The clean desk diagram

When I taught third grade, I found I’d often ask the kids to clean up their desks only to have them look at me quizzically and reply, “I did!” I would peer into their desks and see bits of crayon wrapper, balled up pieces of paper, and mountains of broken pencils piled on top of crooked stacks of books and exclaim, “Does this look clean to you?” The kids would stare at me blankly, move some things around, and then show me a desk three seconds later that looked only marginally better.

That’s when I realized that MY expectations for a clean desk were completely different than the KIDS’ expectations. And it was time I figured out a way to get us on the same page.

Since my class was already learning about text features, I decided to incorporate some literacy skills by making a diagram. I drew this clean desk diagram and hung it up at the front of the room:

I then introduced my expectations in a mini lesson which taught students how to use the diagram to clean their desks and check to see if their desks were clean. I encouraged them to figure out the reason why each aspect of the diagram was included and how it would help them to find and care for their materials more easily.

After the introductory mini lesson, I’d conduct periodic desk checks. These weren’t done in a crazy drill sergeant way–they were actually fun for the kids because I’d made cleaning up into a game, and the kids were anxious to see if their desks would match up to the diagram and pass inspection. We had a lot of fun with it!  The first desk check I did was usually later the same day that I taught the mini lesson so students’ desks were still fairly neat and it wouldn’t take long. I modeled how to do a desk check by reading each element and checking a student’s desk to see if it matched, narrating my thoughts as I went: “Let’s see…#1…two pencils and an eraser…nope, I only see one pencil, so let me get another out of the supply box. Okay, now #1 matches.  #2…all supplies in the pencil box which should be on top of the books or between the stacks, yep, got that…#3…” and so on. Then I gave students about one minute to read each element on the diagram and check their desks in the same way.

The clean desk diagram worked wonders in terms of making sure kids understood exactly what was expected. But of course, the kids didn’t automatically keep their desks clean just because I’d shown them how! They needed reminders and practice opportunities all throughout the year. I usually conducted desk checks once a day at the beginning of the school year and once a week for the rest of the year. The good news is that the “desk checks” became quicker and more efficient as students become familiar with the clean desk criteria and begin to internalize it.  As students learned how to care for and organize their belongings, they realized their supplies lasted longer and were easier to find. My hope is that students will continue to see the value in organization and carry those skills all throughout their lives.

Since posting the photo (above) of my hand-drawn clean desk diagram on my website in 2005, I’ve gotten numerous requests to create a printable version. I’m excited to share that the fabulous Ashley Hughes of The School Supply Addict has offered to make student desk graphics for me so I could create ready-to-use diagram signs! Here’s one of my finished products:

The clean desk diagram: 8 printable versions of the sign plus a 2 page mini-lesson for teaching students how to keep their desks neat. $2.

I used the desk images created by Ashley to create 8 different diagrams. They’re the same basic image, but incorporate different terminology and expectations (some don’t have the backpack in them, some don’t mention the name tag, others use “desk edge” instead of “desk lip”).

You can download all 8 printable versions of the clean desk diagram as well as a two page mini lesson that gives you ideas for what to say when introducing the diagram to your students. Everything is available at my TeachersPayTeachers store. Click here to get it, and download the freebies in my store while you’re there.

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Angela is a National Board Certified Teacher with 11 years of classroom experience and 7 years experience as an instructional coach. As founder of Due Season Press and Educational Services, she has created printable curriculum resources, 4 books, 3 online courses, the Truth for Teachers podcast, and The 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club. Subscribe via email to get her best content sent to your inbox!

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Gretchen September 17, 2012 at 7:33 pm

I LOVE this! You are so right… how many times do I have to remind students? Never once did I think my message was not clear. I am not sure I ever gave expectations for a desk set up because I spent so much time on ensuring students just had materials. Thank you for the visual! My students will thank you for your fair warning too! :) I hope you are doing well!


2 Angela Watson September 17, 2012 at 10:33 pm

Hi, Gretchen! Agreed–I felt like I was just trying to make sure they had what they needed and figured they could figure out how to keep track of it all themselves. That’s not always true, especially for little ones! They really benefit from a highly-structured system like this. I was actually highly disorganized as a child and would have done much better if someone has taught me a simple way to keep track of my belongings.


3 Marlene September 17, 2012 at 7:52 pm

I loved your diagram when you first showed it on your website I had printed out your pic back then and drew my own using your photo. Amazingly it came out pretty good and have used it for the past few years. Funny how we think kids know certain things because we expect them to. I like to give out a little reward when the desk “fairy” appears.


4 Angela Watson September 17, 2012 at 10:35 pm

Hi, Marlene! That’s great that your kids have benefitted from your poster. I found that my students really loved it. Cleaning up actually became something they looked forward to doing and most of them did a pretty good job maintaining their neatness afterward.


5 Tahquetta Hunter September 17, 2012 at 9:00 pm

Do you have a diagram for teachers?


6 Angela Watson September 17, 2012 at 10:36 pm

Hah, Tahquetta, that’s hilarious! I realize you are probably not joking… 😉 The teacher’s desk is tough stuff. The “Avoiding the Paper Trap” page is probably the closest thing I have…step by step instructions for organizing teaching materials:


7 Shibahn Landry September 17, 2012 at 9:23 pm

Too cute! I love it! I just might have to get this for my darlings.


8 Angela Watson September 17, 2012 at 10:37 pm

Thank you, Shibahn!


9 Kay Mason September 17, 2012 at 11:04 pm

This is perfect. I just introduced my second graders to the term “diagram” today. This will be much easier to understand then the parts of a flower.


10 Angela Watson September 19, 2012 at 10:53 am

Oh, awesome, Kay! I agree–diagrams can be tough for young students to relate to and understand when the subject matter is unfamiliar to them. Using something they see and interact with every day (a desk!) is a great way to introduce the term diagram. They will always remember it!


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