Teaching Opinion

Response: Practical Ideas To Help Students & Teachers Stay Organized

By Larry Ferlazzo — May 15, 2014 11 min read
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(This is the first post in a two-part series on this topic)

This week’s question is:

What are the best ways to help students keep their work organized and for teachers to keep their classroom organized?

Today, I’ll be sharing guest responses from three educators -- Julia Thompson, Ariel Sacks and Gini Cunningham. Part Two in this series will include contributions from two more teachers, along with comments from readers (there’s still plenty of time to contribute your suggestions!).

In addition, you can listen to a ten-minute podcast on this subject where I talk with Julia and Ariel.

Before we get to the guest responses, though, here are a few of my own thoughts:

I’m very familiar with the word “organize” since I worked as a community organizer for nineteen years prior to becoming a high school teacher. I learned then that its word roots depended on how it was used and was always partial to its early meaning of “forming a whole of its interdependent parts.”

And isn’t that what we want to do in our classroom -- help develop a connected community of learners and not just a classroom of students?

However, I believe the intent of this week’s question relates to more of the “brass tacks” of student papers, teacher lesson plans, classroom materials, and how to maintain some sense of order out of the chaos.

As my colleagues and students will attest, this type of classroom organization is not one of my stronger points. However, I have found a few things that help keep havoc at bay and facilitate the learning process:

1) Student folders that don’t leave the room: Each student in each class has a hanging folder in a milk crate where they keep unit folders with their materials. They grab it as they come in and return it when they leave (though, in some classes, I, instead, have a student in charge of distributing and collecting them. As each unit is completed, they choose key pieces of work (while discarding the rest -- without crumpling up each individual piece of paper), write a reflective piece, and give them to me. I return them at the end of each semester for use as part of a final project.

2) Students keep a permanent notebook they keep in the hanging folder where they tape/glue resources that will refer to throughout the year -- “life skill” lessons on self-control, goal-setting, grit, what learning does to the brain, etc.; Bloom’s Taxonomy question stems; strategies for responding to writing prompts, etc.

3) Writing a blog about teaching and maintaining blogs for each class has been the best thing I’ve done to keep my materials and me organized. Uploading my own materials and having students post their own work (which are ready-made examples for future classes) is so much more reasonable than maintaining even more reams of paper than I have to keep as it is.

That’s enough advice from me, and now to our guests:

Response From Julia Thompson

Julia Thompson is a teacher, consultant, and best-selling author of several books for teachers including The First-Year Teacher’s Survival Guide. Thompson maintains a Web site for educators, a blog, and offers advice on Twitter at @TeacherAdvice:

Sometimes I feel as if I have spent the greater portion of my adult life dealing with three-ring binders. In fact, I am so serious about my students’ binders that other teachers borrow the pliers that I use to repair the squashed metal rings that can render a student’s binder inoperable in no time.

Even though I am completely serious the importance of staying organized at school, I am also tolerant of many different methods of organization both for students and teachers. Just a few minutes spent on Pinterest or looking though Google images will yield hundreds of nifty organization ideas for even the most disorganized teacher or student. Although those neatly-labeled, color-coded ideas can lend a sense of order to any classroom or study area, no system will be effective unless it is implemented in such a way that it actually works. Here are some practical ideas to help students (and yourself) stay organized no matter which organization methods you like to use:

  • Keep things simple. Your students do not need fifteen divider pages for their notebooks. And they really do not need to keep every paper for the entire year. First, decide on what’s important for your students to keep and an easy way for your students to hang on to that important information. Then just implement that easy way--the simpler the better.

  • Spend time teaching students how to keep their work organized. Show them how to set up binders for your class. Give them a table of contents for their binder and show them how to fill it out. Be prepared to spend this time over and over during the course of a school year. You don’t really have to devote lots of time to this, even though it pays off handsomely. Instead, spend a few minutes here and there after the initial sessions to make sure that everyone is on track.

  • Eliminate as much clutter as you can. Students do not need to carry around as much as many of them do; it’s not uncommon to find crumpled papers, a dozen pencils, and several grimy erasers at the bottom of a student book bag. Show students how to leave the clutter that they drag to school each day at home where they can use it more effectively. You can do the same with your desk area and files--both paper and e-files. Do you really need to keep an electronic version of every handout that you have created? Eliminate what you don’t need.

  • Have a place for everything and then put everything in its place. That way you won’t ever have to spend another frantic half hour searching for the keys to your classroom yet again.

  • Routines make it easy to be organized because everyone knows what to do. Create simple routines for daily activities such as turning in papers, picking up handouts, or sharpening pencils.

  • Label everything and teach your students to do the same. One easy way to help students remember to put their names on their papers is to place highlighters near the area where they will turn in their work. Have students highlight their name before turning in their papers.

  • Leave your desk tidy at the end of the day and teach your students to do the same. Even more importantly for your students, allow them time to put away their materials and leave their work area clean at the end of class. Almost every classroom mess can be cleaned up within two minutes. Teaching students to clean up after themselves is an important life skill that is certainly worth two minutes.

Response From Ariel Sacks

Ariel Sacks teaches 8th grade English in Brooklyn, NY and is the author of Whole Novels for the Whole Class: A Student Centered Approach. A member of the CTQ Collaboratory, she writes the blog, On the Shoulders of Giants:

I highly recommend The Together Teacher by Maia Heyck Merlin, a book that takes organization to the next level, helping teachers organize their time as well as materials. Here are the solutions that are working for me in teaching four sections of 8th grade ELA.

Helping Students Manage Materials. Don’t leave organization up to students unless developing organizational systems is a skill you want to spend time teaching. Pick a method that serves the types of work students will do in your class and then make the system part of your classroom routines.

◊ My students use a composition notebook. I title each lesson, and have them keep a table of contents at the start of the book. I’ve seen this work for science classes as well. I love the notebook because it minimizes my use of handouts.

◊ Students need a folder designated for ELA only. This folder holds loose-leaf paper for and various assignment instructions and handouts.

◊ When we read whole class texts, I distribute the book inside a gallon size Ziploc bag, along with a reading schedule, and sticky notes for their responses. I encourage students to get their own sticky notes, but I make sure to have a constant supply. The Ziploc bag keeps everything related to the reading together in one place and helps preserve the condition of the book. (Later, I have to give students time to remove the notes from the books before they return them.)

◊ You will also need a longer term method for saving (and throwing away) student work. I now have a folder for each student in a file drawer for students to store their writing projects and other important, graded assignments. Any papers not saved in this file can be thrown away once we’ve finished a unit. Handouts that are useful for reference can be glued into students’ notebooks for safekeeping.

Planning the Paper Flow. This is probably the most important organizational issue for teachers to tackle. Having many stacks of paper resting on all surfaces of the classroom is such an easy trap to fall into.

Directions for the start of class: Many teachers have a “Do Now” or “Warm Up.” It’s tempting to use handouts, but this is a great place to cut down on paper load. Some teachers project warm up directions on the board, but I like to keep my laptop free during this time so I can enter attendance on the school site. So I print directions and leave them in sheet protectors on each pair of desks for the day, so students share with their shoulder partner. This is just 13 pieces of paper all day and no collection or filing.

◊ I have a file organizer at the front of my room for copies to be distributed to students. Have a shelf, bench or some kind of surface below your front board for easy access to your copies, as well as other helpful tools. Also, have a box or area for stashing extra copies of handouts. Also, find some time to empty it!

◊ I rely on an Inbox and an Outbox for student work for each class. I have four inboxes on my desk. A student, who holds the job of Teacher’s Assistant, collects most assignments and puts them in the proper inbox for me. [For more on student jobs, see Cultivating Community (and Efficiency!) With Classroom Jobs.] When I’m finished looking at student work, I place it in the proper outbox. The 4 outboxes are on a shelf by the entrance to my room. My student TA has permission to grab these at the star of class and pass them back to students. (I pass graded assignments that might be sensitive for students to receive back myself.)

Filing System for your papers. On my desk I have an organizer for things that need to be handled immediately. The rest of paper goes in hanging folders in my filing drawer. I am no saint when it comes to filing, but it’s important to have a system to begin with and to fall back on when things get messy.

Response From Gini Cunningham

Gini Cunningham is author of The New Teacher’s Companion: Practical Wisdom for Succeeding in the Classroom (ASCD, 2009). She can be reached at gini.cunningham@sbcglobal.net or her website:

Here are several pointers for classroom organization:

  • Throw out all junk - everything in your classroom needs to lead to learning.

  • Purchase stackable bins and label them, i.e. Lab 1, colored pencils, glue, and tape.

  • Have bins labeled for incoming assignments, assignments to return, important papers to go home, etc.

  • Have students place their work in appropriate subject/assignment bin as they enter or leave your classroom.

  • Explain and practice procedures so that students know where to get materials and assignments and how to return them in an orderly fashion.

  • Have boxes or bins of today’s needed supplies on student tables when desks are in groups or on nearby shelves when students are in rows

  • Have one bulletin board dedicated to makeup assignments, missed lessons for students who have been absent, important announcements such as due dates or expectations for a project or product.

  • Have one bulletin board dedicated to key concepts for easy reference during lessons or as a reminder for students. Change as lesson advances.

  • Make sure that it is easy to move about your classroom. If students bring backpacks to class, be certain they are stowed under their desk or in a designated area.

  • Do not allow students to leave until they have put all things in their proper storage spot. Make this a team effort, never allowing students to blame one another.

  • Periodically have students sort and organize their materials, notebooks, desks, lockers, etc. Be certain that your desk and files are equally as organized

  • Glance around your room: Can you walk around without tripping? Can you find a handout or book in 10 seconds or less? Have you used materials this year or have a definite plan to use them? Will your room excite the curious mind? Calm the wandering mind? Enlighten all guests as to your educational goals?

  • Finally, never leave school without having materials ready for the next day.

Thanks to Julia, Ariel and Gini for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post. I’ll be including reader responses in Part Two.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind. You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Anyone whose question is selected for weekly column can choose one free book from a number of education publishers. I’ll be highlighting one particular publisher every two months, and it’s Jossey-Bass’ turn now..

Just a reminder -- you can subscribe to blog for free via RSS Reader or email.... And,if you missed any of the highlights from the first two years of blog, you can see a categorized list of them here. You won’t see posts from school year in those compilations, but you can review those new ones by clicking in the monthly archives link on blog’s sidebar.

You can also see annual lists of my most popular posts.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from blog -- along with new material -- in an ebook form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Last, but not least, I’ve recently begun recording a weekly eight-minute BAM! Radio podcast with educators who provide guest responses to questions. You can listen and/or download them here.

Watch for Part Two of this series in a few days....

The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.