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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?