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On organization: Do not multiply entities needlessly

August 11, 2010 25 comments

This is my usual starting organizational system for most kids who go to conventional schools.  (I do a lot of adapting to individual situations and styles, of course, and I will make a separate post about an alternative system that I find useful in other situations.)  I’m with William of Ockham here:  do not multiply entities needlessly.  Principles and priorities, then, are simplicity, portability, ease of use, and resilience to not-being-used-quite-correctly.

Start with a simple backpack or tote.  You probably don’t need wheels because you’re not going to carry all that much most of the time.  All you need is one big main pocket (for the binder and any books that have to come with you) and one small pocket (for pencils and such).  Anything else is overcomplexificationisticalesque.

Unless a teacher specifically requires that a textbook come to class, textbooks should live at home all the time.  I don’t believe in using lockers for anything (other than maybe your coat), because (1) most schools don’t provide enough time to go to them (2) they add a layer of complication, a location where things can get left by accident.

You need one (1 (just one (not seven, but one))) 3-ring zip-binder, the kind where you have maybe a 1.5″ ring binder in a cloth cover that zips all the way around (here’s an example).  The magic word is “in the Rings of the Binder.”  Not just In the Binder, but In the Rings.  3 Rings to rule them all…  The zip cover does two things.  First, it protects the binder and the papers in it from getting destroyed when something else is shoved into the backpack.  Second, it corrals any pieces of paper which have not yet made it into the Rings.

Dividers, one for each class, in order through the school day if that’s possible.  Use clear plastic durable slash-folder dividers, like these.  Some classes may require more than one section (English class is famous for this, with “language arts” and “literature” often being separate areas) — for the secondary divisions, ordinary dividers are fine.

Plus, you need one ordinary divider for each kind of extra paper (lined, graph, plain) that will be required — put maybe 10-30 pages of blank paper in each.  There should be no blank paper anywhere in the binder except for those sections.  If you are not forced to do otherwise, you should routinely use pale-lined graph paper filler (something like this) for everything in math and science classes.  My personal preference is for engineering paper, but that’s a topic for another post.

Note that you now already have a “hot folder” system in place.  Nothing separate is needed.  For each subject, one side of the divider holds papers the teacher has handed out which haven’t gotten Into the Rings yet, and the other side holds homework (and permission slips, etc) which is completed and not yet handed in.  Use a Sharpie to mark which is which!  Younger kids, who usually only have one teacher for most subjects which assign homework, can have a single hot-folder in the front of the binder.  If they really prefer, they can have a separate hot-folder, but it must not be one of those cheap paper 2-pocket folders — those are not durable enough.  Get something made of polypropylene, like this.

Also, have available at home a small box of page protectors, preferably matte-finish ones.  These are used for things like course syllabi or assignment sheets, reference sheets for generic assignments (e.g., “requirements for writing up a Problem of the Week”), or other important long-term reference material (a periodic table for chemistry, etc). Those go at the start of the section for the relevant class and stay there as long as they are needed.

The zip-binder usually has a zip pocket that can hold pencils and pens and anything else needed.   If you use it, make sure that it’s not in a location that makes it hard to lay paper flat and write on it.  But it’s probably just as well to put that stuff in the pocket designed for it in the backpack.  Separate pencil cases are just more superfluositicalextracalifragilisticity.

I strongly dislike traditional wood pencils.  They require that you (1) keep a sharpener in the Pencil Pocket (2) notice when the point has gotten too dull for neat handwriting (which most kids with executive functioning problems have a surprisingly hard time with!) (3) stop what you’re doing, sharpen the pencil successfully (which includes not dropping piles of shavings all over the floor when you have to keep opening the thing up to pry yet another broken point out of the razor), remember what it was you were doing, and then get back going again.  Ugh.  No.  I don’t have enough working memory for that.  Mechanical pencils are now widely available in .9mm width, which is thick enough even for most kids who press too hard.  I recommend the thinnest lead you won’t keep breaking, the cheapest bulk version of that pencil you can find (.7mm.5mm).

I actually don’t think that anyone needs pens for school.  Some teachers disagree with me and insist on work being done in pen.  Harrumph.  If they insist, I advise plain old medium-point black stick pens, nothing fancy.

I also don’t think that highlighters have much use during the school day.  Highlighting is almost completely useless as an active reading strategy for most people — it makes you feel like you’re doing something, but what you’re typically doing is a very surface-level syntactic analysis to find the key phrases without actually processing the information.  If you like to use highlighters during tests, to highlight key phrases so that you make sure you answer the whole question, then sure, go ahead.  Try to find highlighters that aren’t fluorescent (= superstimulating).

What I do like to see kids have around is some way of writing in color, whether that be colored pencils or colored pens.  These are a must for physics or any other course involving diagrams, and really useful for a lot of note-taking enterprises.  Colored and sort-of-erasable mechanical pencils do exist, although the leads are generally quite fragile — if you are gentle, use those, otherwise, a few colors of ball-point are fine.  And you can use them for the active test-taking, too, and they don’t glow.

Unless you’re required to include a calculator, I don’t think there’s much need for anything else in the Pencil Pocket. It likes to collect lots of interesting little things (binder clips, staplers, etc), but we’re back to William of Ockham there – if you don’t need it, get rid of it.

You’ll need a planner / assignment book / PDA of some kind, but that’s a long topic, again, best saved for another post.

At home, you need a good-sized D-ring binder, like this, with ordinary paper dividers to mirror the dividers in the traveling binder.  If you overflow during the course of the school year, you can always split into two big binders.

At home, you also need an ordinary stapler and a heavy-duty 3-hole punch (cheaper than you might think, and a worthwhile investment).

When papers get into your hands, ideally, they should go into the Rings of the Binder.  But if they don’t, no worries, put them into the folder for the subject.  That’s a rough sort that will get you through the week.

Put a weekly appointment on the calendar.  You’ll take ten minutes, tops, to go through the binder and the backpack and find all of the papers in those folders plus any stray calves.  Ideally, no paper should ever be loose, but I live on Planet Earth, so I do understand.  No recriminations, just find the stragglers and round ’em up, get ’em in the Rings.   Don’t worry about order within the Rings unless you like to do it — I’d rather see you be consistent about doing a pretty good job than be perfect but never quite get around to it.  Some people like to put new things in the back, others like to put them in the front of each section — either is fine, but pick one and stick to it. At the same time, if you’re running out of filler paper, refill.

Either once a month, or at the end of every multi-week unit, take out everything that is not from the current month/unit or the immediately previous month/unit, and put it in the big D-ring binder at home.  No paper gets thrown out, even if the teacher says you don’t need to keep it or it’s stupid or whatever.  All pieces of paper get saved until the end of the year (actually, for a few years, if you think you might have any interaction with the special education system).

Both of these reviews are almost impossible for most folks who struggle with organization to reliably do by themselves at first. When I’m working with someone, we do them together at the start of every session, and we rely on a cue card or checklist that lives in the binder, too. Then we fade back to having them do it while I watch and cue them when they miss something. Then, if necessary, we teach a parent how to watch and cue them, and they do it before our session, so my weekly check is just to see that it’s been done correctly. Then we fade back to having the parent remind them to do it and check afterwards that it’s done correctly. Eventually, kids can do it on their own, but we wait at each step to see that it’s happening reliably before we fade the support.

I have some alternatives, which I’ll cover in another post.

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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.