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How to Find a Needle in a Haystack

I admit it. I'm a bit of a pack rat. I've always been that way and teaching kind of exacerbated things. When we got married, my husband was astonished (and somewhat dismayed) as I stacked bin after bin of teaching material into our tiny apartment. What amazed him even more, though, was my ability to wade through the piles which towered over us to find exactly what I needed when I needed it. So, how do I do it?

Do I have an incredibly memory? No

Do I have hours upon hours of time to organize? No

Do I have super powers? Nothing beyond the standard eyes in the back of my head that all teachers possess.

What I do have, however, is a system-one which makes sense to me. I didn't start out with one though. In fact, it was quite the opposite.

When I first began my teaching career, I was so overwhelmed that organizing my ESL materials was the last thing on my mind. I was already bleary-eyed and exhausted. Who had time to file and label? Also, I didn't really know how to organize my stuff. By level? By topic? By material type? Thinking about it just made me feel even more like a sinking ship. Only at the end of my first year when a friend came over, saw the materials strewn everywhere in my apartment, and thought I had been robbed did I finally realize that I had a bit of an issue. Thus began my organizational odyssey. It took at least a month before I restored some semblance of order to all of my ESL teaching materials. Since then, I have, for the most part, managed to keep up with my system. It's been tweaked a few times and overhauled at least twice, but the bare bones have remained.

I look back to my earlier teaching years and often wish someone had given me a sort of road map to organization. To be honest, I think I would have appreciated it at any point during my career. The logistics of these sorts of things, though, get lost amidst the rest of the all-consuming duties of a teacher. So, I figured I could share a little about my system here as a starting point for anyone who wants to get his/her teaching materials under control. I deal with both electronic and paper files, so I have explained below how I handle both.

1) Electronic Files

All electronic files I have are titled using the same format.

Class Name or Level.Unit Number.Topic.Month and Year

Level 4A.Unit 7.Present perfect and cover letters.Oct2010

I create a folder for each school where I am teaching. Within that folder, I create folders for all of the classes that I am teaching or have taught. Then, I put all items with the same class name into a folder titled with that name. See below.

2) Paper Files and Materials

The majority of the classes that I have taught have been from 6-8 weeks long. So, each class has its own bin. Each bin is labeled with the name/level of the class, the textbook for the class, and a summary of the topics the class covered. See below for an example. This bin is for the Literacy Council of Montgomery County (LCMC) Low Intermediate Spring 2008. We used the All Star textbook. The cards list the topics covered.

Within the bin, each unit has its own folder. When possible, the unit folders are color-coded. The unit folders are labeled with the unit number and a summary of the material/topics inside. The folder below was for Unit 8 which covered descriptive essays.

Within each unit folder, all unit materials are placed in plastic sheet protectors and placed in order. I use small binder clips or paper clips to keep the materials for individual lessons together and then label the lesson with the lesson number and title. In the picture to the left, I've labeled the lesson as Lesson 1-Introduction. When I have manipulatives or realia (like actual restaurant menus, credit card applications, or city maps), I usually put those in a Ziploc bag that I put inside the sheet protector. To make sure the Ziploc bag doesn't fall out, I always put a paper clip at the top of the sheet protector

My system is by no means the best, but it works for me. It can at least give you an idea of what aspects of your materials you should consider when determining how to file them. Ultimately, however, you have to develop what's going to work best for you. It's also important to remember that for most people creating an organizational system takes time. You might not get it right the first time around (or the second, or the third...). The key is to keep trying, keep tweaking, keep making an effort and one day, without realizing it, you will have stumbled your way into 'your system'. So, organizationally-challenged people, take heart. It is possible to have teaching materials AND know where they are when you need them. Like mastering anything else, it just takes time, patience, and the willingness to learn.

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