Friday, September 4, 2009

Winning the Paper Chase

Our two greatest problems are gravity and paper work. We can lick gravity, but sometimes the paper work is overwhelming.

- Dr Wember von Braun,
quoted from Time Management for Unmanageable People

How did we win the paper chase?

Simple. We stored it automatically. That way, it never had a chance to pile up.

One of our biggest problems with paper was that, although we had a school room, we homeschooled all over the house. No amount of planning could prevent this. I learned that if you have the space, you are going to spread out and fill it. That's just the way it is. So instead of fighting this natural trend, I decided to embrace it. I began seeing every room as a room where school took place.

I put magazine racks beside every reading chair or couch. I put open containers by every desk. Whatever was being used -- read or written in -- went into the open container as the student stood up. When someone forgot to do this, we could toss the stuff into the container next time we walked by. It all went in together -- all of it. Not because that's how I thought we should organize. But because that was the only way to make it happen. It had to be automatic.

When the containers were so full of clutter and paper that they were overflowing, I would clean them out. I would take an hour on a weekend and put the papers either in the trash, in a portfolio binder, or back into the container. Occasionally, an object really belonged in a bedroom. Books that were finished went back on the shelves.

Magazine racks and crates sat by each bed to collect books, periodicals, and papers. My kids read and wrote all over the house, even when falling asleep. As they reached to turn out the light, they could drop whatever was in their hands into an open container waiting by the bedside table. This was automatic storage, right in the path of motion.

A large crate sat by the breakfast table. As we rose from the table, the daily paper was dropped into it. No more newspaper clutter. When the box was full, we emptied it. Automatic storage again, right in the path of motion.

Twice a year, I bought stacks of paper folders with pockets for 15 cents each at Staples. I used them to hold all the papers associated with a topic. This worked really well most of the time. A study of Hamlet, grammar rules, science experiments, the second World War, a presentation for writing class -- these could be collected into a paper folder as we studied and worked. The paper folder could be dropped into an open container. The next day, we could find it all again.

We started buying spiral-bound notebooks for each subject and using them, instead of loose notebook paper. This way, the work was stored as it was being done. The pages were in chronological order, and none of them were lost. This made the record keeping* easy to do. There were no more wild, desperate hunts for missing documents.

In every room of the house, I asked:
  • What is happening here?
  • Where is it happening?
  • Where can I put open containers on the path of motion?
  • Even better, is there a way to store the supplies as the work is being done?

These questions guided me in creating order that could be maintained throughout the year. My kids were happy because they could learn spontaneously and freely. I was happy because we were not drowning in paper. While it's true that our home would never have been the subject of a magazine article on neatness, this worked in real life for us.


*In Pennsylvania, homeschoolers create an annual portfolio of the student's work. If you don't use a binder to store school work, hanging folders in a box are a good second choice.


  1. Great ideas! I never thought about the path of motion concept. Also, even though I have scads of spiral notebooks, it never occurred to me to have the kids do all the work for a particular subject in them. I say this as I look across the room and see my son's history quiz just hanging out alone on loose leaf notebook paper! Thanks for all the ideas!

  2. Oh, it's so nice to know that I am not the only one.


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