Bag of tricks: the classroom survival edition - FamilyEducation

Bag of tricks: the classroom survival edition

October 28,2008

Around this time of the semester, I start to morph into a different person in the classroom. I spend weeks at the beginning of the semester trying to lay the groundwork to help my students have a successful semester. We go over classroom strategies, fill out calendars, talk about study skills. I do all this because I hope they will build on these skills and that, come midterm, it will be all clear sailing for them--at least from an organizational and study-skills standpoint. But this semester I've been finding myself grouching at my students much more than I like to. Sometimes I feel like I sound like, well, a mom, and my voice takes on that tone I get in the morning when I'm trying to get L. out of bed.

Success at any level in school--elementary school and beyond--is part knowledge of the material and, in large part, good organizational and classroom skills. It seemed to me yesterday, as I was fussing at my students for their inability to problem-solve their way out of what is causing them to perform poorly in class, that we also help L. problem-solve his way out of his school challenges in similar ways (complete with nagging). Since he's only in third grade, we do most of the problem-solving for him, but one of the goals we're working towards is having him understand and fix what doesn't work for him. I want the same for my students, who, after years and years of passively sitting in the backs of classrooms, are coming to college poorly equipped to change what doesn't work for them. Again, I was struck by the intersection between my "parenting life" and my "teaching life" when I thought about these issues, since only last week we had an impromptu IEP meeting and talked about many of these same classroom strategies. So I thought I'd share with you, from a parent's perspective and a teacher's perspective, five strategies that have worked with L., and some of the ones I encourage my college students to work on, as well.

Teach your student early on the importance of sitting in the front of the classroom. I know this isn't always a choice when it comes to elementary school, but it IS a choice if your child has special needs. There is some statistic out there (and of course I couldn't find it for this column) that talks about how students who sit at the front of the classroom often perform a few percentage points higher than students who are seated towards the back. Encourage your college-age child to always sit at the front of the classroom. This is invaluable for any student, but especially for students with attention/focus issues. I once had a student get through the whole semester seated at the back of the classroom and then, the last two weeks of class, he finally told me he had focus problems and had been diagnosed with ADD in grade school. L. struggled in school until second grade, when he finally was given a single desk at the front of the class, where he could see the teacher and be less inclined to wander, physically or mentally, or both.

Think outside the box when it comes to reading and writing. In today's visual culture, many young people--elementary school and beyond--just can't seem to process written information the way we used to. Think about ways to break a reading into visual sections, by outlining in boxes the main ideas. You can write topics in "bubbles" and connect the bubbles to main ideas and information in the reading. For younger kids, try using graphic organizers--here's a link to some good ones--to break the information into visual chunks.

Spend time early on working on how to take notes and on how to develop a system for remembering information. Any system will work, as long as the child/student understands it. Again, another casualty of our visual age is that students seem to have forgotten--or never developed--the art of notetaking. When we're so busy texting, or cutting and pasting, or watching information on videos and films (I can't believe how many short films and educational videos kids watch in school today), we lose the ability to retain longer pieces of information.

Help your student learn better by better understanding the way they learn best, whether it be through memorizing and reciting, through word associations, or through writing and thinking about related concepts. L. hates writing and struggles with it, so we know already that notetaking will be a real challenge in middle school. Many kids who have attention issues or who are on the autism spectrum--or who are just plain old disorganized because they're 18 and in college--need to have rituals for keeping things where they can find them. Color-code the notebooks: blue for language arts, red for science, green for math, etc. Help your child/student learn different ways of copying down the information, whether through charts and diagrams, or mapping of ideas. There are many ways to write down information, and they don't always have to involve word-for-word copying.

Lastly, but most importantly, teach your student to learn and consider his or her own daily rhythms. School often forces young people into schedules that don't work best for them. I have kids who just can't function in the morning taking an 8:00 a.m. writing class because they just couldn't take it any other time. All last year, L.'s most difficult subject, math, was being worked on after lunch, a time when his focus is at an all-time low, and when his body is crashing from lack of food (L. hardly eats anything at lunch in the cafeteria). While you often can't change the time when classes are being offered, understanding why the timing isn't ideal and how it could be affecting performance is critical. L. keeps snacks on hand to fuel his mind  in the afternoon, and is allowed to work in shorter spurts. I tell my own students to do whatever it takes to get their minds engaged at times when classes are out of sync with their own daily rhythms.

It's never too early to empower your child to succeed in the classroom. No one wants to be a helicopter parent forever, and I hope that some day soon, L. will learn to empower himself, and to seek out the things that work for him so he can be successful in school. I can also see that even "grown-up" 18- and 19-year-olds need a little nagging and redirection now and again, some lessons in the basics, some success strategies, and sometimes, when times get truly tough, someone who talks to them in a voice that sounds an awful lot like mom's.