Posted in general education, how-to, more seeds, special education

Minimalism for Teachers

Organization: A Teacher’s Struggle

Organization of classroom materials creates calm and peace. http://allkidscanlearn.school.blog
Organization is key to creating calm and peace in the classroom. Image credit (c) Kim M. Bennett, 2014

I remember when I was a new teacher. Maybe you do, too.

That day sometime at the end of August, when you excitedly showed up to your new classroom to find a mismatch of not-enough chairs, exactly two (2) math workbooks, three raggedy copies of Charlotte’s Web, and no dry erase markers. Maybe not even a dry erase board.

I think it’s memories like this that cause most teachers to become hoarders — teachers, and, by extension, their families. My mom was an avid tag-sale shopper, and she would send me periodic “care packages” with yard-sale finds, especially if she found something in quantities of twenty. Twenty vases, twenty paint sets, twenty compasses… you get the idea.

Fast forward to the same teacher, twenty or thirty years later, and you’ll find closets and cabinets full of disorganized ox horns, chess pieces, magnifying glasses and paintbrushes. Why, just recently, we were planning the graduation ceremony for our small school, and discovered that there is, in fact, a helium shortage in the United States. Magically, one of our veteran teachers came in and declared that she had “found” two helium tanks!

All this hoarding leads to a lot of clutter. Clutter is a life-sucker, especially in a classroom where there is often little storage, and even less time to manage it.

Minimalism ~ Learning to Do More with Less

Merriam-Webster defines minimalism as a style that is characterized by extreme spareness and simplicity.

Brian Gardner, of No Sidebar, describes a number of benefits of minimalism:

  • More space to move around and a feeling of being able to breathe;
  • More focus, because you spend less time looking for or putting away STUFF;
  • More money (since you’re not buying STUFF):
  • More time for the important things in your life;
  • More mental energy for other activities.

As educators, we have enough tasks to pull us in a million directions, every day.  We don’t need to spend precious time, energy and brain space on managing material things.

So how can we apply this idea to the classroom?

Decluttering Your Way to Peace

In the spirit of full disclosure, I am NOT good at decluttering.

I can make things organized and orderly, but I have a difficult time letting go of things, when I think that I might possible have a use for them, one day. Minimalism is not something that comes naturally to me, but I find that clutter wears on me, so I want to begin to practice it. Daily.

Here are some experts’ opinions on how we (yes, you and me!) can apply the practice of minimalism to classroom areas that need decluttering.

Clutter is postponed decisions.

~ Barbara Hemphill, CEO, author, speaker

Textbooks

My colleagues and I spent time this year paring down the textbooks for each subject matter. We pulled out books that we knew, from experience, were tried and true, as well as ones that were newer and in good shape. We then added selections whose readability matched the literacy needs of our struggling readers. The rest we discarded – no matter how many there were.

There is a growing body of curriculum experts who feel that the wealth of up-to-date information on the Internet is making actual textbooks obsolete.  

Getting rid of textbooks is hard. But decluttering the book room was so satisfying.

Declutter the classroom by removing old, worn-out textbooks and ones that are not needed. http://allkidscanlearn.school.blog
Discard worn-out textbooks, of course. But also declutter by removing out-of-date or unused books, no matter their condition.

Copies

Our company uses “lean management” strategies. One of these strategies is a waste walk. In this process, you survey an area as a team, noting places where resources are wasted. One area of waste in most classrooms is extra copies (an example of the type of waste known as overproduction). I forever make a few extra copies, just in case. And then I throw them away later. Or, worse yet, I save them for… even later.  Right next to the workbook I copied them from. Help me.

This month, I ruthlessly discarded extra copies. Next year, I will practice making just enough copies.

Wall décor

I once worked with a teacher whose classroom looked like she owned stock in Frank Schaffer. I envied her. Then I had students with attention issues whose eyes couldn’t ever stop moving in a colorful classroom full of what one mom of a child with ADHD refers to as “visual noise.”

Where I work now, classroom walls are lightly decorated with removable stickers. This allows us to easily replace decorations that kids remove, and helps create open spaces for eyes to land on – peaceful oases for students whose minds are already too full.

Use inexpensive, removable decals instead of large, colorful posters, to visually declutter walls. http://allkidscanlearn.school.blog
Consider inexpensive, dollar store decals instead of big, colorful posters. Clean wall space is comforting for students and adults. Image credit (c) Kim M. Bennett, 2018

Furniture

One of my students has autism, and struggles with noise, change, heat, shoes… basically any sensory assault. When he is agitated, he sometimes throws furniture.

Solution? Remove extra furniture.

To the adult eye, my classroom looks Spartan: no round reading table, no study carrel, only enough desks for the students I have, no extra chairs for conferences… But you know what the kids said? “Whoa! How did the classroom get bigger?” Space is calming. It’s also safer: it allows us to clear the room quickly, in case of emergency.

Simple organization of space and choice of furniture can establish a traffic flow, and a level of safety that supports effective classroom management routines. And it gives us the feeling of open space and freedom.

Proper furniture selection and organization adds to a positive classroom environement. http://allkidscanlearn.school.blog
Furniture arrangement that includes open spaces creates a feeling of freedom, directs traffic and adds to a positive classroom ambiance. Image credit (c) Kim M. Bennett, 2015

Supplies

If you are like me, you have an issue with office supplies stores. I can go into Staples to buy a printer cartridge and come out with scrapbooking materials, two kinds of highlighters and a 3D printer.

But the classroom is not Staples.

If there is already in place in the school for storage of copy paper, paper clips, ballpoint pens and masking tape, you do not need more than an immediate replacement in the classroom. In my situation, it just becomes one more thing to take away from someone who is not behaving himself. Minimally, it becomes clutter. Jodi Durgin, National Board Certified Teacher, writes about classroom supplies and decluttering – check out her post.

Minimalism would remind us that we feel good when we have what we need and use what we have, and that extra causes us energy and time. Leave the extra staples in the main office.

When Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, he complained to God that he was ill-equipped. God asked him what he DID have, and Moses replied, “A staff.” God told to use it. Everything you need is already in your hand. Use it. You’ll feel better.

Minimalism means having the supplies you need, and using them. http://allkidscanlearn.school.blog
Minimalism means thinking about what classroom supplies you REALLY need… and leaving the rest in the office. Image Credit (c) Kim M. Bennett, 2011

Technology

Now this seems like a strange category, since we live in a technological age where, until only very recently, our students had more technology in their pockets than we had in many classrooms.

We seem to have gone the other direction. In some classrooms, there are interactive white boards, personal tablets or laptops for each student, student responders, projectors…

Technology is so important, but it’s only a tool. Without a clear purpose and explicit instruction on its use, it becomes another way to clutter our classrooms. And, sometimes, I want students to use the “calculator on top of your neck.”

So consider what technology you leave out, and why. If you want kids to use their brains, put the calculators in a basket, and put them away for the period. If you want the kids to write longhand for a prompt, put the personal keyboards in the closet. If technology becomes a distraction, establish a charging station for student phones or “tech-free” days.

There is a wealth of information available on value-added use of technology in the classroom. Make it a professional goal next year to learn more.

Student work

I will confess. Sometimes, over the course of 30 years, my elbow has accidentally hit a pile of student papers and it somehow landed in the trash. Instant decluttering.

I told you. Help me.

I’ve learned, over the years, that everything doesn’t have to be GRADED graded. You know, “85%,” “4/8,” etc. Sometimes, a check will do. Then hand it back.

I have had to learn the difference between “practice papers” (which can be re-worked, corrected with a friend, corrected with an answer key, etc., and taken home) and “assignments” (which are graded and entered into the grade book). THEN I had to learn the difference between “assignments” and “assessments” (which are saved for analysis, shared in a data team, and used for progress monitoring and documenting learning).

Don't let student papers accumulate. Declutter by using paper-free practices. http://allkidscanlearn.school.blog
Not all student work needs a paper, and not all papers need to be collected. Declutter your classroom by decreasing student paperwork. Image Credit (c) Kim M. Bennett, 2015

This year, my professional goal was to establish a more efficient way of collecting and organizing my grades. I found that identifying what I was going to assess and how, when I wrote up my lesson plans, made it easier for me to tell the students my expectations and also easier to decide what I was keeping at the end of the day. If I limited my “grades” to one item per class week, per class, I found that I got just as accurate a grade as when I graded everything (yes, I did that research). Call it “advanced organization.” It was just a smarter way to operate.

Rebecca Alber at EduTopia has some amazing suggestions for minimalism when it comes to assessing and grading. Do what she says. Then turn those papers back to the students immediately. You’ll be glad at the end of the year.

Workbooks

I’ve worked in many school settings, and the issue of “consumables” is always a hot-button topic.

When I was an instructional coach and in charge of ordering textbooks, I learned that publishing companies make their money from 1) teacher’s guides (which are really expensive) and 2) consumables. They usually throw the textbooks, themselves, in, for free. Yes, you read that right.

So schools (especially poorer ones) might buy one set of workbooks, and then never buy them, again. Or they tell the teachers not to let the students write in them. Or they tell them to save one copy and make photocopies in future years (which turn out to be just as costly as buying the workbooks).

As a result, some schools (mine, for example), have a vast assortment of miscellaneous workbooks, without any other materials, but we’re afraid to “use them.”

Please: use those workbooks. If it makes you feel better, save one copy, file it under the appropriate subject in your curriculum files, and use the rest. Use them for small groups, full classes, seat work… whatever. But use them. If you are unsure about this, please read this article on copyright law and workbooks. You will be surprised the way that we break these laws daily (and I’m not talking about photocopies).

Minimalism means using up old workbooks before you buy new ones. http://allkidscanlearn.school.blog
Don’t buy any new workbooks until you use up old ones. Image credit (c) Kim M. Bennett, 2018

Using up those workbooks will help with organization, but there’s also something exciting for students about having a workbook of their own that they can write in. I saw this in full effect when I interned in a prison. Adult students took excellent care of workbooks that were given to them, because they were THEIRS. Having their own books made them feel important and successful.

Moving Toward Minimalism

De-cluttering has always been a simultaneous goal and obstacle for me. I wrote this post, in part, to share some things that work for me, but I also wrote it for myself, as I move toward the minimalist lifestyle.

Have what you need… Use what you have… Be at peace…

{ This blog is featured in Top 100 Special Education Blogs}

Author:

Mom of four, Nana to seven, homeschooler, special educator, and lover of all good things... striving to do His work every day.

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