The Paper Path to Productivity: Tips for Life-Long Learning


2012 National Teacher of the Year Rebecca Mieliwocki shares her top tips for staying productive for parents, teachers and students.

For Parents & Teachers

Doing homework at home

Give your kids a space at home where they can complete their school assignments.

It can be a desk or the dining table, as long as the space is well-lit, clean and relatively distraction-free. Make sure to keep some essential supplies for doing work nearby.

Time management for tweens

Modeling time management for your middle schoolers will prepare them for high school and beyond.

During middle school, there is often a temptation for parents to take a more hands-off approach to their kids’ schoolwork in order to teach them responsibility. In reality, your kids need your help more than ever. Show them how to organize and maintain a notebook for daily use. Show them how to make, store and discard stacks of schoolwork, which will prepare them to do this in high school. Kids learn great habits by watching us.

The key to success is reading

Kids who read are more successful developing strong critical thinking and rhetorical skills.

The scientific research on reading is undeniable. Kids who read succeed. They develop stronger vocabularies, understand logical arguments and learn to appreciate (and imitate) voice and style in writing (Cullinan, 2000). The best part is that it doesn’t matter what kids read just that they do. If you can help your child cultivate a love for reading, you will have placed them light-years ahead of most.

Empower students through classroom organization

Organized classrooms empower students and show them the value of organization and responsibility.

Great classrooms have a designated place where papers are turned in and graded work can be picked up. It’s important that students know where to go to turn in late work, or how to collect assignments missed due to absence. Kids love a self-serve supply station where they can grab the tools they need to complete a learning activity.

How to lighten the load—literally

Parents need to teach their kids how to sort, store and discard their schoolwork.

Kids need to be taught how to organize their schoolwork. To help, ask your kids each month to take all their schoolwork out of their backpacks. Help them find assignments that still need work, project information sheets and old assignments that might need to be turned in. Archiving important work from past terms is a great way to keep school memories alive while lightening the literal load on your child’s back.

For Students

Organize your school self

The single most important thing kids can do to guarantee school success is to get organized.

Make sure you understand your school schedule so you know where you have to be and how long it takes to get there. Also, make sure you have all the supplies and resources your teachers require to be successful in class. That includes having a sturdy binder with tabbed dividers for each class, plenty of paper and a variety of folders for current and long-term projects. Finally, don’t forget to keep a supply pouch well-stocked with pens and pencils.

Take notes. On paper.

Note-taking is an essential part of learning and something students need to master quickly.

Where students often go wrong is in trying to rapidly copy every word a teacher or professor speaks. However, the research on note-taking and memory is pretty clear. Students who attempt to copy everything have a difficult time after the fact putting that information in order. Even worse, studies show students who copy lectures verbatim have worse test scores on the same content as students who craft less wordy but more contextually organized notes. The act of manipulating what you hear into bits of information that make sense to you is the key to deeper learning and true understanding. Experiment with different forms of note-taking to see what best suits you. Then, focus on the critical skill of listening to organize the content during note-taking (Mueller & Oppenheimer, 2014).

Set a goal, and then plan how to get there

Set a project due date and then plan the daily steps needed to do it well and on time.

Backwards planning is something teachers do when they plan an instruction unit. We spend time looking at the content that kids need to master, and then we backtrack and build lessons and activities that will build those skills. It’s a terrific skill for kids, too. I teach my students how to backwards plan whenever they have a major assignment to complete. We print out a calendar page, circle the due date, and then break the project into component parts assigned to a day. On each day’s calendar square we list the resources they will need to complete that phase of the task.

Want to succeed? Read!

Reading pays dividends that last a lifetime.

In my experience, if you want to be successful, build in at least 15 minutes of reading a day to strengthen your reading muscle and develop a whole host of other skills. I’ve found that kids who read consistently are able to handle complex texts more easily, develop a much larger vocabulary and see and understand logic better. They often develop voice and style in their writing because they see and imitate great writers they’ve read.

For Life-long learners

Live with change through life-long learning

Keep yourself open to learning new things in order to remain confident, nimble and proactive.

The only thing we can count on for certain is that change is inevitable and constant. Learning to live well and happily in times of flux depends completely on your mindset. As painful as it can be to learn new things or let go of old habits, finding a way to see the opportunities in the change is essential. What has served me best is knowing that I have a body of wisdom to leverage but I also leave a fair margin of space for new ideas, practices and information to weave in.

Teach yourself, teach others

Learning something well enough to be able to teach it to others is the highest form of understanding (and immensely gratifying, too!).

As adults, the best way to manage a life filled with exciting opportunities, information and change is to teach yourself something new every year, or learn something new by taking a class or workshop. It doesn’t really matter what you learn, just that you learn something new. Take it one step further and deepen your learning by teaching what you know to someone else.

Get outside your own mental zip code

Read about and engage with people, places and ideas that differ from your own to gain perspective.

Even though we are more connected than ever to immediate information and the goings-on of our friends, people are just as able to curate their own digital “gated communities” to linger in exclusively. A smart suggestion is to frequently step out of your mental and digital zip code to meet people, go places and read up on issues that are different than yours. It helps you process different ideas, gain important perspective and grow your wisdom about how the world really is.

Exercise your creative muscle

Create something fun or beautiful that allows you to express yourself.

We live in a time of relative ease and abundance, where tools and resources make it easier than ever to create beautiful, personal and professional things. Craft and hobby shops are filled with art supplies and paper goods that become keepsakes for treasuring. Blank books and journals are enormously popular now, and are perfect for capturing daily thoughts or inspiration. So, in whatever way appeals to you, create something beautiful, fun or useful that allows for self-expression. You’ll find it is deeply satisfying.

  • [1]Cullinan, B. E. (2000). Independent reading and school achievement. School Library Media Research, 3(3).
  • [2]Mueller, P. A., & Oppenheimer, D. M. (2014). The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking. Psychological Science, 25(6), 1159-1168.