Materials Organization

I have a confession to make, I am a teaching materials hoarder. After 20+ years of teaching every age imaginable, from pre-school through adult (my youngest and oldest students to date were 3 and 94), and every subject that exists (ESL teachers get to teach it all), I have A LOT of resources. I’m also afraid to get rid of anything because just as I move something to the donate pile, I end up needing it for a lesson. All of those resources are great, but they can leave my classroom/office looking like the desk to the left–a huge mess.

And when one’s workspace is a mess, it can leave you (or at least me), feeling like this:

Can anyone else relate? If so, I have good news for you! Not only am I a resource hoarder, I’m also an obsessive organizer! Over the years I’ve developed an organizational system for my various resources that means I can, within five minutes, access any resource I have for any teaching topic/theme/standard. Today I’ll share with you my system for organizing physical materials and next week I’ll address digital materials.

I know my system isn’t the only one out there, and I will be the first to admit it may not even be the best system, but it’s been working for me for over a decade now. It even helped me keep my teaching materials confined and find things when I had no classroom of my own and living in a tiny one bedroom apartment with one storage closet. What I’ve done is organized my materials so when I know what topic I want to teach, I simply grab one folder from a file cabinet and one box from a couple sets of shelves in my basement. That’s all it takes to have at my fingertips every resource I own on a particular topic.

Before I get into the details of my system, let me address the reason I don’t organize my materials by unit or month. The short answer: I teach too many different curricula. When you organize materials by units or months, you then have to remember which unit/month it was that you taught a particular topic or skill. It also means every time you get a new curriculum you’re going to have to completely redo your organizational system. Not to mention the problems that can ensue if a colleague wants to borrow something, you need to teach the same topic more than once, or to more than one group of students at different times. So for me, organizing by unit or month never made much sense because I was always digging through multiple boxes to find something, forgetting about a particular resource, and having to reorganize my boxes. Thus I changed to organization by topic.

Paper Resources

I would love to eliminate paper copies completely. In fact, I tried to do this when I made an international move. I scanned every piece of paper, carefully labeled the files, and organized my drive. I then recycled all of the paper and folders I had accumulated. I moved and made it approximately one day into my new teaching job before I started accumulating paper resources again. It’s just not practical to expect to eliminate them completely, so I set out to organize them instead.

In the “teacher area” of our basement you’ll find two full-size file cabinets. Each drawer is labeled (grammar, reading, writing, math, science, social studies…). Inside each drawer you’ll find files which are also labeled (nouns, verbs, adjectives, quotation marks, fables, book titles, multiplication, exponents, weather, Civil War…). Inside each file you’ll find all of the paper resources I’ve collected relating to that particular topic. You’ll also find copies of any photocopiable books (i.e.: Reading A-Z) and a card listing any trade books I own that relate to that topic.

If you remember the old vertical files libraries used to maintain, my file cabinets are similar to those. They provide me a place to keep original copies of worksheets (yes, even I occasionally can’t avoid them), game/activity ideas I haven’t had time to make yet, lesson plans, magazine articles I might want to read with students, and any other paper that could possibly help me when teaching that particular topic.

Games / Task Cards / Etc.

The organizing of my various games, task cards, activities, and so forth was a bit more complicated. They come in all shapes and sizes, involve pieces that don’t lay flat, and can take up a lot more room. I still organize by topic, but these are kept in plastic totes and bins of various sizes on metal shelves. Each shelf has a designated subject (ELA, math, science, social studies…) and I’m able to mix in any commercial board games or other manipulatives with the plastic storage bins. I label the bins by placing a piece of masking tape on the end and using a marker to write the topic (noun, verb, adjective, weather, family, addition, money…) on it. This means when a topic outgrows it’s current bin, I can easily transfer the materials to a larger one, peel off the label, and reuse the bin for something else. For topics that have a lot of materials (such as verbs) I will sometimes make more than one bin and label them more specifically (past tense, present tense…).

As I mentioned, I place all of my games, task cards, and other non-consumable activities in these bins. Each game/activity is kept in its own Ziploc bag along with all of the materials necessary to use it. Some of the things I place into the bags are: game board, dice, place markers, directions, original copies of recording sheets, answer keys, etc. This allows me to quickly grab a single bag and know that I have everything I need (other than extra copies of recording sheets) to implement that game/activity with my students.

Before someone gets upset with me and begins to lecture about how there’s too much plastic in the world, please hear me out on something. I have been using this system, with the same plastic totes, and the same plastic bags, for well over a decade now. I only throw them out when they become ripped and totally unusable, and that is a rare occurrence. Whenever possible I recycle materials and storage items that are no longer usable. I do my best to care for our planet, but I also try to be practical about what it takes to do this job well.

Time to Teach

Organizing by topic is great because I can always find what I need. If I am teaching a unit I’ve taught in the past, I can grab my lesson plan and just head to the basement. I then work my way down the lesson plan, pulling materials and adding them to a tote or rolling bin to take to school. At school I have a wire storage cube system with one storage box for every prep. At the beginning of a unit I load all of the materials into it. As we use materials, I toss them in a tote that goes home with me each night (or week, depending on my mood). Materials are returned to their proper storage places in the basement to await the next time I need them.

When I’m teaching a unit that is new to me, the topic organization system is again very helpful. Once I know what I am teaching, I need only grab one file folder and one tote from the basement. I then have every activity, game, book, worksheet, idea, or other material I have on that topic at my fingertips. I can look through everything, choosing the best activities and materials for my students and overall unit plan.

Does this system take an investment of time and money to set up? Yes, absolutely. Is the return on investment in time saved worth it? Yes, absolutely. Again, I’m not claiming to have the only, or even the best, system out there, but it’s one that’s worked for me for well over a decade now, so I thought I’d share it for those who are just getting started, or looking for something new to try. Happy teaching, everyone!

Since posting, I’ve had several people request photos. These aren’t the greatest, but I hope they’ll give you some idea of how I organize things. Please keep in mind it took 20+ years to accumulate this many materials. Newer teachers, don’t feel bad that you don’t have them, or like you need to buy/gather this much now. Be patient, take your time, it’ll all come with time.

The best I can do for a full view of one side/end. You’re looking at the math shelves and grammar shelves. You can see I have a variety of box sizes and other materials mixed in on the shelves.
Up close view of some of the smaller boxes on a math shelf so you can see how I label them.