Five weeks ago, I started a project: a blogging challenge as a part of my M.Ed. program, in which I was asked to learn something new. I considered a number of ideas – how to do video editing, how to create flowers with buttercream icing, how to use my InstaPot pressure cooker with consistently favorable (i.e., child-approved) results. In the end, my practical side won out. Since I am at school for the majority of my waking hours and much of my weekends are spent doing teaching-related work, I decided to take on a project that I felt would pay dividends on a regular basis for me and my students. I chose to learn how to de-clutter my classroom and to implement an organizational system that I could stick with in the long term.
I knew this would be a massive undertaking. And, honestly, I was a little frightened. I start each school year with the intention of being more organized and tidy… and that falls apart usually within the first couple of weeks of school. By the time May arrives, my desk looks like an explosion occurred. This year, the craziness kicked in even earlier and chaos had already spread into my car and home. So, despite my trepidation, I decided that this was the learning goal that would have the biggest payoff … if I managed to be successful. However, at this point, my intrinsic motivation was pretty high because I don’t like to feel like a failure, and my extrinsic motivation was pretty keen, too, since I knew I would actually be graded on my progress! Those two factors would ensure that I would at least exert a great deal of energy to the task at hand.
Once I decided that I was going to be de-cluttered and more organized, I dove in head first. I started this task as I frequently do other projects: I do what I can on my own and seek out input and guidance from others once I see my own process slowing down. In this case, I cleaned the top of my desk and all other surfaces that had stacks or folders of papers. I organized my binders – using editable labels and covers that I had purchased from The One Stop Teacher Shop at TeachersPayTeachers. Her teacher planner bundle is absolutely incredible! I had started this process at the beginning of the school year, but now found the motivation to complete that chore. This made my shelves look far tidier and organized.
Within the first couple of days into this process, though, I was searching online for resources, especially hoping to find how others had used the KonMari method in their classrooms. I also started asking my coworkers and my friends online for their
organizational strategies – the ones that really help their work and lives to flow more smoothly. As they made suggestions, I implemented those that I could see working well in
my space. One of the suggestions that truly changed my space was the inclusion of an organized and enclosed filing box for transporting work to and from school – no more papers spilling everywhere! Moreover, the box keeps papers out of site until they are ready to return.
Another was to have a clearly marked On-Time box where I immediately place work turned in that day, and a separate one marked Late. During my lunch or prep each day, I take the work from the On-Time box and, by class period, organize the papers in numerical order. As silly as this sounds, it takes a while to put in order 43 papers – the size of my biggest class. However, it takes very little time to first sort the papers by tens, to then put them in numerical order within each smaller set, and to then put those stacks in the correct order. That strategy alone is helping me to shave minutes off of my processing of papers. I timed myself, as I wanted to see what the real difference is. Doing it my old way, it took me 2 minutes 54 seconds. When I split them first into the stacks of 1-10, 11-20, etc., it took me 2 minutes 6 seconds. That saves 48 seconds per stack of papers. Multiplied by 5 periods and an assignment per period per day – this alone can save me 20 minutes per week. Over the course of the school year, that is a savings of 10 hours! I was kind of amazed by how such a small change can really impact my efficiency!
Throughout this learning process, I also continued to seek out the insights of others in a variety of ways – I made pleas for help on my social media, I purchased a digital book by Tammy Dugan at The Uncluttered Teacher, watched videos on YouTube by Martha Henry about KonMari in the classroom, and talked with a number of my teacher friends about what works best for them. I loved that my interactions were extremely fluid and based on my needs at the time. Also, while I prefer the dialogue I am able to have in face-to-face interactions, I found I truly valued that online resources are available 24/7, allowing me to continue my learning at times that might have been inconvenient for others.
In addition, I found that I often came back to areas that I thought were done. For example, I got all of my filing cabinets organized in the sense that all my papers were in labeled folders… only to then realize from what I read in The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and The Uncluttered Teacher that much of what was hidden in those drawers just needed to be tossed. According to the KonMari method, you should only keep the items that “spark joy” in you, and that once you determine what all you will keep, you must find it a home. As a result, I came back to those cabinets and the binders and tossed most of their contents. What I chose to keep, I then scanned it in our photocopier and emailed to myself as a PDF, which then was added to a labeled folder in Google Drive. As a result, I was able to pass on an empty cabinet to a teacher who actually wanted one.
At the end of this process, I feel very accomplished. When my students started to comment on how neat and organized my classroom and desk were, I felt so much pride, and that sense of accomplishment pushes me to maintain the sense of order that I have created.
Still, there are aspects of this journey that did not go according to plan. There were nights I would wake up with a to-do list already racing through my mind. In the final week of the challenge, I found myself driving to work at 2:30 in the morning to sort papers, and my day wore on until 7:30 that night. My view of the school arriving and leaving were essentially the same. Stress added to stress. My back and neck started to spasm. I kind of fell apart that week… but gosh, my room looked neat and tidy!
But this, too, was a learning experience – possibly one of the most significant epiphanies I have had in years! I realized that my desire for order and tidiness in my classroom was an outward reflection of the need for those same qualities in my life. I discovered that much of my identity is based on being a work horse and taking on a lot… too much, in fact. Ultimately, that was sucking the joy out of my life. When I was home, I was thinking about school. When I was at school working late, I was thinking about what I was missing out on at home with my family. I felt guilt and stress and a complete inability to do my best at anything. At the same time, this project gave me a sense of control and accomplishment, even while I was slowly being buried under those feelings of inadequacy and guilt. And so, while recuperating from my back and neck issues, I realized that I needed to apply the question “Does it spark joy?” to how I am living. I need to cut out the emotional clutter and the extra activities that hold no true value or benefit to those around me. I now recognize that I need to keep the elements of my life that spark joy and cultivate those into a genuinely nurturing sense of home. Although that was definitely not the direction I thought this fun little project was going to take, I see that it has helped me to grow in ways that were necessary and of tremendous value.
Moreover, I found that this process truly drove my learning in beautiful ways – ways that reflected the fundamental principles of participatory learning that I am now determined to bring back to my classroom. This project, I now see, was a model of what participatory learning can be.
For example, there was a sense of agency and self-motivation. I selected my subject based on my own area of interest, which increased my intrinsic motivation. However, on hindsight, the subject itself wasn’t really what mattered – it was how I proceeded through the designed learning experience that taught me the lessons and, through those experiences, I practiced the learning objectives of the class.
Also, although there were weekly check-ins in the form of my blog entries that helped to guide that week’s learning, the learning itself was very much self-driven. I was able to work on the task at my own pace and on my own schedule, more or less. I had face-to-face interactions while I was learning, but I was also able to use online resources at any time of the day or night.
Moreover, my professor didn’t need to be the expert – “the sage on the stage” – for all of the subjects the students in her class chose to pursue. Instead, as the “guide on the side,” she pointed us to possible resources, but even those were fairly general: online videos, blogs, articles, journals, and Google. In other words, a teacher doesn’t need to know everything about every subject – they just need to be good at directing students to helpful resources!
I was also able to enter and leave various blogs and learning environments based on my own needs; this fluidity allowed me to have the freedom to move on to something new once a resource had served its purpose. At times, too, I was a student who was learning new material, and at other points I was able to share my learning and knowledge with others, taking on the role of an “expert.” This drove me to both embrace learning and sharing that learning with others.
In the end, I felt like there was a healthy blend of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Would I have taken the time to do this had there been no “carrot and stick” dangling in front of me (Azzam, 2014) in the form of a grade? Honestly, probably not. The grade gave me the initial carrot I needed to get started. Yet, because my project had a great deal of personal interest, I was also intrinsically motivated to learn about the subject. As a result, I feel like the performance goal initially started my process, but the learning goals were ultimately what gave this journey meaning…
And it is a journey I want my own students to experience. So many of these same elements can be used in my own classes and, honestly, in many of the same ways. Can I address any number of the Common Core ELA and College-and-Career Readiness standards using a similar learning design? Explanatory writing? Argument? Research? Textual evidence? Analysis and evaluation of sources? Absolutely!
While this is catalyzing for me as a teacher, I also recognize that there are some gaps in my students’ digital literacy that need to be addressed. Some struggle to log in to an email account and others cannot navigate a word-processing program. Of even greater importance, some students struggle to understand appropriate online interaction and engagement. Indeed, there is the potential for tremendously negative, long-term consequences for students if they make serious missteps, and in such areas, targeted and direct instruction will be needed. Examples of this could be in the posting of racist, sexist, or otherwise controversial content that could impact college admissions and future career opportunities. While these areas need to be addressed explicitly, many skills – digital or otherwise – can be developed through collaboration. Taking a page from the John Seely Brown in The Global One-Room Schoolhouse (2012), there are student experts in every class period who are resources from which others can learn, but they also now have online resources that would not have been available in previous generations from which to learn. Further, this allows students to move in and out of the role of learner and expert; the same student who was learning one concept one day may be an expert in another subject the next.
Also, in the same way that I was intrinsically motivated to learn new skills as a result of my level of interest in my self-selected area of study, this concept should be transferable to my students. As they engage with their chosen fields of study and learn to recognize the associated norms through teacher guidance, students will be provided with further opportunities and incentives for growth and learning in organic ways.
A final take-away: as I have been reflecting on my de-cluttering challenge and processing my learning, I have felt a strong sense of pride as a learner. I did this! I made this! I accomplished this! I have real things to show for what I have done in this course, in addition to the internal shifts that have occurred in my mind. This is a feeling my students need to experience, and it is something I recognize is too frequently absent in the classroom. And so begins the next cycle of my learning: designing more opportunities for my students so that they, too, can experience deeper, genuine learning.
Thank you so much for following my quest for a more organized, de-cluttered classroom. As I now move into two new cycles of learning – one will follow how I approach prioritizing life choices to better reflect joy and a sense of home, and the other will detail how I incorporate elements of participatory learning in my classroom – I hope that you will join me on those journeys.
Please check out the various resources that I used in either this entry or in the embedded video. The online resources I used to create a more organized classroom are linked within my blog entry, but I am listing them again below. However, I certainly could not have made the connections regarding my own learning and my classroom practice without the knowledge and insights provided by materials from my class, Professor Michele McConnell, my classmates, my students, and – of course – my dear family. Thank you a million times to you all for your guidance, support, and nurturing.
ORGANIZATIONAL & DE-CLUTTERING RESOURCES
Kondō, M., & Hirano, C. (2014). The life-changing magic of tidying up: The Japanese art of decluttering and organizing.
Here is the link to Marie Kondo’s website that addresses her approach to tidying up: http://tidyingup.com/
Check out the gorgeous and versatile teacher planner options! It is updated for life, and many of the resources can be adapted to many classroom uses! https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Store/One-Stop-Teacher-Shop
Martha Henry’s YouTube video that discusses how she used the KonMari Method to tackle the papers in her classroom: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fBg4XlFbJq4&t=14s
Corie Clark is a blogger and organizational wizard: http://corieclark.com/clutter-stop-organizing-it-get-rid-of-it/
CITED PARTICIPATORY LEARNING RESOURCES
Azzam, A. M. (January 01, 2014). “Motivated to Learn: A Conversation with Daniel Pink.” Educational Leadership, 72, 1, 12.
Brown, J. S. (2012, September 18). “Cultivating the Entrepreneurial Learner in the 21st Century“ animation based on his presentation at Digital Media & Learning 2012. Retrieved November 22, 2016, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fiGabUBQEnM