Tag: school

The Most Practical Skill

Four lessons from four decades of note-taking

In the fall, the Little Miss will be heading into 7th grade. Forty years ago, I too, was spending my summer what 7th grade would be like. In the Los Angeles Unified School District at that time, 6th grade was the last year of elementary school, while 7th was the first year of junior high school. Back the, just about everything we did for school was on paper. We text books which we covered with brown shopping bag paper to protect them. We had beige newsprint for scratch work and loose-leaf notebook paper for other types of work. In class, we often received “dittos”–what today might be called Xerox copies–of assignments.

Today, all three of our kids have school-issued iPads and no textbooks. Paper is a rarity. And with the dearth of paper comes a lack of something else that I’ve noticed over the years: the ability to take good notes.

In the fall of 1983, in my first 7th grade science class, I learned what I consider to be the most valuable, practical skill I took from all of my schooling: how to take good notes. It is the only time I can ever recall a teacher making lessons in note-taking part of the curriculum. Our teacher, Maureen Burrill, had introduced us to the scientific method and was discussing various types of tools and skills that scientists used to further their investigation of nature. One of the most important things a scientist could do, she told us, was to take good notes. Scientists not only had to carefully record observations, and collect data, but their experiments had to be reproducible. Only good, clear notes could do this.

The great thing about Mrs. Burrill, and a most fortunate thing for me, was that she didn’t just tell us this. She demonstrated the importance of good notes in the most practical way possible: for the entire school year, we were to keep all of our science work in a notebook. The notebook was a 3-ring binder, divided into sections using divider inserts. We had to keep our class notes in the binder, as well as other things like tests, homework, results of experiments. It all had to be organized and easily accessible. Mrs. Burrill was treating us like young scientists. Little did I know at the time that the lesson I learned in that class went far beyond science. They are lessons that I am still using today.

Experiments in note-taking

Over the years, I’ve experimented with many forms of note-taking. During the rest of junior high school and all through high school, I took notes on paper. Most of that paper, alas, is lost now. Despite at least one of the lessons I learned about note-taking in Mrs. Burrill’s class, the notes got thrown away, or lost in one move or another.

In college, I continued to take notes on paper, but beginning in my junior year (ca. 1992-93) I began typing up my notes on my IBM PC (286) as a way of helping me review the notes. I came up with a procedure that worked very well for me. I used Word for DOS 5.5 and created a file for each class I took. In that file, I typed up my lecture and reading notes. When it came time for a test, I used Word’s “Index” feature to label terms in the document as items for the index. I then generated an index and printed the file, index included. I used the topics on the index as a study guide with the page number references readily available to review the details. One of the earliest examples of these notes still exists in my archive. It is reading notes from a book we used in one of my political science classes. The file is dated June 19, 1993–just over 30 years ago.

Notes from a political science class in 1993
Notes from a political science class in 1993

When I began working at my company, a few months after graduating, I continued to keep notes: meeting notes, developer notes, outlines of briefings and presentation.

As I was taught in Mrs. Burrill’s science class, I experimented with note-taking. For several years, I kept the equivalent of “engineering day books” in the form of Composition books. In these books, I recorded meeting notes, documented bugs in code and how I went about fixing them, working out requirements for software my team was building. Here is a stack of 11 of these notebook, spanning November 2017 – September 2019, roughly 2,200 pages of notes.

A stack of work notebooks from 2017-2019
A stack of work notebooks from 2017-2019

I’ve also tried out plenty of tools for note-taking. I’ve used Evernote, Apple Notes, and Obsidian. I was introduced into a wide variety of note-taking methodologies: Evernote and its “Remember Everything” slogan; Obsidian and its “Second Brain”; there was a brief, intense fascination with Zettlekasten and “linking your thinking.” Ultimately, however, I continued to come back to the basic principles of note-taking that I learned in Mrs. Burrill’s 7th grade science class.

Four principles of note-taking

Mrs. Burrill did not teach us what we should record in our notes, or even how to organize the notes on the page. She was smart enough to know that everyone had a different way of learning. For some people, scribbling keywords on a page was enough. For others, like me, a more hierarchical approach worked better (e.g., outline form). But she gave us four principles that have made all the difference to me and taught me through experience just how valuable notes can be.

1. Clearly label the subject of the notes

When we learned about the phases of the moon, it was clear to us that our notes should be labeled “Phases of the moon” or something close to that. Clear labeling makes it easy to find your notes. Back in 1983, this was far less complicated than it has become today. The label was not much more than a line scribbled at the top of a page. Today, labels can involve numerous elements, from a title, to a filename, to a tag. Regardless, what I learned was to be as succinct and precise in my labeling as I could be.

2. Don’t erase

Mrs. Burrill emphasized the importance of being able to reproduce our work, especially when doing experiments. If we erased our mistakes, we couldn’t learn from them. We might make them again. Moreover, others couldn’t see the pitfalls that we ran into when trying to reproduce our work. Prior to this class, I would occasionally get math homework back from my teachers with the following words scrawled in red across the top of the page: “DO NOT ERASE.”

But this lesson proved invaluable to me, especially for more difficult subjects like organic chemistry and calculus. Seeing the mistakes I made ensured I could learn from them.

Today, I use Jupyter notebooks as “lab books” when working on code. I never delete anything. If something doesn’t work in the notebook, I’ll jot notes as to why it didn’t work and move on to the next cell and try again.

3. Don’t throw anything away

Perhaps this is a corollary to “don’t erase,” but Mrs. Burrill insisted we keep everything. You never knew when old notes might come in handy. When I was young, some of this was out of my control. Notebooks and folders were lost or thrown away. But once I started keeping my notes on the computer, beginning in the fall of 1992, I have managed to avoid throwing them away. Of course, they take up less room in digital form than on paper. And I do refer to them, now and then, if for no other reason than to prove to my kids that I went through the same thing they did in school by showing them, say, a sample of my math homework from 3rd grade:

Some of my math homework from 3rd grade
Some of my math homework from 3rd grade

4. Date every page

It wasn’t obvious to me why this was important at first. It eventually became clear, and then it became a habit. Put a date on every page. It no only lets me know when the notes were created, but it allows me to put notes in some kind of order. I can see the evolution of my thinking on a subject or even across multiple subjects.

In the digital age, files are automatically dated, but I still put in a date on the first line of my notes anyway, partially out of habit, and partially in case the file date gets changed (it has been known to happen).

Are there any Mrs. Burrill’s out there today?

When the summer is over, our kids will end 2nd, 7th, and 9th grades respectively. The Little Miss, entering 7th grade, will be in the same position I was in when I was first introduced to Mrs. Burrill’s science class. But are there any Mrs. Burrill’s out there today, teaching kids practical note-taking? If my observations of my own kids’ experience is any example, then it isn’t likely. No one taught my kids to take notes. They are sometimes given notes to study, but that is a very different thing that formulating the ideas on your own, and summarizing them in a way that works best for you.

I am trying to fill in, to pay forward the great gift that Mrs. Burrill gave to me forty years ago. I am teaching my kids some of the same concepts: not erase anything, or throw anything away, to date everything and label it as clearly as they can. What I am not doing is telling them how they should take their notes. The tools one uses, and the way that one records things is an entirely subjective thing.

Looking back across the decades, and all of the notes I’ve taken, it seems to me that I owe a lot of the success I’ve had to the principles I learned in Mrs. Burrill’s 7th grade science class. The notes I took in college helped me graduate. The notes I take in my job have made me a modestly successful software developer and project manager. I frequently impress friends and family by how quickly I can pull up a piece of information or a needed document, thanks to the note-taking principles pounded into my in 7th grade. I hope that my kids can look back and say the same forty years from now.

Written on June 21-24, 2023.

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Back to School

This was a busy week. We attended three open houses at our local elementary and middle schools. We met our kids’ teachers, saw their classrooms, lugged supplies to their desks and cubbies. The Little Man, Zach, who is now entering 7th grade, got his first locker1. We made sure he tested out his combination twice. The Littlest Miss, who turned 5 yesterday, met her kindergarten teacher, saw where she’d be sitting, and has been asking ever since if it is Monday yet. The Little Miss, Grace, saw where she was sitting, and scouted out the desks of three or four of her good friends in the neighborhood to see where they were sitting as well. Both schools are short walks from the house, but with the mind-numbing heat and humidity, they were hot, sweaty walks.

Kelly made an interesting observation: all three open houses were held in the mornings, one on Tuesday, the other two on Thursday. Normally, these happen in the evenings, after parents have returned home from work. But not this year. And the classrooms were filled with students and parents. Maybe because many people in this area are able to work from home?

I had a different observation: why are these events called “open houses” and not “open classrooms”? Open houses are those things that real estate agents put on to try to hock their wears. I’ve never understood why they call these school events open houses when open classrooms makes much more sense.

Walking through the corridors of the school buildings sent flashbacks of my own time in school. I was reminded of things like bells that told class was over, and the rush of studentry2 to the next class before the “tardy” bell rang. Given how many people I know that are consistently late to things today, I think the entire notion of bells was a failure, Pavlov not withstanding. While Zach was attempting to open his locker, I was trying to remember my own locker combination from high school. I was trying to remember ever using my locker. I must have used it in the course of my years at the high school, but no specific memory came to mind.

Meeting the teachers is always awkward these days. Most of them appear as if they are just out of school themselves. Yet my own years in school come back to me and force a kind of reverence and deference to them. At the same time, they look like teenagers. Kelly always has lots of question for the teachers and doesn’t even raise her hand to ask them. When I am in the presence of a teacher, my hand instinctively goes up when I want to ask a question. This has led to some questionable looks from the other parents around me, to say nothing of the teachers.

As a kid, back to school meant the end of the summer and a long school year looming before me. It did mean I got to wear my new back-to-school clothes, but that was small consolation. On the flip side, I got to see my friends every day. Today, back to school takes on a new light. Monday will be the first time since March 2020 that all three kids will be out of the house for a big chunk of the day. Last year, the girls’ started school at 7:55, but this year school doesn’t begin for them until 9 am, meaning no rush in the mornings. And, after seven years of driving the kids to school each morning and picking them up each afternoon, all three kids can now either walk to school or ride their bike. I’m trying to imagine how quiet the house will seem between the hours of 9am and 3pm five days a week.

I love our kids, but I am looking forward to that peace and quiet.

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  1. He would have had a locker last year, but they weren’t using locker because of COVID.
  2. A nod to Strunk & White. I’ve always wanted to use this word in a sentence.

The Last Day of School

Today is the last day of school for the Little Man before the summer begins. The Little Miss and the Little Miss finished up school a week ago, and the Littlest Miss a week before that. Thinking about the last days of school has put me in mind my own last days of school.

It wasn’t the last day of school that I remember looking forward to. It was the first day of summer. My fondest memories of last days at school was in fourth and fifth grades when I lived in New England. The days always seem bright, clear, and warm. You could feel summer in the air. The last days at the elementary school I attended were half-days, and they were not spent in the classroom. We split our time between the playgrounds outdoors, and the gym.

The school was surrounded by wooded areas with a big field on one side, and a large paved area in between. There were several areas with playground equipment, and several other areas where we would play tag. I remember an excitement in the air. School was over and the summer was beginning. As a nine or ten year old, summer seemed to stretch out forever and the next school year was the vaguest blur on the horizon.

In the gym, we watched movies, and I seem to recall there being snacks offered, popcorn and other sweets. I have vague memories of one particular movie we saw, but not enough to identify it. I do remember enjoying it.

Summer meant being able to sleep in a bit, but I think we wanted to get out an play with our friends. These were the days before personal devices of any kind. There was cable, and a few friends had Atari consoles. MTV was the biggest draw, but we were more interested in getting outside.

Later, when we moved to L.A., the last day of school brought on similar emotions. We’d fall into a routine of watching a few TV shows in the morning before finally striking out with our friends to find whatever adventures awaited. We’d watch reruns of The Love Boat or The Dukes of Hazzard. Occasionally, I remember watching reruns of Flipper. Then we’d be out and enjoying the summer.

I lived in the moment back then, far more than I am capable of doing today. I never thought about the coming school year. I rarely thought about the next day. Summer was each day unto itself, and the next day was an entirely new summer. There were plenty of moments of boredom, but looking back on it, I am grateful for that boredom. It is where my mind would wander.

My last real summer vacation was the summer after tenth grade. After that, I was old enough to begin working, and I spent my summers working, first in a stationary store, then in a local pharmacy. There was still time to play, still time to hang out with friends, but work was an obligation, like school, and it took the shine off my summers. I haven’t had a summer off since.

With my retirement now about ten years away, I have started to think of my last day of work the way I used to think of my last day of school. I think it would be fitting to retire sometime in mid-to-late June. It would be very much like the last day of school, and for the first time in more than forty years, I’d have an entire summer spread about before me, each day its own mini-summer, ready to explore.

Time Traveling Back to Middle School

One of the early stories, written while I was still in college, about a year after I began submitting stories, was titled “The Guardian Angel Project.” It was a fantasy about a grown up (me?) going back to middle school and helping out the younger version of myself during those tough times. I never sold the story, and it collected quite a few rejection slips.

I can’t imagine I am the only one to ever imagine going back in time to when I was in middle school (or high school), taking with me all of my current wisdom and knowledge as a kind of secret weapon.

Well, I have a confession to make.

For the last six months I have been traveling back to middle school on an almost daily basis, taking all of my current wisdom and knowledge along with me, and it is not nearly as fun as I thought it would be. In fact, it is down right frustrating. You see, no matter how hard I try, I find it is impossible to use that wisdom and knowledge to make any difference whatsoever.

The Little Man started middle school this year, and he has been distance-learning most of the year thus far. Since my office is in the next room from where he does his distance learning, I feel like I am sitting in his classes with him, day in and day out, listening to the teacher and the students do their daily dance. The teacher asks questions, and the students answer.

And I hold my breath and turn blue.

“Can anyone tell me the difference between weather and climate?” Picture me as Arnold Horshack from Welcome Back Kotter, hand in the air, going, “Oooh, oooh, oooh!”

I can absolutely tell you the difference between weather and climate. But of course, I can’t do this. To give my son the answer would be as bad as telling my past self the names of the winners of all of the World Series from 1985-2020. (While I was at it, I might as well tell him to stock up on toilet paper in late 2019.)

“Each snowflake is unique,” a teacher says.

“Yes,” I want to say, “but they also have important similarities. They are six-sided and somewhat symmetrical because of the angle of the chemical bonds between hydrogen and oxygen atoms.” I want to shout out the answers like I do when watching Jeopardy (there in the form of questions, of course).

Kelly often accuses me of giving too much information when trying to explain some concept in the Little Man’s books or assignments. (“Actually, you can take the square root of -1, it’s just not something you’ve learned yet. But there are good reasons for having it, the first of which is that i and -i squared have to equal something.”) Sitting through these classes day in and day out makes me want to over-explain everything that he is learning, to give the background, the history, to fill in the gaps that would have made it easier for me to learn things.

If sitting through these classes has done anything, it has made me realize what a terrible idea it would be to go back into the past with all of my wisdom and knowledge and try to revisit middle school. If I had to write my “Guardian Angel Project” story all over again, I’d make it a miserable experience for my main character, and he’d be sorry from the outset that he ever went back.

Honey, I Forgot the Kids

Because we both work, we have a routine for school drops-offs and pick-ups. Having five school days a week makes this routine unnecessarily complex, and I implore the schools to cut back to a four-day school week to allow us a somewhat less complicated routine. Our routine is this: Kelly handles drop-offs and pick-ups on Mondays and Wednesday and I take Tuesdays and Thursdays. For Friday, we alternative each of us taking every other Friday.

The school is 4 minutes from the house by car, and drop-off/pick-up doesn’t take very long, so it is not a burden in anyway. In the six years the Little Man has been attending the school, I estimate I’ve made 570 drop-offs and pick-ups, and I never forgot to it even once.

Until last week, that is.

It started with a trade. I was supposed to go to L.A. for work last week. It would have been my sixth trip to L.A. this year, and I was worn out from the travel. Instead, I decided to run the meetings remotely. It means I needed to be on video calls on Tuesday and Thursday at the times I would normally be picking up the kids. To resolve this, Kelly and I traded days, as we sometimes do. As part of this exchange, I took Wednesday.

I almost never do pick-ups on Mondays or Wednesdays. The problem with Wednesday is exacerbated because the kids get out of school an hour early. On Wednesday afternoon this week, I had everything under control, and felt good about it. I got my youngest down for a nap, attended a meeting, and around 2:30, not long before we’d leave to pick up the kids, I warmed up the car so that it would not be freezing when we got in there.

Five minutes after warming up the car, my phone rang, and I saw that it was our friend, Raquel calling. My first thought was that she was calling to ask me to pick up her kids, and I was a little worried because I had a 3:30 meeting and picking up her kids in addition to mine would mean I’d cut things very close.

Then I saw a text from Raquel that said, “I am bringing the kids home.” Kelly hadn’t told me that I didn’t need to pick up the kids, that they were going to Raquel’s house, but okay. That made things easier for me. Then my phone rang again. This time it was Kelly, and as soon as I saw her name on the display, I knew what I’d done wrong.

“Honey,” I said, “I forgot the kids got out early today. Raquel has them and is bringing them home now.” Everyone thought it was funny. The kids were nonplussed about it. It was the first time in 570 pick-ups that I’d forgotten, a 99.8% success rate.

The whole incident reminded me of the importance of checklists, something ingrained in me when I got my pilot’s license 20 years ago. The value of a checklist is to make sure you follow all of the steps even when the routine changes. The problem in this case is that I’m not sure a checklist would have prevented me from forgetting the kids, unless the list explicitly said that ON WEDNESDAYS, THE KIDS GET OUT AN HOUR EARLY.

I am often making fun of Kelly for forgetting things: keys, phone. I tease our friend Raquel about little things as well. It’s all in good fun. Now, they both have something to tease me about. I wish I could guarantee this would never happen again, but given my past history, I expect to forget picking up the kids in another 570 pick-ups from now, right around the time the Little Man is a senior in high school.