When I was in high school, none of my teachers required anything of us in terms of organization – except for one math teacher who required us to take notes in a graph paper spiral notebook that we purchased at the school book store. Homework for this math class was done on looseleaf graph paper and kept in a folder, I guess. He checked homework randomly — about twice a trimester — and you would not only have a permanent zero in the grade book, you also got kicked out of class. [It happened to me one time and I spent the entire period crying in the library… but I digress.]

When I started teaching, it became evident early on that if I did not incorporate some system of organization into my classes, my students would not be able to learn as much as they could. So, I thought about how I kept myself organized in college and immediately decided to implement mandatory 3-ring binders. Even though this was almost 30 years ago, I still require my students to keep 3-ring binders. How we organize the inside has evolved over time, and I tend to be a bit more hands-off with my AP Calculus students than I am with my Algebra I students. The binder can be shared with other courses, or it can be a binder just for math. There are three sections in my students’ binders, and we build their binders together in the first few weeks of school. For each section I have a pre-printed colored divider*. I also distribute clear protectors so that the dividers maintain their integrity over the course of the academic year.

The first divider I give them on about the third day of school is the Warm ups / Notes divider. I also distribute clear protectors. Then, a few days later, once they have a few assignments, they receive the assignments divider (with another clear protector). As soon as they take their first quiz, they receive the quizzes divider (again, clear protector). Before the end of the first unit, we have begun working on our yellow formula sheet so that also gets its own clear protector. Finally, right before the first unit test, students get the notebook grading sheet with a final clear protector.

I grade the notebooks while they are taking their unit test. I am really looking for completion (are the notes / assignments complete?), organization (are pages in chronological order (we date everything) in the sections?), etc. This grade gets classified in the 15% allocation in our district, so it does not count too much, but it it is something that could definitely help or hurt an overall average. Most of my students earn notebook grades in the 85-100 point range. Each year I have a handful of students, however, who do not have notebooks or can not stay organized even though we collectively turn to the correct section and all snap our rings open at the same time. With those students you just have to keep helping them and be consistent and persistent. I also have a few spare binders in my classroom to give students who lose theirs a quick, fresh start.

Oh and you definitely will need one of these:

I copy the dividers on color paper: Warm ups / Notes divider (pink); Assignments (green); Quizzes (blue); Formula Sheet (yellow); Grading sheet (white)

I have refined this system over the years and it works for us, but other teachers will need to adopt it and tweak it and make it their own for it to truly work for them!

* For a free download with the dividers / grading sheet/ and explanation, click here.

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