Making a List, Checking it Twice: Helping our Students to Stay Motivated, Engaged, and Organized in a Fast-Paced World
Catherine Ames, Green Bay Schools & WATG Board Member
I am a list-maker. I love the satisfaction of wielding a sharp #2, applying it to a post-it note or loose leaf paper, and scribbling a word or phrase as a gentle reminder. Even more satisfying is the sound of said pencil emphatically crossing off the words after the task has been completed. I add to my lists at the bottom, don't finish the jobs in any certain order, and sometimes carry them over for days and weeks. Lists keep me sane. Lists are my friend. And I firmly believe that lists are the friends of our gifted and advanced learners, as well.
Part of my day as an advocate for gifted students is inevitably spent helping students organize and prioritize their obligations. Making lists helps our students stay focused and keeps them from wasting valuable time. The visual reminder, finished and unfinished, is at once calming and empowering, giving students a sense of ownership and completion. Organizing with lists makes everything manageable and allows our students to see progress and feel a sense of satisfaction when they've accomplished a task. One study showed that fifteen minutes spent planning could save an hour of execution time!
To-do lists help as an external memory aid, giving us a visual to help our short-term memories deal with more. Our brains are designed to remember a few things for a short time, say 30 seconds. If we write down what we need to remember, especially if this is more than 7 things, (think phone numbers) and commit to looking at the list, we will never lose nor forget anything that's been recorded. Students are bombarded with things to remember, deadlines to meet, facts to memorize every day of their lives. To-do lists in the form of assignment notebooks and index cards reinforce that information. Every time we connect the visual, we are less apt to forget appointments, commitments or facts. In a sense, to-do lists grant us permission to let go and release.
Keeping a to-do list helps students to prioritize and stay productive, reminding them that "e-mail NHS advisor", "write FRQ for AP Psych", and "toothpaste", while all important, may not require the same sense of urgency nor a fixed deadline. Attention-stealers like cellphones, pop-ups and social media are constantly undermining the productivity of our youth. When they know that they can quickly glance at a written to-do list, they are less stressed out and more productive, incapable of forgetting where they were or what else needs to be done. Time-snatchers be gone.
A recorded to-do list can be a huge motivator for our students to help them set and clarify goals. "Get accepted at MIT" may be a bit lofty and self-defeating when not broken down into bite-sized to-do's. Listing steps like "obtain letter of recommendation from Mrs. Jones", "send transcript", "record service hours" will motivate our youth to set and achieve short-term goals. Then, they'll be able to have the satisfaction of grasping that pencil and dragging it across paper, leaving a black mark of accomplishment, and celebrating a job well done.