Ideas for Organizing Lesson Materials and Files

What’s Here

One of my claims to fame as a teacher was that someone could come into my classroom and ask me for any worksheet, form, or lesson plan and I could hand it to them in less than 30 seconds.  My secret?  Easily-accessible containers. Things get lost in file cabinets, but drawers and magazine holders create fool-proof storage spaces that you can maintain with almost no effort. This page (which is excerpted from The Cornerstone book) will help you find and file ANY teaching material quickly and easily!

Reading and Language Arts: Organizing Theme-Based Materials

A teacher in my previous school (Joyce Paige) had such a fabulous idea for storing reading curriculum materials that I copied it myself!  I purchased enough 3-drawer organizers to have 1 for each story in our reading curriculum. (That’s 12 containers at about $6 each, so $72.  But considering you can reuse these same containers for years and years to come, it’s a worthwhile investment.  We get a small amount of money each year for miscellaneous purchases and I was able to get reimbursed for mine).  This has solved the never-ending filing problem for me because I don’t have to dig through filing cabinets to put things away properly—I just slide open a drawer.  Anything associated with the story goes into the drawer: spelling tests, worksheets, activities, student work samples (to show the kids the following year as models), games, transparencies, etc. When we got a new reading series, I typed up a pacing guide, then cut it apart and labeled each drawer with the new story and skills it covered. I stored the little readers for guided reading groups on top of the drawers. (Click any photo to enlarge.)

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Reading and Language Arts: Skill-Based Materials

I also keep a magazine file holder for each of the 8 reading strands addressed in our state standards (Author’s Purpose, Cause and Effect, Plot/Conflict, etc.).  Our instruction is very tightly aligned with the standards and there are a lot of activities I do with the kids that focus on one strand but aren’t associated with any particular story in our reading series, so I keep them separate.  There is a laminated two pocket folder for each strand: these hold the originals of all papers.  Behind the folders, I keep class sets (photocopies) of the originals that I plan to use in the upcoming weeks.  This way, everything is together and easy to access, without me having to root through a file cabinet.  (There is also a manila folder in each box to hold the mini-assessments our school district gives for each strand.)  Because ‘Vocabulary’ is such a broad strand, I also have a three-ring binder (pictured on the far right) that has dividers for each sub-area (homophones, multiple meaning words, context clues, root words, etc.).

Science and Social Studies Files

I took it a step further and created drawers for the content areas, too!  I wanted larger ones for science to hold all of the materials for our experiments and slightly smaller ones for social studies artifacts and props.  Each drawer has a laminated legal size folder for each chapter in the unit.   The key here is that the containers are drawers, not just bins, because if I had to unstack them and take the lids off to file something, I would be too lazy to do it.  This way, if I come across something I might like to use for a future science or social studies unit, I can just open the appropriate drawer and toss it in, then sort everything out when it’s time to teach the unit.

Organizing Math Materials


Math can be one of the toughest subjects to organize for because of all the manipulatives and hands-on materials. I never used drawers for my math papers because texts usually have around 30 chapters and I would need too many drawers!  Here’s how I used to organize my math materials when I had two extra early-childhood-style shelves that another teacher wasn’t using. I set up one space for each chapter in our math textbook. Students did not usually access these shelves; the class sets of manipulatives and materials for math games were kept in the containers on the far left. The bins in that organizer were removable, so kids could grab the one they needed to pass out materials to the class.

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Inside each compartment, I kept the materials I used to teach the skills in that chapter, center activities, and a folder for all the lessons, worksheets, and activities that I used. Right before I was ready to teach the chapter, I pulled out the folder and turned in all the papers inside to have copies made.

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The following year, I was in a different school and didn’t have the shelves anymore, so I switched to a more compact system.  These are very sturdy, colorful magazine file boxes I got for free from Highlights magazine.  There is one for each of the 13 major concepts we study (measurement, time, money, multiplication, etc.).  I keep the folders from the system pictured above.  Any class sets of papers are kept in the magazine box, but not inside the folder (which is only for originals).  This works perfectly for me because I don’t have to deal with any file cabinets- if I want to put a paper away, I just have to stick it in a file box.

Math materials are kept in these large black drawers—each drawer is labeled with a concept (multiplication/division, measurement, etc.).  Any class sets of manipulatives, games, etc. that I keep for the unit are in that drawer, so I pass them out at the beginning of a lesson and return them to the drawer at the end.  This method is convenient enough for me to put the materials back even if I will need them again the very next day, because all I have to do is open the drawer.

Want more details?  The ideas presented here are an overview of The Cornerstone’s Chapter 5, “Finding and Filing Lesson Resources: How to Locate Any Teaching Material Quickly and Easily”.  In the book, you’ll learn exactly how I’ve set up these areas, and how you can replicate the same concepts in your classroom using whatever materials you have.

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Angela was a classroom teacher for 11 years and currently works as an instructional coach and educational consultant based in New York City. She's created a webinar series on pro-active behavior management and has written 3 books for educators. Check out the blog and free teacher resource pages for photos, tips & tricks, activities, printables, and more.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Caryn Schwengel July 11, 2012 at 12:31 am

I just bought The Cornerstone and the password on the afterword page doesn’t work for your printables page. Has it changed?

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2 Angela Watson July 12, 2012 at 5:16 pm

Nope, it’s the same! There was a problem after I upgraded to a newer version of Wordpress, but that’s been resolved now. Feel free to email me if you need help. :-)

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3 mark August 14, 2012 at 5:04 pm

Where did you find 3-drawer stackables for $6

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4 Angela Watson August 14, 2012 at 8:23 pm

Probably Big Lots! If not there, then Walmart.

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5 Alba May 18, 2013 at 2:57 am

Thank you for the great organizing tips on this page! I have a filing cabinet that I have no time to organize! I like the idea of filing as you go by opening a drawer and sticking it in the corresponding drawer! Can you tell I’m a little excited and happy?! ¡Gracias!

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