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school supplies… a rant

August 4, 2010 35 comments

One of the things that I do a lot of with kids, especially kids in middle school or high school, is help them deal with the paper chase. We work together to develop and troubleshoot systems for corraling all those loose papers, books, notebooks, projects, etc. We’re often doing this in whatever teeny bits of wiggle room we can find within the “systems” imposed upon them by their schools. Usually schools have good intentions in doing these — they’re honestly trying to teach kids organizational skills. And, admittedly sometimes the systems are for the convenience of the teachers — e.g., they want to be able to collect notebooks and take them home to check that kids are doing their work. But usually the actual systems leave much to be desired.

Well, my own beloved Little Bird is about to embark upon middle school (cue the scary music), and the good news is that she is pretty run-of-the-mill in terms of keeping track of stuff — no worse than most kids her age. Which is to say she’s not very good at it.

So when I look at her supply list, I’m, well, a trifle concerned.

  • 2 double-pocket folders (note that these are designated for a specific subject, so they’re not likely to be intended as general “hot folders” (for carrying homework and parent handouts back and forth), which might actually be a use, at least for one of them. But usually, the main purpose of pocket folders is to become overstuffed and to have papers fall out of them into a random and comical heap at inopportune moments. Usually when the kid is late for the bus.)
  • 1 three-ring binder, 1″ thick, flexible, with some unspecified number of page protectors. It’s important to stay flexible.
  • 2 three-ring binders, 1″ thick, (one of which is noted as needing filler paper, the other is not. Was that a typo? Will they be writing only on worksheets? Or is there some very special papyrus to be purchased at a later date?)
  • 1 three-ring binder, 1.5″ thick, with side pockets (because handouts fall out of them so much more easily than out of those pesky pocket folders), 10 tab dividers, 25 sheets of lined paper, and 3 pens or pencils (for Health. Because I might have a heart attack trying to get this stuff organized.)
  • 1 three-ring binder, 2″ thick, with lined paper and reinforcements (I do appreciate the foresight of the tech-ed teacher. With a list like this, we’re definitely going to need to call for reinforcements at some point.)
  • 4 single-subject spiral notebooks that measure 9″x11″ (with, I kid you not, seven (7) reminders, four (4) of which are boldfaced and underlined, one (1) of which also has italics, to make sure you notice that they are requiring you to track down spirals that are actually 9″x11″ rather than 8.5″x11″ or 8.5″x10.5″, despite the fact that these spirals are literally three times the cost of the normal ones and are considerably harder to find (yes, I found them, no need to send me a link)).
  • 1 Bienfang Notesketch 8.5″x11″ Horizontal Lines (now there’s an art teacher who knows what she wants. Okay, I can’t be too mad about that. Hopefully it stays in the art room most of the time.  But heaven forbid she could have asked for a similar item available at, oh, say, a big-box craft or office supply store, instead of requiring a special trip to an art store or paying expensive shipping for an online order)
  • 1 zippered pencil pouch (recommended) (I’m wondering why they aren’t requiring it. Perhaps because no one other than the Health teacher thinks they need writing implements. Or perhaps because backpacks usually have appropriately-sized pockets, so pencil pouches are superfluous.)
  • 1 flash drive (good idea! Let me suggest also a lanyard or other device to permanently attach said flash drive to the kid’s backpack? Otherwise, in the office pool for the lifespan of that object, put me down for “under one week.”)
  • 1 mini stapler (Why? Because teachers aren’t going to hit the “staple” button on the photocopier? Because classrooms can’t have a single shared stapler anymore so kids can learn to take turns? Because the pencil pouch might be lonely without any pencils in it?)
  • 1 glue stick (Ah, now I’m wondering if this is the crucial piece to their cunning plan — those oversized spiral-bounds could easily be chosen so that every we’re-going-green-single-side-printed handout can be meticulously glued in place! If so, we need a case of glue sticks. And some antacid.)
  • <singing> and a partridge in a pear tree.</singing>  Yes, they do note that additional items may be added during the school year as needed.

Note that this is all before we add any textbooks to those backpacks, if you were concerned about weight.

Okay, to be fair, I’m willing to guess that a couple of those binders might be destined to live in classrooms instead of traveling back and forth to lockers and home.

I’m noticing what’s not on the list, too… No mechanical pencils. No colored pens or pencils. No graph paper for either math or science.  No actual hot-folder.

And no planner. Maybe we’ll get lucky and they won’t hand out a paper planner they’re expecting everyone to use. And maybe they’ll be okay letting her use an electronic PDA.

Fortunately, this isn’t a school that has gotten all security-crazed to the point where they don’t allow backpacks or tote bags. No kidding — I’ve had to write into kids’ IEPs and 504 plans that they had to be allowed to use a bag instead of carrying everything loose.

But this list is not giving me all the warm fuzzy back-to-school feeling I’m hoping for. It has too many moving parts. Too much empty air and paper being carried around. Too much labor involved in routine use.

It’s not a plan for success. It’s a plan for lost and crumpled papers, shoved deep into the recesses of the backpack until they turn into petroleum products. It’s a plan for disintegrating or overflowing notebooks which then must be laboriously recreated. It’s a plan for oh-so-many last-minute crises when the eldritch horrors that live in kids’ lockers have mysteriously hidden the items they needed to do their homework so that the kid wasn’t able to rescue them before dashing out to the bus. Oy.

Of course, by sheer random chance, some kids in this school will manage this system okay. And some other kids will have parental or professional support called into play so as to prevent the worst of the failure. But that just gives the illusion that these systems work. Which then is used to justify blaming kids who can’t make them work (“not trying hard enough” or even “lazy”).

See, you can’t teach kids organizational skills just by putting them in a situation where organizational skills would be a Really Good Idea. You also can’t teach organizational skills by imposing a system that is complex and onerous enough that kids need you to direct them every inch of the way. You need to be in the middle ground, where some guidance will help them gradually become able to do it on their own.

Normally, this district actually does a pretty good job with most things, and even a very good job with some things.  Birdie likes school and I think she’s getting a good education.   I’m frankly surprised to see this list, and I hope that I’m wrong about some of my conjectures.  But even if this is actually a well-thought-out system that I’m just totally misconstruing, I’m sure there are plenty of you out there who are about to be struggling with a school-imposed organizational nightmare.

In <a href=”https://davincilearning.wordpress.com/2010/08/11/on-organization-do-not-multiply-entities-needlessly/”>another post,</a> I’ll talk about the system I usually start with — it works pretty well for most kids who struggle with organization.

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