Digital Materials Organization

Last week I shared with you how I organize all of my games, activities, and other physical teaching materials. My obsession with materials is not limited to only the physical, I have a lot of digital teaching resources as well (54+ gigs worth at last check). The great thing about digital resources is that you can have as many as you want without taking up more physical space, they are easily portable, and they can be quickly searched. My obsession with organization also doesn’t stop with the physical, so this week I’d like to share with you how I organize my digital materials.

Before I get into the details of the organization, may I share with you a couple of lessons I learned the hard way about digital files and storage?

  1. Do not rely solely on Google Drive, Dropbox, or other cloud storage. The cloud is great, I love how I can access my materials from anywhere that has an internet connection, but the cloud also has its downsides. If you are using a school-based account, you will lose access when you change jobs, and transferring everything is not as easy as one would think. There will also be times that you need access to a file but will not have internet connectivity (power failure, teaching in a remote location, the internet goes down…). Cloud stored files are susceptible to hacking and a host of other problems. Cloud storage providers do a lot to keep your data safe, but nothing is as safe as on your own system.
  2. Do not skimp on storage when buying a laptop or other computing device. I’ve been a teacher for 20+ years and lived on my teacher salary alone for the first 16 of those years (and for more than 10 of those 16 years it was a non-profit teacher salary–that’s lower still!), I know it’s difficult. More than once I purchased a computer, getting low-end specs in the storage and RAM departments, thinking it was all I could afford. What I learned from those experiences is that you can’t afford NOT to buy at least middle of the road specs on storage and RAM, preferably the high-end. Let me give you the practical working out of this principle: my husband bought a good laptop with high-end specs for memory and RAM. He used that computer constantly (he is a software engineer after all) for over ten years without a problem. I purchased a good laptop with low-end specs for memory and RAM. I used the computer for four years and then had to buy a new one because my husband’s ten-year-old computer ran faster and better than mine, which was less than half as old! I know it’s difficult, but buy as much storage and RAM as you can.
  3. Regularly back up your system to an external hard drive or non-internet-based network storage. Before we got married, my husband set up my computer to automatically backup to an external hard drive. As long as I was connected to the drive the computer would back itself up every time I made a change to a file. I soon became annoyed by it and so simply disconnected from the hard drive. Then my computer crashed and, despite my husband’s best efforts, I lost everything. The hard drive was unrecoverable, short very expensive efforts. Thankfully I had the backup, but because I hadn’t run the backup in nearly three months, I permanently lost a lot of work. Now that I live with a techie, my computer is set to auto-backup to our internal network. The auto-backup still drives me crazy, and I’ve figured out how to keep it from constantly running, but every day when I’m tempted to cancel its run as the computer is booting up, I remember those files I lost and instead adopt a thankful attitude that my files are secure and I don’t have to think about backing them up. Having a non-internet-connected backup of my files also makes me less susceptible to viruses and ransomware. If a file becomes corrupted, or someone were to “kidnap” my data, I don’t need to worry because I have another copy the outside influence can’t touch. Do you need a setup as sophisticated as I have? No, probably not, but everyone should have some form of non-internet-based backup.

Enough of lessons learned the hard way, let’s talk about how to organize all those digital resources! The obvious answer is in a folder on your computer, and I do have a folder on my computer for teaching resources. You can call it anything you want (mine is called ESL, though it contains far more than ESL, I should probably rename it…), the important thing is that it’s a separate folder from your tax information, family photos, personal documents, and all of the other random files we save to our computers. The real magic of organization happens in the subfolders!

Inside my teaching resources folder (ESL) I have quite a few subfolders, all of which have subfolders of their own, which then have subfolders of their own. What you name your various folders is up to you, the important thing is the system makes sense to you. I’ll give you a couple of examples:

  • I was planning a lesson on the present perfect tense the other day. Here are the folders I went through: ESL–Grammar–Verbs–Tense–Present–Perfect. Inside that final folder I have several games, a video, a couple of handouts, and even a worksheet or two. Less than a minute to grab the present perfect file folder from my file cabinet, the present tense verb box from the basement shelf, and thirty seconds to open the folder on my computer–that was all it took to have every resource I own for teaching the present perfect in front of me. 90 seconds to gather several dozen resources, not bad!
  • A friend was looking for something to help a student with elapsed time. I went through these folders to find some resources for her to look at: ESL–Math–Time–Elapsed Time. There were only four files in the folder, but everyone of them related to what she needed to teach and it took me all of 30 seconds to tell her what I had available and another minute or so to email it all to her. Again, 90 seconds to share all of my digital resources with a colleague, not bad!

Most of my top layer of subfolders are labeled with major topics/subjects such as grammar, writing, reading, math, etc. The next level down gets more specific, and each following layer gets more specific still. This allows me to quickly find what I need, and I never have to worry about trying to remember what I named a specific file to find it amongst hundreds or thousands (or tens of thousands) of other files.

One interesting folder I have is my vertical file. I know I’m dating myself now, but remember the old vertical files in the library? You could find a folder with papers and resources related to just about anything in there, and I found it fascinating. My digital vertical file is similar. In it I have a sub-folder for each letter of the alphabet and it’s where I put things that I have no idea where else to put them. A lot of my science and social studies resources end up here, along with holidays, and anything that just grabs my interest. I have folders called trees, sign language, Westward Expansion, pizza… It’s kind of the junk drawer of my digital resources storage, and I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve used things I find there.

I do maintain separate folders, outside of my main teaching resources folder, for my lesson plans. I have a folder for each school I’ve ever taught at and subfolders for each year. Inside the subfolders I’ll have further folders for the different preps, photos, general documents, and files I want to save for my records. The files in these folders are generally either created in them (lesson plans) or copied and pasted from other folders (digital files of the various games and activities I use with that particular unit plan). I usually put a copy of the folder in my Google Drive so I can access it at school, and carry a copy on a flash drive as well (for when the internet goes down). This allows me to quickly access the files I need immediately and, if I’m not supplementing or planning a new unit, to have everything for each unit in one place. When I move to a new school, or get a new curriculum, I start a new folder. If I reuse a plan or material, I copy and paste it into the new folder, leaving the old folder in tact. There have been many times that I have been saved by having these old records, and also times when I’ve been able to help former colleagues out by giving them a copy of a particular unit’s folder (even though I’ve moved to a different position).

Where did I get those 54+ gigs of resources? The short answer is: from all over. Whenever I see something interesting, I stick it in a folder. If I can’t download it, I create a shortcut in the folder. Many of them are games and activities I’ve created myself over the years, but most are things I’ve found on the internet, scanned from magazines, and been given by other teachers. One great resource is Teachers Pay Teachers’ weekly newsletter (biweekly in the summer), each issue includes ten free downloads. For a long time I was teaching so many grades and so many subjects I downloaded every one of those resources (except the foreign language ones), meaning 15-20 new resources a week (there are two newsletters, one K-5 and one 6-12)! Another great way to save things you see online, especially text from websites, is the Chrome extension, Print Friendly. This free extension transforms websites into printable or savable documents, it even lets you take out parts of the website you don’t want to save (such as advertisements and random comments). If I see a website, article, or blog post I want to save, I simply click the Print Friendly icon and choose how I’d like to save it (print, pdf, or email). I can then disseminate it to my students and the attribution is taken for me because the original web address is automatically included at the top.

More good news about digital materials organization: it’s much easier and faster than physical materials organization! The time and stress saving benefits are just as great though, so I would encourage you to not put it off. Happy teaching, everyone!