The secret to helping students write better

The problem with a lot of the so-called writing instruction students encounter at school is that it doesn’t actually teach writing. Teachers say things like “Write an outline that shows the beginning, middle, and end of your story. Write one like this story you just read.”

But the problem is poor writers aren’t able to evaluate their own writing the way a good writer, like a teacher, could do. So a poor writer might think she has a topic sentence or a concluding paragraph in her writing. But when the teacher reads it, it’s clear that there isn’t enough information.

So even though teachers might show models of good writing and encourage students to used transition sentences like this author or use dialogue like that author, poor writers don’t have the ability to evaluate what they read or what they’ve written and decide if they’ve met the requirements. Poor writers don’t need more practice with their current skills. Teachers need to teach students to write better!

It just makes sense that what poor writers need is explicit instruction on how to write. A little league coach doesn’t say go out there and hit the ball like Manny Ramirez. A coach says, “Stand with your feet together. Hold the bat over your shoulder. Watch for the pitch. When you see the pitch come over the plate, swing your bat. Make sure you take a big step forward as you swing.” That level of explicit detail is missing from a lot of writing instruction, but it’s just what students need.

Poor writers need clear, predictable structures that they can use to complete writing assignments. It might seem boring to have them follow that formula for paragraph after paragraph but it’s just what a poor writer needs to write a decent essay. For a lot of us, it comes naturally to have a topic sentence that introduces what we’re going to write about in a paragraph. A poor writer may not intuitively include a sentence like that at the beginning of their paragraph. Therefore teaching them that a good paragraph starts with a topic sentence and that a topic sentence goes something like… helps them to organize their writing in a way other people can understand it.

Just like there are steps for solving a math equation, there are steps for putting together a paragraph in many different genres of writing. There are formulas for writing a persuasive paragraph. I like to use the POW+TREE structure. For elementary students learning expository writing, I use POW+TIDE. Most of these structures focus on organizing at the paragraph level, because once a student knows how to write a good paragraph, it’s easier for them to string those paragraphs together to write an essay or even a longer research paper.

Besides paragraph level structure, students also need to learn to write good sentences. For many students, controlling the grammatical structures in a long sentence and making sure the subjects and the verbs agree with each other can be and a very abstract topic. Some schools still give formal grammar instruction that teaches the names of all the parts of speech but even then students may not be able to put them together in a grammatical way in their own writing.

One way I help students learn to write more complex sentences is by teaching them the strategy of sentence combining and sentence decombining. By having students start with simple sentences like “Bob has a red shirt. Jim has a red shirt.” and combining them to make “Bob and Jim have red shirts,” students learn how to combine the building blocks of simple sentences to make more complex ones. On the flip side, I teach them how to take complex sentences and separate them out into their component parts. Like a mechanic taking apart an engine, students understand better how a sentence is assembled once they have taken it apart. 

Editing is another frequently challenging area of writing for students. Although many of them can tell me that a sentence begins with a capital letter and ends with a period, they have difficulty seeing these things in the middle of a paragraph and correcting them. It’s the same for run-on sentences. They may understand what a run-on or a fragment is, but when it comes to identifying them in their own writing they have a lot of difficulty. One of the main strategies I recommend for this is not a popular one with students. One of the best ways to catch errors in your writing is to read it out loud.

Another strategy, which I teach to students who make mechanical errors, is COPS. Students learn to read a whole paragraph checking each sentence for capital letters, then read it again checking for overall appearance, which includes neatness and letter formation. The third time they read the paragraph they look for punctuation at the end of every sentence. And finally they read the paragraph from the last word backwards until they get to the first word to see whether all the words are spelled correctly. While it is time-consuming, this focused structure helps them make sure that they have not overlooked any errors.

This process of learning the building blocks of writing can be a time-consuming one and it can be frustrating for students, especially those who have been getting by without this knowledge for years of school. But for many students in middle school and high school they find that they can’t get by with what they knew about writing anymore. The assignments get complex and longer. Teachers are no longer as forgiving about mistakes in spelling grammar and organization. Many classmates have internalized features of good writing and seem to be getting good grades effort effortlessly. Students might feel frustrated or cheated, but really the problem is just that they haven’t learned the rules for this kind of writing yet. An academic writing is a rule-based process that can be taught!

If your child struggles with writing and needs some strategies that work, contact me today for a free 30-minute tutoring consultation.

Students continue to struggle with writing when all they get is practice because they are practicing the wrong things!

I hate mind-mapping for planning writing! (But I love teaching it!)

I keep reading about how much people love mind-mapping for planning writing. People talk about how freeing it is to sit down in front of a web of ideas instead of a stark, blank, page. They talk about how it speeds their writing process, reduces their anxiety, makes them better writers. They describe amazing feats, like ebooks or term papers finished in record time.

I’m jealous of those people because looking at a blank map and trying to imagine my ideas in that two-dimensional space is enough to give me hives. I’m a list-maker, a table-filler. I am much more comfortable when I sketch a chart of main ideas and sources to support them, or a bulleted list of sketchy details. It doesn’t work like magic for me, but it is reliable and comfortable. So that’s what I usually model as my students are brainstorming instead of mind-mapping for planning writing.

But last summer, I realized that I was doing all the work on the bulleted list I made for one student. Not only was I typing all the ideas he gave (which I do a lot for my online students, as most school-age kids aren’t fluent on the keyboard yet), but I was also retrieving all the ideas from the list as he needed them in his paragraph. I realized my list was doing absolutely nothing to make him an independent writer.

What a waste of lesson time!

So I researched a couple of free tools for mind-mapping that are compatible with Google Drive, which is where we do all our shared writing.

I found Connected Mind. That offered incredible flexibility in shape, color, font, and in the direction, length and shape of connections between nodes. It is a tool that could make gorgeous, detailed maps that would look terrific in a presentation or as an end product in their own right. For planning writing, my student and I both found it overwhelming and distracting. I felt like I needed to write out a draft on paper to make sure I got the map just right. It totally defeated the purpose of a quick mind map.

The second tool we tried was Mind Mup.  It’s a winner!

  • It has a simple interface with a limited number of options for type of node, size and color
  • It automatically arranges your nodes by spacing them evenly and rearranging them as you add more.
  • You can add images from Google Drive
  • Nodes can be rearranged by dragging and dropping

The amazing thing about mind-mapping as a teaching tool has been “walking through” the map with the student to check for logical connections and missing details. This process can be more difficult and time consuming when a student has already written a whole paragraph about an idea. They believe they have fully explained themselves and sometimes can’t see a gap in logic or detail that is glaring to you as a reader. With the mind map, it’s easier to get the student to explain the thought process between nodes, and to suggest what might be missing. While building a mind map can take some serious time, it’s worth it to see the student’s writing plan come together. As the saying goes, “If you don’t have time to do it right, when will you find the time to do it over?”

Learning how to use mind-mapping to plan writing has been eye-opening for me as a tutor. I became a tutor because I realized that the one-size-fits-all approach of schools doesn’t meet the needs of all students. By using mind-mapping, I can better support my students who are visual thinkers and save them a lot of time and frustration! So even though I’m not using mind-mapping for my own writing, I make a point of showing it to my students and practicing it as one way to organize and improve their writing.

Mind-mapping for planning writing isn’t for me, but it might be for you!

Write Your Future Self Homework Directions You Can Use

If I had a dollar for every time a student told me their homework was

Do you sit down for homework, only to realize you don’t know what your notes mean?

“study” or “math worksheet,” but then couldn’t figure out what to do, I could probably retire now. Students take out their planner in the last couple minutes of class, the teacher hands out a study guide or writes the numbers of the homework problems, or the name of the chapter, on the board and the student writes exactly that. Six hours later, sitting at her dining room table, she doesn’t know how to use that information. You need to write yourself homework directions that you can use! Here’s how:

 

Get the facts

Teachers may talk all through class, but they have a way of telling you what information is important. For some teachers, the most important things are the ones they write on the board. Others raise their voices or repeat details. They aren’t doing this out of boredom or by accident. The things they emphasize are the things you need to write down. Make sure you have these facts about every assignment.

  • Who (All students? Everyone who hasn’t passed the test? The group presenting Monday?)
  • What (What book? Which chapter? Odd problems or even? Write an outline or a draft? The whole packet or just the first page?)
  • Where (Are the resources on the teacher’s website? Do you have to go to the library? Is it the paper he gave you last week? Which one?)
  • When (When is it due? Will you be checking in about it tomorrow or turning it in all at once next week?)
  • Why? (Is there a quiz coming up? Did you struggle with these problems in class? Will you need this draft for peer editing tomorrow?)
  • How? (Write notes or full sentences? Type it or write it by hand? Submit it online or hand in a paper copy?)

Label it

Before you leave class, try to imagine yourself doing the assignment and write down a few specific details in your

 or on top of the page.

  • Today’s date
  • The due date
  • Which class it is for (use color coding to keep this simple)
  • A verb – I’ll say more about this in a minute
  • Any essential information – do you need your textbook for this? Are you meeting with your group?

Make a plan

Next to the date on your paper (or in your planner if you don’t have room), write down an action plan. This can be simple, like the single verb “study” or “solve” or it can be a multi-step plan if the teacher’s instructions are detailed.

Schedule the work

There’s a difference between the “due date” when you turn in the work and the “do date” when you sit down and make it happen. Record both in your planner. (Hint: For successful students, these are NOT the same date.) You might want to use different colors, like highlighting the due date in yellow and writing your do dates in regular pen. When you write your do date, take into account things like soccer practice and family plans. Are you really going to read that chapter after you get home from the birthday party Saturday night? Or do you need to schedule it for Friday afternoon to make sure it happens?

By thinking ahead when your teacher assigns homework, you can make sure you have everything you need to get the homework done quickly, do it right and get the grade you deserve!

What Will Your Child Learn This Summer?

Are you looking back on your child’s school year and wishing things could be easier for them?

What if:What do you think would make your child's school year better?

  • Sunday night was a time for family dinner instead of scrambling to finish the weekend’s homework?
  • Essay assignments didn’t end in tears or frustration?
  • You didn’t have to spend as much time on homework as your child does?
  • Your child’s grades improved?
  • Your child went to school without feeling worried or afraid of what the day would bring?
  • You didn’t spend mornings looking for missing papers, lost library books, and pieces of clothing?
This summer, let’s work together to help your child get organized and prepared for school.

Does your child know HOW to study? I can teach them!I can help them:

  • Experiment with a planner or agenda book system to find one that actually make sense to them!
  • Learn note taking and study strategies that make it easy to get ready for tests.
  • Take the mystery and uncertainty out of planning and writing essays.
  • Make a plan for homework and stick to it to get a great start on the year!
  • Build vocabulary and reading strategies to help them read with confidence.

Contact me today for a no-cost 30-minute consultation to find out how I can help your child make next year the best school year yet!

 

3 Ways to Memorize Information for a Test

Memorizing and recalling information is a basic, concrete, way of using your memory. It’s simpler (but not necessarily easier) than applying facts to problem solving or demonstrating something you have learned. But sometimes teachers just test you on what you remember.

You can use these simple techniques to help you memorize information for a test.

Can imagining Buddha in a Porsche get you an A?

Can reliving your walk to school help you recall Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy?

If you connect images and everyday events to help to the things you are trying to memorize, the answer is ABSOLUTELY!

Visualization

One way to memorize information for a test is to create a silly or outrageous mental picture that helps you recall all the details you have to memorize. In a class I took, the professor went around the room and asked each of us to say a word. He wrote them all on a large piece of paper. Then he gave us 30 seconds to memorize as many words as we could. The next day in class, he asked us to write down as many as we could remember. I was the only one who got all of the 15 or so words. I did it by connecting them and making a silly story that used all the words. The only ones I remember now, ten years later, are door handle, blue and balloon. But hey, remembering 3 out of 15 random words I learned one Saturday for 10 years is something, right?

Here’s how you can use it:

Let’s say you have to memorize the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution. You might picture a man with a speech bubble that has the word “free” in it (First amendment – free speech). His sleeves are rolled up (Second amendment – the right to bear arms (bare arms)). He’s throwing quarters at a soldier standing inside a house (Third amendment – about the quartering of soldiers in private homes). Nearby, a police officer is going through the man’s luggage (Fourth amendment – prohibits unreasonable search and seizure). You get the idea. All the amendments are represented in a single picture, so that when you imagine the picture during your test, you’ll be able to see clues for each one, and each amendment will trigger your memory for another one.

Memory Palace

The memory palace technique, also known as the method of loci, takes this a step further. It is an ancient strategy that relies on your mental image of a familiar location to help you recall new information. It works like this:

As you picture a familiar location, like your bedroom or landmarks on the way to school, you imagine each piece of information on one of the landmarks of your familiar setting. Once you have created your mental image of all the steps or parts you need to memorize at each location, you just have to imagine sitting in your bedroom, looking from your closet to your desk, to the drawers in your bureau, to recall each item on your list. 

Here’s how you can use it:

Start now. “Build” your memory palace ahead of time by constructing a list of 10 or 15 things in your bedroom or noticing the details of your trip to school. That way, when your teacher assigns a poem to memorize, you just assign a line of the poem to each part of your memory palace, which will help you recall the lines and keep them in order.

Mnemonics

A mnemonic is a term for any kind of memory device, but it usually refers to a word or phrase that reminds you of different words that have the same beginning letters. A famous example is ROY G. BIV which reminds us of the colors of the rainbow (Red Orange Yellow Green Blue Indigo and Violet). Another is the sentence, “My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nachos,” which has the same first letter as all the planets of our solar system, in order.

Fun fact: I learned “My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas” because in my day, poor Pluto was a planet, not just a dwarf planet.

Here’s how you can use it:

Create a mnemonic if you have to remember a list of information in a particular order. A simple example would be the water cycle: Evaporation, Condensation, Precipitation, and Collection. You might remember the initial letters: E, C, P, C with the sentence “Every Child Prefers Chicken.”

You may have to try one more than one memory strategy to figure out which one works best for you. Some people prefer to visualize pictures like in a Memory Palace or a mental image while others remember things better when they use words, such as with a mnemonic device. It doesn’t really matter which one you choose. 

The important thing is to be strategic when you are memorizing information. Reading and rereading flashcards will probably eventually get you the results you want but interacting with the information and using the creative parts of your brain will help you remember things for longer and memorize the more quickly. On the other hand, don’t get so caught up in making a beautiful picture or a silly mnemonic that you lose sight of the end goal, which is to remember the information.

All of these strategies take time to implement. The night before a test is not the time to create a mnemonic or build your memory palace. By planning ahead and using active strategies, you will find that studying becomes easier and less stressful and you get the grades you want and have fun doing it!

If you need help setting up study strategies for your classes or creating your study schedule, a tutor can help! Contact me for a free, 30-minute consultation to see if online tutoring is right for you.
3 Great Ways to Memorize Information for a Test

How and Why to Use a Color-Coded Binder System

In elementary school, staying organized was pretty easy. Homework was the same, week to week, and teachers gave lots of support and reminders, and parents did the same at home. Some kids internalized those routines, and others got by with help. And yes, sometimes work got forgotten in a student’s desk or lost in the bus, but the stakes were low.

Fast forward to middle school

Different teachers all day long, and lockers to manage. Suddenly, kids are responsible for holding on to work for days at a time and finishing it at home, then returning it for a grade. They are taking notes and getting materials they need to study for a test weeks from now.

Some teachers explicitly teach systems for keeping it all organized. Some teams of teachers plan for all the kids they teach, so everyone’s materials match. And in some schools, with some teachers, you are on your own.

If your student hasn’t been given a specific supply list to follow, start here with a color coding system. And don’t forget to grab your color-coded binder checklist PDF down below!

Why color-code?

A color-coded system is ideal for kids who:

Color coding folders is a great way to help kids get organized
  • Are distractible. A consistent color system gives kids with ADD/ADHD an extra layer of prompts.
  • Are poor readers. Being able to remember that all red items go with science, for example, means they can more quickly find and file items without taking the time to read each handout or page of notes.
  • Have poor short term memory or slow processing speed. These kids might need more time to make decisions about where to put things, and again, the colors add another layer of cueing.
  • Are anxious. The time pressure of making it from one class to the next can make adults crazy, let alone an anxious kid. A color-coded system is ready to put things in and quick to straighten up later if something gets hastily misfiled.

How to set up color coded binders

  1. Decide on a type of binder. One big, zipped, binder (like this one from Case-It) works well for fifth and sixth grade, or for classes with workbooks (and not a lot of handouts or note paper). A series of 3-ring binders (I like these sturdy ones from Avery) works for students who can get to their lockers a few times a day, and is better if teachers tend to give many handouts.
  2. Shop. Back to school time is a great time to stock up, of course. Invest in sturdy binders (marked durable or heavy-duty) so they can withstand lockers, backpacks, and teenage indifference.
  3. Organize. Label each folder, binder and notebook with the name of the class (and for the notebook, with the date you started it). Put the colored pencils or pens in a pencil case or zippered pocket. Put the key to the color code in 4 places: a plastic sleeve in the front of the binder, a plastic sleeve hanging in the locker, taped into the cover of the child’s planner/agenda book, and hanging over the homework area.
  4. Use it! Start class with the correct binder, folder, and notebook at
    Use colored pencils to mark each paper you get in class with the date.

    your desk. Take out the matching colored pencil. Put a quick mark in the top right corner of each page the teacher hands out. Better yet, put the date and a quick direction on each page. Write “study,” “read,” “have Mom sign” to remind yourself what to do with the paper.

  5. Maintain it. At the end of the
    Every evening, put new papers in the binders when you start your homework.

    school day, or when you get home, do a quick visual check. Are all the items in the folders marked with the right color? Are there any papers that belong somewhere else? Use the three-hole punch to put any papers you are keeping in the notebook rings.

  6. Clean it out. At the end of the week, month or term, look at every page in a binder. Remove any old work (stuff that’s been graded and notes/handouts when the test/project/unit is completed), clip it together and put a sticky note with the date on it. Then file it in long term storage (or put the whole thing in the recycling, if you’re sure you don’t need it again).

This system is a great start for kids who don’t have one. As you put it into place, you will start to figure out what works for you and what doesn’t. There is nothing magical or sacred about this system. The magic comes from putting something in place and working with it. Subscribe below to get a free PDF checklist for setting up your color-coded binder system and a shopping list for picking up the materials you need.



Need help getting your child organized? Contact me for a free 30-minute consultation to help you decide if tutoring is a good fit.

Using Google Keep with Students

One of the biggest factors that causes students in middle and high school to struggle in school is lack of organization. No matter how smart and capable a student is, it’s very hard to get good grades if they are disorganized. They lose papers, forget assignments, or turn in projects with missing details.

But how much time have your child’s teachers spent teaching him or her how to organize themselves? Sure, lots of teachers require things like outlines and study guides, or folders in specific colors, but that doesn’t mean the approach they teach will work for your child. I spent years quickly writing my papers, then reverse-engineering the outlines because I just don’t plan my writing well by using an outline, but it was required.

As I got older, I developed a system that worked for me of making lists, using a planner, and scheduling my work. I used paper for a long time, then switched to Evernote, which I liked because it could sync between my computer and my phone. I kept trying other apps, but never found the perfect one.

A couple years ago, I discovered Google Keep. It’s everything I need, and I think it’s perfect for my students, too!

Here are some reasons to give it a try.

One login

If you are logged into your Google account, you are logged in to Google Keep. No additional passwords, and no remembering to check the list because your reminders pop up in your browser or you can get push notifications sent to your phone.

Visual options

I love the visual display, which looks like an array of Post-it notes. You can color code notes for home, school and work or for each of your classes. Add bullets or numbering to your list. Drag and drop notes or pin them to the top of the page to keep them front and center in your attention.

Checkboxes

Checkboxes are the feature I use most in Google Keep. With one tap, it’s easy to change a list of steps into an organized checklist. Drag and drop items into the order you want to work on them. Copy and paste a list from a website or document, then click “add checkboxes” to turn it in to a list.

Sharing

As with Google Drive, you can share a note in Keep with another Google user. This is great for parents who want to share a list of chores or a group working on a project.

Reminders

Set a reminder to study for the test every day at 7 pm. On Sundays at 4, get reminded to pack your backpack. Put in a note to remind you when you are home to find a baby picture for the yearbook.

‎Archiving

Set a reminder to check your grades 2 weeks before the end of the quarter. Then archive the note to get it out of sight until you need it. When you finish a project, archive or delete the note so it doesn’t clutter up your list.

All of these features make Google Keep easy to use and convenient. It’s a great choice for helping students get organized, and it’s freely available as part of a Google account, so why not try it?

Does your child need some extra help getting organized for school? Are they having trouble finishing projects, getting poor test grades? Maybe it’s time for a tutor. Contact me today for a free consultation.

 

Stay Organized with Google Keep – at Home and at Work

I’ve always been a list-maker. I used a paper-based system for years, and I would keep a running list on scrap paper or in my planner. But when I got out of college and stopped going everywhere with my backpack, I started leaving my lists behind. So I have turned to digital systems for to-do lists to help me stay organized. After trying Evernote for a few years and using the notes feature of an iPad and a few different cell phones, I was really excited to learn about Google Keep. I have started using Google Keep to help my students plan projects and keep schoolwork organized. Here are some of my favorite features.

Using Google Keep at Home

Groceries

I keep a running grocery list. I use the share feature to share the list with my husband. The list has check boxes so I can check off items I bought and uncheck them when we need them again. Once a week, the reminder feature tells me I need to plan my shopping for the coming week.

Google keep is great for this because it syncs between all my devices. If I am sitting at my desk planning meals for the week, I can pull up the list on my laptop. Then I can use my phone to look at it while I shop and check off items as they go into the cart. When I find an unusual item or a terrific price, I take a photo and attach it to the list so I don’t forget.

Meal Planning

I have a plan of recurring menus that my family likes, that are quick enough to prepare on weeknights. It’s not a perfect system but it gets us fed. One of the tools I use is a weekly to-do list that pops up on Google Keep. For example, if I’m serving tacos this week, Google Keep has a list of all the advance prep steps that I would do the weekend before: chop the peppers, grate the cheese, check the pantry for salsa, etc. I have a reminder set for that list every two weeks, because that is how often I have tacos on the menu. I archive the note when I’m done with the chores and don’t see it again until the following week, when it’s time to prep again.

Seasonal Chores

I have a recurring reminder for seasonal chores like changing the smoke alarm batteries, switching out everyone’s toothbrushes, and calling to get the boiler maintained every year. They are not items I put on my calendar, because they can be done somewhat flexibly. Also, I don’t want to flip ahead 6 months to find out when daylight savings begins before I can put an event on the calendar for changing the batteries. So it pops up once every 6 months around the week of the time change and I just leave it up on my Keep to-do list until I take care of it.

Holiday and Seasonal Shopping and Activities

I have a holiday gift list, a list of fun things to do this summer, and a list of new clothes my son needs. For example, when I realize he is outgrowing three pairs of pants, I put pants on the list and pick some up next time I see a good sale. This prevents me from buying things I don’t need, because I’m trying to shop from memory. It also stops me from standing panicked in the middle of the mall in December trying to remember the great gift idea I had for my father.

Knitting Pattern Notes

I love knitting and crocheting, but I don’t often have time to work on my projects. I tend to forget where I am on a project and it takes me forever to look at the piece, read through the directions, and get oriented. When I’m knitting a complicated pattern, I paste the row by row instructions into a note in Google Keep and I add checkboxes. Then, as I knit, I can check off each completed row with a quick gesture. No fumbling for a pen or shuffling index cards, which was the system my grandma taught me as a kid for keeping track of pattern repeats.

Chores

I have a list that pops up every Saturday morning, early. (Too early, but I have to get started before my family wakes up and the fun starts.) It has all the things that perpetually need doing, like sweeping and mopping the floors, washing sheets and folding a staggering amount of laundry.

To those regular items, I add any special errands or chores that I want to do in a given weekend. A checklist gives me accountability and a sense of satisfaction when I check off items.

Distracting my Toddler

Last but not least, Google Keep is a great tool to hand my son when we are waiting for dinner in a restaurant. I can pin the app open, so he can’t get out of it, and open up the drawing feature in a new note. He quickly learned to choose different types of markers and highlighters and to change the color. Sometimes he draws faces, other times he just scribbles and experiments with color. Either way, he is proud to show us his picture, and I never have to pick up crayons that have rolled across the floor. When he gets older, I’m excited to teach him to play tic-tac-toe on the screen, too.

Using Google Keep at Work

Client Notes

When I talk to a parent interested in tutoring for her child, I open Google Keep on my laptop while we are on the phone. I jot down any information I get about the student and family. A recent set of notes includes test scores, favorite books, names of siblings and pets.

Then I add to the note anything I want to cover in our first session, like stories we might read or assessments I want to use. During or after the meeting, I can jot down test results and observations. It helps me remember the details about new students, especially in a season when I am meeting a lot of families.

Professional Goals

I have another note, with a weekly reminder, that prompts me to check in on my goals. Am I posting on social media as much as I planned? Have I designed the flyer I want to share with parents? Am I meeting my scheduling goals for this blog? What was that YouTube video I wanted to add?

That reminder means that I can’t ignore those goals for weeks at a time. Every time it pops up, even if I don’t have time to sit down and address those items, it refreshes my memory about what I should be doing. Google Keep helps me keep my eye on the prize!

Drafting Blog Posts

Since my list of blog topics is on Google Keep, it makes sense that I often start blog post drafts there, as well. When I’m out of the house and have a couple of minutes, it’s quick to open up Google Keep, start a new note, and outline the post I want to write next. By long-pressing on the note, I can choose the option to “Copy to Google Docs” and move the blog post over when I’m ready to format and finalize the post. I can also open the Keep note on my computer and paste it right into the blog post editor on my website. Google Keep is a flexible tool that gives me a lot of options for quickly starting my writing. For some reason, it’s a lot less intimidating to sit in front of a little note screen, designed for quick things like grocery lists, than a stark, blank document on my computer. It makes it seem like no big deal to just jot down a few ideas.

The Takeaway

When a tool has as many uses as Google Keep does, it’s no wonder it has a place of honor on the favorites tray of my cell phone. It’s right there with the camera and my text messages. I have my personal account and my professional account linked to my phone, which lets me access either set of notes with just a couple taps. Between the checklist function, bulleted lists, sharing, photos, and drawing, Google Keep is an all-purpose tool that should be in anyone’s productivity suite. 

Come back soon to read how I teach students to use Google Keep to organize their school work and avoid forgetting what they need to do.

Create, share and use lists and notes in Google Keep

Creating Space and Time for Homework

Although some researchers question the usefulness of homework, it is still a standard practice in most schools to assign some work for students to do after class. This can vary from independent reading to elaborate projects that involve multiple trips to the craft store. My philosophy on homework is that it should be minimal and that it should be reinforcement and extra practice of things that the child has already learned in class. That means if they did not master the concept in class, they shouldn’t be expected to spend hours learning it at home, especially in elementary school.

That also means that in a perfect world, teachers should be assigning homework that students can mostly do on their own. As a parent, you can help your child succeed by creating a space and time in your home where he or she can do homework to the best of his or her ability. You can also check their work to make sure they have put in their best effort and not made any obvious, careless mistakes. However, I believe that if homework is taking a lot of parental effort every night, something is wrong. Be sure to communicate with your child’s teacher if the homework seems extremely difficult or if your child doesn’t seem able to complete it. It could be a sign of a more serious problem.

Here are some ideas for creating a homework-friendly environment in your home, no matter how old your child is.

Homework in Elementary School: Laying the Foundations for Success

Homework can be overwhelming for young students.

In many schools, homework begins as early as kindergarten. Although I don’t think this is the best use of after-school time for five- and six-year-olds, families that have to get in the habit of homework for their youngest learners have some specific things to consider.

Kindergarten Through Second Grade

These are the years that children are building their homework habits, so it’s very important to help them develop a positive attitude towards the work they have to do. And investment in good habits now will make the homework process go more smoothly for years to come.

Readiness

Make sure your child is ready to work before you sit down to do homework. Younger children may come home from school hungry, tired, or just fidgety from being in their chairs all day. Follow your child’s cues to determine whether they need a play break when they first get home, or maybe a snack. Some children, on the other hand, do their best work right after school when they’re still in “learning mode.” Develop a schedule that works best for your child’s energy level.

Close Supervision

The younger children most likely need a parent in the room or even at the table with them to read directions, redirect them if they get distracted, and give them praise and encouragement. As your kids get more familiar with the homework routine, try to set short independent goals, like asking them to copy their spelling words onto the paper while you load the dishwasher. Be sure to give them lots of praise for their independent work when you check in a few minutes.

Minimize distractions

Young learners can be distracted by a TV on in the house, other children playing while they’re trying to work, or just the stories or worries going on in their own brains. Set up homework in a quiet part of the house where your child is unlikely to be distracted by family members or other excitement. Gently redirect your child to the homework task when they become distracted it try to change the subject or tell a story. You are trying to help them learn to redirect their own attention. This skill, part of executive functioning, is essential for managing attention and keeping themselves motivated as they get older.

Tools

Have the right tools available. The type of homework your child brings home will vary, but helpful tools to have on hand are:

  • Pencils, a sharpener, and erasers
  • Crayons or colored pencils
  • Lined paper that’s appropriate for the size of their handwriting
  • For math, a ruler, graph paper, object like coins or small blocks that they can count and used to help them solve problems
Resources

Children this age are likely to complain if you try to tell them something that is different from the way their teacher taught it. However, they’re also likely to need help doing the work. Your child’s teacher will likely share resources for homework at the beginning of the school year for along with the homework paper. If he or she does not give you the information you need, ask whether the school district or textbook they use has a website with parent information. There are often videos and demos that you can use to learn how to help your child.

How Much Time?
  • It won’t be productive for your young child to spend too much time at one sitting in front of their homework. If you notice your child getting fatigued or distracted, and you find it’s too hard to get them back to work, it might just be time for a break. Try splitting homework time up between after school, evening, and the morning before school, if needed. Some parents report that homework that might take an hour in the afternoon takes just 10 or 15 minutes first thing in the morning.

 

Grades 2-5

Homework is pretty common by the time students are in second grade. They are likely to have math practice, spelling or vocabulary work, and maybe an independent reading assignment. Many elementary teachers stick to a predictable weekly routine for homework, which means you can usually do the same at home. Here are some tips for helping your elementary students get their homework done.

Prepare to work

Just like the younger children discussed above, older elementary students might also need a break after school or snack to help them get ready to sit down and do their homework. However, by this age, they should be able to communicate to you how they’re feeling and help you strategize about what they need to get ready to work. That doesn’t mean they should do whatever they want before they start their homework. Come up with a reasonable plan by working with your child that might give them a short time to play followed by homework, followed by the reward of more time to do their favorite activities.

Increasing Independence

As children move through elementary school, they develop more independence and more responsibility for completing their work. By third grade, students should be able to complete a simple assignment such as questions about a story or a math worksheet without direct help from the parent. they may still need you close by. Many elementary students are not ready to work on their homework all alone in their room, and may do better at the kitchen table or another public part of the house where an adult is available if needed.

Managing Distractions

While older children might be able to manage their attention a little bit better than they could a year or two ago, they are still likely to be distracted by the TV computer or cell phone in their work environment. If you are supervising homework, it’s a great idea to make this a no screens time for yourself as well. That ensures that you were available to help your child, as needed, and keeps your child from being distracted by your device.

Having the Right Tools

Children should be bringing home any tools that are specific to their assignment, like multiplication charts or science notebooks that have the information they need to refer to. It’s still great to have a set of household homework tools, though, which will keep your child from rummaging through the house for the things she needs to complete an assignment.

Kids need access to the right tools to make homework time go smoothly
  • Pencils, pens, erasers, sharpeners
  • Lined paper, blank drawing paper, and graph paper
  • A calculator if your child works with one in math
  • Ruler, protractor, and other math tools needed for their curriculum
  • Highlighters, glue sticks, colored pencils, markers, and crayons
  • Parent knowledge/resources: Many schools or textbook publishers have online resources like videos to refresh your child’s memory about a concept or skill. If the teacher has a class website, make sure to check it for homework reminders or tips and strategies.
How Long Will It Take?

The amount of homework assigned increases from year to year throughout Elementary School, with schools often following the recommendation that students should have 10 minutes of homework per grade. That means first graders would have 10 minutes of homework while 5th graders might have 50. However, students are very different from each other, so homework that takes one child 15 minutes might take another child an hour. Be mindful of time of day when scheduling your child’s homework, and be willing to intervene if you find that the homework is taking too long. It doesn’t benefit your child to struggle alone over an assignment they don’t understand, and it certainly doesn’t help them if you give in and leave them through it step-by-step. If they are struggling with an assignment, encourage them to try their best and help them communicate with their teacher to explain where they got stuck.

 

Homework in Middle School: Increasing Independence 

By 6 or 7th grade your student should be able to complete their assigned homework independently. But that doesn’t mean you’re off the hook! As a parent you can continue to give them appropriate setting to work on their homework and to monitor to make sure they are doing what needs to be done and that they understand the material. By this time in their school career kids are finding the teachers grade many of their independent homework assignments. That’s why it becomes extra important that you not hover over them and that you don’t help with the work itself. Teachers are using homework to measure what students learned in class and how independently they can apply it.

Some other things middle schoolers need for homework:

Tools

The same kinds of tools that they did when they were younger: pencils, pens, highlighters, markers and scissors.

Internet Access

Middle schoolers are more likely to need an internet connection to complete their homework, either to read an assignment or to do research. Many teachers use online format for studying, practicing math skills, and turning in assignments. The stayfocusd extension for Google Chrome is a free tool that prevents users from going to certain blocked sites (chosen by you) too much, or within certain hours of the day.

Accountability with Independence

Monitor your middle schooler and make sure they are using their access productively, and not just texting their friends. Help them manage their time to make sure they can get done all parts of the assignment in the time they have.

Help to Plan

Middle School also tends to be a time of longer, independent projects. Help your middle schooler break down the project into all of its steps and develop a timeline for completing it that doesn’t have them staying up all night the night before it’s due!

Someone to Manage the Schedule

Keep a family calendar that includes family events, sports commitments, and other activities that will keep your student busy in the coming days and weeks. Refer to it when the student is planning a project or preparing to study for a big test.

A Place To Work

Middle schoolers are often trying to gain more independence and would prefer to do their homework in their room or in another location where they have more privacy. For most kids this is a good choice, but you know your child best. If you feel they’re not ready to work without direct supervision, set a policy that homework gets done in the kitchen or dining room.

Consider getting a portable box or caddy that holds all of the homework tools so your child can choose to work flexibly, such as using the floor for a big poster or doing long reading assignments in their quiet bedrooms.

High School Homework: Supporting an Independent Learner

By high school, your student will be almost completely independent with doing their homework. But your job’s not done yet! As classes require more homework and more long-term projects, students will probably need more help with the planning and scheduling of their homework. Continue to use a family calendar like the one recommended for middle schoolers and continue to talk to your child about their upcoming deadlines. Helping them keep these assignments in mind means that they are less likely to forget something and less likely to leave it until the last minute.

Changing Assignments

Besides having more homework in high school students are also more likely to have in depth, detailed assignments. They are less likely to have simple worksheets. Help your child learn to set reasonable expectations for how long a piece of homework will take to avoid staying up way past bedtime trying to finish an assignment that is taking longer than expected. Another way to help your child finish his or her homework efficiently is to make sure they have a range of study and reading strategies that are appropriate for the material there being asked to work with. Often, these strategies are taught as part of academic classes. If your child class is not teaching the difference between skimming and close reading, or different tools for note taking while reading, you might want to seek out a study skills class or some tutoring for your child. These strategies are essential tools that he or she will need to succeed in high school and Beyond. Some students are able to come up with strategies of their own and put them to work while others need to be explicitly taught how to do these different kinds of reading.

Helping When You Don’t Feel Like an Expert

It’s tempting to take a hands-off approach to high school homework because your child is likely to be studying material that you haven’t looked at in years, if you ever studied it at all. However, you don’t have to be an expert in the content to help your child study or complete their work. Offer to quiz your child on material for a test using the questions at the end of the chapter or the study guide they’ve been given. Invite your child to talk through their understanding of a complex concept. Even if you don’t know enough to tell them whether they are right or wrong, hearing themselves explain the concept will help them to identify any gaps in their understanding.

Keeping Them Organized

One final and very important step that parents can take to help their high school students succeed is to help them keep their materials organized. For some students, that just means getting them some supplies like appropriate binders and notebooks and some kind of file box or accordion file for work that does not need to be kept in the binder but should be stored for future reference. Other students need a more Hands-On approach to organization. If your child needs it, make sure to sit down with them periodically, once a week once a month or once a quarter, to go through all of the papers in their binder. Make sure that they are filed with the correct class materials, that old papers are cleaned out and either thrown away or filed, and that work is dated and put in order so that assignments are easy to find. Even good, responsible student fall into the Trap of cramming papers in a folder or binder thinking that they will remember where they put them or that they will clean it up later. By giving your child time space and encouragement to organize their materials, you are helping them build good habits.

Finding Time for Sleep

Beyond helping your child organize and complete their homework, it is important that parents promote sleep for high school students. Successful students are often very busy with sports, activities, classes, and social engagements. Sleep often takes a backseat to all of these more exciting activities. But research shows that when teenagers don’t get enough sleep, their academic performance and their mental health are impacted. Consider household rules like keeping cell phones out of bedrooms or setting a lights-out time for homework activities. It might not be easy for your child to fit everything in earlier in the evening, but it is important to prioritize their sleep and health!

The Pay-Off

So why should you put so much energy and effort into getting homework done, when your name isn’t even going on the paper?

Although it’s still a hotly contested topic, homework is here to stay. Unless your child attends a school that does not assign much (or any) homework, these assignments will be part of your life for years to come. Creating good homework habits as early as you can will help your child succeed and reduce the stress in your home in those precious hours when you are all home together!

Stress less about homework and enjoy more family time!
If homework is overwhelming at your house, consider finding a tutor. Contact me at readingwritingtutor.com for a free 30-minute consultation and find out if online or in-person tutoring is the right way to help your child succeed!

 

Five Ways To Use Color To Get – and Stay – Organized For School

We live in an exciting, fast-paced, colorful world. On your next trip to the grocery store, take a moment to drink in all the vibrant hues that companies use to catch your attention and get your shopping dollars. Notice how quickly your eyes can tell the difference between the bright yellow Cheerios box and the blue of Frosted Flakes. Are you taking full advantage of your brain’s response to color in your organizational systems? 

Below are five ways to integrate color into your organizational system for school materials. Try one at a time in the least organized area of your school life, or go nuts and spend the weekend putting together a comprehensive color system that makes you feel organized and prepared for the challenges ahead!

Does it matter what colors you pick? Nope. Choose colors that make sense to you, or that make you feel good about what you’re doing. For example, I tend to make science stuff green because it makes me think of nature. In my personal folders, writing stuff goes in purple, since it’s my favorite color, and I want to do more writing. I’m hoping my brain will tell me how much I want to write when I see those pretty purple materials, or see writing time blocked out on my calendar in purple pen. Do whatever makes sense to you, but do it, and stick with it to see results!

1. Coordinate your class materials

Give each class in your schedule a color, like pink for math, green for science, etc. Match your notebook, binder, and folder for that class. This can take some setup at the beginning of the year, since it’s not always easy to find the colors you want for each type of supply.

*Tip: when you find the colors you need, stock up! Those pocket folders and one-subject notebooks won’t last all year. 

*In a pinch: if you can’t find the colors you want, use a neutral one like black or white and decorate it with markers or colored yard sale sticky dots. This can help when you have the right binder and folder, but you’re down to the last few notebooks in the county.

2. Match your Google Drive folders

This has been a game-changer for me. Between my own classes, material for my students, and my own projects, I have A LOT of folders in my Google Drive. Assigning a color to the frequently used or super important ones makes them jump out at me. Use the same colors as you do for your physical class materials to make things easier to find.

3. Code Your Papers

When you are picking out colored school supplies, grab a set of colored pens, pencils or highlighters, too. When a teacher passes out paper, grab the matching pen for the class and write today’s date in the corner in color. This is especially important if you don’t have a chance to hole-punch papers during the school day, or if you tend to let papers pile up somewhere.

*Bonus points- next to the date, write a verb that reminds you what to do with the paper, like study, file, answer, or get signed. That extra info will save you time when you deal with those papers at homework time.

4. Make your Planner Pop

Remember those colored pens you’ve been using to date your classwork? Put them to work in your planner or agenda book, too. Use the assigned color to write down homework for each class. Have some extra colors? Use one for sports, after school activities, family stuff, or appointments. Or have a special color for tests quizzes, or friends’ birthdays.

*Tip: Use colors for whatever is most important to you, but don’t go too crazy. If you make the system too complicated, you might avoid writing in your planner altogether.

5. Tie in your Google Calendar

All this magical color coding can be carried over in Google Calendar, too! Put your class schedule in as a set of recurring events, then edit today’s event to include any assignment from that class.

All these systems take a little time to set up, but the payoff is huge! Spend a little time before school starts, or some Saturday afternoons, getting all your materials organized, then relax and enjoy knowing that all your stuff is where it belongs!

Five ways to organize your school materials and your digital files to help you stay organized and find things quickly.
If your child needs help getting or staying organized, a tutor can help. Email me at bethsullivantutor@gmail.com to schedule a 30-minute free consultation.