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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.


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out-of-schooling

August 28, 2010 8 comments

I wrote the notes for this post this while hanging out at the Middlesex County 4-H Fair this past weekend. Little Bird has been active in 4-H for several years, and Laughing Boy has been an enthusiastic hanger-on and will be a Cloverbud this coming year. I have to say, I really like 4-H (or at least its local instantiation) as a program for gifted kids… Hence the topic of this post. Not all extracurriculars (cocurriculars?  paracurriculars?  intracurriculars? activities?  afterschooling?  outofschooling?  homeschooling?) are created equal, so it’s worth thinking about what would characterize good ones.  There’s a lot that I see being done well here.

Why care specifically about this topic for gifted and twice-exceptional kids? Certainly, all kids benefit from high-quality activities. But it’s particularly important for GT and 2E kids, because they all too often don’t get enough of the self-efficacy and empathic mirroring / accreditation experiences that most kids get in school. (Yes, I’ll explain that more at some point. Short version: it’s a normal and important human need to accomplish tasks you perceive to be difficult, and to experience people you look up to seeing you do it.) So the activities aren’t just for fun and games — we’re creating the opportunity for a developmental need to be met.

4-H is a very flexible program, which can definitely be bewildering at times, but the flexibility is great for gifted and 2E kids.

  • There are clubs focused on a broad range of topics — kids choose a club (or multiple clubs) based on shared interests.
  • Age doesn’t restrict what you can do, how you can do it, or who you can do it with.  A single club might have kids from ages 5 to 18.
  • The club (or other voluntary subgrouping) might do things together, but kids do lots of things on their own.  That’s normal and accepted.  Groups, when they exist for a specific purpose, are formed by mutual consensus.
  • Kids choose projects they’re interested in, rather than being told what they have to work on or being provided with a narrow menu of acceptable choices.  Almost any topic is fair game for the projects they work on during the year (it’s not just chickens and zucchini!) and their Visual Presentations (more on those below).  For the fair itself, there’s quite a range of things kids can make and exhibit, and there are departments at our local fair which permit written or display entries on virtually any topic (our county had a passionate GT kid and supportive parent who established a Writing department about a decade ago).
  • They can approach the projects at any level of sophistication they like.  This is a perfect example of what I call “silent differentiation,” which will be the topic of another post.

(Note that for some kids with Asperger’s or ADHD, programs which have more structure are sometimes a better fit.  Or else, they need more adult direction.  But the fact is, all kids need some adult direction early in any process, and that direction needs to be faded gradually over time.  Don’t back off all at once, or they will have no idea where to go or what they could or should expect from themselves.  Again, a topic for another post.)

Another thing that 4-H does very well is to encourage kids to improve over time and meet meaningful quality standards.

  • They are encouraged to try new things (the official slogan is “Learn by doing.“).  They don’t have to show any particular talent for anything; in general, any time someone says, “I’m interested in maybe doing X,” the response will be, “That’s cool!  Here, let me  show you / hook you up with the following person / resource / class / book / website so you can learn how.”
  • At the same time, they are also constantly encouraged to “Make the best better.” (that’s the official motto, not to be confused with the official slogan).  They get real feedback that is supportive but honest and specific.  None of that false feel-good “self-esteem” nonsense that pervades a lot of kids’ activities these days, where, as the Dodo Bird says, “Everybody has won, and all must have prizes.”  Judges in all events are explicitly told to give clear and understandable feedback on which aspects of the entry were done well and how the entry could be improved, and to measure kids against developmentally-appropriate but meaningfully high standards.  (Even the judges for the Cloverbuds (kids ages 5-7) are told not to just say, “Nice job!”)  If you’re not there yet, that’s fine, no one will sneer at you, but they also won’t tell you it’s good when it’s not.  If what you do is terrific, they’ll tell you, but they’ll still tell you how to make it even better.
  • I’m sure there are many different flavors of how this is done in many different places, but what I see around here is a nice balance between competition against the self and competition against others.  In the fair, first, everything is judged on an arbitrary standard.  If everything is blue-ribbon quality, everything can get a blue ribbon.  If nothing is, then nothing gets a blue ribbon and no prizes are awarded, as per previous bullet.  (This really does happen.  Judges are not pressured to make anyone “not feel bad.”)  The blue-ribbon items then compete against each other for first, second, and third place.  So it matters who else shows up, but there’s a way for you to realize that someone else’s work having been better doesn’t mean that what you did stinks.
  • The culture of the group honestly celebrates hard work and achievement, regardless of the personal characteristics of the achiever.  I’m pretty tuned in to such things (having had a fairly typical GT-kid childhood, I’m actually more like “hypervigilant about such things”), and I haven’t heard any of the typical “catty” comments about how someone is too young, or taking too many prizes, or making other kids feel bad, or should let someone else have a turn at winning, or must have gotten inappropriate help from a grownup, or whatever.  People certainly notice a particular person earning a lot of awards, but it’s generally with a sense of frank admiration for the effort and skill they know the kid put in.

Speaking of the culture of the group, this is one that tends to attract a crowd marked by curiosity and passion, highly enriched for bright-to-gifted folks.  And everyone is encouraged to get into the game.

  • It’s not designed as a place you drop your kids off and go do the shopping.  Club leaders are told to encourage parents (even dads!) and siblings (even annoying little ones!) to stick around and participate.  It’s a whole-family intergenerational activity.
  • That makes it possible for adults to model their own process as lifelong learners.  Gifted kids tend to have gifted parents, which can be really tough for them.  They see us being wonderful at everything, and then try to hold themselves to those impossibly high standards.  But the culture here encourages parents to learn new things and be klutzy beginners (and to get corrective feedback and survive the experience!) together with their kids.  Asking for and receiving help are seen as good things.
  • I mentioned above that people love to teach what they know.  People who are passionate and geeky about things tend to love to share with others.  The openness of the structure allows for more of that to happen.  Because this structure doesn’t have a lot of rules around age or status, anyone who knows something can be a valid teacher.

Although some bumbling is inevitable in any volunteer effort, this doesn’t have to create a blind-leading-the-blind race to the bottom.  In any domain, there are likely to be quite a lot of skills which can be meaningfully taught at an appropriate level by someone who is further along the path, such that both teacher and learner are able to meaningfully increase their understanding and skill, and to derive self-efficacy from doing so.  (That’s very different from an overwhelmed teacher assigning a GT kid to tutor a struggling student in school, which has all sorts of rotten social and emotional consequences and is not educationally all that useful for either kid, and which probably should be the topic of another post.)

Another thing I think 4-H does really well is, tied in with the high-standards thing, encouraging kids to build transferable life skills.  Although the program in MA goes way beyond its agricultural roots, it is still fundamentally a program to train young people to run small businesses.

  • Kids are encouraged to keep careful records of their projects, tracking time, costs, income, and suchlike.  They are also encouraged to track people helped and lessons learned, and to include personal-development things that aren’t necessarily officially part of a project.  Kids whose records are clear, understandable, and comprehensive get recognized for those efforts, even if the projects were not all that elaborate or impressive.  Similarly, kids who enter a lot of exhibits in the fair (and many kids enter several dozen items) have to handle the organizational overhead (paperwork, entry slips, explanatory cards, etc) themselves.  (Yeah, I know, I hate paperwork, too.  But that doesn’t mean I don’t think it’s worth being good at it.  There are times when the person the paperwork is helping is yourself, especially when you’re running a small business.)  As the kids get older, the records start to look very much like resumes.  (Yes, the recordkeeping requirements can be difficult for dysgraphic kids… but at least in my state, they’re voluntary, there’s a long time to get things done, and because of that “silent differentiation” effect, they can actually serve as a forum for the kids to build skills over time.)
  • There is a strong emphasis on public speaking, both formal and informal.  There is a nice public speaking program — kids prepare 3-10-minute talks on any topic they like, with posters and 3-D objects, kind of like Show and Tell on steroids.  It’s highly competitive.  Plus, kids are encouraged to do various forms of demonstration for the public.  I have to say that every time I talk with a 4-H kid, even those 5-7-year-old Cloverbuds, I am astounded at how well they can have those conversations with an unfamiliar kid, older kid, or adult.  Almost without fail, I see kids who speak politely and intelligently, with appropriate social pragmatics, responding thoroughly to questions, and showing their enthusiasm for their work.  (Another nice thing about that, by the way, is that when they get random-people-from-the-public to see how well they’ve done and how well they can present themselves, it becomes another opportunity for them to see that others respect their work.)
  • Parents are encouraged to participate, but they are expected to keep their own hands off the kids’ work.  Better to let it be unfinished or imperfect and to create a learning opportunity for the kid.  When I’ve had those lovely conversations with quite young kids, their parents are typically not hovering around.  The focus is on building independence.
  • Kids are also encouraged to participate in leadership and community service projects, again often taking on organizational roles that one might assume are only for older kids.  (Little Bird was helping run kids’ activities for a community group that needed supervision for their own kids while parents were in a seminar… when she was 8 years old.)  Kids who show promise in these areas get noticed and encouraged to take on more responsibility.

This all reads practically like a recipe for “how to design an out-of-school activity that helps kids develop real skills and real self-esteem.”  Since our GT and 2E kids are so often not well-matched to the in-school activities, and because there are so many choices for out-of-school stuff, many of which simply replicate the problems with the typical in-school activities, it becomes crucial for us to think about how we can recognize the subtexts in an activity that will support the kids’ growth.