productivity

Organizing my work with Trello

I’ve written previously about how I use Trello to organize my teaching and large programs/events, so in this post I thought I’d take a look at my Trello “Workbox”, which is the overall system that links these together at work (I use similar boards/boxes for home and dancing).  I call it a workbox as I’ve borrowed concepts from the Organize365 workbox system. I’ve also borrowed from the Getting Things Done (GTD) system.  

My workbox is just a board, that has three main parts: inbox, action, and reference.  

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INBOX

The inbox is where I put things as I’m going through email (you can save directly to Trello from Gmail or Outlook!) or any of the gazillion other ways information comes into my life (social media, random thoughts, chats, calls, calendar events, etc.)*.  As long as it can wait until I’m doing my weekly planning (usually on Friday) it heads to my Trello inbox.  In this case, I took the screenshot pretty soon after going through the inbo, which is why there’s only one item in it (some interesting looking final assignments saved from Twitter!)

ACTION

The action section has five lists: Service/Admin, Teaching, Research, Waiting, and This Week.  Service/Admin, Teaching, and Research are the main components of my job, and so these lists host all of the projects and tasks I have to do in these areas in the current semester.  Anything beyond the current semester is on another board (one for each of these areas), and I will start to pull from those boards towards the end of the current semester.  So, for example you can see in my Research lists that I have the 2020 AAAL call for papers, which is technically a summer due date (although notably I haven’t actually added the due date yet, which I would if it were in Spring).  

The “Waiting” list is for projects that I’m waiting on someone else for (it’s under review, I’m waiting on a colleague’s feedback, to hear about a grant, etc.).  Having these here also reminds me to follow up if it’s been too long.  

The “This Week” list is what I need to work on this week.  During my weekly planning each week, I pull projects from the Service/Admin, Teaching, and Research boards into “This Week” and then plot the times I’m going to work on them on my calendar (to prevent me from having overly ambitious plans).  Some cards, such as my classes, basically live in this list all semester long.  Most of these cards also link to separate Trello boards for these projects.  For example, if I click on a class card such as ARAB 212, you can see that I can click through to the board for this class.

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REFERENCE

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The transitional list between action and reference is my “Done” list for the current semester.  As I complete projects and tasks, they move here, and become a reference of what I’ve done during the semester.  This is useful for my end of semester review and also for updating my CV, which I try to do at the end of every semester.  While I’m unlikely to forget major events (such as a paper being published), there are plenty of smaller things that I would forget I accomplished if I didn’t have this list. Since there are always more projects to be done, it is also nice for me to see that I’m in fact completing things as well.  

The more standard reference lists are “Reference” (for the current semester), “Loaned”, and “Read”.  The reference list is where I put cards that are attached to another card.  I use this system when the project doesn’t quite warrant it’s own board, or I have information I want to keep separate.  For example, for AAAL 2019, I attached my travel and presenter information to the “AAAL” card, and then just put those cards in reference.  Because every card in reference is attached to another card, I just dump them there without worrying about how they are organized in that list.  

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The “Loaned” list is for things I’ve loaned to other people (so I remember to ask for them back).

The “Read” list is for articles (academic and otherwise) I want to read, usually while reading other things on social media or for research. I try to add in some reading time at the end of my Weekly Review, but it doesn’t always happen, so I try (not always successfully) to just delete from this list every week so it doesn’t get overwhelming. This is admittedly more aspirational than reality, as there are just so many interesting things to read!

WEEKLY PLANNING

Each week in my weekly planning session (usually on Friday), I rearrange my board by moving stuff from the Inbox to the appropriate list, moving stuff from This Week to Done if I can, and moving things from the action lists to This Week.  Then I plot the “This Week” stuff onto my calendar to make sure it all fits, and if it doesn’t, move it out of “This Week”.  I also do a quick “filter by due date” on the whole board to make sure I’m not missing something coming due (usually buried in the Service/Admin list).  

I use similar boards and process for home and dance, and I also have actual physical boxes for work, home, and dance that I keep actual papers in (I tend to leave things in the form they arrive in, so mostly digital, but still some paper).  Every semester, I do a major cleanup of the board during my end of semester review.  

So, that is how I keep my semesters organized! How do you link your projects and tasks together throughout the semester? Do you use Trello in a similar or different way?  

Using Trello to organize large events and programs

Last Fall, I wrote about how I use Trello to organize my teaching.  Another area I find Trello very useful for is organizing large events or programs, in my case dance competitions and our summer Arabic STARTALK program.  Although a dance competition and a summer program for middle and high school students seem like very different events (and they are!) the structure for organizing them is similar.  So, while I’ll focus on planning the STARTALK program in this post, I think a similar structure can be used for any event.  

New Board, Old Todos

The first thing I do is make a separate Trello board for the event.  The first list in the board is the “Inbox”, which is where I save items pertaining to that event (usually from my email).  Then, I copy the “done” and “notes for next year” lists from the previous year, and these become a large todo list.  Then, I add lists for the months leading up to the event, and distribute the todos across them.   Once that month is passed, I move any remaining tasks to the next month and archive the list (so you don’t see January and February anymore).  Since these types of events are on top of my regular job and life, I usually have very limited time to work on them in a given week, so it’s important to evenly spread out the prep tasks for months in advance so I’m not caught by surprise in a time crunch.  Some of them are also time-sensitive, for example marketing needs to start in January, and admissions needs to be completed by April.  When I get closer to the event, I split the monthly list into weekly or daily lists, as the event starts to take up more of my time.  For STARTALK, I usually switch to weekly lists in May and June.  

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Reference and Notes for the Next Year

Following these lists, I have a “done” list, a reference list, and then a “Notes for 2020 list”.  The done list is where completed tasks go (yay!).  The reference list is for information that isn’t actionable, but that I need, such as a quote, or reservation information.  I store these cards in the reference list, but also attach them to whatever actionable card they are relevant to using the Trello attach function.  As you can see, there is nothing in this list yet, but there will be as we get closer! For example, if I get an email with the bus reservation information for a field trip, I would save it to this list but also attach it to the card for that field trip.  

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The notes for 2020 list is perhaps the most useful, as most of these events repeat on a yearly basis.  As things happen that I want to record for next year, I put them in this list.  Then, the following year, I copy this list to the new Trello board and distribute the cards on it among the todos.  Most of these items are minor details that make the programs run more smoothly, but that I would not remember a year later (such as the fact that the building is locked from the outside at 5:00, so our orientation should start at 4:30, not 5:00).  By continually recording them, and then copying this list to the following year, I’m able to stay on top of these details without exerting mental effort to remember them.  

Checklists for Everything

Another useful feature is checklists, for example for daily admin tasks during the program, a list of contacts to send marketing material to, or tasks for a specific program activity, like the closing ceremony checklist pictured here.  Again, because I copy these cards from the previous year and add any notes I made, I don’t have to worry about forgetting steps from year to year.

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Linking to the Semester Board

I also link this board to a card called “STARTALK” in my semester board, which is where I keep track of all my projects for a given semester.  Then, when I’ve blocked time to work on STARTALK, I just click through to the special STARTALK board, and start working on whatever tasks are listed that month.  

Hopefully, this can give you some ideas of how Trello can organize large projects and events for you, especially if they repeat on a yearly basis.  Do you use Trello or a similar system in another program? Let me know if you have comments or useful tips to improve my system!

Pacing, not Sprinting: My Semester Plan Spring 2019

It’s the start of a new semester, so time for a new semester plan! In the Fall, I shared my Fall semester plan and one thing I like to do at the end of the semester is review how that went (as it is never exactly to plan!).  So, here is the plan at the beginning of the semester:

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And here is the plan at the end of the semester:

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As you can see, a variety of things got added in, and not everything that I planned got accomplished.  However, I tend to view this not a failure of the plan, but as a flexible adjustment.  When I make my Spring plan, I can focus on whether the projects I didn’t complete need to be carried over (because they take longer than I allotted or got replaced with something new) or just deleted (painful, but sometimes necessary).  

So, here is my Spring 2019 plan:

This semester, my main goal is to make it to the end of the semester without being exhausted (hence REST as my focus word).  Last semester was a particularly challenging one due to a variety of anticipated and unanticipated things that took more mental and emotional energy than I expected (on top of the physical exhaustion of having young children that don’t sleep through the night).  While the pattern of pushing to exhaustion and then resting on the semester breaks seems to be the dominant one in academia, and there are people who really thrive on this type of sprinting, deadline-based approach, I have decided that it is not for me, and I’m working on figuring out a more paced approach.  One reason this doesn’t work for me is that my “breaks” tend to be filled with catching up on life admin activities I neglect during the semester or hanging out with my kids and family.  The first can be mentally exhausting and the second physically exhausting, if a nice mental release.  

So, the question is, how to make a semester plan that has a pacing strategy?  I have to admit, this is unclear as the beginning of the  semester is already jam-packed, is unclear, but I hope to report back with things that worked and didn’t work in May.  As I mentioned in my Fall post, I make my semester plan by putting in the relevant dates and deadlines that are already scheduled, and then adding habits, goals, projects, and tasks.  This semester, as part of my pacing goal, I brainstormed everything I wanted to do separately, and then tried to select only a few to actually make it onto the plan.  You’ll also see I have nothing planned in May—this is the buffer time for things that take longer than anticipated or that I don’t know about yet.  I’m also trying a new variation on my weekly planning, where I organize my days by energy consumed and generated rather than category, that I’ll report back on in a later post.  

Do you pace your semesters? Or are you more of the sprinting type? Let me know if you have ideas for pacing!

Using Trello to Organize Teaching

Trello is my favorite digital organization tool, and I use it to organize basically everything in my life.  It essentially consists of “cards” that you put into “lists” on a “board”.  I make a board for each class I teach where the lists are the weeks of the semester (including the week before and after) and the cards are things I need to do for my class each week.  There’s also a “Done” list that cards get moved to as they are completed.  

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In this post, I thought I would share how I use it to organize my teaching.  For me, Trello solves four major productivity challenges related to teaching:

  1. Keeping track of all the little details
  2. Keeping track of beginning and end of semester events
  3. Giving myself enough prep time and grading time for major assignments
  4. Coordinating with my co-teachers

Keeping track of all the little details

Teaching language classes in particular seems to be full of so many little details for each class, especially since daily attendance and homework grades are the norm.  Did I grade that homework? Did I cut up papers for the game I made or just design it? Did I log the attendance? Did I make reflection notes on my lesson plan? Did I post the schedule or just make it? None of these are particularly complicated, but I found myself wasting valuable time and mental energy (things that are at an especially high premium when you have little kids that don’t sleep through the night) trying to remember if I had done these things, or checking our learning management system to figure out if I had done them.  I solved this problem by making three checklists, one for “class prep”, one for “after class”, and one for the “weekly schedule”.  Each weekly list contains one weekly schedule card, and “class prep” and “after class” for each lesson.  Here are pictures of a translation of each checklist (my actual one is in Arabic):

As you can see, the items on these checklists are pretty basic, and when I tell people about this system, a common question is can’t you just remember that? For me, while I can remember it, and usually do, I don’t always, and then I’ll have the wrong dates on the schedule, or lost a homework assignment.  Almost every item on this checklist has ended up on it because I’ve forgotten it at least once! I might also forget to log attendance or make reflection notes, and if more than a day or so passes the chances of me recalling that information are pretty slim.  While I try to do all of the after class activities immediately after class, sometimes I have other commitments, or, as is the case currently, a major paper deadline I’m prioritizing over grading homework.  When I get behind, and it’s time to catch up, I can just look at my Trello board and see where I need to catch up, rather than trying to figure it out be searching the schedule and learning management system, which is what I used to do.  

Semester set-up and conclusion

There are also a number of teaching tasks that just need to be completed at the beginning and end of the semester, like making the syllabus or submitting assessment charts.  While I’ve never forgotten to make a syllabus, setting up our learning management system requires a series of steps that I always forgot one of when I went to set up classes 5-7 months after the previous time.  I’d forget to web enhance my class, or make a section group, or set up the textbook site, or something.  So, I finally made checklists for these items too, and I put each item as it’s own Trello card in two lists, “Pre-term” and “Post-term”.  This way, when I get to the beginning and end of the semester, I don’t have to try to remember all of the things I need to set up the course site, I can just go through my Trello board. Here are more pictures:

Prep and grading time for major assignments

A third challenge was setting aside enough time for me to prep and grade major assignments (beyond daily homework and attendance).  Too often, I would look at the schedule and think, oh, my students need to turn that in in a few days but I haven’t even made the assignment yet! Now, when I make the weekly schedule for the following week, one of the checklist items is to put a prep card and a grading card for any major assignments on my Trello board.  I usually put the prep card in the week before the assignment is due, and the grading card in the week it’s due.  Then, when I plan out my week (a topic for another blog post) I can make sure to incorporate prep and grading time as needed.  

Coordinating with co-teachers

All of the language classes I teach are co-taught, where for example I’ll teach the Tuesday/Thursday sessions and another teacher will teach the Monday/Wednesday/Friday sessions.  While my co-teachers are not quite as fanatical about Trello as I am, we do have a shared Trello board, and they have concurred that it is useful :-).  You can assign cards to different people, so for example I would be assigned the “class prep” and “after class” for Tuesday, and my co-teacher the same cards for Wednesday.  This also helps us share the prep and grading of major assignments.  

Benefits of Trello

 So, that is how I organize my courses with Trello! For me, the primary benefit is freeing up mental energy to spend my teaching time on more creative things, like designing lesson plans or implementing genre-based approaches or translanguaging pedagogy.  It also lets me prioritize research (necessary in a tenure-track position) by letting me know that if I get behind on the details, it’s easy to be reminded of what I missed.  Perhaps someday when my kids sleep through the night I’ll no longer need such a detailed system, but for now, it’s keeping me on track! Do you have a system you use to keep track of teaching details? If so, what is it?