The Fourth Grade Backpack Challenge Paves the Way to High School

So last week I wrote about the new book The Make-or-Break Year, which details the challenges of keeping Chicago’s high school freshmen on track to graduate.

While the book zooms in and out between the big-picture challenges and the teacher-student struggles to help keep kids in school, today I want to zero in on a foundational issue that starts well before high school and yet trips freshmen up time and again.

What is it? The backpack.

Years ago, when one of my neighbors was about three weeks into his freshman year of high school, I sat down with him for a backpack organizational tutorial. If you know me, you might find this hilarious. I come from a long line of pilers, and paper and I are not friends. However, I usually know where to find what I need.

And as a former high school teacher, I have seen too many kids lose important assignments in the void that is their backpack. So, when my neighbor I had known since he was about 10 started high school, we sat down to arrest the potential for damage as early in freshman year as possible. (You can read more about him hereat my old blog, The Marshfield Tattler.)  It took us three hours to get notebooks and folders at Walgreens, sort and organize his papers, and make sure his assignments for Monday were finished and stored in the right places.

We started from the usual place—all the papers for all seven of his classes were stuffed into one binder! I had him sort and organize them by class, and took the time to read over the syllabi of each class. We also found a paper that had the schedule of teacher office hours, so I talked it through with him and we starred which days he thought he should stop in for extra help. He already knew he was going to need one-on-one time with his physics teacher.

Back then, I felt pretty good that I had been able to help someone get it together with relative ease. But now I have a new challenge: my own kid. My fourth-grader is at the very beginning of the struggle to keep a backpack organized, and she doesn’t want to hear it from Mom about how to do it.

Why are we hitting this wall in fourth grade? There could be a lot of reasons, but one leaps out at me: it’s the first year my daughter has had to manage assignments from two different teachers. Fortunately, her school intentionally gives her tools to make this easier. She has a planner and she is expected to remember to write down her assignments. Parents are supposed to sign their children’s planners at least three times a week.  She also has a labeled folder to hold assignments and notices to go home. The left pocket’s label advises, “Bring to School” and the right side reads, “Keep at Home.”

As a not-particularly-well-organized mom, I sang hallelujahs the first time I saw these handy items in there. However, when I dug in the folder, it was pretty evident that the papers were stuffed wherever, and plenty of papers that belonged in the folder were actually just loose in the backpack, some squished into wrinkles at the bottom. I went through it and salvaged a couple of important items, like the list of parent workshops for the year, then called my daughter over and explained what I had done.

She threw a fit. That backpack is HERS, not mine, and I was well and truly warned to keep my mitts off it.

Oops.

Well, now what?

Fortunately, these days schools pay more attention to the concept of “executive functioning,” which is a fancy way of talking about all the intellectual and psychological skills involved in managing yourself and your resources to achieve your goals. Organizing materials, such as books and papers, is only one of the skills involved in executive functioning, but it can be a pretty big hurdle for a lot of people. (I’m telling on myself here.)

Ironically, my daughter is more organized about lots of kinds of materials than I am. She keeps her room in decent order and likes to keep her art supplies handy. I sent her to Montessori preschool on purpose because I hoped she wouldn’t develop my own weaknesses in this area! However, she still needs support with school paperwork.

Since I’m not so great at this either, I turned to the Internet for advice and a plan. Fortunately, web sites like LD Onlineand Understoodoffer a lot of tips that can help anybody, not just kids with a diagnosis of “learning disabled” or “executive functioning disorder.”

Today after school I’m hoping to take a little time to sit with her and not just empty out her backpack and sort it, but make a mapof the places where she wants her folder and her planner to always go. We’ll talk about where to keep the books she borrows from her classroom library. (We’re about at the point where we want to use e-readers all the time to avoid public library fines, but she still needs a plan for books she borrows from school.)

I also want to ask her if she wants to create a backpack checklist to keep track of what she needs to check for each morning at home and each afternoon at school. That might feel like overkill or it might be a help, so I’ll let her decide.

Trust me, I never thought about stuff like this at all when I was a kid. But today’s world of busy schedules, tasks and papers to track makes me grateful tools like these exist so I can help my daughter systematically learn the skills I was never formally taught.

WHAT DO YOU THINK?
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Maureen Kelleher

Maureen Kelleher

Maureen Kelleher is a senior writer and editor at Education Post, but before that she spent a decade as a reporter, blogger and policy analyst. Her work has been published across the education world, from Education Week to the Center for American Progress. Between 1998 and 2006 she was an associate editor at Catalyst Chicago, the go-to magazine covering Chicago’s public schools. There, her reporting won awards from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the International Reading Association and the Society for Professional Journalists. A former high school English teacher, she is also the proud mom of an elementary student at Chicago’s Namaste Charter School. Find her on Twitter at @KelleherMaureen.

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