The Homework Map: Charting their courses

Homework was never easy or enjoyable at our house. Honestly, I kind of resent having to have anything to do with it (I did my homework back in the 1980s, I should be done by now). But alas, I’ve come to peace with the fact that my kids are not necessarily self-starters, and require some degree of parenting to keep them on track. This is especially the case when it comes to getting homework done.

When the kids were little, at least the entire concept of homework was pretty straightforward: Here is a list of things to do. Now do them. All that changes in middle school, when suddenly the kids are faced with five or six different teachers, each with their own quirks and demands. It can be overwhelming for students, and exhausting for parents–especially if you’ve got more than one child.

We are lucky that the school my kids attend, which runs from 6th through 12th grade, requires teachers to provide homework sheets for each class, each week. It’s a huge help for students to have the teachers articulate the learning objectives and assignments very clearly, and leaves no room for excuses such as not writing it down, or in my son’s case, not being able to read what you wrote down.

Still, with five or six different teachers handing out just as many homework sheets, there’s just a lot to sort through. My kids are getting better at doing their work, but they’re still struggling with the executive function portion of the equation–that is, figuring out what they need to do, when, and how to prioritize lots of competing tasks and activities.

So, I’ve found that the best thing to do is for me to sit down at the beginning of each week and sort through all the assignment sheets and the family calendar and synthesize a weekly list for/with each of them. Making that weekly list into a visual chart is even better, allowing kids (and parents!) to clearly see what assignments are coming up, and spot potential roadblocks in advance, so the kids can address them with teachers, coaches, and guidance counselors long before deadlines start rearing their ugly heads.

Enter the Homework Map. It’s a simple chart, similar to a weekly planner but customized for school work.

 

Homework Map

You can buy a planner that does the job for them, but I’ve never found one that works perfectly. I find it easier (and cheaper) to just work with this simple MS-word document, which I print out and fill in in pencil. You can click on the links below for a pdf file that you can print out, or to download a Microsoft Word file that you can customize however you like.

The Homework Map [printable pdf]

The Homework Map [downloadable word file]

 

Here’s how to use it:

Use it with your homework sheets–not in place of them. Make a quick note of what needs to be done  in the cell for each subject. You don’t need to go into detail–just note the general gist of each assignment (for example, “Read and answer 5 questions”) and refer to homework sheets (or your teacher’s website or whatever) for specifics. If the kids don’t get assignments in advance, just have them fill it in as best you can as they move through the week. Oh, and start nagging your school to start posting the assignments to the web or via email. It’s 2014, for God’s sake.

Use the “what’s happening” section to track after school activities. Jobs, service commitments, family obligations (including babysitting younger siblings), sports or clubs may be competing for students’ time after school. Be sure to schedule in all of these commitments so kids can factor them in when planning their time. Seeing it all in one place will help them to visualize how how much time they really have to tend to homework, so they can adjust their schedule as needed.

Plan seven days–or even two weeks–ahead! If Monday to Friday are looking kind of busy, kids will see it–and may want to get ahead on next week’s assignments over the weekend. One of the reasons I hate most weekly planners is that they include only a tiny section for weekends. Students who do a lot of activities may want to use some weekend time to catch up or get ahead–so factor that into the map.

Set benchmarks for big projects.  If a student has a big project due on Friday, he or she can break it up into smaller tasks over the course of the week, and do a little each day. Setting firm benchmarks is a fantastic way to approach large projects. For example, rather than just writing “essay due friday,” take a few minutes to figure out individual steps and plot them on your map. For an essay with a deadline that’s a week away, your map might include daily benchmarks for researching, outlining, identifying evidence, writing the body, the intro, and the conclusion, and revising/finalizing the essay).

Busy day? Tweak the schedule. If a child sees that they’ve got a ton of homework on Wednesday, plus two hours of team practice after school, they might want to move some tasks from Wednesday to Tuesday, or talk to their coach about cutting out early if they have too much work to do.

Prioritize work vs. leisure. If a child sees that they’ve got a ton of homework, they should know that it’s not in their best interest to turn on the TV when you they home. Remember Newton’s Laws, and stick to the Momentum Optimization plan!

Schedule your fun time, too. On the other hand, if you KNOW your kid is going to want to watch the big game  (or in our case, this week’s  Face Off ) on a particular night, go ahead and put it on the map. That way, they’ll know they need to get their work done earlier in order to have it out of the way when prime time rolls around.

Make it a team effort. My goal isn’t to organize my kids’ lives for them–it’s to teach them to organize their own. I’ve learned with my son that sitting down with them and making the map, and then checking and adapting it each day as we move through the week makes the worse less daunting for him and less stressful for all of us. With my daughter starting middle school this year, I’m glad to have the system in place already and hope we can get her started on developing good habits right away.

 

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The August Adjustment: Getting ready for back-to-school

I know many kids around the country are already back at school, but here in NYC, we do not surrender summertime until after Labor Day. And for the first time in a few years, my kids are more ready to go back than I am.  My summer was incredibly busy with work, and the corresponding non-attentiveness to childrens’ needs with which most work-at-home parents are probably familiar. I’m just coming up for air now, taking a few days to attend to school shopping (I totally missed all the sales) and helping them to finish off their summer work. Seems like a good time for an update on the Momentum Optimization Project.

The general takeaway for Summer 2014: Inconsistent enforcement, but nonetheless promising results. Here’s how it went.

Herself–age 11, entering middle school in the fall–is the night owl of the family. And yes, she stayed up too late every night and slept too late every day. I am not proud, but that’s our reality. I would lose billable work hours fighting to get her doing things in the morning, so we just adjust to her natural clock in the summertime. I work from 5:00 am until around 1 o’clock, at which time she’s just getting ready to join the living. Beginning in August, we set slightly firmer bedtime parameters (close-up screens off by 10, but she can stay up and watch tv after that), just to get her a tiny bit in tune with the non-vampire world.

Her operating on such opposite internal clock from the rest of the family is a real challenge. By the time she is ready to work, I’m fried from having spent 6 or 7 hours in front of my own computer thinking and sorting and editing. And so,  I didn’t stick to my guns on  The List as much as I would have liked. I certainly cannot claim that I adhered to it every day. BUT: Just doing it on some days made a huge difference. There was no fighting or whining over homework, other than occasional prods from me to “Just sit down and read (or write) for twenty minutes” or “Do your list” before I let her go play on the computer (or watch tv). A bunch of little spurts of energy devoted to it here and there, and at the end of the project she had put more time into each assignment than she would have had I insisted she get it all done the first week of July, or whenever. Oh, and she did clean the bathroom, walk the dog, and do her other chores almost every day.

If it weren’t for the fact that by the time she was awake enough to work, I was too mentally spent to work on school stuff (we’d usually just make lunch and then head to the beach), we probably would have been done with her summer work much sooner. But the weather was exceptional this summer, and the beach was beautiful, and what’s the point of living here if I can’t get my kids in the water most days.

3pm, Rockaway Beach, NY

So, yeah, we still have a lot to do this last week. But we don’t have to do everything. Even though I was not particularly good about leaning on her to spend the planned 15 minutes per day on homework, she did read quite a bit all summer long, and she completed two out of three written assignments over the past four days. (She’s read the third book and just needs to work on her essay this week). Her math assignment is something I put off–it involves making a Power Point presentation, something I haven’t had time to figure out. So, she’s doing the research this this, and her brother or dad will help her with the technical aspect of presentation before school starts.

So, end result: Not perfect, but promising. She had a fun summer, which should really be the first priority for an 11 year old. She spent her waking hours at the beach and nights playing Minecraft. And she did her work, and seems to have done it pretty well. I think that she’s finally starting to understand that projects are far less onerous when broken up into manageable chunks. That, hopefully, will lead to better habits all around.

That’s certainly been the case for my son. He’s 14 now, about to enter high school, (although his school goes from grade 6 through 12, so it won’t be the same kind of transition it is for many kids). He is an early riser like me, so when he wandered into our Room of Requirement (the basement is an open space that hosts both my home office and the family rec/computer area) each morning, I’d just remind him to do the list before he got started on the machines. He was pretty good about it, too. He’d do his chores, then read.

For the month of July, he was excused from school work at home because he was attending a full-day HS prep program at his school, during which he was working pretty intensely on math and reading his books during his free time. So, we devoted August to his English assignments. He had a choice of several non-fiction titles, one of which was The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teenagers. Given my interest in habit building (I’m midway through The Power of Habit myself as I write this), that’s the one I picked for him. (The rule in my house is: If you don’t want to go shopping–and my kids HATE shopping–you take what mom gives you). I ordered the audio version for myself so I could discuss it with him, and whenever he finished a “habit,” we would have a little informal discussion about it while we did other things (making dinner, walking to the beach, etc).

Long story short: He really liked the book, despite his initial misgivings. He started his essay on it last week, and for the first time, stretched out the process of writing the essay over several days. My son is a great reader, but not a great writer, and he finds writing such a chore that he tends to rush through written assignments, and avoid revising at all costs (which can make his editor mom’s blood boil). So this time, we spent some time at the whiteboard and just worked on an outline for two days (by which I mean: two 15-minute sessions). He wrote his draft over the next two days, and then we worked together to finalize the draft on the fifth day. All told, he spent several hours on the essay, including discussing, outlining, writing, and revising, in addition to reading the book. In the end, he was really, really happy with his essay, and admitted that it hadn’t felt like all that much work because he’d broken it up into smaller bits. So, a win for me, and for the Momentum Optimization Project.

That’s not to say any of it is a “habit” yet. When he started on his second essay yesterday (this one in response to a fiction book), he tried to outline and write the essay on the same day. The result: Total meltdown. I had to practically smack him out of it, reminding him that the goal for the day was just to figure out the main point and maybe locate some evidence for his outline. (There was also a five minute argument over the fact that the Kindle edition of the book I bought him did not include page numbers, which he swore were the only appropriate way of referencing the text. My son and I are on opposite sides of the paper v. ebook divide). Clearly, the key will be consistency (never a strong point for me) and providing constant reminders that slow and steady is the best way to finish–if not necessarily win–the race.