Preventing the “Papergeddon” 

Ideas on how to organize the high school student

I have helped many students organize their papers in my 13 years of teaching high school. I’ve found items like take-out menus, receipts older than a year, papers with last week’s dinner, and smashed crumbs molded onto assignments. As educators, we often assume students come with organizational skills but often fail to recognize the deficits students face with them. Although it sounds simple, an organizational system is something a lot of students struggle with and need support in creating and maintaining.

In The Organized Student, Donna Goldberg makes the argument that while elementary school teachers give organizational guidance in school, students are not being taught the rationale behind the methods of organization, or the why. Therefore, when they get to high school, they cannot transfer the skills they were once shown and the “papergeddon” begins. More often than not, however, we don’t address organization at all at the high school level because we assume that students have come to us with those skills. Thus, as high school teachers, we need to address this critical issue.

One of my biggest tasks at the beginning of the year is getting students to set up an organizational system. I try to teach them that organization can be a key factor to success in class. They need to realize that their ability to locate notes or an assignment is just as vital to their success in school as reading or writing. Most students have at least five subjects a day and receive tons of papers. While they might have these awesome looking folders and book bags, only the brave venture inside.

When I bring up the topic of organization to my students, I often get the questions like “Why do I need so many folders and notebooks?” or “Can’t I just use one for all my subjects?” My answer is always a consistent “No!” Where I work, we give all freshmen these awesome folders their first day of school. Students (and I) love them. They are slightly bigger, last all year and can hold a serious amount of paper. Within a week those things are filled with papers, notes and forms from five different subjects-all packed together. When you ask them to get out a specific paper, be ready to wait a good five minutes for them to locate it! Tick, tock, tick, tock...don’t these kids know I only have 48 minutes to teach them standards from the Common Core?

Organization Matters: Why it is so important

There are certain skills that students need in order to be ready to learn. One of those skills is being organized. Does a student spend 45 minutes looking for the right paper to study or can that time be spent on studying the paper? According to the article, "Organized Students = Successful Students", organization can greatly affect students’ academic achievement and self-concept. It has the potential to create a positive school experience for a student. Clearly, being organized correlates with student success.

Paper organization 101: How it could work

Find a system that works best for you. All students get papers, but what should students do with them? Why should they create a place for papers to go? According to Goldberg, an organized student:
  1. Doesn't carry everything he/she owns in his/her backpack
  2. Can identify and bring home the books, supplies, and worksheets they need to complete homework
  3. Can locate his/her finished homework in class and hand it in on time
  4. Can study efficiently because they know when tests are coming up, has set aside enough time to study, and doesn't waste time looking for class notes and handouts

Suggestion #1: Get the right materials

  • Get a folder and notebook for each subject. I recommend buying the same one in a variety of colors and at least one for each subject. Color coding can help distinguish the different subjects and make materials easy to locate. Be sure to label each folder with the subject name. By having a folder and notebook for each subject, it allows for all the papers for one subject to be housed in the same location, which makes it easy to locate.
Downfall: Five notebooks and folders can be a lot to carry if students don’t visit their lockers.
  • Get a binder for each subject. Some students prefer one binder versus a notebook and a folder. Again, be sure to label each binder with the subject name. Some students like to have dividers in the binder, which allows for further organization.
Downfall: Students need to be proactive in hole punching papers given to them.
  • Get an accordion binder. An accordion binder is like a folder and binder in one! 
Downfall: These are not sufficient for an entire semester worth of papers.

Suggestion #2: Make organization a habit

Get in the habit of putting the papers in the right spot. At the end of class, take one minute to put papers in the right binder/folder. Realize that organization takes effort. Students need to repeat the behavior of organizing themselves as often as they can. The more often this is repeated, the more likely putting papers in their place will become instinctive. According to James Clear in his article “How Long Does It Actually Take to Form A New Habit? (Backed By Science),” “On average, it takes more than 2 months before a new behavior becomes automatic — 66 days to be exact.” Therefore, students need to commit to the idea of being organized and monitor their progress.

“Successful people are simply those with successful habits.” Brian Tracy

Suggestion #3: Trial and Error

Organization is not something you can buy. It is not a one size fits all. Organization comes with a lot of trial and error. Expect to make adjustments along the way. In order to be organized, students have to know what works and what doesn’t work for them.

With the right materials and a set organizational system, lost papers will be a thing of the past.

Stay tuned for my next blog about study skills (just in time for final exams).


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