeptical. Sigh.

I can’t say as I’ve found a bulletproof system for keeping track of tasks (what needs to be done) and time (when it will be done and when it will be completed), but let me at least raise the issues I think need to be considered in the process.

Simplify, simplify. As with the paper-management system, I advise keeping things as simple as possible.  The goal is to have one object that handles all of the task-related information and time-related information in as simple a fashion as possible.  I lovingly call mine my “portable brain.”  If you have two different things, then you’re going to (a) put information in the wrong place or in only one of the places (b) look in the wrong place or in only one of the places and thus miss something you need to know. It needs to be easy to put information into and easy to get information out of.

Paper or plastic? Since you only get one object to play with, you have to decide whether it’s going to be a hardcopy paper calendar (like they hand out at school) or whether you’re going to use an electronic system.  Personally, if you can afford to implement it, I favor the electronic solutions, because they offer some advantages that are hard to duplicate in paper form.

  • If the writer has bad handwriting or doesn’t like to write, typing is likely to be more legible, particularly at smaller font sizes, and most non-writers don’t mind typing as much.  Workaround for paper:  Try preprinting some small stickers with typically-used words (e.g. “test”) and stapling those to the inside cover.
  • Remember that being able to write small also contributes to keeping the whole object small, too (see below).
  • When there are (inevitable) changes in task or time information, they can be changed easily without leaving lots of scribbly mess.
  • Electronic systems can be set to harass remind you of upcoming tasks or deadlines.
  • Electronic systems can back up to a main computer or store the information in the “cloud.”
  • If there are multiple people within a family who might need to look at, add, or change information, electronic systems can be set up to enable this.  (More on this issue below.)
  • You don’t have to deal with discontinuities in time.  Most pre-bound systems that schools hand out and that are  easily available in stores don’t handle this elegantly, and you’re stuck copying some pages as you make the transition from one year to another.

(Note that both paper and electronic systems are likely to be royally messed up by laundering, and both can often be restored by various heroic means.  Choose your poison.  I will say, however, that many disorganized kids (including everyone in my household old enough to need an organizer) do manage to hold onto electronic devices, despite everyone’s fears, so don’t assume that the kid who loses everything will also lose their electronic portable brain.)

If you would like to use a paper system, I’d recommend something like a DayRunner or Franklin Planner, which allows you to customize sheet types and to keep adding new sheets and retiring old sheets as you go.  To reduce costs, try just a regular half-sheet 3-ring binder, for which you can buy refills (check that they’re compatible in hole placement!) or print/chop/hole-punch your own.  (eww, that’s starting to sound like work… will you really do it reliably?  Or will you procrastinate and run off the end of the system?)  If what you find doesn’t come with a zip or other means to close it and protect the pages, try adding an elastic strap or rubber band.

Size: You could, I suppose, use 8.5″ x 11″ sheets, whether purchased or homebrewed, and integrate this right into the front of the traveling zip-binder I describe in this post. However, I usually actually prefer the planner to be a separate item that is small enough and portable enough to be with you on a constant or near-constant basis.  For kids in school, that may not be a show-stopper; the times they get told things that need to get into the binder usually are the times when that zip-binder will be right with them.  For us oldsters, or for older kids who are homeschooling or who do a lot of out-of-school activities, the smallest item you can get the information into reliably and neatly and can keep on your person, without forgetting it’s there and laundering it (sigh) is probably best, because it facilitates efficient idea capture.  Which brings me to…

Capture method: Think your way through a typical week.  What are the kinds of things you need to write down?  Is it just homework, or do you have other activities that also create things you have to do and pulls on your time?  When and under what circumstances do you get information, either from other people or from your own head, that needs to get recorded in the system?  What are the precise kinds of things that need to get entered?  What might interfere with your getting those exact things into the system at those exact moments?

See, I have a Crappy Working Memory ™, which means that if I don’t capture an idea within about ten seconds, it will be gone gone gone.  Within about thirty seconds, I won’t even remember that there was an idea that I was supposed to remember.  So I advise making a personal rule:  “I will not say, ‘I’ll write that down later.'”  (I know, your kids think they’re super and will remember.  Tell them that it’s not an admission of fault or imperfection that they develop and use a system so that they don’t have to waste brain cycles remembering.)

If you aren’t going to have your actual planner ready to hand all the time, what will you have with you that will enable you to capture information that needs to get into the planner?    Some ideas on this front:

  • Email can make a good capture site and a good way for members of a family to send each other information, but only if you then also take the oath that you will immediately transcribe any information found in your inbox into the proper place later, or create a folder (better: one with an automatic sort-int0-this-folder rule!) that is only for these to-be-captured items, that you then empty regularly (see below).  Otherwise, your inbox will fill up too fast with stuff that doesn’t need to be in the capture  box and stuff will get lost.
  • There is a paid-but-not-expensive service called www.jott.com.  You basically register a phone and an email.  You call their number from the phone (they have an iPhone app, too, of course), say your voice memo, and it gets transcribed and sent to you in an email.  It’s not perfect, but it’s nice for situations where writing doesn’t work well (like, say, if you’re driving).  Remember, though, that in most situations in which you could make a phone call or send an email, if your electronic device were also your portable brain, then you wouldn’t need to use this.
  • A low-tech concept, particularly useful if your planner system is too large to be on your person all the time, is to have an index card jotter (here’s an example) to scribble things in.
  • I know this might sound silly, but if your capture system requires a writing implement, then you need a writing implement attached to it, so no time is wasted searching.

But remember that you now have a two-step process.  You need to set up some kind of regular routine that will remind you to empty that capture-box into the actual planner.  Think about how often this needs to happen in order to be useful (if your deadlines tend to be only a few days after you find out about them, then a weekly process is too slow!), and how you will make sure that you don’t forget to do it.  Consider putting a repeating appointment on your calendar, or a repeating task on your task-list, and setting your system to nag remind you to do it.

Loose slips sink ships. There is a tendency to let a handout or flyer or or appointment card email stand in for the event or assignment, to hold onto the paper that someone else gave you and to say, “Oh, I’ll enter that into the system later.”  (Yeah, right.) But if you’re not entering it immediately, it needs to actually physically be put in the capture inbox, and it must get emptied into the real system with everything else.

To avoid the problem, I make it my personal goal to get rid of those pieces of paper as soon as possible by entering the relevant information into my system.  Literally, I say, “No, please don’t give me a reminder card, let me just write the appointment down right now.” (Permission slips and forms, where someone else wants the sheet of paper back, are not assignment sheets — they go into the hot-folder system in the binder, silly!)

Home sweet home. Whatever you choose, losing it will be a time-wasting and anxiety-provoking crisis.  So think about the routines you create for its movement.  Does it need to have a special place of honor on your bedside table?  A specific pocket in your purse or backpack?  Do you always wear the same type of jeans (or whatever), such that it could always live in your pocket?  Just like you need one object, it needs to have the fewest possible places where it could be.  If you ever spot it outside one of those places, it needs to get put back in one of its permissible “homes” right away.

A family affair.  Organizing tasks and time is a lifelong skill.  Everyone in the family needs to model the skills that you want your kid to develop.  Plus, most families have a raft of out-of-schooling activities and other pulls on their time.  In order to prevent the crises when events collide, it really does help to have a system that everyone can use.  In our family, we manage time with Google calendars — we have one for the kids (they might end up with one each when they get older), one for the parents’ public information, and one for each parent’s private information.  (My family needs to know that on a certain day between certain times, I am seeing clients and am therefore unavailable.  They neither need to know nor care which clients I’m seeing each hour.)  The nice thing about this system is that any member of the family can make changes which then everyone can see, and any member of the family can create an appointment for anyone else — I can let Little Bird know that we have company coming on a certain evening, so she can’t count on homework help then, for example.

Similarly, we have a family set of task lists — since we’re an iPhone / iPod Touch family, we use an app called GeeTasks that interfaces with Google Tasks.  Each of us creates the tasks we need, but anyone can edit any list.  Very useful for groceries and errands, too!   It can handle some level of hierarchy, although for most complex tasks, I think it’s okay to maintain the separate assignment sheet the teacher handed out, or the separate outline you created for yourself in something like OmniOutliner or FreeMind (more on that below).

The low-tech version, of course, is the Official Family Calendar, located at some central place in the household (usually the kitchen).  You can use an ordinary monthly calendar, or whatever other calendar system is both easy for everyone to write in and easy for everyone to check.  A whiteboard that shows two months is okay, but I tend to prefer systems that allow the entry of information arbitrarily far into the future and don’t require periodic recopying.  If you like that size/form factor, try using a large desktop monthly-organizer pad pinned to a corkboard.  The problem I have with this system is that it’s usually hard for kids to write in these, just because they’re not in the kitchen when most of the information they need to write down is given to them.  So they need to capture those ideas — essentially, creating an assignment for themselves to write the information into the family calendar.  Again, I tend to be skeptical of two-step systems, but they’re better than an implied system where one of the steps is inevitably going to be, “Forget to enter the information where it actually needs to go.”  If you have a system like this, consider also implementing a regular adult task that involves sitting down with the kid and extracting the relevant information from the kid’s planner.  (Yeah, I’m not enthusiastic about that, either.)

For whichever version, teach kids to write down all of the pulls on their time.  Sports, music, arts, classes, practice times, religious services, family dinners, parties, company, hang-out-with-friends, TV shows you can’t bear to miss, whatever it is that you spend time on, if you’re going to want to spend time on it and you’re not going to want to do homework during that time, it’s a good idea to put it in the calendar.  Obviously, some things might have to get moved or deleted if there is too much homework.  But the goal is to avoid those last-minute crises where the Science Fair project and the cousin’s wedding come into sharp conflict.

A word about school-based online systems: These are nice things to have, as a backup for when some information escapes the best efforts to corral it, and as a way for adults who are helping a kid to know the answer to the question, “What do you have for homework tonight?” before they ask it.  Having them is better than not having them.  But they cannot substitute for having your own planner, for several reasons.

  • Teachers are, um, not always entirely reliable about writing in them.  If I had a buck every time one of my slippery-fish kiddos with ADHD said, “Oh, I didn’t think we really had to do that assignment, because she didn’t put it up on the website,” or, “I can’t do it because I didn’t write down what the teacher said because I thought they were supposed to put it up on the website so now I don’t quite know what it is I have to do,” I’d be rich.  Kids need to know the rule:  It is your job to get the assignment written down, even if your teacher screws up and doesn’t write it on the website.  You will be marked down, and it will be your fault, and I will have no sympathy.  (Personally, I have a comic-villain evil laugh that I reserve for such situations.)
  • Using them requires that you check in several different places in order to find out what you have to do.
  • They don’t include the information for anything not related to school.

Task focus vs. time focus: This is complicated.  To-do lists are good for managing tasks, while calendars are good for managing time.  The two aren’t the same thing, but they’re intertwined.  In fact, I think this is the single most tricky and dangerous aspect of system design, and one on which I have the fewest specific suggestions.  Think about what information you need to have available to you, and under what circumstances you need to have it, what you want it to do to tell you about it.

Most kids are not appointment-driven; rather, they are project-driven (for adults, it depends a lot on the type of job you have).  Now think about most appointment books: they show you your day in terms of half-hour blocks.  Is that the information kids need?  Nope.  In fact, the only nice thing I can say about most planner books provided by the school is that they tend to be organized by subject, rather than by time.  You can mimic one, sans the huge amounts of chartjunk usually found in kid-oriented ones, and with enough lines for the different “subjects” in kids’ real lives, if you buy a teachers’ planner, except that teachers are often assumed not to need to plan anything on the weekends.  Sigh.  You can design and print your own pages pretty easily in any word-processing software, if you prefer.

You want it when? Most folks never even think about this issue… On which day in the planner do you write your homework?

  • The day it was assigned? That’s what most teachers tell kids to do, but it’s probably the least useful time to write something — it’s going to vanish into the “this-already-happened” ether much too quickly.
  • The day it’s due? That’s what most grownups tend to do with major projects.  The danger point here is that you aren’t going to be reminded of the task until the last minute.  This practice tends to support procrastination.  Not that you shouldn’t include a note on the day something is due (after all, it will help you remember to hand it in!), but that’s rarely sufficient.  I recommend also writing tasks on…
  • The day you’re going to work on it. Interesting idea, eh?  Plan a time to work on it, so that when you sit down to work on any given day, you have an agenda in front of you.  Good for avoiding collisions and encouraging kids to work on things before the last minute.

Planning work time also requires kids to predict how long they think a task or subtask will take… and thus provides a good opportunity for them to also track how long something actually took, so that they can become more accurate predictors in the future.  I suggest that kids plan in liberal amounts of “slush time,” planning a set of benchmarks that keeps them comfortably ahead of schedule, to deal with the inevitable complexities and delays that arise.

Of course, sometimes that planning is itself a nontrivial task — in fact, it’s the first task in the assignment, and should probably be done as soon as possible.  So teach them to write an assignment for, e.g.,  “Schedule time to work on book report,” the day the book report is assigned.  Kids are likely to need a lot of guidance in the process of breaking down tasks, keeping track of subtasks, redoing the schedule when things don’t work out the way they planned, and generally keeping any complex project on track (beyond the scope of this already-very-long post).

Extensive assignment sheets (for major projects) usually belong in page protectors (each page in its own, please, so that you can read them easily, don’t stuff a multi-page stapled thing into something that will require you to take it out to read the inside pages!), placed in the rings at the beginning of the relevant section of the binder.  Personally, since I type rapidly, I often take the time to simply retype those sheets into my computer (or get an electronic copy from the teacher or the website), which eliminates concerns about losing them.  Teach kids the habit of rechecking the assignment sheet as they go, rather than trying to remember what the teacher expected and when any intermediate due dates might have been.

Routine Maintenance: You need to create structures and routines for when you look at the planner and what you do with it — every night before bed to preview the next day?  Every day before you leave school to make sure you’ve gotten the right items from your locker?  Every single time someone asks you to commit to doing something on a specific date?  Every week to check the status of ongoing projects?  Every month to offload old pages and make sure you have new blank ones?  Do you need to create “ticklers” to remind you of things that you’ve put off far into the future?

If you have an electronic system, think about how you are going to use reminders intelligently.   What will you need to be reminded about?  When will you need to be reminded about it?  How you would like that reminder to happen?  Alarms may be useful, but not if you’re just going to snooze them or ignore them — think about what moment you’d like a reminder to come such that you will actually do the thing before forgetting about it (we call these “point-of-performance” reminders).

Whoof!  That’s a lot of stuff to think about and chew on.  Partly because both technology and paper products change so quickly, it’s easy to get mired into trying to design a single best system, or to invest a lot of money and effort setting up something that seems cool only to have it collapse under its own weight.  The key is to get something that you can get all of your information into (so that you can trust that everything you need to know is in there), and get all of your information out of… reliably and simply.   Don’t overcomplexificate things.  See what works and where the bugs are, solve the problems and improve the system over time.


Pile Containment Devices: an organizational alternative

August 15, 2010 8 comments

The two-binder system I described in the previous post is, of course, not for everybody. It works well in situations where there are a lot of routine things going on, stuff happening on a daily or weekly basis in almost every area of study.

However, particularly as we make it into adulthood — and I’m willing to bet that there are some homeschoolers or afterschoolers who would also be in this boat — things are often organized less around routine stuff happening every day or week, and more around discrete projects. For a project, often you’re handling many different pieces or chunks of paper, but the order of them not only doesn’t count, it is often really helpful to be able to move them around, spread them out on the table, mix and match, look at various things at the same time, and so on. Also, sometimes you want to toss a small book or workbook right into the pile (and might be tempted to shove papers into the book in order to corral them. Don’t do it!).

For instance, when I am doing a report on an assessment, I want to be able to grab one or more test protocols, the history, notes I took during the assessment, scoring worksheets and graphs I cooked up, spread them out, leaf through them, and then shove them away easily. For another instance, when I was working on the literature review for my dissertation, there were piles and piles of papers on various topics. And yet another — when my dishwasher had a catastrophic failure and I found myself managing an insurance company and a kitchen remodel while in grad school (I do not recommend this for amusement), there were all sorts of piles of stuff related to that. Moving across country, same thing.

See, some of us have brains that, well, we think best in piles and networks. People who don’t know much about brains like to call this a right-brained processing style, or a visual processing style (sorry, both of those concepts would get me laughed out of the cool neuropsych parties — the current research on the topic is much more complex than any such simple-minded dichotomy would support). The single hardest thing for me to do while writing is to get my thoughts into linear form. So why on earth would I like an organizational system that is linear in structure, like a binder? I literally can’t find anything when I use time as the organizing principle. There are some kinds of situations where I keep track of stuff linearly, sure, but most of the time, nope.

But of course, you linear folks are probably silently freaking out that I’m about to tell your kid that it’s okay to have piles of stuff all over the desk, the floor, the backpack, piling on top of each other, falling over, getting mixed up together, being indistinguishable from each other, oh, man, what a mess. Yes, that’s the potential downfall of living life in the Pile Zone.

Enter the Pile-Containment Devices: letter trays, portable pockets, accordion folders, and the like. Even hanging folders can work as PCDs, when they’re not getting hidden in a file drawer and disappearing from memory. (I long ago gave up filing “that is neat and I might want it someday” stuff in my filing cabinets, because other than the few Really Important Things, I would tend to forget not just what I named the file it got put in, but even that it ever existed at all.)

If you do your work basically at your desk, then try a whole bunch of horizontal letter trays, or a mail sorter (obviously, both of those items can be found in stylish versions, too, but I’m showing cheap-and-ugly options). I like side-loading ones best, because it’s easier to get a glimpse of what’s on the papers. The concept here is that each pile now has a pigeonhole to go into.

If you’re a moveable feast, then you need something portable. When I’m handling one good-sized project with a bunch of different facets to it (e.g., job search), I have a 13-pocket accordion folder, made of durable plastic, like this one. I’ve had the same one for years, because I really cannot manage more than one project of accordion-file magnitude at a time (“knowing your limits” being another important aspect of executive functioning). The printed-out material I’m organizing into the outline for my book (on, perhaps not surprisingly, helping bright-to-gifted folks with executive functioning) is in it right now — each section is a chapter. By the way, I have known some school-age kids to use an accordion file instead of the traveling zip binder, where each section is a class, and there’s one section at the front for hot-folder items. You can do this, and it’s quite an adequate system, if you are really good about keeping dates on pages, and if you are really good about emptying the thing on a very regular basis into the home-based permanent-storage binder, and if you don’t mind that this routine is going to take a little longer because you have to impose order at that point.

But in my life, I’m generally juggling a bunch of different smallish projects at once. If I tried to keep everything in one accordion folder, I’d get sick of carrying it around, and that’s where the danger would happen — I’d take a pile out to take with me somewhere, and it wouldn’t have a Pile Containment Device any more and the uncontrolled piles might escape. Must. not. let. that. happen.

When something outgrows an accordion folder, it’s not really going to be particularly portable anyhow. A small portable hanging-file box (here’s an open one, and here’s a somewhat bigger one with a lid and a handle) is a reasonable alternative (you can at least move it from place to place in the home). My aforementioned dissertation literature review took up a full-sized hanging-file box (actually overflowed it by the end). As I wrote each section, the folder with that pile of papers got sent to the back of the box, providing an encouraging visual of my progress. Somehow, even though open file boxes aren’t all that different from hanging files in a file drawer, the kind normal human beings seem to be able to manage, I don’t lose track of stuff as easily when it’s in open filing like that.

Occasionally, if it’s really only a few pieces of paper and the project is really short term, I do grab one of those awful two-pocket paper folders (see, I despise them so much I’m not even making a link) that seem to spawn in my closet (they are refugees, I think, from Little Bird’s elementary school’s silly ideas about how to teach kids to organize themselves). But most of the time, I use a file pocket. I cannot find a link to the ones I use — I happened to spot these in a dollar store a few years ago, bought a couple, realized how excellent they were, went back and bought some more, and haven’t seen them in any store since. I have about eight of these. They’re thicker plastic than most, and they have elastic on the corners so they close and open easily, none of that mucking about with noisy Velcro or time-consuming string. Here is the closest match I was able to find online. I don’t like flimsy clear-poly pockets — they feel like they’re not going to hold up, and they aren’t stiff enough to protect the papers well. I also don’t like ones that have a rigid gusset — they’re just asking to get crushed, and they take up too much space when they’re not full. Good carry-around pockets are good for about an inch or two of paper, which handles quite a wide variety of projects. They are my go-to PCDs.

If you really only have a few things you need to deal with at any given time, and, again, you’re good about offloading things into long-term storage, think about something like a contractor’s clipboard. I had one just like this one for years while in grad school the first time — I used letter trays on my desk and just used this lovely portable thing to take notes and hold important pieces of paper (hot-folder items) in the storage box (which also can hold a pencil). Look for one that has a cover (like the one I linked) to protect the pad from getting trashed. Sure, you could use a pretty portfolio, and that’s what I use now for walking-around notetaking-with-clients, but there’s some nice urban chic happening with the aluminum thing.

Important Troubleshooting Tip: The biggest potential downfall of the PCD system is that they need to be labeled. Otherwise, you will just have a whole pile of undifferentiated piles, and you will eventually start shoving things in randomly because you aren’t sure what goes where, and you will waste time trying to find the pile you were looking for, so you’re back to piles of piles of messy piles. If you change your pile labels frequently, try taping a pad of small post-it notes to your letter trays so you can write and rewrite. If you don’t change them frequently, stickers or labels will work. Accordion files, of course, have those little divider tabs. If you’re using portable pockets, you might be able to get away with color-coding (I do — I usually have some mnemonic association between the color and the project, and that’s enough for me). But don’t try it if you don’t have to — look for pockets that have someplace to slip a paper label into them.

Another potential pitfall: if your system has portable elements, they can get lost and then you have to waste time tearing up the house and screaming about the missing PCD. At least until some other unfinished project catches your eye and you start doing that instead, procrastinating the crisis (is that a transitive verb?) until some later date, probably long after its deadline. PCDs need homes to live in. If you can get yourself to commit to a consistent location (say, a desk or other workspace, which I’ll have hints for in another post), then the discipline becomes that the PCDs always get returned to that location, not just dropped wherever they happen to be when your brain moves on to another task.

And a third potential pitfall:  when you switch away from that project to another task (as us low-working-memory high-idea-generation types do so often), the pile needs to get swept back into the PCD. That simple behavior is one of those things that organized people think, “How difficult can this be?”  However, if that’s a problem area, then it needs to get explicitly cued and practiced specifically until it becomes part of the PCD-use routine.

Last thing (at least until I think of another one): you need to have a system for offloading the content of the PCD as the project shifts focus.  That is, you need to get rid of obsolete stuff so it doesn’t make the current stuff harder to find in the pile — if the pile has more than about a dozen items, two dozen at the outside, you’re going to waste too much time searching it.  Same thing with what you will do when a project is completed.  Frequently, you can get rid of a lot of the intermediate materials, and then you need some sort of long-term storage for the stuff you want to keep.  I’ve already mentioned the school-year binder, and Jeff mentioned rough-sort systems, but I’ll have more to say about those things later on.

For now, try it… embrace the piles… see how it works for you…