Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Reconciling School Supply Lists to Styles
Have you ever watched a left-handed person try to take notes in a traditional spiral notebook? It's almost painful. The angle is wrong, the spiral's in the wrong place, and even the neatest handwriting approaches illegibility as fatigue and frustration take over.

That's how it feels to be a non-traditional organizer using traditional school supplies. While everyone around you slides papers neatly onto binder rings or into the pockets of folders, you just never manage to make things work as neatly and effortlessly.

So...why buy those supplies?

If you've got a kiddo (or two) at your house whose notebooks and folders look like they've been through a natural disaster somewhere between school and home, help them adapt their supplies to their styles. 

Ways to adapt a binder:
  • Buy a portable three-hole punch to put in the front of the notebook.
  • Load the binder with page protectors so unpunched papers make it into the notebook. Or, if that's not gonna happen with your cram and jammer or drop and run organizer, try folder pockets (hole-punched inserts that look like a pocket folder opened up and folded back) or a three-ring acetate envelope with a snap or Velcro fastener.
    When I taught Organizing by STYLE
    to an elementary school audience,
    I found that clamp binders were a
    huge hit with fifth grade boys.
  • Add a clip to the front of the binder so the day's papers get clipped inside the cover and can be added to the right section of the notebook at home.
  • Ditch the three-ring binder for one with a spring-loaded clamp. Kids who don't take the time to put stuff into the rings sometimes enjoy putting papers away when they have an excuse to play with the clamp.
  • Replace the binder with an accordion folder. Choose one that's divided into sections, or one with just one wide, yawning opening, depending on your child's style.
What to use instead of a standard-issue, paper pocket folder:
  • A file folder. Like pocket folders, these come in a variety of colors, and can be color-coded by subject. If the papers aren't going to go in the pockets anyway, why create an unnecessary battle?
  • Transparent folders that allow kids to personalize them (photos show through the opening) or see what's inside. These also come in a variety of colors, with and without pockets.
  • A folder that has top and side access and a tab closure at the top. Multi-colored (again). Never underestimate the value of being able to play with an organizational tool. The more fun it is to put something away, the more likely it is it'll get there.
  • Clear acetate envelopes with string-tie and button closures. Sold at office supply stores, these often come in multi-packs that make them less expensive per item.
Admittedly, these choices are often more expensive and harder to come by, but in many cases, the time and heartache saved makes it worth the extra cash and detective work -- and sometimes, you actually luck out and find cool tools at the dollar store or the clearance racks. When I taught lessons in elementary school classrooms, I brought a variety of supplies in for kids to play with and had them trouble-shoot potential issues. They were amazingly astute when it came to figuring out what they would and would not use, and they often loved things that cost a dollar or less (colorful report folders with hinged closures were a big hit) as much as the more expensive office supply items. 

As you discuss back-to-school shopping with your child, use this summary sheet to talk about options and highlight his or her choices. Having him (or her) talk through the choices is an important part of getting your child to understand his or her styles, and eventually, to advocate for them. When we teach our kids to respectfully advocate for themselves, we're teaching a skill that goes far beyond organization.

You may also need to intervene on your child's behalf with his or her teacher, and that may or may not go over well. Together with your child, decide if it's better to work within the requirements (buy the required binder, but adapt its insides so your child can use it successfully) or seek the teacher's stamp of approval for an alternative system. If your child's teacher understands that the required tool is actually a stumbling block, he or she may be amenable to a trial period with something else. Most teachers are happy to see their students attempt organization, no matter what the tools, and in the best case scenario, your child may find an ally who helps to tweak and perfect the plan at school. 

So before you and your credit card hit the stores and start checking off items on that school supply list, take a moment to make sure you're supplying your child with the tools he or she needs to have a great year.


  1. As I begin my 20th back-to-school season with kids, I have to say that I wish teachers would be more openly flexible about supplies. I've done a lot of struggling with my kids as they try to use a "system" that just doesn't fit them, and I have hesitated to bring that struggle to the teacher.
    Often in the younger grades, the teachers DO spend the time to have everyone put items in folders and help the children use the structured system they have put in place. But once the kids hit 4th or 5th grade, it's every man for himself and it all falls apart.
    I remember that, as a sub, one of my first questions to the kids was, "Do you have a special folder to put homework/unfinished work/finished work/whatever this is in?" A chorus of "yes" indicated to me that the teacher was being proactive about making sure the kids used a system.
    Sometimes those supply lists are made by a department rather than an individual teacher, or are inherited from a teacher previously in that position. My 8th-grader has been working from the same list for 5 years. Some things do not work for him. I'm going to try AGAIN this year to find something that does, because all the STUFF crammed and jammed into that backpack gets out of hand quickly. And since I know all of his teachers well, I know that no one will give him a hard time if his tools don't look exactly like his classmates'.

  2. You're so right, Barb. I was so lucky to work with a team of fifth grade teachers who welcomed me and my crazy ideas into their classrooms and who were willing to let the kids ditch the standard system for their own PROVIDED they could justify/use it. Then they went to MS, where some teachers were great and some equated binders with organization. They meant well, but didn't get that the kids NEEDED different tools.

    I've seen boys in particular gravitate toward accordion folders and clamp binders. I was so excited when I found a multipack of clear ones at Staples -- it dropped the price dramatically. I couldn't color code, but the clear covers made it possible to differentiate the binders in other ways, and the spines could be labeled. If I ever had any doubt about this styles approach, it evaporated when I brought stuff in for the kids to "play" with. The ones who were already organized traditionally were blasé, but the ones who struggled were like kids at Christmas. One young man "accidentally" stuck the accordion folder into his desk so he could use it! They loved my monthly giveaways. They had a chance to win something and I had a chance to put tools into their hands so they could experiment.

    No. I'm not passionate about this at all!!! LOL!

  3. You keep mentioning "clamp binders" and I'm not sure I know exactly what you mean. Like a clipboard with a cover over it? Or something else?

  4. The red "binder" above is an example (unfortunately, they don't come in big sizes). Usually pressboard or plastic, they have a spring-loaded clamp inside instead of three rings. I think it's probably a presentation folder. The boys in particular loved the clamp -- it was cooler than rings. Not sure how long it would take for the novelty to wear off....

  5. ...or for it to break...

    I'm going to keep thinking. I do like the clamp idea.

  6. The clamps are usually pretty tough, and they hold a substantial stack of papers. I used to bring one to class and pass it around, and it got a lot of wear and tear from the boys who wanted to try it out...but it survived quite well.