First Person

Ask an Expert: Dealing with a disorganized teen.

Q. My teenage daughter is very disorganized when it comes to school work.  Do you know of a class or something that i could send her to that would help with this? Kim from Arvada

A. As the parent of a teenager, I know exactly what you mean. My daughter still struggles sometimes balancing her social calendar with her school work but the improvement she has made from middle school to now, her junior year, is remarkable.

Bored teenage girls studyingThe easiest answer to your question is yes, there are classes in study skills offered by private companies such as Sylvan Learning Centers and sometimes by schools as part of the curriculum. If your daughter’s school does not offer a study skills class or lab, you can check out the nearest Sylvan and see if it’s a good fit for your schedule and budget. Well, and your resolve. Teenagers are not keen to do a study skills course anywhere and the fight might not be worth it.

So what can you do?  Quite a bit as it turns out.  I researched a number of strategies and three of these had very noticeable payoff for my daughter. Keep in mind that I started this in middle school when she might have been a little more pliable. You may need to really sell these ideas to your daughter in terms of college prep as there will be resistance to changing her habits.

The first thing we did was to create a weekly study calendar. At first, we did it on poster board taped directly on her bedroom wall. Later, when it became a habit, she just used a regular day-planner with decent-sized squares. I recommend “Family Time Mine,” which is available at Borders, Barnes & Noble, etc.  Be sure the calendar takes into account all study time available to her, which is often more than just nighttime at home.  Include study periods at school and time right after school, which is often “dead” time. Look at all assignments she has and add in those that she gets during the week. Carve out dedicated pieces of time for every single assignment, test, quiz, project, book review, paper – everything.

Don’t be surprised if the first challenge comes in her not having all her assignments, or the instructions about her assignments with her. A result of disorganization is never having all that stuff with you. Half of it is at home, some at school, some at a friend’s house, some lost and some in a car somewhere. With my daughter Avery, we had to buy a folder that she put EVERYTHING for every class into.  That way, when we did the calendar – and we did the calendar together, remember – she increasingly had everything I needed to see to make sure that there was a dedicated study time on the calendar aligned with expectations from school.

This was good learning for me, too, as I never realized just how much work was expected to be done at home.  I can tell you that the free time she was used to experiencing was greatly diminished. She really had to get started right after school – none of this starting at 7 p.m. business. Again, at first there was depression and anger and push back. So, I tried to make it better by providing a snack as soon as I was home from work and after dinner I would make her hot tea and take it to her. Believe it or not, the June Cleaver approach made things better. It made Avery feel like somebody actually cared that she was doing all this sacrificing of her free time just for “stupid school” and her “mean stupid teachers.”  Don’t forget to build in breaks. I did 15 minute breaks for every hour worked and phone/text only on the break period.

The second strategy that worked was flash cards. And yes, I did the flash cards with her. In fact, it turned out that I gave up a lot of my free time, too.  But the key to remember is once it’s a habit, your daughter can start to fly solo and you can have your evening back. And if, by chance, you are a working parent with work you sometimes do at night, do your work with your daughter. This produced a HUGE improvement in attitude.  She saw that I had “homework” too.  She also saw that I stayed focused, off the phone and took a break every 45 minutes also.

Finally, I realized that just like calendaring, her study time was bringing the chaos of multiple subjects and assignments into something manageable, her ideas were the same way – chaos.  Avery had exactly the same trouble organizing her ideas into something structured and methodical. I couldn’t figure out how a kid so verbal and smart wasn’t scoring very well on written tests or essays. So we started in middle school what your daughter may be learning now in high school. My personal opinion, based on experience, is that waiting for high school to learn idea webs or outlining is way, way too late.

So, I began teaching Avery how to associate ideas using first an old-fashioned outline format and then, when that didn’t seem to work, I tried the “web” concept and it worked much better. Just start with anything.  Why she doesn’t like spinach?  Why she thinks the Jonas Brothers are great? Why she shouldn’t have to go to bed at 9 p.m.?  Why she should get more cell phone minutes?  Draw a circle in the middle of a page, and write the statement. Then draw lines out from that circle – it looks like a sun – and draw a circle at the end of each mark that radiates out from the center. In each one of those, write an argument she is making/reason for why the statement is true.  You can see how this goes.  For each of those circles make her think of two reasons why the statement is true and write those under each circle.  In the real world of school, this is “documentation” or “supporting evidence.”

Once you do a half-dozen of these, she will start to get the hang of it and suddenly, voila! She will start to notice visible improvement in her writing and her grades in any writing-based assignment or test.  In addition, she will just get better with organization generally.  My daughter’s room got better.  Her thoughts got clearer.  Grades improved.  Writing skills much improved.  Her ability to argue persuasively with her mom improved. Yes, that is a by-product – but one that’s worth it.

So the bottom line is – and this is hard to celebrate especially if you’re a working parent – an adult has to work with a kid to make measurable progress in organizational skills. If it’s not being taught at school then you have to teach it at home or pay a third party provider to teach it. For way too long we have assumed that modeling is enough. That what a kid sees a parent do will rub off or be inherited or something. But that’s just not true. Organization is as much a learned and practiced skill as driving a car.  With some real attention to teaching these skills, kids reap incredible benefits, and not only in school.

First Person

What we’ve learned from leading schools in Denver’s Luminary network — and how we’ve used our financial freedom

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Cole Arts and Science Academy Principal Jennifer Jackson sits with students at a school meeting in November 2015.

First Person is a standing feature where guest contributors write about pressing issues in public education. Want to contribute? More details here

Three years ago, we were among a group of Denver principals who began meeting to tackle an important question: How could we use Colorado’s innovation schools law to take our schools to the next level?

As leaders of innovation schools, we already had the ability to make our own choices around the curriculum, length of school day, and staffing at our campuses. But some of us concluded that by joining forces as an independent network, we could do even more. From those early meetings, the Luminary Learning Network, Denver’s first school innovation zone, was born.

Now, our day-to-day operations are managed by an independent nonprofit, but we’re still ultimately answerable to Denver Public Schools and its board. This arrangement allows us to operate with many of the freedoms of charter schools while remaining within the DPS fold.

Our four-school network is now in its second year trying this new structure. Already, we have learned some valuable lessons.

One is that having more control over our school budget dollars is a powerful way to target our greatest needs. At Cole Arts & Science Academy, we recognized that we could serve our scholars more effectively and thoughtfully if we had more tools for dealing with children experiencing trauma. The budget flexibility provided by the Luminary Learning Network meant we were able to provide staff members with more than 40 hours of specially targeted professional development.

In post-training surveys, 98 percent of our staff members reported the training was effective, and many said it has helped them better manage behavioral issues in the classroom. Since the training, the number of student behavior incidents leading to office referrals has decreased from 545 incidents in 2016 to 54 in 2017.

At Denver Green School, we’ve hired a full-time school psychologist to help meet our students’ social-emotional learning goals. She has proved to be an invaluable resource for our school – a piece we were missing before without even realizing how important it could be. With a full-time person on board, we have been able to employ proactive moves like group and individual counseling, none of which we could do before with only a part-time social worker or school psychologist.

Both of us have also found that having our own executive coaches has helped us grow as school leaders. Having a coach who knows you and your school well allows you to be more open, honest, and vulnerable. This leads to greater professional growth and more effective leadership.

Another lesson: scale matters. As a network, we have developed our own school review process – non-punitive site visits where each school community receives honest, targeted feedback from a team of respected peers. Our teachers participate in a single cross-school teacher council to share common challenges and explore solutions. And because we’re a network of just four schools, both the teacher council and the school reviews are small-scale, educator-driven, and uniquely useful to our schools and our students. (We discuss this more in a recently published case study.)

Finally, the ability to opt out of some district services has freed us from many meetings that used to take us out of our buildings frequently. Having more time to visit classrooms and walk the halls helps us keep our fingers on the pulse of our schools, to support teachers, and to increase student achievement.

We’ve also had to make trade-offs. As part of the district, we still pay for some things (like sports programs) our specific schools don’t use. And since we’re building a new structure, it’s not always clear how all of the pieces fit together best.

But 18 months into the Luminary Learning Network experiment, we are convinced we have devised a strategy that can make a real difference for students, educators, and school leaders.

Watch our results. We are confident that over the next couple of years, they will prove our case.

Jennifer Jackson is the principal of Cole Arts & Science Academy, which serves students from early childhood to grade five with a focus on the arts, science, and literacy. Frank Coyne is a lead partner at Denver Green School, which serves students from early childhood to grade eight with a focus on sustainability.

First Person

Let’s be careful with using ‘grading floors.’ They may lead to lifelong ceilings for our students

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

I am not a teacher. I am not a principal. I am not a school board member. I am not a district administrator (anymore).

What I am is a mother of two, a high-schooler and middle-schooler. I expect them both to do their “personal best” across the board: chores, projects, personal relationships, and yes, school.

That does not mean all As or Bs. We recognize the sometimes arbitrary nature of grades. (For example, what is “class participation” — is it how much you talk, even when your comments are off topic?) We have made it very clear that as long as they do their “personal best,” we are proud.

That doesn’t mean, though, that when someone’s personal best results in a poor grade, we should look away. We have to ask what that grade tells us. Often, it’s something important.

I believe grading floors — the practice (for now, banned in Memphis) of deciding the lowest possible grade to give a student — are a short-sighted solution to a larger issue. If we use grade floors without acknowledging why we feel compelled to do so, we perpetuate the very problem we seek to address.

"If we use grade floors without acknowledging why we feel compelled to do so, we perpetuate the very problem we seek to address."Natalie McKinney
In a recent piece, Marlena Little, an obviously dedicated teacher, cites Superintendent Hopson’s primary drive for grade floors as a desire to avoid “creat[ing] kids who don’t have hope.” I am not without empathy for the toll failing a course may take on a student. But this sentiment focuses on the social-emotional learning aspect of our students’ education only.

Learning a subject builds knowledge. Obtaining an unearned grade only provides a misleading indication of a child’s growth.

This matters because our students depend on us to ensure they will be prepared for opportunities after high school. To do this, our students must possess, at the very least, a foundation in reading, writing and arithmetic. If we mask real academic issues with grade floors year after year, we risk missing a chance to hold everyone — community, parents, the school board, district administration, school leaders, teachers, and students — accountable for rectifying the issue. It also may mean our students will be unable to find employment providing living wages, resulting in the perpetuation of generational poverty.

An accurate grade helps the teacher, parents, and district appropriately respond to the needs of the student. And true compassion lies in how we respond to a student’s F. It should act as an alarm, triggering access to additional work, other intervention from the teacher or school, or the use of a grade recovery program.

Ms. Little also illustrates how important it is to have a shared understanding about what grades should mean. If the fifth-grade boy she refers to who demonstrates mastery of a subject orally but has a problem demonstrating that in a written format, why should he earn a zero (or near-zero) in the class? If we agree that grades should provide an indicator of how well a student knows the subject at hand, I would argue that that fifth-grade boy should earn a passing grade. He knows the work! We don’t need grade floors in that case — we need different ideas about grades themselves.

We should also reconsider the idea that an F is an F. It is not. A zero indicates that the student did not understand any of the work or the student did not do any of the work. A 50 percent could indicate that the student understood the information half the time. That is a distinction with a difference.

Where should we go from here? I have a few ideas, and welcome more:

  1. In the short term, utilize the grade recovery rules that allow a student to use the nine weeks after receiving a failing grade to demonstrate their mastery of a subject — or “personal best” — through monitored and documented additional work.
  2. In the intermediate term, create or allow teachers to create alternative assessments like those used with students with disabilities to accommodate different ways of demonstrating mastery of a subject.
  3. In the long term, in the absence of additional money for the district, redeploy resources in a coordinated and strategic way to help families and teachers support student learning. Invest in the development of a rich, substantive core curriculum and give teachers the training and collaboration time they need.

I, like Ms. Little, do not have all the answers. This is work that requires our collective brilliance and commitment for the sake of our children.

Natalie McKinney is the executive director of Whole Child Strategies, Inc., a Memphis-based nonprofit that provides funding and support for community-driven solutions for addressing attendance and discipline issues that hinder academic success. She previously served as the director of policy for both Shelby County Schools and legacy Memphis City Schools.