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4 Classroom Organization Ideas That Really Work

By Alycia Zimmerman on September 4, 2013
  • Grades: PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5, 6–8

My classroom isn’t going to win a “coordinated classroom” award. In fact, at various points during the school year, my classroom looks like a bomb — called-28-productive-kids — went off in it. (Check out this old post where I air my dirty, uh, classroom secrets.) This isn’t to say that I don’t try to have a decent looking classroom. But in my very busy teaching world, function always beats form — i.e. creating a new lesson that promotes critical thinking trumps classy, chevron displays. (I know there are plenty of super-teachers who manage both, but I guess I’m missing that gene.)

You may be wondering why this self-admitted messy teacher is writing a post on classroom organization. Well, here’s the deal. I’ve tried — and failed at — lots of classroom organization ideas. So, the tips I’m sharing here are pretty much guaranteed — if it can work in my classroom, it can work anywhere. And I always need organization advice, so share your tried and true tips as well, please!

 

Organization Idea 1: Let It All Hang Out (Where Everyone Can Find It)

The Idea: I try to create a classroom where anyone can walk in (a colleague, a student from another class, a substitute teacher) and find whatever they need on their own. Why this goal? Sure, I try to be hospitable, but honestly I get tired pointing people towards the scissors or interrupting a lesson to hand out tape. It also helps that classroom volunteers, student teachers, and subs can quickly find the “stuff” they need in my classroom even if I’m not there.

All basic office supplies are available for teachers, volunteers, and students to use. I keep it out in the open and encourage everybody to help themselves — and then put things away neatly. In addition to the supplies pictured here, I keep paper clips, staples, correction fluid, duct tape, Velcro, and a variety of other supplies on these shelves. (Student-only supplies are kept in bins in another part of my classroom.)

I hot-glued two clothespins onto the wall near the entrance to my classroom so my substitute lesson plans and emergency documents are always on hand. (I keep a roster, a parent-contact list, a food allergies list, and a dismissal plan in my emergency Fire Drill folder.)

I keep an ample stock of cleaning supplies in crates and bins under the sink, and I expect everyone to use these supplies freely. Notice a dusty shelf? Go grab a duster. (Feather dusters are such a novelty for third graders.) Spill some pencil shavings? The dustpan is right under the sink. I just love it when classroom volunteers discover this corner and put some of the antiseptic wipes to work. The "Sink Steward" (a weekly class job position) makes sure that we have tissues, paper towels, and plenty of hand soap available.

 

Organization Idea 2: Put Those Kids to Work

The Idea: With over 50 eager (and sometimes fidgety) young hands in my classroom, I put all of that human capital to work keeping our space neat. Some of my students are natural organizers, and they get the complicated jobs (e.g. filing student work, organizing new additions to our library, cleaning up files on our classroom computers). Other students take after me, and organization is an uphill struggle. Of course, organization is an important part of executive functioning, and worth teaching explicitly to untidy youngsters. At least, that’s the excuse I use for having them all pitch in! All of my organization schemes are totally child-friendly so that the students can maintain things on their own.

Filing is bor-ing for us adults, but it is a coveted classroom job among my third graders. No, hanging files aren't sexy, but after trying binders, pocket folders, and even shoe boxes, I've decided this practical tool is used in offices everywhere for a good reason. This really is the easiest, most efficient system for storing my students' portfolio work. I use a child-sized filing cabinet and I teach all of my students how to file properly. They can help themselves to their files to review or reflect on old work. Documents waiting to be filed are stored in the trays above the filing cabinet, and student volunteers file everything away once a week.

I store frequently used student supplies in the middle of my classroom so it's easily accessible by the kids. All supplies are communal in my classroom, and I keep the bins well stocked to prevent hoarding. Having an abundance of pencils helps stave off "He stole my pencil!" tiffs. 

You can download all of my supply labels further down this page or on my class website.

My students sit at tables without storage, so they keep all of their notebooks, folders, and personal possessions in cubbies at the back of our classroom. I love that when I ask for clear tables, everything can be put away without anything lurking at their seats. Of course, cubbies can become messy catch-alls, so my "Cubby Captain" (another weekly job position) patrols the cubbies and schedules cleaning appointments with sloppy students.

Download my Cubby Captain Calling Cards, (with a preview below.)

 

Organization Idea 3: Put Stuff Where It Will Be Used

The Idea: This one is “no-duh” simple, yet it took me a while to figure it out. I try to keep most of the everyday materials in my classroom within an arm’s reach of where those materials will be used. There’s an aesthetic cost to this — materials aren’t necessarily tucked away tidily — but the inherent logic of putting stuff right where it’s needed means that this stuff also gets put away immediately after use.

I keep clipboards in crates on my main teaching rug. The students are constantly using these clipboards throughout the day, and they quickly grab a clipboard as a lesson is starting or as they leave the rug for group work. 

In the second photo, you'll see students using those very same clipboards right next to where they are stored. 

Behind the clipboads, I've hung a small shoe-organizer (from Ikea). I use it store charting materials (for the chart paper hanging directly above), including markers, tape, and a dictionary.

I also keep my "pick sticks" here for whenever I want to randomly call on students or assign random partners. (My pick sticks are simply popsicle sticks with the students' names on them.)

Comfy floor cushions are tucked into that back corner for students to quickly grab during independent reading time. (I got my cushions from the Scholastic Reading Club Bonus Points Catalog.)

I keep all of our math supplies in bins right next to my second teaching rug where I hold small-group math lessons and math centers. With neatly labeled supply bins, students help themselves to math manipulatives as they need them. My selection of manipulatives changes somewhat throughout the year, as my students' mathematical needs change. 

Download my Math Manipulative Labels.

It's not pretty, but it sure it handy to have all of my calendar math materials on hand in my math teaching area. The materials change throughout the year depending on which skills we are working on during our math routines. 

This is the greatest teaching easel ever, in my opinion. I store big books inside the easel, and all of my charting supplies in the cubby spaces below the easel. It takes mere minutes to pass out the students' dry erase slates during a lesson, too.

If you don't have an easel with storage space, I've seen teachers store supply bins under their easels. One of my colleagues hangs a large gardening totebag from her easel with all of her charting supplies. 

 

Organization Idea 4: Stash Storage Everywhere Possible

The Idea: Am I the only teacher who feels like she’s “outgrown” her classroom? With a classroom library of several thousand books (woo hoo!), materials for hands-on science and math lessons, laptops, iPads, oh, and a full roster of students, it really doesn’t feel like it can all fit! So, I try to eke out storage space from every bit of my classroom. (I’ve become quite creative with storage solutions for the tech stuff too.) For those ideas, check out my “Four Tips for Untangling (Power Cords and More!)”

I picked up these inexpensive storage ottomans at a big-box discount store. They are at the front of my classroom, right next to where my students line up to leave the classroom. So, my students store their lunch boxes in these ottomans in the morning, and then grab their lunch boxes as we head out to lunch.

Of course this is a favorite cozy reading nook for students. I also sit on these cubes when I'm using my document camera in front of the students. They are still holding up after three years of use — I'd say they were well worth the $20 I spent on each!

This is right next to the entrance to my classroom a heavily trafficked space. Even here, I can't help but eke out some storage. I use a mini filing cabinet as "console table" for my bathroom sign-out log. In the drawers I store hall passes, my plan book, and class records. 

While I don't make a big deal of having a "pretty" classroom, I decided to hang colorful picture frames on this wall. As the school year progresses, I swap in photos taken by the class photographer. ("Photographer" is yet another weekly class job, and a highly coveted one!) These picture frames were $1 each at Ikea — I love that store for classroom decorations!

I adore these hanging magazine pockets that I've nailed to the inside doors of the students' closets. I use these pockets for the students' homework and mail that needs to go home each day. As the students head to the closets to get their backpacks at the end of the day, they stop at their "mailbox" to pick up their homework. My "Closet Keeper" (yet another job!) puts the homework and notes in the students' pockets each day. Then the closet doors are closed, and the paperwork is out of site! 

The Scholastic Teacher Store sells similar file pockets at a bargain price.

 

Sharing the Organization... Lots of Labels!

I’ll trade you these organizational labels I’ve made for some foolproof classroom organization tips. (Just kidding, you can use these labels anyway. Although if you’re keeping a great idea to yourself, phooey!)

    

Download my Classroom Supply Labels.

Okay, okay, I know this looks “pretty” and I made a big fuss earlier about my functionally “unpretty” classroom. So, caveat: I have time to linger over labels during the summer, and to pretend to be one of those teachers (sigh). Come September? I’m just looking for quick solutions that work!

 

    

    

Download my Math Manipulative Labels

Download my Cubby Captain Calling Cards

 

Lots of Advice from the Experts

There are so many organizing gurus in my own school, whom I turn to when I need someone to help dig me out of my mess and lend a fresh pair of eyes. Of course, I also head here to Top Teaching when I need inspiration or guidance. I’m actually trying to stay away from Pinterest for this stuff — while the ideas are amazing, I quickly get overwhelmed with the sheer volume of creative classroom beauty living there, and it eats up hours at a time.

  • Fellow blogger Genia Connell has become my go-to source of practical advice and inspiration for pretty much everything. She only spends time on the stuff that is really worth it, which I totally appreciate. Her “Classroom Set Up: Three Hours and Done” movie is about as helpful as it gets.

  • Ronda Stewart gets down to brass tacks with her blog post “Middle School No Stress Classroom Setup,” also great for us elementary teachers. Thanks for reminding me to update my to-do lists, Ronda!

  • Meghan Everette wrote the magnum opus on organizing classroom “stuff," in my opinion, and she does it with a sense of humor that keeps it real. I’ve reread her blog post “Classroom Organization: Compulsively Creative Tips” several times now.

  • In her blog about “Designing Your Classroom Space,” Erin Klein shares tons of creative ideas for classroom set-up and organization that made me hit my forehead and say “Why didn’t I think of that?”

So, what are your classroom organization solutions? What has not worked for you, and how did you fix it? And does anyone please have a solution for the random letters and paperwork that collects on my counters? Share your ideas in the comments section below.

In my next blog post, I’ll show you how I’m reorganizing my classroom library this year. If you want updates on my posts, follow me on Facebook or Twitter!

Comments (10)

I love your labels! I have used them in my own classroom! I was wondering if you had any that were blank that I can add in words or clip art. I would use these again and I would be keeping the theme.
Thanks,
Katie D.

Hi Katie D., I'm glad my labels are coming in handy in your classroom! I just posted a blank label template as a MS Word document on my class website at: www.alyciazimmerman.com/labels--more-to-organize.html. You'll also need to download the font I used if you want your labels to look the same. I used the free font Connected. You can get it at www.dafont.com/connected.font. Good luck! ~ Alycia

THANK YOU for keeping it real! I love that your classroom is colorful, inviting, practical, and focused on student learning. It inspires me, a fellow educator also missing the "super teacher" gene.

Haha, thank you, Michelle! I try my best to "keep it real" and to keep myself sane. I mean, there are only so many hours in the day!

I really like these ideas. I struggle a lot with organization and practical set up in my room. Most ideas that I see online turn out to be super cutesy ideas that would be a cherry on top of an already organized class. I usually finish reading ideas more frazzled than before I started. These are great and I am so excited to get started on these!

Thanks so much, Claire! I totally know how you feel about feeling frazzled. Good luck with your classroom this year!

I REALLY need to get more organized and get rid of some stuff. Thank you for energizing me to do it with so many great and easy ideas!

It's funny how when you go online to search for something specific...it always leads to something you never expected! I found this site by accident and it is great! You have so many great ideas! I bet you get a ton of questions. I've only been teaching for 2 years (just started my third) in a contained behavioral classroom. I fell upon your team work (STEM) bridge building activiy. I'd like to try this in my room. Do you have any other ideas or know where I could find other team building activities like this one. I'd like to try to do one a month. Any information would be awesome!

Thanks!
Amy

Love this post...love all the resources you are sharing with teachers--especially the printables for the cubbies and supplies!
Thanks for another great post!

Hi Alycia,

I love how organized you are! Thanks so much for sharing all of your great tips!

Cheers,

Erin

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