In light of our dramatically reduced custodial staff (from five to less than two), I was wondering in August how to reduce the amount of debris on the fall resulting from hole-punching papers for the class binders I’ve had students keep. Then, Lara Hoekstra and Cary Zerenberg, two extraordinary teachers (who, by the way, are contributing to my next book) mentioned to my friend and colleague Katie Hull about a notebook system they used last year that worked well.

Katie told me about it and we both decided to implement it this year. It’s been working great and is far superior to my binder system — both for cleanliness and for just plain student organization.

We bought a bunch of old-fashioned composition notebooks you can find anywhere. The front cover (Side A), is “Who You Are Now.” Students decorated the front with images representing their interests, etc, and the front page is the table of contents. In subsequent pages they keep track of the books they finish and different writing assignments. They flip the book upside down and go to the back cover (Side B), which is “Where They Want To Be.” On those pages they will be taking notes and gluing/stapling/taping materials from our life skill lessons (the brain, self-control, etc — things we want them to keep and not lose so they can refer back to them), info on reading strategies, website addresses, etc.

Here are set-up instructions we gave students and that Katie wrote up.

Then, students get a manila folder for each thematic unit we cover. In ninth-grade English, for example, we’ll be studying Natural Disasters for the next two months. In ESL English, they’re working on an auto-biographical incident essay for the next month. At the end of each thematic unit, students identify three examples of their best work, which they will give to us to keep for a final semester project, and they throw out the rest.

We have a milk crate by the door with hanging folders that have each student’s name. When they come in, they grab their notebook and manila folder out of the crate. Near the end of the class, someone collects them all to return them there.

So far, it’s been working like a charm, and we expect it to continue.

What organizational system works well for you and your students?