Getting Help From Parents and Teachers [book excerpt]

Let’s face it: in the beginning, we may be filled with enthusiasm and determined to succeed. But as the days and weeks go by, our old tendencies begin to reassert themselves.

Do it the easy way. 

Be a little bit lazy. 

Take a break. 

Do it tomorrow.

And before we know it, our grand plans for improvement have been forgotten.

This is when we need help from others.

Parent Power: Nagging Reminding

Do you ever wish your parents would stop nagging you? “Clean your room! Help with the dishes! Take out the garbage!” It never ends.

You may be surprised, then, at what I am about to say. If you are serious about improving your habits but find that you need help, here’s the best thing you can do:

Ask your parents to nag you.

Actually, nagging means being reminded of things you would rather forget. In this case, we are talking about things you want to remember. So maybe we should call it reminding, not nagging.

Perhaps you want to acquire the habit of reading every day. You set a goal to read for 15 minutes every day, and for the first day or two everything is fine. But then you start forgetting.

Ask your parents to remind you. Tell them what your goal is, and put that parent power to work on your side.

Organization

Parents can also help with organization. Maybe a wall calendar would help you keep track of your goal-setting activities and important due-dates. Perhaps your mother or father can help you to arrange a schedule that will work for you. Are you being disturbed by your little sister when you’re trying to do homework? Do you need a better place to study?

Don’t try to solve all of these problems yourself. Put your parents to work!

Not only will your parents be able to help you reach your goals—they will also be happy about it. They will be delighted that you are improving your habits, setting goals, and becoming organized.

They might even stop nagging you so much.

Teachers: Error Detection

Teachers can sometimes be too negative. They fall into that trap because it is so much easier to explain what’s wrong with your work than it is to say what’s right about it. They are very good at pointing out errors and mistakes.

You can use your teachers’ error-detection talents to help you build good habits. My advice here is similar to asking your parents to nag you:

Ask teachers to tell you when you’re messing up.

You may think this is crazy advice, but let me explain.

Even though they spend all day pointing out errors, teachers usually don’t enjoy being so negative. They feel guilty.

You can relieve your teachers’ guilty consciences by asking them to point out your errors. “Imagine!” they will think, “a student who actually wants to hear bad news!” They will be so happy to be able to do what they do best, without feeling guilty. And I want to point out that a happy teacher is usually a nice teacher. A sympathetic teacher. A teacher who, hesitating between a higher mark and a lower mark, might just choose the higher one.

You’re beginning to see the strategy here, right?

Teachers are busy people, of course, so you don’t want to annoy them by adding unnecessarily to their workload. Instead, make it easy for them. Use the Daily Check Sheet, for example (see Appendix A). Pick one class where you need to improve when it comes to homework, and ask the teacher if he or she would be willing to take 30 seconds at the end of each lesson to fill in your sheet. Most teachers, impressed that you have taken this initiative by yourself, will be pleased to help. Do this for a week, and then ask the teacher’s advice. Should you continue with the Daily Check Sheet for another week? Are there areas where you need to improve that the sheet doesn’t mention?

Letting teachers know that you are working to improve your habits will improve their attitude toward you. Once you have gained their trust—once they see that you are committed to improvement—they will be much more willing to spend extra time helping you.

Show them this book, and ask them for their ideas. Where do you need to improve the most? What can you do to improve your test scores, or write better essays, or improve your reading skills? Put your teachers to work for you, and, just like your parents, they will be happy to help.

Expert Information and Advice

Teachers—and school librarians, too—can also help by answering questions about nutrition, sleep, exercise, and the scientific evidence regarding study routines.

They can help you . . .

  • find good books about study skills;
  • find good novels to read that are right for your reading level and personal interests; and
  • find other books, internet sites, etc., that will allow you to explore your interests in science, history, mathematics, automobile mechanics, or wherever else your nose leads you.

As one of my own teachers said to me, “The school is a cow—milk it!”

There may be other adults you could call on as well—a school counselor, perhaps, or a grandparent, or a neighbour. Don’t be afraid to ask—most people will be happy to help.

The Education Genie [book excerpt]

Imagine . . .

It’s your summer holiday, and you’re walking along a beautiful, deserted beach. The wet sand oozes between your toes. The salt breeze blows in your hair. The seabirds run up and down as the waves roll in, then recede.

In the water up ahead, a strange shape catches your eye. As you approach, the waves wash it onshore. When you get close enough, you see that it’s some kind of old jar. No, wait—it’s a bottle, the glass so dark it’s almost black. And sure enough, it’s sealed with a cork that is covered with red wax.

“Cool!” you exclaim.

The wax is old and brittle, and with a bit of effort you are able to pry it loose. After some tugging, you succeed in pulling out the cork.

If there was ever something inside that bottle, it evaporated long ago. You turn it upside down and shake it, but nothing falls out and nothing rattles.

Oh well, you think. At least it’s a cool old bottle.

Then a thin trail of mist begins wafting up out of the bottle, growing into a cloud that hangs in the air just in front of you. Suddenly—bang!—a genie appears where the cloud had been. A genie! Just like in the old stories, dressed like someone out of The Arabian Nights, with one ring through his nose and another in his left ear.

“Greetings, my friend,” says the genie, bowing slightly. “A thousand thanks for freeing me from my imprisonment. I am ready to grant your wish.” 

“Whoa!” you say. “This is so cool! What’ll I wish for? Hmm . . .  I could wish to be the richest person on the planet, or an Olympic athlete, or a famous singer, or—” 

“Hold it!” cries the genie. “Let me explain. I’m not like those genies in the stories. I’m an Education Genie, and I only grant wishes that have to do with education.” 

“What?! You mean, out of all the genies in the world trapped in bottles, I have the rotten luck of freeing an Education Genie?” 

“If you’re that disappointed,” says the genie, “we can forget the whole thing, and I’ll just be on my way.” 

“No, no,” you say. “Wait, I’ll think of something.” Then, an idea. “Could I wish for my math teacher to take early retirement?” 

“No,” says the genie. “I’m not a School Genie. I’m an Education Genie. It has to be something about education.” Seeing the puzzled look on your face, he adds, “About learning.” 

“Oh,” you say, unable to conceal your disappointment. “Okay, let’s see, three wishes about learning . . . .”

The genie clears his throat. “Who said anything about three wishes?” 

“I don’t get three wishes?” 

“You’ve been reading too many old stories,” says the genie. “You get one wish.” 

“One wish?” 

“One.”

Oh boy. So you start thinking. You could wish to be a genius. But Melvin, the guy in your class who’s closest to being a genius, isn’t the most popular kid around… and he doesn’t even get the best grades. He always seems to be thinking about something totally different when the teacher calls on him. So maybe being a genius isn’t the best idea.

You ask yourself: what’s the one thing you don’t have, that you really need to help you do better in school? Hmm . . . No idea.

That’s it! Ideas! Wouldn’t it be great to be one of those students who’s always got an idea, or even several ideas? Like Lucy Dobner. She’s got ideas and inspiration to burn. Maybe you should wish for inspiration.

But then you remember that Lucy Dobner, for all her great ideas, is the most disorganized person on Earth. She forgets stuff all the time, her homework is always late . . . and she doesn’t get the best marks, either. Maybe inspiration isn’t the best thing to wish for.

Who does get the best grades? It’s usually either Janice or Chris. They’re not the smartest in the class, so what do they do that’s so successful? Well . . . they always pay attention, they write down all the assignments, they turn in their homework on time, and they never seem to have to cram for tests. They just have really good work habits.

That’s it! Habits! You start thinking about your own habits and realize that they could certainly stand some improvement. 

“Okay,” you say. “I’m ready. My wish is to have great habits.” 

“Are you sure?” asks the genie. “I’ve had many unhappy experiences with people making wishes and then wishing they’d wished for something else.” 

“I’m sure,” you say, “I’ve thought it all through carefully. The best thing to improve my grades would be if I had better habits. That’s my wish.” 

“Did you consider other alternatives?” asks the genie. 

“Yes,” you say, growing impatient. “I thought about being a genius, but that’s no guarantee of success. And I thought about being inspired with great ideas, but I don’t want to risk having great ideas without being able to follow through on them. So the best thing to have is good habits. Let’s get on with it. I should have been back an hour ago, and I’m getting hungry.” 

“All right,” the genie sighs. “Your wish is granted. From now on you will have excellent habits, and as a result you will earn much better grades.” 

“You don’t seem very happy about it,” you say. 

“You made the wrong choice.”

“What!?”

“You made the wrong choice,” he repeats.

“But why? I reasoned it all out very carefully!”

“If a genie offers to make your wish come true,” he explains, “you should wish for something you couldn’t possibly get on your own. You can improve your habits, if you really want to. You can even do things to become more inspired. But no matter what you do, you can’t turn yourself into a genius. You should have wished to be a genius.”

With a groan, you plop down onto the sand. “I’m such a loser!”

“Well,” says the genie, “I must be off now. Good luck!”

“Wait,” you say. “I have one more question.”

“Make it quick.”

“You say anyone can improve his habits. How?”

The genie seems a bit offended by such an easy question.

“It’s nothing difficult,” he replies. “Read this book.”

Have a problem? Tell your teacher! [book excerpt]

Not every teacher will be sympathetic every time. But most will listen sympathetically if you speak with them—in advance, or as soon as you know—and explain the situation. Students who communicate with their teachers usually get the benefit of the doubt. If you have trouble talking with a particular teacher, find another teacher or school administrator who will listen, and ask for his or her assistance.

Teachers are not mind readers. It may be obvious to you that you have a problem, but your teachers may have no idea. Let them know. If it’s something personal, you don’t have to go into great detail. “Mrs. Johnson, I’m sorry if I’m not my usual self today, but I’m having some personal problems, and I’m kind of upset.” Most teachers will be sympathetic, and quite willing to offer special accommodations, if you need them. Students who have been reliable and honest in the past will almost certainly receive sympathetic treatment in such circumstances. (Those who have not been reliable may have more trouble earning their teachers’ trust—another good reason to develop the habit of being reliable!)

In most of us, by the age of thirty, the character has set like plaster, and will never soften again . . . . We must make automatic and habitual, as early as possible, as many useful actions as we can, and guard against the growing into ways that are likely to be disadvantageous to us.

—William James, American psychologist and philosopher (1842-1910)

Having trouble with homework? The same rule applies. Let’s say the assignment is due, but yours isn’t ready to hand in. What do you say when the teacher asks for your homework? If all you say is, “I don’t have it”, what is the teacher supposed to think? Unfortunately, teachers will often assume the worst: that you were lazy, or disorganized, or inattentive—and maybe even that you don’t really care about the class, or about school in general.

If you’re reading this book, then you do care about school and want to do well. So how do you let the teacher know?

You probably don’t want to have a conversation with the teacher during class. First, it will take up valuable class time. Second, it will probably be overheard by your classmates, and that might be a bit embarrassing—or very embarrassing.

A better approach: if you don’t have a good excuse for not completing the homework, write a note of apology and give it to the teacher at the start of class, or earlier in the school day if you can. (Apologize, fix it, and move on.) If you usually hand your work in on time, your good track record will encourage the teacher to go easy on you. Then finish that homework, and hand it in!

If you do have a legitimate reason for not completing the homework on time, write a brief note explaining the circumstances, letting the teacher know when you will be able to hand in the work and asking if that is okay.

Finally, if you know in advance that you won’t be able to complete the assignment on time because of some unusual situation, speak with the teacher in advance, explain the problem, and ask if you could have a time extension. If you’re going to have the same problem in several classes, speak with your homeroom teacher or advisor and ask him or her for help in informing your teachers.

If you’re honest, reliable, and responsible about communicating openly and courteously, you will have few problems with your teachers. Occasionally you’ll meet one who’s just mean. In that case be as polite as you can and walk the other way whenever possible.

Book excerpt: “Have a question? Ask your teacher!”

Good students ask questions.

Are you shy? Find a way to ask questions. Sometimes after class or after school is best. Sometimes a note to the teacher works well. Learn to tell when it’s the wrong moment to ask a question, and ask it later. But never leave a question unasked!

Many students are reluctant to ask questions. Sometimes the reasons are personal, but often it’s about what other students might think of you if you ask a question. This takes us back to moral courage. Be brave enough to ask questions, and brave enough not to care if some people put you down for it. Many others will respect you, and in the long run you’ll be better off.

Occasionally, a student will ask too many questions, or ask questions at the wrong time. If you’re not sure when or how to ask questions in class, find a classmate who earns good grades, and watch the way he or she asks questions.

The questions your teachers ask are often good models for you to imitate and learn from. Some questions are about the literal or factual meaning; some involve interpreting or reading between the lines; and others involve making judgments. A good student understands these different kinds of questions and knows when to ask each kind. Asking questions is a skill, perhaps even an art, that takes practice and experience to master.

Strange as it may seem, the most important questions are not those you ask the teacher: they are the ones you ask yourself as you think about the subject you’re studying. Good students, even when they aren’t asking questions out loud, are asking themselves questions and making notes about them. This is what is meant by “active” learning: the student’s mind is actively searching for answers, not passively waiting for them. And since all learning is active, if you’re not active, you’re not learning.

In some cultures, students rarely if ever ask questions in class. If you come from such a culture and are now going to school outside your home country, you’ll have to decide whether you want to try to change your own habits in this area. When it comes to the questions you ask yourself, however, you should definitely be an active learner who is constantly questioning what you are hearing and reading in class.

So start asking questions!

Setting Goals: The Path to Improvement (book excerpt)

Don’t try to solve all your problems at once. Pick just one area that needs improvement, and work on it until you’ve reached your goal. To turn your achievement into a new habit, repeat the behaviour you are practicing until it becomes automatic.

Set a realistic goal. Decide in advance what you need to do to meet the goal, how you will measure success, and what your deadline will be. If you fail to reach the initial goal, revise it and try again.

Improvement is like hiking up a mountain: you do it one step at a time. If looking at the peak discourages you, forget about it and concentrate on the next step, and then the next. On the other hand, if looking at the peak inspires you, just keep imagining the fabulous view from the top!

Defining a Goal

A poorly defined goal will be pretty useless. Look at this one:

“My goal is to improve my marks in English.”

This is a nice idea, but it’s not a well-defined goal, because it leaves many important questions unanswered. For example, how much improvement is desired? How will the improvement be measured? Over what period of time is the goal to be achieved? What action is required to achieve the goal? How will progress toward the goal be recorded and judged?

A well-defined goal answers these questions right from the beginning. Here’s an example:

Goal: To read for 15 minutes every day.
Action required: Establish a fixed time and place to read. Eliminate all possible interruptions, and set a timer for 15 minutes.
How often?: Every day.
Start date: [to be filled in]
Monitoring: Keep a daily record in your homework diary, and also on your wall calendar if you wish.
Time limit: One week. End date: [to be filled in]
Measure of success: If you read every day for 15 full minutes, give yourself a treat.
Revision: If you fell short, repeat for another week. When you read for seven straight days, give yourself that treat. Then continue, with a treat at the end of each successful week, until the reading itself is a treat. At that point—not before—increase the time to 20 minutes.

Defining goals like this takes practice. To help you out, I’ve included sample goals with many of the Good Habits described in Part Two of this book. For each of them, the time limit is one week, and I recommend that you begin all your goals with a one-week time limit. Why? It keeps you focused. If you start to slip, the worst that can happen is that you lose a week.

Some goals are hard to define in a way that can be measured or counted. My students, for example, sometimes want to improve their handwriting skills. They set a goal: to write more neatly. But how can someone know whether the handwriting is neater, or how much neater it is? Instead, I tell them to set a goal to practice the skill they want to improve. Goal: to practice neat handwriting for ten minutes every night. With a goal like that, you can keep a record and tell whether the ten minutes has been spent on handwriting. And if you do practice writing neatly for ten minutes every night, you can be sure that your handwriting will improve.

Monitoring your progress: Keeping a daily written record of your goal-setting activity is crucial. For example, you decide to read for 15 minutes every evening, but you don’t keep a daily record. A week later, will you be able to tell exactly how many minutes you have read, on which days? Maybe you will, but maybe you won’t. In addition, keeping a daily record means that you remind yourself daily, and these reminders really help keep you on track. And finally, if you can’t keep a daily record of your achievement, you probably haven’t defined your goal in a way that can be measured. If that’s the case, re-read the paragraph just before this one.

Many of you will be tempted to skip the monitoring—don’t!

Reminders: Try using a digital calendar or organizer that can send you reminders—a beep, a message on-screen, or an email. This can be a great way to ensure that you don’t forget, and an easy way to keep a written record of your goal-setting.

Support: Find a friend who wants to improve his or her habits, and work together to keep each other motivated and on track.

To build a new habit, all you have to do is set a goal, monitor your progress daily, and keep at it—perhaps for weeks, perhaps for months—until the behaviour you are practicing becomes automatic.

In Appendix A, you will find some goal-setting aids:

•Set a Goal, a form for recording your goal, assessing your success, and deciding on the next step.
•Form a Habit, a different version of Set a Goal, designed to help you work on a single goal over several weeks or months and form a new habit.
•The Learning Log, a sheet to help you keep track of your behaviour during class time.
•The Homework Tracker, a sheet to help you monitor your good habits regarding homework.
•The Daily Check Sheet, to get daily feedback from teachers on how you are doing.
•The Post-Report Evaluation, to help you figure out what your report card really means.

If you’re not sure where to start, ask a parent or teacher for help in choosing and defining a goal that will work for you. If you’ve never set a goal before, go ahead and try one that’s simple, such as the reading example above. Or choose one of the other sample goals provided in Part Two (also listed in Appendix B). Or start with what I think are the two most fundamental Good Habits: “Read every day” and “Use a homework diary in every class, every day.”

Once you have some practice setting goals, monitoring them, and revising them, you’ll be able to set goals in every area of your life. You’ll be amazed at how easy it is to improve your habits if you work at it systematically

Book excerpt: Take responsibility for your mistakes

Apologize, fix it, and move on.

What should you say if you’re caught doing something wrong? Apologize, first. Then, if you can do anything to repair the damage, do it.

All of us make mistakes. The question is, how do we respond to them? If we try to weasel out of trouble, point the finger at others, and deny responsibility, all we do is make ourselves look bad and lose the respect of those around us. All we do is show the adults involved that we are still acting like little kids. So if you get caught, don’t say, “It wasn’t me.” Or, “Those other guys were doing it first.” Or, “I didn’t know.”

If you make a mistake, have the courage to say, “I messed up, and I’m sorry. How can I fix it, or make up for it?” Then follow through. People are ready to forgive you—but only if you’re ready to take responsibility. Apologize, fix it, and move on. That kind of response will earn admiration and respect.

I once saw two students sweeping the entranceway to their school after having been caught for a minor misdeed. One of them saw this task as a punishment, while the other saw it as doing service to the school. The first one was angry at being caught and still refused to accept responsibility for what he had done. The second had admitted his mistake, apologized, and asked what he could do to balance the scales. It wasn’t a big deal, but this incident spoke volumes about each of these two individuals. They were the same age, but one was still a boy, while the other was clearly a young man on the way to becoming a responsible adult.

A few words about cheating
Have you ever copied homework from a friend? Used a “cheat-sheet” during a test? Plagiarized an essay or report? Far too many students would answer “yes.”

Why do students cheat?

First, because they are desperate. Bad habits have put them into a corner: their homework’s not done, they aren’t ready for the test, or they’ve put off writing the paper that’s almost due.

Second, they’re still thinking like little kids instead of responsible young adults. They think that if they “get away” with cheating, they will be better off. They don’t realize that they are only cheating themselves. If they earn good grades for work they didn’t do, they aren’t learning what the work was supposed to teach them. And no matter who else believes them, they will look into the mirror and see a cheater.

What’s the right thing to do if you find yourself in a corner and make the wrong choice? You already know: take responsibility. Apologize, fix it, and move on. Then when you look in the mirror, you won’t see a cheater. You’ll see someone who messed up but was courageous and smart enough to be honest about it.

Where do you need to improve?

From Chapter 2 of Good Habits, Good Students:

Here’s a good way to find out where you need the most improvement: check your report card. Don’t just look at the grades, though. Check the comments your teachers write about each subject.

Far too often when students receive report cards, they check their marks and then stop reading. However, if your reports include comments from each teacher, these can be more useful than the grades when it comes to figuring out what you need to do to improve.

Not all comments by teachers are useful in this way. Some consist mostly of a standard description of what the class has studied in the previous term. There may be only a brief comment on your own work, and sometimes such comments emphasize what is most positive—which is nice, but not helpful if you’re trying to identify your weaknesses.

Sometimes, too, teachers’ comments are written in a kind of secret code I call “report-speak”. “George has a good understanding of blah blah blah”, you read. Sounds good. Actually, however, a “good” understanding may be the third– or fourth–best level, below other possibilities like “excellent” and “very good”. Once you realize this, “good understanding” doesn’t sound so good anymore.

Because comments on reports don’t always include the information you’re looking for, and because they are sometimes written in report-speak, any attempt to use your report card to discover where you most need to improve must include this vital step: asking your teachers, in person.

Before you speak with them, however, do a bit of preparatory work. Continue reading “Where do you need to improve?”

Practice good exam-taking strategies [book excerpt]

It’s that time: end-of-year exams have either started already or will shortly. This excerpt from Good Habits, Good Students may help.

Getting Started
Read the instructions and skim all the questions of the whole exam before answering any questions. Be sure no pages are missing from the exam booklet. Be sure whether you should write your answers on the question sheet or on a separate answer sheet. Should you write in pen or pencil? Put your name on the exam booklet and on every one of the answer sheets. Use a highlighting pen to mark important information in the instructions or questions. If a question is unclear, write a note to the teacher explaining how you have interpreted it.

Comprehension Questions
Read the questions first and then the passage they’re based on. That way, you know what to look for when you read the passage.

Multiple-Choice Questions
If you aren’t sure, test researchers say your first hunch is more likely to be correct.

Know how much each question or section is worth, and spend most of your time on the most valuable questions.

Don’t get stuck on a difficult question. Skip it, answer the questions you know, and then come back to the difficult ones at the end if you have time.

Essays
Before you begin writing, brainstorm your ideas (web diagrams or mind-maps are excellent) and then plan out the structure of your essay.

State your thesis in the first paragraph.

Be sure that each body paragraph consists of one assertion plus all the evidence and argument needed to support it. Lead your reader smoothly from one paragraph to the next with transitions or linking phrases that reinforce the meaning of your argument.

In the conclusion, try to do more than simply re-state what you’ve already said. Take your ideas “one step further”  by discussing the wider implications or adding your personal judgments.

If you have time, catch your reader’s interest by opening the essay with a startling statement, a quotation, or a brief anecdote. Then in your conclusion you can close nicely with a da capo (“from the top”) ending that returns to your opening by commenting on it, completing it, or adding to it.

Mathematics and Science Tests
Show all your work. Be sure your reasoning is clearly explained, as this is often just as important as the final answer. Never delete or cancel a solution until you have discovered a better one. We learn a great deal from our mistakes, and teachers will be able to help you make improvements if they can see your mistakes and understand where you’re making a wrong turn.

If you finish the test or exam early . . .
There are three possibilities: a) the test was too easy for you; b) the test was too hard for you; or c) your answers have been too hasty and careless. First, re-read the entire exam—questions and answers—making any needed changes or additions. Second, re-read it again, starting with the last question and working your way back to the beginning. Why? Reading it backward may help you catch a mistake you missed before. Finally, read through your answers to check for spelling and grammatical mistakes.

Arrive on time (book excerpt)

It’s a matter of respect.

In some schools, arriving late to class is viewed seriously, with strict rules, late slips, detentions, and other penalties for those who are tardy too often. In other schools, these issues don’t seem so important. Most students attend 6–8 classes each day, along with occasional assemblies, meetings, rehearsals, and practices. It’s a busy life, but it’s also often repetitive. If your school doesn’t stress the importance of arriving on time, it’s easy to slip into the bad habit of thinking it’s not really important.

However, in the real world, arriving on time can be very important. Some cultures value punctuality more than others, but in those cultures where it’s important, arriving late can be a serious problem. What’s the big deal about arriving late? It’s a sign of disrespect. A student who arrives late to class is sending a message to the teacher: “You and your class are not very important to me, and making you and the rest of the class wait for me or disrupting the class by entering late is really not a problem, because you and my classmates are much less important than I am.”

Later in life you’ll be happy to have the habit of arriving on time when you have to get to work each day, attend business meetings, make appointments with doctors, lawyers, and bank officers, etc. Arriving on time for dates can be important, too. In each case, by arriving on time you send the message that you respect others and appreciate the value of their time and attention.

If you are in the habit of arriving late, start arriving on time today.