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The Power of the Planner: Teaching Strong Work Habits in Middle School
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January 27, 2021
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Never underestimate the power of a planner.

It’s a simple tool, but at Success Academy, we use them as a springboard to help teach the strong work habits — like time management, organization, and independence — that set kids up for a bright future.

“When work habits are explicitly taught, they can be such a gamechanger for kids,” said Bridget McNamara, principal of Success Academy Harlem East Middle School. “These tools not only teach them the organizational skills they need but also help them develop the mindsets and habits they need to be successful in high school and beyond.”

At SA, we introduce planners in fifth grade, which is the first year of middle school for our kids. Fifth grade teachers work hard to invest kids in why planners are important and why they should care about them.

“In fifth grade, kids don’t want to be told what to do. They need to understand why what they’re doing matters,” McNamara explained. As kids transition from elementary to middle school, teachers frame planners as a cool, tangible new tool that will help them build independence and that they can get excited about, feel responsible for, and own for themselves. 

In fifth grade, the planner process is tightly managed. Advisory teachers (similar to homeroom) start every morning and end every afternoon with planners open, discussing how kids used their planners the previous night, how they’ll use them the next night, and discussing any issues that arose. In the last five minutes of each class period, all teachers grade-wide follow the same routine: Kids take out their planners. Homework goes up on the board, and they copy it down. Teachers check to make sure everything is written down correctly and answer questions.

This time is sacrosanct in every class, which sends a critical message to kids. “They know that even if we’re behind on content, we’re never going to skip over planner time. It’s that important,” McNamara said. 

In sixth grade, the routines are similar, though teachers spend less time talking about planners and how to use them. In seventh grade, the routines might start to look different — some teachers may put homework up on the board at the beginning of the class to copy down, for example. 

In eighth grade, planners are much more flexible, and kids choose what works for them. Some move on to digital planners or tools like Google calendar. Planners are still mandatory for eighth graders, but kids have a lot more independence in how they use them and developing systems that work for them. That way, when they get to high school, they’ve developed a system they like and feel ownership over, and continue those habits automatically. 

McNamara has a few tips for other educators based on lessons she’s learned about planners.

Model your own organizational tools. “Every year, I pull out my own planner and show kids how I use it,” McNamara said. That helps kids feel more adult, and start to understand that planners are a long-term tool for life rather than just something they have to use in school.

Start with paper. At SA, we’ve found that paper planners work best in the first year. “They’re tangible, teachers can easily see how kids are using them,” McNamara said. “Parents and kids who might not be as tech literate can easily use them and build that habit.” After the first year when everyone has used a planner, we have had success introducing digital options for students who prefer that. 

Be explicit. “Initially, we assumed that if we gave every kid a planner they’d use it appropriately,” McNamara said. “That wasn’t the case. We can’t assume that the tool will teach the habit. The habit should be explicitly taught.” Once McNamara and her colleagues realized that, they began explicitly mapping out how to teach planners just as they would a reading or math lesson.

McNamara has found that the teachers who have been most successful at investing their kids in planners are the ones who encourage each child to really make it their own. If a student is a soccer player, for example, and wants to keep track of practices in their planner, teachers should embrace and encourage that. “Take those opportunities to have meaningful conversations about how to leverage the planner,” McNamara said. “If you have soccer practice on Tuesday night, what does that mean for your Monday night?” These conversations can help kids start to think proactively about time management in ways that will make a difference in their lives for years to come.

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