Quick Tip Tuesday: The paper shuffle

August 31st, 2010

Homework assignments, handouts, field trip requests — even in this age of technology, teachers still deal with a lot of paperwork. In this week’s Quick Tip, Rick Wormeli shares how he deals with the “paper shuffle” in his classroom from his book Day One and Beyond. Leave your ideas in the comment section – how do you deal with all of paperwork that comes with teaching?

Have a clearly marked place in the room for students to turn in their work. There are a number of options for creating places where students can turn in papers:
• a set of tubs or trays, one for each period, desk cluster, row, or subject
• a set of magnetized or wall-mounted file folder trays, one for each period, desk cluster, row, or subject
• one main basket, tub, or tray into which everything goes
• folders, one for every assignment or one for every period, desk cluster, row, or subject

The way you prefer to grade will affect how you ask students to submit their work. You may want to grade all 150 projects so your mind is focused on the same things as you grade; or you may want to grade all the papers for each period you teach or all the work for one student, grading many different assignments. Grading by period seems to be the most efficient method. Breaking the larger task into five or six smaller groupings such as class periods gives a sense of accomplishment, and your mind is not dulled by huge quantities of repeated information. Don’t forget to consider asking students to alphabetize a set of assignments for you. It will make record keeping easier.

Students will occasionally (and chronically, depending on the person) submit papers on which they’ve forgotten to record their names. Please don’t throw these in the trash can as a way to teach students a lesson in responsibility. It won’t work, and you’ll be creating larger problems—resentment and an irretrievable assignment. Young adolescents are not capable of remembering to write their names on their assignments 100 percent of the time. Even my most conscientious students over the years have made this mistake. It’s not reasonable to provide a harsh response to students when they forget. We can be developmentally appropriate and hold them accountable in other ways. First, if we recognize the writing, write the student’s name on it and return it to him. Let him record his name and resubmit the assignment. It was a simple mistake; we can afford to be forgiving.

If we don’t recognize the writing, place the unnamed assignment in a tub or tray labeled “No Name, No Credit.” Invite students to inspect the contents of the tub or tray once a week or when others have their papers returned but they don’t. If students find their work, have them put their names on the assignment and resubmit it for credit. If you wish, take some points off, but not so much that it would significantly change the indicator of mastery you put on it.

A great way to maintain sanity with the paper shuffle in middle schools is to ask students to maintain a student assignment notebook or something similar. It’ll help them complete, find, and submit papers on time, preventing frantic paper chases down the road. Though there are plenty of inexpensive versions for mass purchase, students can make their own assignment notebooks. Just make sure there is a page for each day of the school year, and on each page there is space for writing down assignments for each subject, as well as places to record additional reminders, a place for parents to sign, and a place for teachers to initial that the information is correct. It is particularly helpful, too, if there is a section somewhere in the notebook for recording phone numbers and e-mail addresses of classmates
who can be contacted for homework assignments when students are sick, as well as a grade sheet on which students can record grades as papers are returned and thereby keep a running tab on how they’re doing.

Make sure to have a final tub, basket, tray, or folder to store extra copies of handouts. Inevitably, students will lose original copies of what we’ve given them, or they’ll be absent and not receive the handout. An “extras” tray provides a place where they can go to get back up to speed without bothering you or their classmates.

A caution about technology: Many teachers are exploring electronically submitted assignments and portfolios. I’m one of them. It’s the way to go in the years ahead, but we aren’t there yet in terms of security, technology, and equal access to technology. Experiment with your students, if possible, but be wise and back up every electronic submission with a hard copy, just in case. Until we can guarantee that diskettes and CDs won’t be broken or lost, servers won’t be down, and everyone has equal access and expertise with the technology, we can’t require across-the-board use. Another benefit of hard copies: successful editing. It’s been proven repeatedly in editors’ offices and English classrooms across the nation that our minds catch mistakes on hard copy more often than on a computer screen where we’re dealing with the oscillating pixels of the electronic image. Have students proofread by reading the hard-copy version of their work aloud.

Have a designated student of the week return papers or, if privacy is a concern, return papers yourself while students are working on something else. Be efficient with time. Just a reminder: There is a direct correlation between how long papers take to be graded and returned to students and the extent of complexity and depth students apply to the assignment. If students know they’re going to get feedback quickly, they’ll put more of themselves into it. If they don’t get feedback for a couple of weeks, their motivation fades.

When it comes to your own administrative paperwork, deal with everything within twenty-four hours. If you get a request to complete a teacher narrative form for an upcoming IEP meeting, sit down and do it right away. Need to complete a form requesting buses for your field trip in four months? Get the forms and complete them right now while you’re caught up in the trip’s planning. You can put off your own paperwork only if you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. This means completing administrative paperwork even when you don’t want to do it, tired or not. Believe this repentant paperwork procrastinator: it’s worth doing it now. Don’t wait until the pile of uncompleted paperwork has hit critical mass; do it as it comes across your desk or into your teacher box. You’ll have a life if you do.

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