Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Papers, Presentations and Projects, Oh My! Tips to Survive the End of the Fall Semester

Papers, Presentations and Projects, Oh My!
Tips to Survive the End of the Fall Semester

by Mikey Smith, M.Ed

It is a ritual as old as the education system itself. The dreaded end-of-semester term paper (or book report, or research paper, or science project). Every year it goes just about the same way: the teacher assigns the paper or project and hands out a rubric or set of guidelines that probably seems simple to her, but seem like instructions for launching the space shuttle to you. There are notecards to be organized, books to be read, dioramas to be built, and sources to be cited. Everyone's life begins to revolve around this paper or project. Finally, as the deadline draws dangerously near, the unthinkable happens.

Unfortunately, the unthinkable can change from year to year, child to child, and assignment to assignment. One time, you might find yourself out of ink, paper, or Internet access altogether. Another time you might discover, while reading your student's paper at the last minute, that he or she has taken some liberties with sources cited (or not cited). Still worse, a family emergency might occur which requires you to be away from home so that your student is not able to finish a big assignment at all. Don't let this be your household this year. With the end of the first semester approaching, take some time to read these suggestions for success from veteran teachers.

Problem #1: Waiting Until the Last Minute
Hands down, teachers will tell you that this single factor is the root cause of most deadline disasters.

Don't let a far-off deadline assigned at the start of the school year lull you into believing that you have tons of time. In August and early September, most students (and their parents) are refreshed and revitalized, and feel like they can tackle the world. After the school year gets going, however, that energy starts to fade and most students, parents, and teachers are counting the MINUTES to the holiday break. What can you do?

BreAnn Fennell, an early elementary teacher, offers this advice: "Write down due dates on a calendar that can be viewed when you walk by a common area so that the work is broken down into manageable pieces." Adds Terry Apple, a middle school veteran, "Help your child by setting up a timeline which includes writing a rough draft, revising, and last but not least, editing."

Although good organization and time management skills set your child up for success, the best organizational plan won't do a thing for you if you lack the basic supplies needed to execute it. Check your basic office supplies often, and make sure you always have a spare ink cartridge and ream of white paper. Although it might sound silly, it might also make sense to have a backup plan if your computer crashes or Internet access goes down. Is there a library nearby? Does grandma have tons of technology? Knowing how you're going to handle a technology crisis before you encounter it can really help save your sanity!

Problem #2: Plagiarism
Just as technology has made it easier for students to copy and paste their way to a perfect paper, technology has also made it easier to pinpoint plagiarism. Many schools currently use services like turn it in.com which can identify with a great deal of certainty whether a paper or any written work has been plagiarized. What's more, experienced teachers are also very well trained in spotting work that is not a student's own.

While some students truly don't know what plagiarism is, most teachers cover the topic in great detail with their classes, so the ignorance defense might be a bit of a stretch. " I always make sure that I take time before projects are even beginning to talk about this sensitive topic," elementary teacher Fennell says. "If you don't teach this as a lesson you can't expect students to know what to do about it." She adds, however, that, "Even children in first grade can understand that they are reading someone's work and can write the websites on the back of a notecard."

Bottom line is, if it sounds too good for your student to have written it, chances are, he or she didn't write it. This may sound harsh, but rest assured that it is better to have the plagiarism conversation NOW, when you are proofreading it (before it is turned in) than LATER, when it has been flagged for plagiarism and you are in a parent-teacher conference. Review for yourself what plagiarism is, and when in doubt, CITE SOURCES!!!! As opposed to a negative interaction, think of this as a teachable moment with your child!

Problem #3: Not writing a rough draft
Remember Ralphie's theme about "The Best Christmas Gift Ever," in the movie A Christmas Story? He has visions of his teacher, Miss Shields, being brought to tears by his eloquence. In his dream, she awards him with an A+++++ on his paper, which sings the praises of the Red Rider BB Gun. He is crushed when he receives the paper back, marked with a huge red C+. Although we laugh at this scene and Ralphie's reaction, the truth is that many students also suffer from this sort of delusional thinking when it comes to their own writing. High School Economics teacher Lenny Briones cites the lack of adequate organization and preparation as a huge obstacle in students' creating a quality final product. "Students rarely prewrite or lay out a draft so basically their final draft/project is their first one. This means their work usually lacks coherence and developed thoughts, or style."

How can you help? You can require your student to write a rough draft, even if the teacher does not. Remind your students that most published authors have elaborate systems of mapping out their writing work, and ALL of them have editors to help them ensure the final piece of writing is perfect. More on editing momentarily. . .

Problem #4: Relying on a computer program to catch grammar and spelling errors
Yes, we all use spellcheck, but most of us also have a story in which we detail an embarrassing error that spellcheck did not catch because the word was spelled right, but it wasn't the right word. Most kids don't have this background knowledge, and if they are allowed, many (especially those in middle school and high school) will assure you they don't need your help.

Don't believe this, and don't wait until the night before something is due to give a paper, presentation or project a good once over. Middle school teacher Terry Apple recommends the following plan: "Complete the paper at least a day before it is due, preferably several.  Then, read it out loud.  If it isn't smooth, check your grammar and sequence, then revise and edit." Taking care on the front end takes more time, but it virtually guarantees a better product in the end.

A word of caution: HELPING a student with a paper does not mean DOING the whole assignment. Sometimes it is so stressful trying to get a project done that parents feel like it would just be quicker and easier to do it themselves.  Bad idea. Not only is it fairly easy for a teacher to spot a parent's work, but parents also risk jeopardizing their relationship and credibility with the teacher. As Fennell notes, "Every teacher has probably experienced an immaculate tri-fold board with perfect edging, glitter, and handwriting, that you just know couldn't possibly have been created by your student. This puts the teacher in an awkward position of asking the student if he did his own work. As a parent you can supply the student with materials or help with the typing and organizing, but a child will learn much more if they are coming up with their own ideas."

Problem #5: Not Following Directions
Ah, the best-laid plans. . .nothing will derail a paper or project faster than failing to read and understand the assignment. High School teacher Briones sees this often. "Students don't read (& reread) instructions or the question they're answering so they end up losing points because they either didn't do a specified task or didn't have a clear thesis statement (an answer to the question)," she says.

Teachers are also usually very specific about the 'look' of a paper or project as well as its content. If the instructions call for 12-point font, Times New Roman, most likely the teacher is going to deduct points if your child turns in something in rainbow Comic Sans. Creativity has a time and place. . . this is not it!

Problem #6: Giving Up
Throwing your hands up in despair and disgust, although tempting at times, gives the impression that giving up is acceptable. Just showing up empty-handed is about the worst thing a student can do.  Printer not working? Hand write. Out of white paper? Use junk mail or construction paper. Missing supplies for a project? Improvise. Having a child complete a project or paper is a very important step of the learning process. While many teachers will not accept or take pity on students who have issues, there are also many who will, and you won't know until you try. Additionally, by having your student turn something in, even if it is not perfect, you are teaching the importance of putting your best foot forward and about not giving up and being persistent. Even if the grade is not perfect, the learning experience will be valuable.


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Raising the Bar's Paper Polishing service might be right up your alley! A certified, veteran English/Language Arts teacher (who bears no resemblance to Miss Shields from A Christmas Story) works one on one with your student to help create a polished piece of work.

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