Spring 2019 by the numbers

Note: This blog will be going on Summer Break for June and July! I’ll see you again in August.  


For several years now, I have tracked how much time I spend on particular work tasks, as part of an attempt to make sure I’m properly balancing the various components of my job (research, teaching, service/admin).  I track this in a google spreadsheet by month (pictured below for May), and update it each week (from my planner daily pages) when I do my weekly planning.  I tend to look at the numbers on a weekly and monthly basis, but I have not looked at the larger picture of the semester as a whole.  So, I thought I’d do that in this post!  In this post, I’m focusing on work, but you can see that I also track dance, home admin, and sleep hours*.

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Since my spreadsheet is set up by month and today is the last day of May, I’m counting Spring semester as going from January-May.  Technically, we are not in class for the beginning of January (although I start teaching prep the first week) and finals ended May 10 (although grading and reflection lasted for another week).  So I suppose if you count the semester by teaching, these numbers include two weeks in May where I did not do any teaching activities, but I think it is still enlightening (for me, anyway).  So, what happened in those weeks?


Total Hours: 167

Percent of work time: 22%

Activities included:

  • Revising two chapters for edited collections 

  • Interviewing students from my Fall Arabic class for research on our curriculum development

  • Preparing presentations for and attending two conferences

  • Writing four conference abstracts to submit

  • Writing a grant proposal (rejected)

  • Reading articles and books


Total Hours: 162

Percent of work time: 21%

Activities included:

  • Curriculum development for our second semester Arabic class

  • Teaching, prep, and grading for half of the second semester Arabic class (3 out of 6 credits)

  • Teaching, prep, and grading for an online Intro to Languages and Cultures class (minimal prep since this class was designed by my colleague

This actually seemed like a low number of teaching hours for me, so I went back and looked at Fall 2018, when I taught two language classes and was also doing curriculum revisions.  Indeed, in Fall 2018 my total teaching hours was 251.5 hours, which just goes to show how much work goes into teaching language classes!


Total Hours: 436

Percent of work time: 57%

Activities Included:

  • This blog

  • Editing and admin tasks for the AATA blog

  • Applying to become co-editor of the Critical Multilingualism Studies Journal (accepted!)

  • Recording, editing, and presenting videos focused on language issues related to racial and social justice in general education classes with a faculty cohort focused on this

  • Administrative tasks for our STARTALK Program

  • Two college level committees (internal search and teaching awards)

  • Guest lecturing

  • Coordinating reviewers for a conference

  • Email and other correspondence

  • Forms and other bureaucratic procedures

  • Faculty and other meetings

  • Writing letters of recommendation

  • Planning

  • Other random tasks I don’t consider research or teaching but don’t remember


So, what are some interesting observations from this semester1) If the Research/Teaching/Service percentages for research faculty are supposed to be 40/40/20, and mine are 22/21/57, clearly I’m way out of balance, mostly due to the service/admin percent.  This was so interesting to me that I went back and calculated the same percentages for Fall 2018, and they were (19/31/50).  As noted above, I spent more time on teaching during the Fall as I was teaching two language classes, but most of the extra time went to service/admin rather than research in the Spring.  So, no wonder I always feel behind on research and teaching!  

2) On the other hand, I find some of these service and admin projects (particularly those focused on sharing research publicly, like the blogs and videos) more meaningful.  They don’t “count” towards promotion the same way research does, but if I’m doing enough research to progress, do I want to discontinue them?

3) Throughout my weekly reviews this semester, I wanted to improve feelings of scatteredness.  Looking at the list of activities from this semester, I think I can explain this, as there are a lot and they are quite varied.  Having to jump from activity to activity probably explains the scattered feeling.  The thing to do is probably to cut some of the less meaningful service/admin activities, but unfortunately those tend to be required (filling out forms).

Do you track your work or other hours? What interesting trends do you find? And how to you decide what to do with them?

*The sleep is tracked by my Fitbit—these are the hours it says I was sleeping, but I am usually in bed 7-8 hours, it’s just that my kids don’t always sleep through the night so I have a lot of “restless” hours.  

End of Semester Review

Photo by  Kelly Sikkema  on  Unsplash

As I’ve mentioned before, my larger scale unit of planning is the semester, and I’ve discussed how I make my semester plan for Fall and Spring.  At the end of each semester, before making the plan, I also conduct an end of semester review, looking at what went well and what didn’t, and what I want to focus on or change in the following semester.    I’ll share my Summer plan at the end of this post (yes, I plan summers too!), but before that I thought I’d discuss how I do my end of semester review.  

Reflection Questions

First, I start with my standard reflection questions, which I also use for reflecting with students and teachers

1) What did I accomplish this semester? How can I magnify this?

2) What can I improve? How can I improve it?

When I list my accomplishments, I do it from memory first, and then go back and look at my monthly reviews to see what I missed.  Usually, it’s about 50% of the things I did, which is one reason I like keeping track of everything—once I see the notes I remember that I made those revisions, or organized that part of my house, or completed that service project, but without going back my sense of what I’ve accomplished is at about 50%.  

After this, I move on to the next two questions:

1) What do I want more of? How can I get it?

2) What do I want to let go of? How can I let it go? 

I should probably consider renaming these the space and stress questions, since it seems like mental and physical space is always the answer to the first question, and stress is always the answer to the second.  There are some variations, such as wanting more sleep, or wanting to let go of rejections, but even these related to the first (quality sleep=more mental space and rejections=stress).  While it is sometimes frustrating to always feel like I have the same answers, I do feel like there is incremental improvement, and some of these things (like my kids sleeping through the night) just take a long time to improve.  

Goals Review

Next, I look at my goals, and ask the following questions:

1) Which goals did I accomplish? Why?

2) Which goals did I not accomplish? Why?

3) Thoughts moving forward . . . 

Again, these questions seem to have consistent answers, which is itself enlightening.  Goals completed tend to be planned into my schedule and have specific deadlines, often involving other people like editors or students (which is why they get into my schedule first).  Goals not accomplished are those that can wait longer, and thus get bumped when I run out of time.  While again, always having the same answers might seem like a lack of progress, I’ve definitely gotten better at realistically estimating what can happen in a semester, and my ratio of goals accomplished to unaccomplished has gone up (by having fewer goals overall).  

Areas of Life Review

Finally, I do what I call an areas of life review.  When I reflect on my life, I think of it in four broad categories with subcategories.  I rank each subcategory, and then ask what can I improve? and what should I do next?

Career: This includes my academic career (divided into research, teaching, and service/admin) as well as my dance career (this is more between a passion project and heavy volunteer load than a career, but still very important to me!).  I usually score myself fairly high here, although balancing between the three components of my academic job is always a challenge.

Relationships: These include relationships across all areas of my life.  Family and friends are the obvious ones, but I also include relationships related to my academic and dance careers.  This category is usually my biggest challenge.  

Environment: This is the physical and digital spaces I am surrounded by, so things like physical and digital organization of my home and work spaces, finances, and systems for managing time and space.  This category tends to score high in some categories and low in others, depending on what I’ve prioritized this semester.

Self: This includes things related to the health of my mind, body, and spirit, like exercise, nutrition, sleep, learning, creativity, etc.  This category tends to score medium across all the categories, except low on sleep.  

Planning for the Next Semester

Once I’ve done this reflecting, I then brainstorm potential goals and areas of improvement for the next semester, and then map them onto a calendar to see how realistic I’m being.  Then I cut a few, and make my semester plan.  Below, you can see my semester plan for the Summer.  I’ll see how it goes!


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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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!)


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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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!


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:


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


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?