“You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today.” –Abraham Lincoln
Many people think that because I am a teacher my kids must be organized and on top of all of their assignments. Let me clear up that misconception right now…it’s not true. Believe it or not, sometimes it is harder to help your own child with school assignments when you are a teacher. I have yet to find an article or any research that supports this phenomenon but I know from other teachers that I am not the only teacher-parent who struggles with getting their child to complete homework and assignments. I won’t bother to tell you all the things you probably already know about homework (work friendly area, schedule a study time, reduce distractions). Instead I’m going to give you some ideas on how to maintain your sanity when your child comes home with a project or research paper.
There are obviously some big differences between assignments given to elementary students and those given to high school students. Elementary school is the training ground for note taking, writing rough drafts, bibliography writing, etc. Teachers will typically use some part of class to introduce these skills and the students will be practicing what they learn in class. Much of the research required for elementary school projects will occur in school. Once a student is in middle school there is an expectation that they have acquired the basic skills required to complete research papers/projects. There will be time in class to work on assignments but there is an expectation that some research and writing will occur outside of the school day. High school research projects put much more of the responsibility on the student. Projects in high school will differ based on grade, subject and level (general, college prep. or advanced placement). Regardless of your child’s grade level, it is helpful for parents to understand the assignments requirements and due date.
The distribution of the rubric and expectations for the assignment are dependent upon the teacher. Some teachers will send a letter home. Others might include the information in a newsletter or weekly email. In high school large assignments may be included in the syllabus for the class. As a parent I suggest you look for two things once you find out about a project: the rubric and the due date. The rubric identifies what the teacher is looking for as well as how the student will be graded. The due date allows you to help your child create a plan to complete the project on time.
Some students get so excited about the display part of the project that they want to start on that part first. My initial reaction is to say “No”. I call this the “dessert before dinner approach”. Students should not begin the work on the final display until the written content portion of the assignment is complete. This is for several reasons. The first reason is that some students run out of steam. They get so focused on the display that they don’t do a thorough job on the written portion. I have had students that have completed beautiful 3D replicas of the rainforest only to get a C or on the overall project because the paper was incomplete. Another drawback to completing the display prior to writing the paper is that they might miss the opportunity to include key information acquired during the research and writing of the project. I think it is reasonable to start thinking about ideas and gathering materials but I strongly suggest that you hold off on letting your child complete the project first.
There are also some students that love to create “project smorgasbords”. My oldest daughter is one of those students. If an assignment provides examples of three potential finished products, she wants to do all three. I usually let her do all three, but the reality is very rarely does that impact her grade. Rubrics often don’t include a place for grading extra materials. This is something you may want to consider if you are spending extra money on the project. This is also a quality vs. quantity situation. It is better to hand in one excellent project instead of three mediocre ones.
Unfortunately, there are some kids that hate the display part of the project. If your child falls in to this category have them choose what type of display they want to work on at the beginning of the project. Once the display is chosen start collecting materials as they are doing their research. One way to do this is to make sure your child is printing copies of any interesting pictures or graphs they come across as they are doing their research. I would also start gathering any other materials they might need for the project display. (For example, you can use old calendar pages or magazine pictures as a tropical backdrop for a rainforest diorama. This eliminates the need for your child to have to draw one) The idea here is to have most of the display materials ready so basically they just need to be assembled for the final project. I think of it sort of like a mise en place in cooking. If you have all of the materials together, assembly is quicker and easier.
Finally, as an extra added precaution I suggest that you keep some project materials on hand. At the beginning of the year when the school supplies are out bulk, buy yourself some glue, glue sticks, markers, construction paper, die-cut letters/stencils, colored folders or report covers. These items are readily available in August and you can get some pretty good deals on them. I would also make sure that you buy some poster boards (you can usually buy two for a 1$ at any Dollar store). If you buy the more expensive foam tri-fold boards, make sure you don’t throw them out after the project is graded. You can use them again. I pull off the pictures and papers off the board and then cover it with contact paper (again available at the Dollar Store). It may not seem cost-effective to purchase items you are not sure that you need. The good news is that most of these items have a long shelf life and odds are they will get used at some point. Once you have purchased these materials hide them from your children. This is YOUR emergency stash of project materials. I consider this purchase to be like insurance. If I have the materials on hand I won’t lose my mind if/when my child tells me at 7 PM that they need a poster board for their project that is due tomorrow.