Contain the Classroom Clutter
Updated: Oct 20, 2019
The end of another school year brings such excitement and anticipation. The daily schedule and routine comes to an end of sorts, as school is replaced with camps and summer fun. Along with all of that excitement comes the overstuffed bags of classroom work, lovingly collected throughout the year by your child's teacher, who is more than ready to hand it all off to parents so classrooms can get cleaned for the summer. Bags of spelling tests, writing prompts, name tags from desks and over-sized, often still sticky with paint art projects that your child just won't let go of. How do we contain this mess that is the lovely part of life? And why bother?
My mother was not one to save anything. Once the time had passed or it had served its purpose, it was ultimately just trash to her. Years of schooling, dance lessons, birthdays - the only things saved were what I managed to scuttle away over the years on my own. And I miss having those things to look back on. No old report cards to laugh about. No old elementary school name tags with my 7-year-old handwriting to see. No artifacts from my early school years, though my mother would reasonably note that "just because we don't have those things doesn't mean you didn't live it". Fair point. But for many of us, having reminders of that huge part of our existence is important. I am certain that my efforts to archive and save are a bit of backlash to having nothing of my own. I save my kids' things on their behalf, hoping they will appreciate it later. And I promised myself that in doing it, I would stay reasonable, not collecting so much that our future is overrun with the past. It can be done. Here are some ways I work to hold on to childhood school memories while staying organized and clutter-free in the process:
1. Start on the first day of school. Get ready for a new school year by anticipating the beginning of more paper coming into your home than exiting, especially with children who are in the younger elementary grades. Every day, they are likely to bring something home and you need to be ready for it. If it sounds like going to battle, it is. Each of my children has a magazine holder with their name on it that stays near the front door. When they come home from school, backpacks are emptied and paperwork is reviewed. Anything with important year-long announcements is kept in their holder, like class rules or procedures for homework. Assignments that are in progress are in that holder. A completed spelling test or graded assignment is kept in that holder. I also keep any enrichment books in their as well to quickly grab when we need to review something extra. There is not a lot of room in that holder - it fills up within just a few weeks. Other short-term announcements, book order forms, and notes from the school day are read, put in the calendar if needed, and tossed. Don't keep that stuff around because it multiplies. And once that holder fills up, proceed to step #2.
2. Do a monthly paper review. It takes 5 minutes. Let me say that again. It takes 5 minutes. I go through that magazine holder, pulling out everything and sorting into piles. I like to keep a few things from the beginning of the year so that I can see progress by the end, so the first writing sample, the assessment spelling test, the welcome to school drawing - I keep those. And then I start tossing anything that is good work but otherwise insignificant. I will keep the story my son wrote about his dad, but toss others that I'm less moved by. I never fret about these decisions because I know that more work is coming. Tossing one story is not going to destroy my memories of my son's time in 4th grade. Items that I'm saving get moved from my daily holder to a larger document box that resides in their closet. I get mine from the Container Store when they have a great sale but any box will do, as long as its larger than 8 x 10 and at least 2 inches thick. I promise, I have no affiliation with TCS, but I do find their storage boxes to be of high quality and lovely to look at. Anyway, I digress. In that box, I also store their school picture, a copy of their class picture, other artifacts from that year like a dance recital program, or a science fair award. At our school, each grade gets a color-coded t-shirt to be worn on field days and field trips. At the end of the year, I store that in the box, too. If the box gets full before summer, dig in and start purging. School memories must fit in that box. Commit to that amount of space.
3. Enjoy the art! We ooh and ahh at the art, post it on the fridge or the cabinets, hang it in their room, and simply enjoy it as long as we can. It inevitably start to disintegrate and fade or fall apart, at which time I remove it. If I find it particularly inspiring, I can likely put it in their yearly box. If it was painted and the paint has started to flake off, I take a photo of it, toss the original, then place the printed photo in the yearly box. I always do this with 3-D art objects, though I know many parents who keep a shelf with pottery or plates or whatever. That is not for us, but do what works for you. Art with macaroni never stays...that will be so gross in 10 years. I usually keep everything during the first few months of school, then as the box gets full I start making harder decisions about what needs to go, but again, there is always more, so I usually don't get too concerned about throwing out the art. Kindergarten through third grade is rich with art projects to color our homes and lives!
4. Write down memories in lieu of keeping the artifact. The whole point of keeping things is to have reminders of what their life was like during second grade, of what they were like as a second grader. I keep a list of my memories during that time that I jot down along the way. My daughter came home simply devastated because she didn't have time to finish an art project. I didn't save the unfinished art project, but I jotted down the story and tossed my notes in her box. We might forget that tearful afternoon but we won't forget how she was always so dedicated to finishing what she started once we re-read my note 10 years later.
5. Get your students involved in helping contain the paper clutter. Explain that by addressing it each day, things that are important are treated as such and will never get lost along the way. Give them the one rule that must not be violated - everything must fit in the box - and then don't battle about throwing things away. Let them decide in the moment and if they want to keep it, so be it. But once the box is overflowing and there is just no more room, I find that my kids will self-select what can be eliminated, once they are removed from the emotional attachment to that specific item from Halloween many months ago. My son likes to keep everything. The box will be overflowing by November and he is still insistent. As a fourth grader, now accustomed to this tradition, I remind him of the 1 box rule, and I give him a deadline. "Please have things in this box sorted by the end of the week. If you can't find time to do it, I will do it myself come Saturday." Sometimes he does it. Other times, I have quickly pared down the stack and tucked the box back on the shelf. No harm, no foul. He has never once complained about something missing. My daughter is the exact opposite of my son. Often, I am wanting to hold on to something and she is happy to throw everything out. She doesn't even want a box! I am usually the one saying I'd like to keep this picture as she crumples it for the trash. But I try my hardest to find a good balance so that I am not always making the decisions or insisting on certain things. I often check myself if I find that I'm arguing with them or getting upset because that is really a sign that their memories are becoming about me, not them.
I always wanted to be the kind of parent who saved things. I was so jealous of friends who had not just photos, but "stuff" they could look at years later and enjoy. And I wanted to be able to save things without being the neighborhood hoarder. It can be done. Be purposeful about what you keep and why you are keeping it. Find a standard place to store it, each and every time, and don't let it get away from you by waiting until it becomes too much to handle. As another school year comes to an end, enjoy the efforts you made to remember - with photos and art and words - another blessed year together.