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

I’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.

First Person

I’ve spent years studying the link between SHSAT scores and student success. The test doesn’t tell you as much as you might think.

PHOTO: Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Proponents of New York City’s specialized high school exam, the test the mayor wants to scrap in favor of a new admissions system, defend it as meritocratic. Opponents contend that when used without consideration of school grades or other factors, it’s an inappropriate metric.

One thing that’s been clear for decades about the exam, now used to admit students to eight top high schools, is that it matters a great deal.

Students admitted may not only receive a superior education, but also access to elite colleges and eventually to better employment. That system has also led to an under-representation of Hispanic students, black students, and girls.

As a doctoral student at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2015, and in the years after I received my Ph.D., I have tried to understand how meritocratic the process really is.

First, that requires defining merit. Only New York City defines it as the score on a single test — other cities’ selective high schools use multiple measures, as do top colleges. There are certainly other potential criteria, such as artistic achievement or citizenship.

However, when merit is defined as achievement in school, the question of whether the test is meritocratic is an empirical question that can be answered with data.

To do that, I used SHSAT scores for nearly 28,000 students and school grades for all public school students in the city. (To be clear, the city changed the SHSAT itself somewhat last year; my analysis used scores on the earlier version.)

My analysis makes clear that the SHSAT does measure an ability that contributes to some extent to success in high school. Specifically, a SHSAT score predicts 20 percent of the variability in freshman grade-point average among all public school students who took the exam. Students with extremely high SHSAT scores (greater than 650) generally also had high grades when they reached a specialized school.

However, for the vast majority of students who were admitted with lower SHSAT scores, from 486 to 600, freshman grade point averages ranged widely — from around 50 to 100. That indicates that the SHSAT was a very imprecise predictor of future success for students who scored near the cutoffs.

Course grades earned in the seventh grade, in contrast, predicted 44 percent of the variability in freshman year grades, making it a far better admissions criterion than SHSAT score, at least for students near the score cutoffs.

It’s not surprising that a standardized test does not predict as well as past school performance. The SHSAT represents a two and a half hour sample of a limited range of skills and knowledge. In contrast, middle-school grades reflect a full year of student performance across the full range of academic subjects.

Furthermore, an exam which relies almost exclusively on one method of assessment, multiple choice questions, may fail to measure abilities that are revealed by the variety of assessment methods that go into course grades. Additionally, middle school grades may capture something important that the SHSAT fails to capture: long-term motivation.

Based on his current plan, Mayor de Blasio seems to be pointed in the right direction. His focus on middle school grades and the Discovery Program, which admits students with scores below the cutoff, is well supported by the data.

In the cohort I looked at, five of the eight schools admitted some students with scores below the cutoff. The sample sizes were too small at four of them to make meaningful comparisons with regularly admitted students. But at Brooklyn Technical High School, the performance of the 35 Discovery Program students was equal to that of other students. Freshman year grade point averages for the two groups were essentially identical: 86.6 versus 86.7.

My research leads me to believe that it might be reasonable to admit a certain percentage of the students with extremely high SHSAT scores — over 600, where the exam is a good predictor —and admit the remainder using a combined index of seventh grade GPA and SHSAT scores.

When I used that formula to simulate admissions, diversity increased, somewhat. An additional 40 black students, 209 Hispanic students, and 205 white students would have been admitted, as well as an additional 716 girls. It’s worth pointing out that in my simulation, Asian students would still constitute the largest segment of students (49 percent) and would be admitted in numbers far exceeding their proportion of applicants.

Because middle school grades are better than test scores at predicting high school achievement, their use in the admissions process should not in any way dilute the quality of the admitted class, and could not be seen as discriminating against Asian students.

The success of the Discovery students should allay some of the concerns about the ability of students with SHSAT scores below the cutoffs. There is no guarantee that similar results would be achieved in an expanded Discovery Program. But this finding certainly warrants larger-scale trials.

With consideration of additional criteria, it may be possible to select a group of students who will be more representative of the community the school system serves — and the pool of students who apply — without sacrificing the quality for which New York City’s specialized high schools are so justifiably famous.

Jon Taylor is a research analyst at Hunter College analyzing student success and retention.