Monday, September 29, 2008

Organizing Homework for Success at School: Part 1

Tip of the Week, September 21, 2008

Back-to-school season can be both exciting and chaotic for kids, parents, and teachers alike. The start of a new school year brings with it a lot of promise, as well as a lot of responsibility; for most students, keeping tabs on homework and activities requires skills and habits they may not have had to use over summer vacation.

For an insider's view on practices and techniques that can help make homework-and school in general-more organized and less stressful, I turned to my friend Mike Richman, who teaches English to 9th and 11th graders at New Design High School in New York City. Mike also did his Master's thesis at UC Berkeley on homework and gender, so he knows of what he speaks.

Mike's homework tips will come in two parts. This week, we'll look at how students can keep tabs on their homework assignments, and what's necessary for an efficient homework space, at home or elsewhere. Next week, we'll talk about helping kids keep their backpacks, lockers, and desks in order, as well as what teachers can do to help their students succeed with homework.

What can students do to keep track of their homework assignments?
A simple homework planner is great, but I find the key is not so much writing homework down as it is getting the student to actually look in the planner. This can be tricky for a lot of students and was always a problem for me in school as well; I would dutifully write homework and long-term assignments down and then forget to look in the planner.

There are a couple solutions I like: if the student has space at home, a wall calendar that he/she tends to each month is a good place to record long-term assignments. As for shorter term stuff, I tell them to keep their homework planner in whatever pocket of their book bag they keep their house keys in - that way they have to see it right before they get in their house and they should walk in holding it. I have even tied reminder notes to their key rings when it's really important.

In the end, they should make a habit around the planner: 7:00 p.m. rolls around and they should retreat to a quiet, organized space and take out their planner. If the kid doesn't have a room of their own, they should stay at school (if they don't have a job or other after-school responsibilities) and do homework before they even leave for the day. A lot of classrooms are open and they can have that space to do their work.

What makes an effective homework area at home?
If a space can have a door that shuts out distraction, can have a bookshelf, can be organized and stay organized, isn't full of distractions (doing homework in the basement with the video game console is likely a bad plan), then it's good for doing homework.

Kids need to treat that space as a homework space and the adults need to honor that. A kid will get the wrong idea about homework if the adults in the house interrupt homework for dinner, chores, etc. Adults needs to signal that the time spent in that space is for homework and nothing can take that time away.

Kids who split their time between two houses of parents who don't live together can have trouble staying organized with their homework, so I suggest getting two sets of books; each parent keeps a set in his/her home. The younger the students is, the more difficult multiple spaces for homework can be to organize, so parents need to take a greater role and monitor the student's success with homework more carefully.

[Check back next week for part 2 of Mike's tips.]

Monday, September 22, 2008

September Is National Preparedness Month

Tip of the Week, September 14, 2008

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has deemed September National Preparedness Month, so it's a great time to take a few simple but important steps that could help keep yourself, your family, and your home safe in case of a natural disaster or other emergency. I recently had the chance to hear a talk by JoAnn Scordino, a Professional Organizer who specializes in emergency preparedness (visit her website here). Here are some of the things JoAnn recommends doing to stay ahead of the game should disaster strike.

Safeguard Important Documents
One of the biggest headaches for anyone having to deal with an emergency is accessing important documents and information, especially those necessary for tasks like filing insurance claims. It's worth taking the effort to organize and safeguard these documents. JoAnn recommends making copies of all important and hard-to-replace documents such as birth certificates, insurance policies, mortgage documents, and critical medical data. Store either the copy or the original in an off-site location, such as a safe deposit box or with a trusted friend or family member who lives in another state. Keep the other version of each document in an easy-to-access but secure spot in your home, ideally in a container that would be easy to grab if you had to leave quickly.

Take a Home Inventory
Doing an inventory of the items in your home makes it much easier to file an insurance claim after damage or loss. A simple way to take an inventory is to walk around your home with a video camera and recording each item (be sure to open drawers, closets, and cabinets). Snapping photos is another option. Also keep a list of valuables, including things like serial numbers for electronics, and attach copies of purchase receipts. Keep copies of your videos or photos and inventory list in an off-site location.

Designate an Emergency Contact
Because communication can become extra important--and much more difficult--in the wake of an emergency, it's critical to designate an emergency contact. Choose a trusted friend or family member (again, ideally someone in another state) and give that person a list of the people you would want contacted in case of an emergency. (Also give local friends and family the name of your contact person.) In her talk, JoAnn reminded us that cell phone networks become very quickly overloaded when disaster strikes, and that emergency personnel need these networks in order to do their jobs, so it's best to keep a corded phone on hand. And even though they're becoming rarer by the day, pay phones may still work if a disaster strikes, so keep a stash of quarters in your emergency kit.

Create an Emergency Plan
Having an emergency plan for your household or business can help you make a fast, effective escape in case of emergency. JoAnn suggests making a plan with information on where family members or office mates should meet if evacuation were necessary; instructions on how to assist children, persons with special needs, and pets; and a regular schedule for emergency prep tasks like checking smoke detectors and fire extinguishers. Most importantly, be sure everyone who's affected by the plan is familiar with it and knows what to do if disaster strikes.

Assemble Emergency Supply Kits
Last but definitely not least, create grab-and-go kits with essential supplies for your home, car, and office. The Ready.gov website has a comprehensive checklist of what to include in your kits. Though most emergency preparedness resources recommend including enough supplies for 72 hours, JoAnn advises having enough for up to a full week--a more realistic estimate of how long it might take outside help to arrive in a disaster scenario.

Remember that, as with any organizing project, you don't need to tackle all of these preparation tasks at once. A few simple steps a week will get you closer to being safe, secure, and ready in the case of an emergency. And when you're prepared, you can rest more easily and focus on everyday life.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Take a Break

Tip of the Week, August 31, 2008

The arrival of September seems to ratchet up the pace of life. Those with school-age kids are faced with all of the hustle and bustle (not to mention the mile-long supply lists) of getting their children back into the classroom. Folks who had the summer off (feel my envy!) head back to work. And anyone who notices the days start to grow shorter and the weather start to cool probably can't escape the sense that there's a new sense of hurry in the air that the slower days of mid-summer probably didn't have.

Given all of this, the idea of using these early days of September to take a break from whatever's weighing most heavily on you--or nipping most ferociously at your heels--may well sound counterintuitive. But I suggest that you take some time this week to do just that: for a day or two, put aside your To Do list, turn off your computer and your phone, and relax.

You don't need to give up all responsibilities, call in sick to work, let the kids fend for themselves in the morning, abandon dirty dishes in the sink, or entirely avoid the outside world. But try letting non-essential e-mails go unread (or, better yet, delete them). For a day or two, give up worrying about the stack of mail in your mail sorter. Order take-out for a few meals--and, weather and yard space permitting, eat them outside. Perhaps stop delivery of the newspaper for a few days so you can get in one more guilty-pleasure summer read.

The purpose of such a break isn't to invite chaos and clutter into your life--it takes more than a few days, usually, for those two to wreak their havoc--but rather to give yourself one final breather before things get truly busy later in the month, and before summer slips away for good.

Next week you can tackle your To Do list, empty out your e-mail Inbox, return to the kitchen, resume reading the paper, and prepare for the season ahead. This week, though, seek out an oasis of calm, whether for a few hours or a few days.