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Teaching Secrets: Organizing Middle Schoolers

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What characteristic is most common among brand-new middle school students? It's not a physical trait (they come in an amazing assortment of shapes and sizes) or an emotional state (adolescents are famous for their mood swings). What they most have in common is this: They are disorganized. And why wouldn't they be? In most cases, new 6th graders have spent their first five years of school with a single teacher for the majority of the day. They entered elementary school each morning, hung up their coats, and stowed away their lunch boxes. Their homework, pencils, lunch money, and personal gear were stuffed in a nearby book bag or in their desk. Their textbooks were neatly stacked in a single, familiar classroom. Now, suddenly, they're middle schoolers, and the world's turned upside down.

They are given a combination lock, a hallway locker, a homeroom, and a schedule that often has four or more subject-area teachers whom they will see on any given day. There's more work to do – and more teachers who expect them to do it. This is where the child with significant organizational challenges becomes both overwhelmed and frustrated.

As educators, what can we do to support these students who often come to our classrooms without their necessary materials and homework assignments? Here are some tips from my special education classroom that can help any student bring order to chaos.

Agenda Books – If a school can provide each child with an agenda or assignment book, this is a terrific, consistent strategy. There are companies that sell them for $5 or less. Teachers can begin their classes by asking students to take out their agenda notebooks, and then write the next homework assignment on the board as students jot it down. In my own classroom, I stroll around the room checking to make sure each of my students has copied the assignment down correctly and written it in the right place (middle schoolers will often write it in the wrong day – or month!). If funds aren't available to purchase agenda books, I’ve run off assignment checklists on the copy machine and distributed them each Monday in stapled sets of five. It’s not as ideal, but still quite feasible.

Schoolnotes.com – This is a free Internet tool that allows educators to post our assignments online. All a parent or student needs to do is go to the site (from home or a public library) and type in their zip code. Any teacher who uses the service will be listed in alphabetical order, under the name of the school, and by grade or subject. Teachers can also provide their school email address, in case a parent or student needs homework clarification at night or wants to send a document when there's no printer available. Many parents who have Internet access at their jobs welcome the opportunity to check their child’s next-day assignments before they leave work. Imagine the look on their child’s face the first time mom or dad asks them if they brought home their study guides for tomorrow’s science test!

Preparation Grade – As a strategy to promote organization, I count preparation as part of my students' overall subject grade. I allow them to go to their lockers, if they forget a book or a pencil. But each trip to the locker costs them 1 point from their preparation grade. It sounds harsh (and most of my students have ADD/ADHD), but I find if they know my policy ahead of time, and I’m consistent with it, they learn by trial and error. I also loan them pencils, but ask for a sneaker as collateral. Their missing sneaker helps them to remember to return the pencil as they leave the room.

The Absent-Student Crate – I print assignments out and place them in a 3-ring binder titled "Schoolnotes," which resides in the Absent-Student Crate. This gives the kids a running record of what assignments they have missed while they were out. I also keep a 3-ring binder for each subject I teach, with the various handouts I have distributed, so the students have an archive to reference. I keep track of who's absent by asking the student who is passing out papers to write the names of any absentee on the handout and place it in an accordion folder also kept in the crate. When the absent child returns, I remind him or her to check the crate for any handouts or incomplete assignments. Basically, I'm modeling good organization for my kids.

The I.O.U. Board – I have an I.O.U area on my board with the assignments students owe me (with their names listed below each assignment). If a child is absent during a test, or owes me a project, he or she can immediately see their debt. In my special ed classes, I also use this for students who owe work to their mainstream teachers.

The TEAM Homework Area – I keep a running list of all homework assigned by the teachers on my 6th grade teams. The students can refer to this board if they've forgotten to copy any assignments down in other classes. I also utilize this board for my regular-education homeroom students.

Pocket folders, a cheap way to help kids – An inexpensive way for students to keep track of various written assignments they need to complete is to take a 2-pocket folder, available at any office supply store, and label the left side with “To Do” and the right side with “Completed.” They are ONLY allowed to put works-in-progress in this pocket folder. Once the assignments have been completed, the work can be transferred to the appropriate binders or notebooks that the teacher may require.

A final thought: Kids will be kids. It’s hard sometimes to realize that students don’t deliberately misplace papers, forget pencils, or lose track of assignments. They just don't have our experience or habits of mind. It’s our job to teach them the tools and strategies for getting organized and feeling successful.

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