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Messy Desks = Messy Minds February 9, 2009

Posted by alwaysjan in Teaching.
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A messy student desk is a manifestation of a messy mind. If that sounds a little Mao-esque, I wasn’t always such a hard liner. At one point I thought of a student’s desk as a manifestation of their individuality – even if that individuality screamed “hoarder.”

Everything changed six years ago. I took over a third grade classroom mid-year when the teacher left to fill an administrative job. It quickly became apparent that 30 minutes of each day was wasted waiting for students to find their book/paper/lunch ticket – in their own bloody desk! “It’s here somewhere,” they’d mumble while rooting through enough papers to encircle the planet.

One day, at wit’s end, I announced it was time to get organized. I had everyone clean everything out of their desks. OMG. Yes, the sweet little girl in the photo above, who was an exceptional student, was one premier pack rat. Her desk was a virtual garbage stuck sans flies. But she had lots of competition. It was then and there that I decided to teach my students how to get organized. While some people are naturally organized (moi), the majority of us aren’t. The good news is that it’s a valuable life skill you can teach your students that will serve them later in life way more than cursed cursive ever will.

It’s taken five years to perfect this system (The Five Year Plan), but my students have embraced it and most importantly, it works. Here’s how I do it. When my third graders receive their books, they put them in their desk one-at-a-time according to a diagram that I post up on the board. It has a line down the middle and the sides are labeled LEFT and RIGHT, as some third graders are still directionally challenged.

Language Arts goes on the left, everything else on the right, but not so fast, sassafras – One at a time. I hold up the anthology. “Anthology!”  I call out and they hold up theirs. When all copies are held aloft, I say, “Put it on the bottom left.” When they’ve done so, my students say, “Check!” We do the left side first and then the right. The chart even shows where things are to be put on the top of their desk, e.g., “Black Unfinished Work Folder on the left.  (Often a black hole of disorganization itself). On top of that is the book they are reading. Then their journal, and finally their bin of school supplies. There’s a drawing for “visual” learners and my ELLS (English Language Learners).

I know some teachers who have their students organize their Homework Folders. Papers on the Left are to be “Left at home” and papers on the Right are “bring right back.” I haven’t had to go that far, but I do print out my the weekly reading log, which includes a letter home to parents, on puke-lime-green paper so students are less likely to lose it. My students will tell you that’s why I chose that color too.

After the first month of school, I can just put up the diagram on Friday when we clean up before Friday Club (that’s another post). I let my students take a 5-minute  bathroom break at 2 p.m. and they return with wet paper towels to scrub down their desk. (It’s all about procedure – I had to even teach them just how wet the towel should be.) All of my students now know what “elbow grease” is, as in “you’ve got to use some elbow grease.”

One more cool thing. My students have three workbooks that are identical, so at the beginning of the year I use a paper punch to punch two holes on the lower right hand corner of one, and punch the shape of a star on another. The third book is plain. My students find this is all rather odd. Then I show them why I’m do this. I ask them to take out their “star” book without looking inside their desk.  There they sit, eyes fixated on me, feeling the corners of their workbooks. When they all miraculously take out the right book, the look on their faces is priceless. You’d have thought I’d just made an elephant disappear. This is a great trick to have your students show a substitute.

I was heartened recently when I read an article in The New York Times called “Giving Disorganized Boys the Tools for Success.” Many teenagers, particularly boys, struggle with school due to a lack of organizational skills. My students are only 8 and 9, but I love to tell them that good habits are as hard to break as bad ones. Yes, someone else said that, but it bears repeating again, and again, and again. And I’ve personally found that girls can be just as disorganized as boys. So there!

Last week one of the boys was busy swabbing his desk when I heard him tell another boy, “I’m using lots of elbow grease.”   He then sighed, “It feels good to get organized.” The other boy nodded. Can you say Nirvana?


1. Catherine Sherman - February 11, 2009

Please, please, please help me organize my desk. Heck, my entire house! I do have a messy mind, but there’s no help for that.


2. Lisa - February 12, 2009

Okay, I have also been so anal as to have my students put away their books one at a time into their desks as I direct them, but the visual chart on the board every Friday…. I’m in heaven. What a great idea!!
You’re my hero, Jan!


3. moxey - February 12, 2009

Please come help my sweet second grader organize! I’m a naturally organized person and this is something that I, as the parent, just cannot teach. I have already reached that stage in my kid’s life where Mom Isn’t Worth Listening To, How Much Could She Possibly Know Anyway.

I cannot tell you what a pit that kid’s room is.


4. lilikaofthelake - February 13, 2009

My childrens teachers are trying to set organizational behaviors and sometimes it works sometimes not. My daughter is the worst (the little one) the other two are much more organized – I am not at all but that is Gods plan to keep me from taking over the world.
I do agree if children can get free of clutter and have good desk feng shui.
Jan I wanted to send you this link http://www.birdsource.org/gbbc/
for the Audubon bird watch this weekend – sorry I did not send it sooner.


5. institutrice - June 15, 2009

I love the idea of hole punching a pattern in the corner of their composition books!

What do you do about kids who won’t put papers in the folder you tell them to? (Which is always the subject we just studied – reading, writing, math, history, etc. – isn’t that logical??) It’s infuriating, and just plain lazy!!! But I refuse to do it for them.

Hi – I, too, refuse to do it for them. There’s always one really helpful girl who tries to keep the boy (almost always a boy) organized. I tell her he’s capable of doing it himself – She doesn’t want to become an “enabler.” It’s amazing how such important vocabulary words aren’t in the stories we read. 🙂 I’m a firm believer in natural consequences. Sometimes, before my students leave, I go over what they are to take home (they are, after all, third graders). I hold up a paper and they hold up theirs and say, “Check!” Next paper – “Check!” Then they have NO excuse. Jan


6. TR - January 10, 2010

Yes, finding handouts for some students can take forever. I teach 100% ELLs at the high school level. We have started numbering every single handout in the lower right corner (Assignment #1, 2, etc…) My principal and I decided on this after going to a session at a conference called “The Organized Binder.” We adopted some of his ideas (and I promise I am not the person who runs this website): http://organizedbinder.com/

This has vastly simplified communication about what assignments to take out, what assignments I am collecting, etc. The whole school began to do it simultaneously so as students go from History to English they know how they are expected to stay organized.

Whereas collecting an assignment from 2 weeks ago used to take 15 minutes for students to find it, it now takes 1-2.


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