Thursday, October 25, 2012

Organization: Getting it Out of Your Brain and Into Your Notebook

“I know I did that homework. I just can’t find it!” This was always the saddest part of my day when teaching - and yes, it did happen almost every day. A student spent all of the time to do the homework but left it at home, and I would have to deduct points. I always believed that the student had done the work, but school is about actions, not intensions. 

Organization is one of the most important skills students can learn in school. We adults may not use chemistry, algebra, or parts of speech daily, but we all need to be organized. The earlier a student learns this, the happier he or she will be.

Being organized is not just about putting things in the right place. It is about getting things out of your head. I know people who are “pilers” - they have piles of paper on their desk, or in their school backpack, but they swear that they know where everything is. In fact, I could say that I am a reformed “piler.” But having to remember where things are takes a little bit of mind share, a little bit of short-term memory that can’t be used for other things. Without a system, you always have to be thinking about it. With a system, you don’t have to think about it until you need it. I first saw this idea of freeing up brain space in a great book Getting Things Done by David Allen

The other benefit, of course, is that it keeps students from losing late penalty points for forgotten homework and keeps adults from paying late penalties for forgotten bills. Again, it is one of the few skills we should learn in school that we will all use as adults.

Even though most of my life now is kept electronically on my computer or phone, I still believe that students should learn organization the old fashioned way, with paper. Schools may be using iPads and content management systems, but most classes still run on paper. Even our students who write their essays online using Clickademics Essay Engine often print out their final draft and hand in their essay on paper. (We will soon have a way to email the essay directly to the teacher from our site. Save time and trees!) 

Here is my recommendation for students to get organized:
  • Keep an assignment book where you write down every assignment. Every teacher should be posting assignments online, but they are often on different pages which the students might forget to check. Taking five minutes to write down the assignment in a small notebook means that all of the week’s work is in one place. For each day, draw lines to create rows for each class. On the side, draw a column and check off when you have completed an assignment. I mean it. Checking it off means you don’t have to think about it anymore.
  • Keep a 3 ring binder for each class. I know it mean more trips to the locker, but it keeps things simpler and your backpack lighter.
  • Put 5 dividers in each binder. The labels may vary, but I recommend:

  1. Current Work: these are assignments and projects that you are working on now, including completed homework that needs to be turned in the next day.
  2. Articles: any papers that your teacher wants you to read like newspaper articles or pages xeroxed from a book
  3. Notes: any notes you take should go here
  4. Projects: once you have completed a project or essay, move all of your instruction sheets and earlier drafts to this section
  5. Graded Work: anything returned to you with a grade should go here.
  • Keep all your papers. Do not throw anything away. This usually comes in handy at the end of the semester where you will need your notes to prepare for final exams. It is also helpful when the teacher is preparing class grades. If you see a mistake in your grade - no credit for something you turned in or a grade typed incorrectly - it is really easy to clear up when you still have that graded piece of work. It is difficult when you have to convince the teacher that you remember getting an “A” on the assignment. At the end of the semester, ask your teacher which papers you can take out of your notebook and put them in a draw until the end of the year when you can recycle the whole pile.
  • Resist the urge to put papers in the pockets of the notebook. It defeats the purpose of the dividers.
  • Organize your computer files the same way. If you are lucky enough to attend a forward-thinking school where work is submitted electronically, keep your documents just like you keep your papers. Create a folder for each class. Within each class folder, create a folder for Assignments, Notes, Projects and Essays, and Graded Work. If you upload work to Moodle/Blackboard/Haiku, be sure to keep a copy on your hard drive. Keep the files forever because hard drive space is cheap. Every document you create in your whole academic career takes up less space than a short video.
My wife and I learned how to keep a notebook in school, and we keep all of our business and household papers the same way. It is much easier to find important documents in a binder than in a file folder.

So free your mind and improve your grades by getting organized now. And don't make forgotten homework the saddest part of your day.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Clickademics Essay Engine™ Launching This Week

Our goal for starting Clickademics was simple: we wanted to use technology to solve the problems that real teachers experience in real classrooms helping real students. Education technology is a waste if it doesn’t increase the students’ learning and decrease the teachers’ stress. 

When I taught 8th grade English, teaching students to write essays was always my biggest challenge. Every student seemed to have a different question all at once, and it made wish I could clone myself 30 times so I could help each student individually. Could I create an online app that could do just that?

It was this classroom experience that lead us to build Clickademics Essay Engine™ which we are excited to launch this week. 

We built Essay Engine™ for the students who have an essay due tomorrow but just don’t know where to start. Our online app breaks the writing process down into 20 manageable steps. Each step shows the student just what to do with video instruction and plenty of examples, all based on my experience teaching over 2,000 students to write expository essays. When the student has completed the last step, the program assembles all of the pieces the student has written into an organized essay. After we help the student edit, the student can export the essay as a Word document with a click of a button.

Originally, our intended audience for our Essay Engine™ was middle school students, but the more teachers and parents we talk to, the more we see that there are high school students and even some college students who could use more support when writing essays for school.

So give Essay Engine™ a try. We feel that it will provide real help to real students with real essays to write. 

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

iPad: The Solution to and Cause of Students’ Problems

This school year, schools around the country are purchasing iPads for students to use at home or in the classroom. And why not? Tablets are pretty and shiny and cost less than a budget laptop computer. Apple is pushing for textbooks to be sold electronically, and many schools use content management systems that allow students to receive and submit homework over the internet. iPads are great at delivering educational resources.

You know what else iPads are great at? Instagram, Facebook, YouTube cat videos, and about a million highly addictive video games. The average fourteen-year-old doesn’t stand a chance.

I feel that giving tablets to every student is setting them up for failure. Students already have dwindling attention spans - most of their reading happens via text messages instead of books and most of their video viewing is thirty-second clips instead of feature films. We are asking students to use their tablet to read their textbooks, write their papers, and research for school with the temptation of distraction.

Sadly, there is no easy solution. iPads are the most popular tablet, but Apple’s closed system does not allow any app to run below the surface. Thus, it is impossible to lock students out of all but educational apps. In fact, the best solution would be an app that requires the student to complete all homework before unlocking the rest of the iPad’s functions, but that, again, would be prohibited by the App Store. (I recently read, however, that the new Amazon Kindle Firehas a function like this - genius.)

The only choice: don’t give tablets to students or teach them self-discipline. As anyone who has ever been on a diet knows, you can’t just take away the temptation. The real skill that students will learn in an iPad program is not mobile computing, it is the discipline to get your work done fast and early. Teachers and parents need to show students (over and over) that Plants vs. Zombies is much more satisfying when you don’t have two hours of homework hanging over your head. Students need to witness (daily) how surprisingly fast they can complete their homework when they focus completely for 30 minute blocks. They need to notice how much higher their grades are when they dedicate time for work and study without interruptions from social media. And given the number of adults I see playing with their phones in inappropriate places, it seems we could all learn a little self discipline with our devices

I can’t complain too much, though. We designed Clickademics’ new Essay Engine to help students write organized essay on a computer or - you guessed it - an iPad.