The Paper Problem: Solved

It is downright scary how much paper is used in a third grade classroom.  I do my best to avoid unnecessary photocopying, but darn, those third graders do a lot of work!  And if you’re not careful, it piles up fast.

I don’t deserve any credit for the slick paperwork management system I’m about to share.  I just assembled pieces of it from colleagues wiser than me, and it has worked seamlessly in my room.

Here are its organization goals:

  1. Capture finished (often corrected) student work.
  2. Send the work home for parents to see.
  3. Get the best, most important work back so we can keep it for end-of-the-year portfolios.
  4. Store the portfolio work without requiring Mrs. Fox to do a whole lot of ANY filing.  (I hate filing!)

And its learning goal: help third graders pause and reflect on each week, taking the time to appreciate successes and challenges, set a goal for the following week, and share their learning with their families.

For every child in your room, you’ll need one folder with pockets plus one 2.5-3″ 3-ring binder.

The folder will be the student’s “Friday Folder.”  I label that on the outside, and on the inside, I label one pocket, “Keep at Home,” and the other pocket, “Bring Back to School.”

Folder Labels 2009-2010 (This Word document has the labels I use for all the kids’ folders, including Friday folders.)

The 3-ring binders will be each student’s “Monday Binder.”  Since it’s the only large binder I use, I don’t bother to label it, except with kids’ names.

The way it works is that during the week, when students finish work that you don’t need to see or when you pass back corrected work, students put it in their Friday Folders.  If it’s important work that you want them to bring back and consider for their portfolios, tell them to put it in the “Bring Back to School” side of their folder.  If it doesn’t need to come back, it goes in the “Keep at Home” side.

This is pretty simple, but definitely takes clear instruction and practice at the beginning of the year, just like all of your other systems.

Friday Folders stay at school all week and they go home on Friday.  Since parents know the routine, they also know to check backpacks on Friday afternoons.

Then, the folders get brought back to school on Monday.  They should still contain all of the work that students put in the “Bring Back to School” side of the folder.  Again, this takes practice.  I have a big stack of pre-printed notes to parents asking them to help students remember to bring back their folders and their work.

Friday Folder Reminder – No Folder

Friday Folder Reminder – Folder, No Contents

First thing Monday morning, as kids enter the classroom, they bring in their Friday Folders and get their Monday binders.  Inside the Monday binder, I have binder tabs labeled for each subject, plus one for Friday Letters, which I’ll talk about in just a moment.

Students take all of the work out of their Friday folders and file it into their Monday binders behind the correct tabs.

Sound impossible?  I got this idea from a second grade teacher, and I’ve seen it work with second, third, and fourth grade students.  On the other hand, first graders… hmm… maybe not.  If one of you bold fearless first grade teachers tries this out, please let me know.

Of course, this takes lots of practice.  By the second month of school, my kids pretty much have it down.  Some kids will always need a little bit of help.  It’s also important to demonstrate your expectations for how to safely open and close the binders.

But all the effort is well worth it!  This system eliminates the piles of student work, and it ensures parents get to see everything.  Plus, it saves all that precious portfolio work in a spot where you will actually find it at the end of the year.  And you don’t have to do any filing!

Those Monday binders also come in handy during parent conferences.  Never again will you have to search for the right examples of students’ work to share.  Everything you need is right there in the binder, organized by subject.

And now for the cherry on top: Friday Letters.  Friday Letters might be my favorite classroom routine, even more than Morning Meeting or Math Simon Says.  Instead of a Writer’s Workshop block on Fridays, we spend the last 50 minutes of the day writing Friday Letters and then having our Open Circle meeting.  (Open Circle is our social skills curriculum.)

Friday Letters are a chance for students to reflect on everything they did that week and share it with their parents.  I start off with the shortest version of the letter early in the year, and we work up to the long version.  Some students become so proficient, they write their letters without the form.

Friday Letter Template – Short

Friday Letter Template – Medium

Friday Letter Template – Long

Friday Letter Template – Pictures (This might be good for younger students; I only use it with third graders when we’ve had a particularly tiring day, such as the day before a vacation.)

No matter what template students use, I expect them to elaborate and use “true, exact details” to describe their week.

This is a quiet, reflective time in our room, and to help my third graders generate ideas (what did we do yesterday?), I hook up my laptop to an LCD projector and use my lesson plans to make a quick list of lessons and activities in Excel, organized by subject.

One of the best parts of this routine is that it helps all students identify reasons to be proud of their effort.  We want students to understand that effective effort + time = success, and this routine encourages that connection.

It also makes parents really happy.  I hear from many parents that the Friday Letters make them feel included in the classroom community and help them understand — and talk to their kids about — what’s going on at school.

The Friday Letters always get put in the “Bring Back to School” side of the Friday Folder.  They are collected in the Monday Binders until the end of the year, when students re-read them in preparation for writing their portfolio narratives.  Students are delighted to reread about all of their adventures, and they are amazed by how far they have come from September to June.

And the time you’ll save not hunting for work in piles?  That’s amazing, too.

— a. fox

2 thoughts on “The Paper Problem: Solved

  1. Abbie, my daughter (now in first grade) fills out a short daily sentence about something she learned at school that day which goes back and forth throughout the week, but has no reflective componant. I’m very interested in looking at this practice for the younger crowd in a way that includes that reflective piece that you incorporate as it takes SO LONG for children to develop skill in thinking about themselves and their learning this way. I wonder whether to start with a smaller reflective piece that gradually grows throughout the year…hmmm…

    • I love the idea of doing a little bit every day with younger kids. Even third graders’ memories are pretty short, and by Friday, they really have to work hard to think back through the whole week (which is why putting lesson plans on the LCD is so helpful). Could your first graders do some of the easier reflecting, like identifying something that was hard for them and something that was fun? That would be a good foundation for the harder work of identifying when they felt proud of their effort.

      Maybe also we (I include myself here) could draw kids’ attention to moments for reflection throughout the day. Every once in a while (not with any kind of consistency, unfortunately), I’ll say to the class or to one kid, “This was really challenging. How do you feel now that you’ve done it? What made you successful?” It can be a summarizing activity at the end of a lesson. Then we could even add, “Later, when you’re writing your Friday letter, I want you to remember this moment. You should feel proud of the work you did today.”

      Hmm… let me know what you decide to do!

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