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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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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…

On organization: Do not multiply entities needlessly

August 11, 2010 25 comments

This is my usual starting organizational system for most kids who go to conventional schools.  (I do a lot of adapting to individual situations and styles, of course, and I will make a separate post about an alternative system that I find useful in other situations.)  I’m with William of Ockham here:  do not multiply entities needlessly.  Principles and priorities, then, are simplicity, portability, ease of use, and resilience to not-being-used-quite-correctly.

Start with a simple backpack or tote.  You probably don’t need wheels because you’re not going to carry all that much most of the time.  All you need is one big main pocket (for the binder and any books that have to come with you) and one small pocket (for pencils and such).  Anything else is overcomplexificationisticalesque.

Unless a teacher specifically requires that a textbook come to class, textbooks should live at home all the time.  I don’t believe in using lockers for anything (other than maybe your coat), because (1) most schools don’t provide enough time to go to them (2) they add a layer of complication, a location where things can get left by accident.

You need one (1 (just one (not seven, but one))) 3-ring zip-binder, the kind where you have maybe a 1.5″ ring binder in a cloth cover that zips all the way around (here’s an example).  The magic word is “in the Rings of the Binder.”  Not just In the Binder, but In the Rings.  3 Rings to rule them all…  The zip cover does two things.  First, it protects the binder and the papers in it from getting destroyed when something else is shoved into the backpack.  Second, it corrals any pieces of paper which have not yet made it into the Rings.

Dividers, one for each class, in order through the school day if that’s possible.  Use clear plastic durable slash-folder dividers, like these.  Some classes may require more than one section (English class is famous for this, with “language arts” and “literature” often being separate areas) — for the secondary divisions, ordinary dividers are fine.

Plus, you need one ordinary divider for each kind of extra paper (lined, graph, plain) that will be required — put maybe 10-30 pages of blank paper in each.  There should be no blank paper anywhere in the binder except for those sections.  If you are not forced to do otherwise, you should routinely use pale-lined graph paper filler (something like this) for everything in math and science classes.  My personal preference is for engineering paper, but that’s a topic for another post.

Note that you now already have a “hot folder” system in place.  Nothing separate is needed.  For each subject, one side of the divider holds papers the teacher has handed out which haven’t gotten Into the Rings yet, and the other side holds homework (and permission slips, etc) which is completed and not yet handed in.  Use a Sharpie to mark which is which!  Younger kids, who usually only have one teacher for most subjects which assign homework, can have a single hot-folder in the front of the binder.  If they really prefer, they can have a separate hot-folder, but it must not be one of those cheap paper 2-pocket folders — those are not durable enough.  Get something made of polypropylene, like this.

Also, have available at home a small box of page protectors, preferably matte-finish ones.  These are used for things like course syllabi or assignment sheets, reference sheets for generic assignments (e.g., “requirements for writing up a Problem of the Week”), or other important long-term reference material (a periodic table for chemistry, etc). Those go at the start of the section for the relevant class and stay there as long as they are needed.

The zip-binder usually has a zip pocket that can hold pencils and pens and anything else needed.   If you use it, make sure that it’s not in a location that makes it hard to lay paper flat and write on it.  But it’s probably just as well to put that stuff in the pocket designed for it in the backpack.  Separate pencil cases are just more superfluositicalextracalifragilisticity.

I strongly dislike traditional wood pencils.  They require that you (1) keep a sharpener in the Pencil Pocket (2) notice when the point has gotten too dull for neat handwriting (which most kids with executive functioning problems have a surprisingly hard time with!) (3) stop what you’re doing, sharpen the pencil successfully (which includes not dropping piles of shavings all over the floor when you have to keep opening the thing up to pry yet another broken point out of the razor), remember what it was you were doing, and then get back going again.  Ugh.  No.  I don’t have enough working memory for that.  Mechanical pencils are now widely available in .9mm width, which is thick enough even for most kids who press too hard.  I recommend the thinnest lead you won’t keep breaking, the cheapest bulk version of that pencil you can find (.7mm.5mm).

I actually don’t think that anyone needs pens for school.  Some teachers disagree with me and insist on work being done in pen.  Harrumph.  If they insist, I advise plain old medium-point black stick pens, nothing fancy.

I also don’t think that highlighters have much use during the school day.  Highlighting is almost completely useless as an active reading strategy for most people — it makes you feel like you’re doing something, but what you’re typically doing is a very surface-level syntactic analysis to find the key phrases without actually processing the information.  If you like to use highlighters during tests, to highlight key phrases so that you make sure you answer the whole question, then sure, go ahead.  Try to find highlighters that aren’t fluorescent (= superstimulating).

What I do like to see kids have around is some way of writing in color, whether that be colored pencils or colored pens.  These are a must for physics or any other course involving diagrams, and really useful for a lot of note-taking enterprises.  Colored and sort-of-erasable mechanical pencils do exist, although the leads are generally quite fragile — if you are gentle, use those, otherwise, a few colors of ball-point are fine.  And you can use them for the active test-taking, too, and they don’t glow.

Unless you’re required to include a calculator, I don’t think there’s much need for anything else in the Pencil Pocket. It likes to collect lots of interesting little things (binder clips, staplers, etc), but we’re back to William of Ockham there – if you don’t need it, get rid of it.

You’ll need a planner / assignment book / PDA of some kind, but that’s a long topic, again, best saved for another post.

At home, you need a good-sized D-ring binder, like this, with ordinary paper dividers to mirror the dividers in the traveling binder.  If you overflow during the course of the school year, you can always split into two big binders.

At home, you also need an ordinary stapler and a heavy-duty 3-hole punch (cheaper than you might think, and a worthwhile investment).

When papers get into your hands, ideally, they should go into the Rings of the Binder.  But if they don’t, no worries, put them into the folder for the subject.  That’s a rough sort that will get you through the week.

Put a weekly appointment on the calendar.  You’ll take ten minutes, tops, to go through the binder and the backpack and find all of the papers in those folders plus any stray calves.  Ideally, no paper should ever be loose, but I live on Planet Earth, so I do understand.  No recriminations, just find the stragglers and round ’em up, get ’em in the Rings.   Don’t worry about order within the Rings unless you like to do it — I’d rather see you be consistent about doing a pretty good job than be perfect but never quite get around to it.  Some people like to put new things in the back, others like to put them in the front of each section — either is fine, but pick one and stick to it. At the same time, if you’re running out of filler paper, refill.

Either once a month, or at the end of every multi-week unit, take out everything that is not from the current month/unit or the immediately previous month/unit, and put it in the big D-ring binder at home.  No paper gets thrown out, even if the teacher says you don’t need to keep it or it’s stupid or whatever.  All pieces of paper get saved until the end of the year (actually, for a few years, if you think you might have any interaction with the special education system).

Both of these reviews are almost impossible for most folks who struggle with organization to reliably do by themselves at first. When I’m working with someone, we do them together at the start of every session, and we rely on a cue card or checklist that lives in the binder, too. Then we fade back to having them do it while I watch and cue them when they miss something. Then, if necessary, we teach a parent how to watch and cue them, and they do it before our session, so my weekly check is just to see that it’s been done correctly. Then we fade back to having the parent remind them to do it and check afterwards that it’s done correctly. Eventually, kids can do it on their own, but we wait at each step to see that it’s happening reliably before we fade the support.

I have some alternatives, which I’ll cover in another post.

school supplies… a rant

August 4, 2010 35 comments

One of the things that I do a lot of with kids, especially kids in middle school or high school, is help them deal with the paper chase. We work together to develop and troubleshoot systems for corraling all those loose papers, books, notebooks, projects, etc. We’re often doing this in whatever teeny bits of wiggle room we can find within the “systems” imposed upon them by their schools. Usually schools have good intentions in doing these — they’re honestly trying to teach kids organizational skills. And, admittedly sometimes the systems are for the convenience of the teachers — e.g., they want to be able to collect notebooks and take them home to check that kids are doing their work. But usually the actual systems leave much to be desired.

Well, my own beloved Little Bird is about to embark upon middle school (cue the scary music), and the good news is that she is pretty run-of-the-mill in terms of keeping track of stuff — no worse than most kids her age. Which is to say she’s not very good at it.

So when I look at her supply list, I’m, well, a trifle concerned.

  • 2 double-pocket folders (note that these are designated for a specific subject, so they’re not likely to be intended as general “hot folders” (for carrying homework and parent handouts back and forth), which might actually be a use, at least for one of them. But usually, the main purpose of pocket folders is to become overstuffed and to have papers fall out of them into a random and comical heap at inopportune moments. Usually when the kid is late for the bus.)
  • 1 three-ring binder, 1″ thick, flexible, with some unspecified number of page protectors. It’s important to stay flexible.
  • 2 three-ring binders, 1″ thick, (one of which is noted as needing filler paper, the other is not. Was that a typo? Will they be writing only on worksheets? Or is there some very special papyrus to be purchased at a later date?)
  • 1 three-ring binder, 1.5″ thick, with side pockets (because handouts fall out of them so much more easily than out of those pesky pocket folders), 10 tab dividers, 25 sheets of lined paper, and 3 pens or pencils (for Health. Because I might have a heart attack trying to get this stuff organized.)
  • 1 three-ring binder, 2″ thick, with lined paper and reinforcements (I do appreciate the foresight of the tech-ed teacher. With a list like this, we’re definitely going to need to call for reinforcements at some point.)
  • 4 single-subject spiral notebooks that measure 9″x11″ (with, I kid you not, seven (7) reminders, four (4) of which are boldfaced and underlined, one (1) of which also has italics, to make sure you notice that they are requiring you to track down spirals that are actually 9″x11″ rather than 8.5″x11″ or 8.5″x10.5″, despite the fact that these spirals are literally three times the cost of the normal ones and are considerably harder to find (yes, I found them, no need to send me a link)).
  • 1 Bienfang Notesketch 8.5″x11″ Horizontal Lines (now there’s an art teacher who knows what she wants. Okay, I can’t be too mad about that. Hopefully it stays in the art room most of the time.  But heaven forbid she could have asked for a similar item available at, oh, say, a big-box craft or office supply store, instead of requiring a special trip to an art store or paying expensive shipping for an online order)
  • 1 zippered pencil pouch (recommended) (I’m wondering why they aren’t requiring it. Perhaps because no one other than the Health teacher thinks they need writing implements. Or perhaps because backpacks usually have appropriately-sized pockets, so pencil pouches are superfluous.)
  • 1 flash drive (good idea! Let me suggest also a lanyard or other device to permanently attach said flash drive to the kid’s backpack? Otherwise, in the office pool for the lifespan of that object, put me down for “under one week.”)
  • 1 mini stapler (Why? Because teachers aren’t going to hit the “staple” button on the photocopier? Because classrooms can’t have a single shared stapler anymore so kids can learn to take turns? Because the pencil pouch might be lonely without any pencils in it?)
  • 1 glue stick (Ah, now I’m wondering if this is the crucial piece to their cunning plan — those oversized spiral-bounds could easily be chosen so that every we’re-going-green-single-side-printed handout can be meticulously glued in place! If so, we need a case of glue sticks. And some antacid.)
  • <singing> and a partridge in a pear tree.</singing>  Yes, they do note that additional items may be added during the school year as needed.

Note that this is all before we add any textbooks to those backpacks, if you were concerned about weight.

Okay, to be fair, I’m willing to guess that a couple of those binders might be destined to live in classrooms instead of traveling back and forth to lockers and home.

I’m noticing what’s not on the list, too… No mechanical pencils. No colored pens or pencils. No graph paper for either math or science.  No actual hot-folder.

And no planner. Maybe we’ll get lucky and they won’t hand out a paper planner they’re expecting everyone to use. And maybe they’ll be okay letting her use an electronic PDA.

Fortunately, this isn’t a school that has gotten all security-crazed to the point where they don’t allow backpacks or tote bags. No kidding — I’ve had to write into kids’ IEPs and 504 plans that they had to be allowed to use a bag instead of carrying everything loose.

But this list is not giving me all the warm fuzzy back-to-school feeling I’m hoping for. It has too many moving parts. Too much empty air and paper being carried around. Too much labor involved in routine use.

It’s not a plan for success. It’s a plan for lost and crumpled papers, shoved deep into the recesses of the backpack until they turn into petroleum products. It’s a plan for disintegrating or overflowing notebooks which then must be laboriously recreated. It’s a plan for oh-so-many last-minute crises when the eldritch horrors that live in kids’ lockers have mysteriously hidden the items they needed to do their homework so that the kid wasn’t able to rescue them before dashing out to the bus. Oy.

Of course, by sheer random chance, some kids in this school will manage this system okay. And some other kids will have parental or professional support called into play so as to prevent the worst of the failure. But that just gives the illusion that these systems work. Which then is used to justify blaming kids who can’t make them work (“not trying hard enough” or even “lazy”).

See, you can’t teach kids organizational skills just by putting them in a situation where organizational skills would be a Really Good Idea. You also can’t teach organizational skills by imposing a system that is complex and onerous enough that kids need you to direct them every inch of the way. You need to be in the middle ground, where some guidance will help them gradually become able to do it on their own.

Normally, this district actually does a pretty good job with most things, and even a very good job with some things.  Birdie likes school and I think she’s getting a good education.   I’m frankly surprised to see this list, and I hope that I’m wrong about some of my conjectures.  But even if this is actually a well-thought-out system that I’m just totally misconstruing, I’m sure there are plenty of you out there who are about to be struggling with a school-imposed organizational nightmare.

In <a href=”https://davincilearning.wordpress.com/2010/08/11/on-organization-do-not-multiply-entities-needlessly/”>another post,</a> I’ll talk about the system I usually start with — it works pretty well for most kids who struggle with organization.