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 I learned about the limits of school choice in New York City from a mother whose child uses a wheelchair

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

As a researcher interested in the ways online platforms impact learning and educational decision-making, I’ve been trying to understand how New York City parents get the information to make a crucial decision: where to send their children to school.

So for the past six months, I’ve been asking local parents about the data they used to choose among the system’s 1700 or so schools.

I’ve heard all sorts of stories about the factors parents weigh when picking schools. Beyond the usual considerations like test scores and art programs, they also consider the logistics of commuting from the Bronx to the East Village with two children in tow, whether the school can accommodate parents and children who are still learning English, and how much money the parent-teacher association raises to supplement the school’s budget.

But for some families, the choice process begins and ends with the question: Is the building fully accessible?

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act requires public buildings constructed after 1992 to be fully accessible to people in wheelchairs. However, most New York City public school buildings were constructed prior to that law, and high construction costs have limited the number of new, fully accessible buildings.

As a result, a shocking 83 percent of New York City schools have been found non-compliant with the ADA, according to a two-year federal Department of Justice investigation whose findings the city Department of Education largely disputes. Recently, the city’s Office of Space Management has begun surveying buildings for full accessibility, but more work remains to be done.

One parent’s struggle to find a school suitable for her son, who has a physical disability but no cognitive issues, illustrates what a major role accessibility plays in some families’ decision-making.

Melanie Rivera is the mother of two and a native New Yorker living in Ditmas Park in Brooklyn’s District 22 who shared her story with me — and gave me permission to share it with others. Here is what she told me, in her own words:

My son Gabriel is seven years old. He was born with a condition called arthrogryposis, which affects the development of his joints. His hips, knees, and feet are affected and he has joint contractures, so his legs don’t bend and straighten the way most people’s do. In order to get around, he uses a combination of crutches and a wheelchair.

Before I had my differently-abled son, I was working in a preschool for children with special needs. The kids I worked with had cognitive developmental disabilities.

Despite my professional experience, I was overwhelmed when it was my turn to help my child with different abilities navigate the public school system. I can only imagine the students falling by the wayside because their parents don’t have that background.

When I was completing my son’s kindergarten application, I couldn’t even consider the academics of the school. My main priority was to tour the schools and assess their level of accessibility.

There are only a couple of ADA-accessible schools in my district, and there was no way of indicating on my son’s kindergarten application that he needed one. When we got the admissions results, he was assigned to his zoned school – which is not accessible.

I entered lengthy and extensive mediation to get him into an ADA-accessible school. At that point, I knew I would just have to take what I could get. For families whose children have special needs, “school choice” can ring hollow.

The process of finding any accessible school was a challenge. The DOE website allows families to search for ADA-accessible schools. But the site describes most schools as “partially accessible,” leaving it up to parents to call each school and say, “What do you mean by this?”

When I called the schools and asked, “Are you a barrier-free school?” the staff in the office didn’t know what the term meant. They might reply, “Oh yeah, we have a ramp.” I’d have to press further: “But can you get to the office? Can you get to every floor in the building?” The response was often, “Oh, I don’t know.”

Even the office staff didn’t know. But for my son’s sake, I needed to know.

Gabriel deserves the full range of academic and social experiences. So every day I make sure he’s learning in the least-restrictive environment — from the classroom, to phys ed, to field trips.

I believe the Department of Education also wants to make schools accessible and to place students with different abilities in settings where they’ll flourish, but the current system is not equipped to follow through on those good intentions. While I see gradual changes, I still know that if I don’t find the best placement for my son the system definitely won’t.

At the school level, administrators should know the details of their own school’s accessibility. Teachers should learn to include children with different abilities in their classrooms. Such a commitment means recognizing the value of inclusivity — not viewing accessibility as something ADA says you must do.

Before I had Gabriel, I never thought about accessibility. I never looked at street cutouts or thought about how to enter a store with steps. We’re probably all guilty of perpetuating exclusion at one point or another.

Recognizing that will allow us to change the status quo. It will allow every individual with a physical disability to fully participate in the public school system.

Claire Fontaine is a researcher at Data & Society, a research institute in New York City focused on social, cultural, and ethical issues arising from technological development. Kinjal Dave is a research assistant at Data & Society. You can read more about their project, which seeks to better understand the ways in which diverse New York City parents draw on school performance data, online dashboards, and school review websites when researching schools for their children.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.