As a high school teacher, I first followed Angela Watson’s podcast and site for camaraderie and inspiration more than for practical ideas that I could implement into my own classroom.
Over time, however, especially after the experience of participating in the 40 Hour Teacher Workweek, my wheels started turning about how I could apply Angela’s strategies to my own secondary classroom. I began approaching organization, workflow, and time management with what I call my “40-hour lens.” In all honesty, my 40-hour lens has been transformative to my practice and it’s helped me manage my workload, set boundaries, and keep my work week to 40 hours (with the pandemic being a major exception).
My colleagues would scream with laughter if they knew that I was writing an article on classroom organization! At first glance, my classroom is not going to win any awards for neatness. In fact, I’ve been teased for my clutter by staff members and students alike more often than I care to admit! However, I am not lying to you when I tell you that if any one of my current students were to walk into my classroom right now and ask to see any given test or quiz that he or she has ever taken in my class, I can have it in that student’s hands in 30 seconds or less. The filing system that makes this possible is the organizational tool I’m most proud of, and it’s what I’m going to share with you today.
For years I struggled with how to manage graded student work. It was clear to me that students needed to see their grades and receive meaningful feedback in order to grow academically, but after letting them review their work I was at a loss with what to do with it next. As an AP teacher, I was hesitant to let them keep their quizzes and tests; there are a finite number of test banks and I can’t keep re-inventing assessments each semester! On the other hand, it was overwhelming to try to keep all of their work in my classroom. The clutter was getting out of control, but I didn’t want to throw current students’ work away in case students wanted to review it during the year or in case anyone challenged a specific grade. When students did want to review their work, I found that it was consuming WAY too much of my time to locate their tests and quizzes amongst the myriad piles that had grown in my classroom.
I got creative and decided to adapt the elementary classroom concept of individual student documentation folders to my high school classroom. Finally, I would have a place to store all of my students’ work, and it would be organized enough to locate exactly what I was looking for in a timely manner. As an added bonus, I realized that keeping all of a student’s work in one spot would save me tons of time preparing the paperwork for special education and 504 conferences, and, since the individual folder provided a student portfolio, I was able to provide better insight about a student’s strengths, areas of growth, and progress over time to parents and administrators.
How I file graded student work
One of the mottos I’ve adapted from Angela is to keep things as simple as possible while still remaining functional — and this has been my guiding principle in setting up and maintaining these student folders. Setup takes a little bit of time on the front end, but ultimately it’s easy. I simply create a separate folder for each of my students and I file all of their work in that folder. I arrange folders alphabetically by class period, and I assign each student a number. Sometimes I’ll ask students to memorize their number and put it on all of their work, which makes filing a snap, but for some classes, it can be a bit too much to expect of high school students who have many classes each day. I attempt to file work chronologically, but I’m not too strict about it. As long as the order is loosely chronological I can still find items quickly. That’s it! That’s the whole system! It’s so simple, but at the same time, it’s brilliant!
Student folders from three class periods stored in a file drawer behind the teacher desk. Each folder is labeled with the student’s name, class period, and individual student number. In this example, students wrote their own names on their folders to save time for the teacher.
So why bother to make the effort? It does take a bit of effort, but later on, I’m going to share some time-saving tips with you that I’ve learned over years of honing this system. This system is incredible because it puts graded student work to work for you! As teachers we spend so much time grading, and if we write comments and never hand back the assignment (and I bet almost all of us have done that at least once), or if we give students time for just a cursory glance at our feedback but we don’t revisit it or use it as a learning tool, then why are we taking the time to be so thorough? Maybe you find yourself wanting to be more thorough, but due to circumstances I just mentioned, you find yourself thinking it’s not worth the effort. Let me tell you, it IS worth the effort! But only if you consistently use feedback and make it available to students.
Why this filing system works
I’ve found that this system has been effective in encouraging my students to review their work and learn from their past successes and mistakes. I am upfront with my students from day one that I will have a folder with their names on it where I keep all of their work. I encourage them to come in for tutoring to review the work in their folders to prepare for upcoming tests and essays. I even encourage them to come in and sit in groups and review their work together, talking through correct and incorrect answers with each other and reading each others’ essays to see how certain rubric points are earned and to think about how they can improve their writing. What I found was that in making their work more accessible to them, I was empowering my students to take ownership of their education. Rather than wanting to sit with me individually and go question-by-question through a test, my students were collaborating with each other in their post-mortem test reviews, seeking my assistance only when the entire group hit a roadblock. They were becoming more confident, and they were becoming stronger scholars.
When I do need to conference with individual students, pulling a student’s folder makes the conference more relevant to the student and more efficient because all of their work is readily available. We’re able to review multiple quizzes and tests at a time, looking for common patterns that might explain some of their mistakes and help them to become better test-takers. We’re able to compare assessment types, looking at quizzes, tests, and essays to think about why the student may excel in some types of assessments but not in others. In reviewing specific test and quiz questions, we can also pinpoint the student’s gaps in content knowledge. With all the data in one place, it empowers the student to learn from past mistakes and move forward with a concrete academic plan for future success.
Folders are also helpful for parent conferences. I have never handed a student’s folder over to his or her parents, but, for example, if a parent wanted to know why their student completely bombed a recent test, it makes it convenient to show the parent the student’s previous quiz grades, demonstrating that the student had not completed their readings. It would absolutely be possible to prepare that kind of documentation for parents prior to a conference, but it would have taken me a lot longer to weed through individual piles of work to locate each individual quiz and test. Keeping student folders helped me reduce my parent conference prep time from 30-plus minutes to fewer than ten minutes.
Student folders allow students to see their progress over time and review their past work. They also allow teachers a place for students to store usernames and passwords for district educational sites. In the second photograph, the student has their username and password for the online textbook for the course, just in case they need to access that information again during the school year.
In another capacity, as an AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) teacher, student folders provided me with a place to store important student documents, such as student contracts for the program and student goal-setting sheets. By having all information conveniently located in one place, it simplified class activities like reviewing student goals. In years past, students would misplace their goal sheets or forget their beginning-of-year goals completely. Now I can pull their folders and distribute them for the class activity. Using student folders to keep track of this information made it easy to evaluate their progress toward their goals. I also began to keep notes on the individual conferences I had with my AVID students, and I would place those notes in the student folder making it easy for me and my students to revisit our conversations throughout the year.
Using student folders to store their goals for the year and teacher-student conference notes makes it much easier to revisit goals and evaluate student progress.
A few things to remember when using this system in your classroom
In the spirit of transparency, I do have a few items to caution you about. First of all, I never let students have technology anywhere near their file folders, and I never let their folders leave my classroom. I usually have students put all of their technology in their backpacks and place their backpacks at the front of the classroom before I’ll even let them look at their folders. I will ask students to sit near my desk, both so that they’re close when they have questions and also so I can keep an eye on them while they’re in possession of secure test materials. I NEVER leave students unattended with their folders. That’s just asking for materials to get stolen and/or posted online. Additionally, it’s best to keep student folders in locked file cabinets, but if you’re not able to do that, you will want to be extra careful not to leave students unattended in your classroom.
I am also strict about not allowing students to make notes about items in the folder that they take with them. They can highlight and write all over their assessments when they’re reviewing them, but they may not make notes about those assessments that they take with them. The risk of prompts and test questions getting copied and put out into the universe is just too high. What I’ve done instead is allow students to write a reflection on how they plan to improve their performance on a future test or essay. They can always have access to the reflection, but not notes about the actual assessment.
Tips for making this work for you
This system has worked so well for my students that I’ve even had students come in the next school year to look over essays before their first test or essay of the new year, just for a refresher on the rubric as well as what worked and what didn’t. For documentation purposes I try to hold on to student folders for at least one semester into the next school year. If I have the space I’ll keep folders for the entire next year and then destroy them at the end of that school year, after AP and state testing is over.
Over time I’ve developed a few habits that have helped me streamline my filing process. First and foremost, I always alphabetize the papers before filing them. It makes the filing process go so much more quickly! If your students are up to remembering their numbers and writing them in the top corner of their assignments, that will make alphabetizing even quicker! As I go through the school year and have essentially memorized the alphabetical order of each class period, I’ll start to alphabetize tests and quizzes as students hand them back in after we’ve reviewed them as a class. Then all I have to do after my students leave is put them in files, which I can quickly do during the passing period.
If we’ve taken a test with multiple parts (for example: an answer sheet, multiple-choice test packet, short answer prompts, and student answers to short-answer prompts), I will hand all of the material back to students separately when we’re ready to review it as a class. Then before they hand it back in, I’ll tell them the order in which I want them to assemble their test (or better, I’ll write it on the board so I don’t have to repeat myself) and I’ll pass a few staplers around. Voila! I’ve just saved myself 15-20 minutes of assembling and alphabetizing multiple parts of a test. You will need to be diligent about checking for quality and completeness upon collecting work, and you will have to let go of your perfectionism about stapling and organization, but I’ve found it to be a relatively small price to pay to get back hours of my time.
I’ve shared this system with you in the hopes that you can reclaim some of your time, empower your students, and maximize the impact of your feedback. One of the best pieces of advice I have received from Truth for Teachers is to be kind to your future self. Years ago Angela talked about how we are often inconsiderate to our future selves when we push work onto them. How many times have you said to yourself, “That’s a great idea, but I don’t have time right now. I’ll do it during Spring Break / Winter Break / Summer Break / etc.?” I used to do it all the time, and I’m trying to break that habit. I’ve found that maintaining my filing system helps me to be nicer to my future self, by getting organized now instead of putting it off until later, as well as to my current self, by helping eliminate some of the clutter I’m famous for. Best of luck implementing your system, and I welcome your tips, tricks, and innovations in keeping your student work organized and accessible!
High School History/Social Studies
If you are a teacher who is interested in contributing to the Truth for Teachers website, please click here for more information.