Actually, I love paper. Writing, drawing, folding… love it. I’m even running an after school origami club this semester. And as a math teacher, paper is actually the preferred medium (second to whiteboards of course). While technology gives us many tools that speed up and deepen math learning, much math isn’t suited to the computer screen or the computer keyboard. So paper is necessary, and as a result, organizing papers is totally necessary.
While it does seem like organization is something that many teachers bring as one of their natural skills, this is not something that came naturally or easily for me. It has taken me years of not being together to develop enough layers of systems that my classroom is organized, and as a result my students are organized – and this year has been a huge improvement for my students. We are set up so most things just work, and we don’t spend our precious class time passing back work or figuring out where the handouts are. Here are some of the systems that have had the most positive effects on my students and our classroom this year in case they might be useful for someone else.
Inboxes and outboxes
I definitely needed systems for the day-to-day passing back and forth of written math thinking and feedback. I have a separate inbox for each class, and each student has a mailbox (…or a mail folder). My grade 8 class is small enough that they each have a mailbox, and my high school students each have a folder in a pass-back crate. I have fewer than 70 students, so this is manageable for me, but I think it would be worth it, even with greater numbers.
The mailboxes have also had an excellent unforeseen side effect: when a student is absent, I just put any handouts into their mailbox. I print exactly enough copies for the whole class, and don’t need to worry about keeping track of extra copies of work from past days or notebook pages or homework sheets that students did not get. Students know to check their mailboxes when they return to school after an absence.
This has been a way for me to put some responsibility on students to figure out what they need. Because we rarely use the textbook, students rely heavily on me to give them appropriate problem and practice sets. Before this year, I was often frantically printing extra sets, or creating and copying sets as I needed them. This year, in addition to the regular classwork and homework, I am preparing leveled sets of work. I include foundational practice for students who need to brush up on their pre-algebra, extra practice sets for the current work we’re doing, and extension and challenge work for those who are ready. Students know that if they finish with their in-class work, that they can self-select from the appropriate boxes or get extra practice before an assessment. I followed three students into my classroom yesterday, and asked if I could do anything for them. They said, “No thanks, we’re fine.” They went and took a variety of extra practice and extensions, wished me a good afternoon, and left. It was a pretty good feeling to seem unnecessary.
Like most of us, I often have my classes back to back to back without a break in-between. That means that I have to be super prepared before my first group of students arrives in the morning. Even when I made copies ahead of time, I found myself misplacing the work for the current class, or not able to lay my hands on it at the moment when I needed it, and wasting the first few minutes of class finding the right papers. No longer. I put each class’s work in a slot so it’s ready when they get there.
Same deal. I transfer these from the class slot to the HW slot at the start of class, and students know to take a copy on their way out of class.
Now I’m just showing off. Before this year, a file cabinet was just a place to stuff papers until another time when I would come back to throw them away. Maybe this isn’t such a big deal to you, but this is the first time in my life I’ve been able to find anything that I’ve filed before. Totally worth the time in labeling!
Although none of this is at all original or revolutionary, maybe something will be helpful for you. :) Please share more organizational systems in the comments or find me on twitter if you have more ideas to share.