George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Whether you teach pre-K or high school chemistry, your students need support with and instruction on how to manage their own time and materials. Yes, we can teach them all of the content areas, we can squeeze in character education and all kinds of cultural literacy, too -- but we also need to prepare our students for how to manage their assignments, take care of their materials, and plan ahead to meet deadlines. School is a natural place to practice these essential skills!

Here are some awesome ideas to help with student time, along with stuff that I've seen in my recent travels.

Classroom Calendars

Every efficient classroom has some form of a student calendar on display, with school holidays, student birthdays, quiz and test dates, and other important information kept current. The teacher below simply uses an erasable whiteboard mounted on the wall. Another school keeps an online digital Google calendar with assignments for the entire student body. Some extremely efficient teachers also create a student syllabus using this information!

Student Planners

Whether your school purchases planners for your students or you create your own handouts each week, students need to be responsible for keeping track of their own assignments. Check out this PowerPoint (3.6MB) highlighting the branded planners that Excel Academy in Boston purchases for their students and how they're directed to use them.

Student Papers

Once you have a good classroom calendar in place and you've taught your students to use planners, it's time to tackle the paper beast! Whether your students are big or small, explicitly coaching them on managing their papers is essential. How many of you have emptied your own kid's backpack only to find a permission slip from months ago? (Been there!) If you have big students, you can create a binder system like Mr. Maddin's to the right (click to enlarge).

And for elementary folks, here’s a simple homework folder from a school in NYC.

Student Space

We all have those moments of students digging deep into their backpacks or desks to figure out where that one assignment could be, only to unearth potato chip crumbs, pencil stubs . . . and last year's permission slips. Even our own teacher bags may resemble our students' more closely than we care to admit!

Do your students a favor and give them examples of great set-up and organization. Devote a bit of class time for allowing them to put their stuff away carefully. Here's an example created by a high school teacher:

Student Time

This elementary school in DC uses Tools of the Mind to teach executive functioning and self-regulation. Below, see how three- and four-year-olds planned out their playtime.

And check out this planner from a high school in Newark! Not only are students copying homework assignments into it, but they're thinking ahead to exactly what work needs to be done each evening. How many times have we heard secondary students moan, "I have sooooooo much work to do"? Instead, wouldn't it be awesome if they said, "I have about 1.25 hours of homework for tonight, so I know how much free time I'll have once I’m finished"?

Of course, none of this organization stuff works without a huge dose of the "Why, Why, Why!" Turning assignments in on time, planning in advance, and finding stuff quickly is important because, ultimately, students leave our watch and need to be able to record deadlines, plan ahead, and be organized enough to find the necessary materials for doing their jobs and living great lives. These recording, acting, and planning skills may stick with them even more than the content!

How do you teach your students about organization?

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Chris Davis's picture
Chris Davis
Teacher, Tech Innovation Project Coordinator

Before I would let the insides of desks go, but I'm convinced the physical visual clutter is also mental clutter. After finding a second grader hoarding a giant frog in his desk he had brought in from recess, I decided it was time for a change.

Sometimes the worst organized adults are the best teachers of organisation (and the strictest on their students - don't turn out like me kid!). In second and third grade classrooms I always look for visual constructivist activities to foment forward spatial planning for desks and cubbies. We draw out our plans the first week of school, then photograph the insides of desks and have students screencast their organisational strategies. Reinforcing this the first two weeks of school saves a lot of time later.

Ideally I would get rid of the desk and put in work tables, like a real learning laboratory. Materials can be kept in cubbies. Each class would begin and end with a clear work station.

I like the curation of strategies here and am passing them on to my co-workers.

Brian Sztabnik's picture
Brian Sztabnik
AP Literature teacher from Miller Place, NY

My goal this year is not only to get organized, but to stay that way for the entire year. Thanks Maia for the tips and for all that you do for teachers.

Heather Buchanan's picture

Thank you so much for your tips. I find it very frustrating with students when they "can't find something" because it is not where it should be. I have also heard the story of, "I didn't know I when I had to do it." A classroom calendar is an excellent idea! A viusal for students to use and see. Planners are also a great way for students to get organized. I wish my school used them! Thank you for the example of a printout!

Amy Jones's picture

I too find it frustrating when students "can't find something" or when they say "somebody stole it." I love the idea of a classroom calendar. I write me agenda on my whiteboard along with the due dates. I have a calendar in my room however it is not a dry erase one. I think instead of purchasing a new one, I will attach sticky notes to important dates. Our school uses the planners. I teach 5th grade and stress to my students that it is their responsibility to write -from the board- their assignments. This has been a struggle for my students this year. I also loved the idea of the binder test. We use binders and some are so disorganized. This would be a great way for them to get organized and become more responsible.

Jennifer McCann's picture

Students in my classroom seem to struggle with the concept of organization and personal responsibility. Your ideas on calendars, binders, and planners are great! I have a calendar in my room but never thought of using it as a way to showcase due dates and upcoming events. I use my dry erase board for this. Planners are provided in our district and we encourage students to write down their assignments in them. However, students do not take the initiative to do this. Therefore, work that should be done is not because they did not write it down. A binder test is excellent! I used to take a binder grade on papers but I love the idea of a test. Thanks for all of your suggestions!

Melissa Gilbert's picture

I use binders in my first grade classroom and they work great. I like the idea about using a calendar for important dates for the students. With my students being young I plan to place a calendar in their binder for the parents to use as a reminder of what will be going on at school. After reading this about organization I plan to get myself organized better.

Maia Heyck-Merlin's picture
Maia Heyck-Merlin
Founder of The Together Teacher

Heather, your question is a good one. I'm not a psychologist or researcher, but there is a ton of good stuff out there now on grit/persistence (Paul Tough's recent book) and on executive functioning (Tools of Mind curriculum considered highly effective) that show that these kind of skills are actually more important than content to create success in college. I hope that helps! Maia

Maia Heyck-Merlin's picture
Maia Heyck-Merlin
Founder of The Together Teacher

Jennifer, Yup, planners are a good starting point, but in my experience, a teacher has to model how to write the assignment, predict how long it will take, give time for students to write it and then check back to make it actually stick! Maia

Lauren O.'s picture

I love the idea of an organized classroom. My fourth graders use their assignment notebooks on a daily basis to write in their homework. We also use these to write our weekly spelling words in so they always have them at home. I sign their assignment notebooks everyday to make sure their homework is written in correctly.
As for keeping student's desks cleaned, this is a difficult task. The are young and learning how to be organized. I have my fourth graders clean their desks out periodically to make it a habit. I also have the "desk fairy" come to surprise those students who keep their desk clean without having to be reminded. The desk fairy leaves a little note and a piece of candy.
I use a classroom calendar too. This has holidays, birthdays and days off school. Students rely on this in the classroom. I see them looking at it weekly to see what is happening. This goes along with the objectives for the day. They know what to expect each day in each subject on our objectives poster on the white board.

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