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Work Hard, Do Your Best, Follow Your Passions

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School is supposed to be a place for academic learning, discovery, joy, and social development. Think about your elementary school experiences. It is likely that there was time for free play, music, recess, art, games, and pure enjoyment of learning. Today, pressures are high and many of these elementary experiences that we can fondly look back upon have fallen by the wayside. Students are expected to be “college and career” ready by the time they graduate high school, and the expectations start as early as kindergarten.

According to a recent New York Times article “Is Your First Grader College Ready?” by Laura Pappano, students as young as six years old are filling out mock college applications and kids who are only nine to twelve years old are touring college campuses on school field trips. As the bar continues to rise for students to be admitted into top universities, the appropriate time to start preparing becomes earlier and earlier. The pressure mounts for all of the building blocks to be perfectly stacked by twelfth grade, including academic achievement, extracurricular involvement, volunteer experience, and so on.

Stop a second. What are we doing to our kids? How much stress and anxiety will we cause for them with our extraordinary expectations? How much of their carefree childhood will we steal away? There is no reason why teachers and parents should not hold high expectations for their children. There is also nothing wrong with thinking about the future, having goals, and learning that it takes hard work and perseverance to get there. However, young students deserve time to learn about the world and themselves. They need time to explore their passions, which could change from day to day or month to month. It is important to keep the joy within the learning process, both academic and social, and to gain certain maturity before being ready to tackle big life questions.

It’s time to dial it down. As elementary students especially, children should be taught that they are in control of the outcomes of their actions. They should always work hard, do their best in any endeavor, and follow their passions. That should be enough to build a solid foundation on which to build once they are older and can go on to achieve their future goals.

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Top Tip in 2014: Steps to Tackle Middle & High School Writing

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Our top “Tip” in 2014 focused on helping middle and high school students tackle writing. In case you missed it or need a refresher, here it is again!

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In middle and high school, students face more complex writing assignments, with deadlines that seem far in the future.

Writing a formal essay can be a daunting task. Some students get so buried in the information gathering process that they never feel ready to actually form opinions and commit ideas to paper. Other students write pages and pages, which later get discarded. Then there are those who agonize over each sentence, even each word choice, to the point that they are too anxious to get anything on paper.

Here are some tips to help tackle middle and high school writing:

 

Avoid Procrastination

The biggest mistake teenagers make with writing assignments is procrastination. Time management is one of the most important factors in producing the best possible essay.

Ideally, sit down with your child when a writing exercise is first assigned. Work backwards by marking the due date on the calendar and then estimating how much time will be needed for editing and revising, creating a rough draft, researching or gathering information, outlining and brainstorming. Usually, this process helps the student see that he needs to begin working as soon as the project is assigned. 

 

The Rough Draft

Having a plan of action for the rough draft is a significant relief for students. Using a structure to formulate and express their ideas actually gives them more freedom to compose and organize their thoughts. It is comforting to emphasize that mistakes are expected when writing the rough draft. At this stage, it’s more important for students to articulate their thoughts than to worry about perfecting each paragraph.

In an ideal world, the rough draft should be finished a week before the due date to allow time to enlist trusted proofreaders. Editing and revising should not be a painful process, but a time to reinforce the mechanics of effective writing, to check the organization, and to review word choices.

 

Writing Steps

Step #1: Body Paragraph

At Thinking Organized we encourage students to start writing the body paragraphs first. If some ideas have been brainstormed and organized ahead of time, it is usually fairly straightforward to write a body paragraph about each main topic.

Thinking Organized students learn and practice the S.E.E. method to help them create organized paragraphs with a logical progression of ideas.

In this system, the “S” stands for “Statement,” the first “E” for “Evidence” and the last “E” for “Explanation.” As the evidence is usually the researched material or a quote from a novel, this is pretty straightforward. However, explaining the evidence and connecting it back to the statement can prove challenging.

Step #2: Introduction

After the body paragraphs are in place, students are ready to start the introduction. They can begin by referring back to the working thesis statement in their outline to see if it still makes sense. The thesis statement should sum up the point being argued in the essay. The introduction should orient the reader to the topic in broad terms first, leading to the more specific thesis statement.

Step #3: Conclusion

Finally, the conclusion should restate the thesis in different words and end with what we like to call a “so what?” This is the time to tie the thesis to something larger, a greater concept that helps the reader know why it is important.

 

With this structure in place, writing will quickly become a process to be followed step by step, rather than a dreaded, anxiety-producing exercise. Learning and practicing effective writing strategies in middle and high school will make the more difficult topics covered in college approachable and easier to tackle. Whether or not professional writing is in your child’s future, gaining confidence with expressing oneself through written language is an important tool for future success.

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When Technology Isn’t So Easy To The Touch

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A parent inquired on a previous blog:

Hi, Thanks for all the great thought, information and ideas. I really appreciate the tip on getting my child to touch on each subject every day. I’m also hoping you might be able to give me tips for high school students where everything is done on an ipad so nothing is tangible. [My student] also has no diary/organizer in place at all, as he wants one on the ipad but none of them work for him (or rather I don’t think he uses them fully). Any ideas would be greatly appreciated. He was getting amazing marks in primary school but now due to poor executive functioning his marks are hit and miss and have all slipped.

Our response when technology isn’t so easy to the touch:

Technology in the classroom can be an amazing tool. It can allow students to complete assignments in more efficient and creative ways while reaching a variety of audiences. However, it can also be a challenge. When reading on a tablet, for example, there can be little opportunity to interact with the text. In order for students to fully comprehend what they are reading, make connections, and absorb material for long term use, interaction with the text is key. One obvious way to get around this is to simply put the reading on paper and annotate as normal. Another solution could be to annotate on a separate sheet of paper side by side with the reading. Moreover, there are a variety of apps available for download intended to help the reader annotate using technology. For example, iAnnotate (available in both the App Store and on Google Play) allows the reader to highlight, underline, add pop-up comments, and more as he or she is reading. For digital natives, it can just be a matter of finding the app that works for you!

Another component of the digital age in schools is online access to a planner and assignments. Some students are comfortable with keeping track of all of their coursework online, while others may find it difficult. One helpful tool for managing assignments online is the MyHomework app (available in the App Store, on Google Play, in the Windows Store, and on Kindle Fire). It allows students to sync their schedule across devices in order to maintain an organized list of tasks to be completed. Students can even set alerts to remind them that an assignment is due. The app is also visually organized so that students can customize what they want to see on the screen and how it will appear, for instance looking at a side by side list of late and upcoming work.

To supplement an online assignment notebook, it can also be useful to keep a hard copy of a monthly calendar in a place where it can be referenced periodically. Writing down the most important work-related and personal events can help to keep an organized picture of the month in mind and serve as another reminder of what is ahead.

The best part of having a vast amount of tools available is that everyone can customize an organizational system that fits their needs.

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Understood.org

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What does it really mean to “understand” how students with learning differences see the world? A new website, appropriately titled www.understood.org, offers an answer.

Understood.org provides parents with empowering information using a variety of helpful resources developed by a network of 15 nonprofit groups who specialize in children’s learning and attention issues, including experts such as psychiatrists, neurologists, special education teachers, and speech-language pathologists. It is a broad, versatile resource that can be used as a one-stop-shop for parents looking for information that is tailored to their child.

When parents first enter the site, they can create a profile to receive personalized recommendations for resources based upon their needs. They can read articles to gain greater insight into their child’s challenges or obtain advice about how to best help their child succeed. They can complete questionnaires designed to guide them through important points of consideration when making a decision, such as whether their child’s classroom placement should be changed. They can connect with experts and other parents who are having similar experiences through secure online web discussions and blogs. One of our favorite sections of the site is titled “Through Your Child’s Eyes” that has a student talking about his or her challenges in a particular area, such as attention, a simulation that allows the user to get a better sense of what it would feel like to have the same challenges, and a follow-up with an expert explaining the particular hindrances and strategies to help mitigate them. This offers parents a unique opportunity to experience what day-to-day life might feel like for their child.

Understood.org offers a multitude of insightful resources that are definitely worth taking a few minutes to browse for anyone looking to learn more about learning and attention issues and connect with others who have expert knowledge and similar experiences. Feel free to take a look and let us know what you think!

The National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD): The State of Learning Disabilities

The New York Times: Helping Parents Deal with Learning and Attention Issues

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Growth Mindset

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Imagine you are sitting in a grade school classroom. The teacher walks by to observe your work, looks at your neighbor’s paper, and comments, “Great work. You’re so smart!” She then continues on her way down the row. While this may seem like an innocuous comment, it has a major effect on students’ mindsets in the classroom. Why? It communicates the idea that intelligence is fixed. It makes students think that intelligence is something that either you have or you don’t, and if you are not one of the lucky ones who is smart, then you must be dumb. Instead of communicating this message to children, parents and teachers should promote what is known as a “growth mindset.”

The “growth mindset” is detailed in Carol Dweck’s book titled Mindset: How We Can Learn to Fulfill Our Potential. The basic premise is that intelligence can grow over time, thus all learners can improve. To foster this idea, parents and teachers can say to a child, “You worked really hard to complete this assignment. Great job!” Notice the difference? It is placing the emphasis on the student’s effort. It is important for students to be able to persist through difficult tasks and realize that hard work reaps rewards. If students are praised for their hard work, they are more likely to take risks and believe in their own self-efficacy.

Now imagine that you are in that grade school classroom once again. If the teacher walks by your desk and says to your neighbor, “I can see how hard you’ve been working, well done,” you might think, “Maybe I can work a little harder.” Believing that output correlates with effort will bring a student much further in life than believing that intelligence is unchanging, and it will set them up for much greater success.

Education Week: Creating the Context for Growth Mindsets in the Classroom

New York Magazine: How Not to Talk to Your Kids

 

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Common Core in the Classroom

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The Common Core standards present a significant shift in the way that students are learning and teachers are teaching. They emphasize a deep understanding of content by thinking critically, analyzing information, and solving problems in creative ways. The aim is to equip every student with the necessary tools to be college and career ready by high school graduation.

One of the biggest academic components that the standards require is writing. Students are expected to write across the curriculum to defend a position, explain findings, propose solutions, analyze events, and evaluate possibilities. For students who have difficulties with their executive functions, this can be particularly challenging.

Consider, for example, a student I had in the classroom whom I will call Joe. When it was time to write for any purpose throughout the day, Joe would often sit at his desk with a blank stare. When other students would have a paragraph of written work complete, Joe would have a couple of words. It was clear that Joe had ideas, but was stuck when it came to getting those ideas on paper. Joe worked with me after school where I was able to give him an explicit structure and one-on-one attention for his writing step-by-step. At the end of the day, he was able to complete writing assignments just as well as, if not better than, the other students.

With a little extra persistence, Joe and all students like him can conquer the Common Core!

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What Works for Back to School Organization – A Student’s Perspective

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By Emily A., Mary Washington College Class of 2015

Yes, summer is nearly over and the inevitable is upon us — alarm clocks, packed lunches, and a growing to-do list will become our reality for the next nine months. Brace yourselves!

But during the whirlwind of filling out forms, tackling a monstrous school supply list, and enforcing last minute summer reading, it is important to remember that simplicity is key in the race to become organized.

As a current college student, I have found truth behind a saying recycled by my teachers, babysitters, and parents: less is more.

I recently came across Jessica Lahey’s article in The New York Times, Simple Solutions for Back-to-School Organization (Sorry No Trapper Keeper!), which includes some very helpful hints for students learning to become organized and parents teaching organizational skills.

Here are a few of Lahey’s tips that I find to be most effective:

  • The answer to disorganization is hardly ever to acquire more stuff: A binder is a student’s best friend. Keep them clean, label sections, and have multiple. Mountains of paper are difficult for anyone to keep organized let alone lug around.
  • Use a planbook or an agenda: If you write it down, it’s more likely you are going to remember it and complete it. This habit has lifelong benefits!
  • Keep necessary school supplies handy: A sharpened pencil is what gets the homework done. Try installing “old-school” pencil sharpeners, or have a fresh supply of pens.
  • Organization is a trial-and-error process: Everyone is different, explore your options and see what works best, whether it’s color-coding, or daily or weekly maintenance.

So before panicking at the thought of the rapidly approaching school year, just remember to keep it simple.

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Developing Reading Skills in August

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It’s hard to believe that July is over—where did the summer go?? After six weeks of fun activities and lively discussions, our summer book clubbers packed up their bookmarks and headed out for their August vacations. When school starts in the fall, they’ll have a toolbox of new strategies for determining character traits, visualizing settings, and identifying the problem and possible solutions in their stories. The next time they’re asked to summarize a story, they can take out the colorful comic strip they created in book club this summer as a reminder for how to visualize the main events.

Book clubs are great ways to develop reading skills, but there are also plenty of ways to practice reading comprehension and fluency with your child:

Buddy Reading:  Take turns reading with your child, alternating each page.  This will help your child to hear a fluent reader and to practice his or her fluency as well.  Additionally, this type of reading provides you with an opportunity to discuss the book by asking questions such as: What was the most important event in this chapter or section? Why do you think the character said or did that?  What do you think will happen next?  What would you do if you were in this situation?

Reader’s Theater:  Create a play using an interesting scene in the book.  Each reader can read the dialogue of a different character, practicing reading with expression and fluency.  It’s even more fun when each person has to read the parts of multiple characters, creating different voices and speaking styles!  This allows students to read the same text multiple times (in order to practice their parts) and practice reading aloud and with meaningful expression. This type of reading will also help to deepen comprehension, as the reader thinks about the feeling and actions of the character to use the appropriate expression while reading.

Listen to Reading:  Have your child listen to an audio version of a book while following along with a print version.  Listening to a book can be a nice change for children who struggle with reading.  This allows them to hear expressive and fluent reading while also exposes them to new and interesting vocabulary.  Following along with a text is key to ensure engagement and comprehension.  Readers can underline interesting vocabulary or important events while listening.

When your child is reading on his own, it is important that he chooses a book that is “just right.” Reading a book that is too hard can be frustrating for children and can perpetuate the feeling of “reading is too hard.”  To determine if a book is “just right” have your child pick a book that seems interesting to him.

Then, ask the following questions:

  1. Ask your child to read the second page in the book aloud.
  2. Have him hold up 5 fingers and each time he comes to a word that he must sound out or that he does not know, he should put a finger down.
  3. At the end of the page, if all 5 fingers are down, then the book is too difficult for this reader.
  4. If 3 or 4 fingers are down, then ask your child to read the next page or two.
  5. Then, check for comprehension by asking him to summarize what he read.

Whether alone, out loud or listening to a digital version, the most important thing to remember is that children improve their reading skills by spending time reading appropriate books.  This is the number one factor in improving fluency, expression and comprehension!

HAPPY READING!

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Congratulations Class of 2014!

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This year, Thinking Organized’s graduates received acceptance letters from amazing schools across the country, including:

  • American University
  • Bethany College
  • Boston University
  • Case Western Reserve University
  • College of Charleston
  • Colorado College
  • Columbia College Chicago
  • Dickinson College
  • Drexel University
  • Eckert College
  • Elon University
  • Emerson College
  • George Washington University School of Business
  • Georgia Tech College of Engineering
  • Hofstra University
  • Kenyon College
  • Lafayette College
  • Lawrence University
  • Loyola University New Orleans
  • Lynn University
  • Macalester College
  • Marist College
  • Northwestern University School of Engineering
  • Ohio Wesleyan University
  • Pitzer College
  • Roanoke College
  • Rochester University
  • Savannah College of Art
  • Sweet Briar College
  • Syracuse University
  • The University of Vermont
  • Tulane University
  • University of Maryland
  • University of Maryland, Baltimore County
  • University of Tampa
  • Washington College
  • William and Mary College

To our graduates: 

We are so proud of you!!! You worked hard, and accomplished a lot. So now, walk across that stage with your head held high! As you prepare for your next adventure, we know that you will take the organizational strategies and skills you learned here at Thinking Organized with you. Your future is bright and we cannot wait to see what is in store for you!

 

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Born to Procrastinate?

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Would you call yourself a procrastinator?  I don’t know too many people who can force themselves to start a task that is really unpleasant, boring or just plain annoying. So many of our students tell us that they procrastinate whenever they face a challenging assignment. And it is not just the kids who procrastinate!  What about the parents?  I have closets that need cleaning and journal articles to read, yet these tasks never seem to get checked off of my “to do” list.

A headline on the morning news last week announced the findings of a new study that links procrastination to heredity. Great, another thing that children can blame on their parents!  However, before I accept the blame for my children’s struggles with procrastination, I believe that we also have to think about the role that the environment plays. According to the study, genes only accounted for half the cases of procrastination; for the other half, the environment was still a culprit.  So, it turns out that this latest round of research confirms much of what we already know.

Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet to conquering procrastination; it takes hard work and diligence.  We know that parents can struggle with procrastination just like their children, and that we need to help our students set up environments that foster productivity.  BUT, we also are painfully aware that this is hard to do!!!

Here is one suggestion that we find helpful.  If your child finds multiple distractions at home and cannot seem to get started on work until late at night, try having him go to a library right after school.  Also, some students have reported that they can really focus at a Starbucks where they can sit with their computer and use the noise to mask any distraction.  The idea is to avoid the procrastination triggers at home by setting a specific amount of time to be in another environment. And don’t forget to reward your concentrated effort by going home and PROCRASTINATING (only for a predetermined amount of time)!!

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