How My Students Organize Their Language Arts Binder

How Students Organize Their Language Arts Binders

by Terry Heick

For many humanities teachers, how you have students organize their class binders–or if you have them keep one at all–says a lot about how you view that content area.

Like an architect’s drawing table or a painter’s palette, for a teacher of any humanities course–especially one involving substantive literature and thus necessitating strong literacy skills–the “journal” is a metaphor for how you see the craft of teaching. Even what you call it says a lot.


Academic Journal.

Writing Journal.

Writer’s Toolbox.


And do you have one for each “portion” of your class–academic notes, writing, graphic organizers, and so on? Do you let them take the binders with them? How do you respond if students can’t afford a binder, keep it poorly, or lose it?

For me, the language arts binder is essential. I call it a “journal” even though it’s really a journal + a lot of other stuff. In my English-Language Arts classes (most recently an 8th-grade class), It’s a 3-ring binder, with dividers, arranged in 4 sections as follows.

And its apparent organization belied the frantic, right-brain creative and intellectual chaos my class otherwise suffers from.

Reference Sheets

Reference sheets refers to all of those go-to sheets that students find themselves going to time and time again: Greek & Latin roots, prefixes and suffixes, graphic organizers like Frayer models, writing strategies for each stage of the writing process, definitions for literary terms and devices, etc.

The first year I used this, myself and another ELA teacher got together and laminated 5-6 of these for each student (125+ each), but that got out of hand quickly after students lost them, the laminating machine broke, etc. Fun.


This is where the student’s track their own performance, recorded self-assessment data, documented performance on formal and informal assessments, and so on. Also listed here is a basic reading inventory, reading level and reading level growth, biographical info, and so on. Data is made to be as visual as possible, and focuses on the process of learning as much as the content.

Doesn’t mean it always work, but that’s the goal.

Journal Responses

Daily bell ringers, journal responses, etc.

Academic Notes

Based on reading, or 3 minute “notes blitz,” collaboration, research, or other needs to document learning.

How Does It Work?

How does it work?

As with anything, it depends on the student. For students that keep their binders well-organized–and more critically, bring them to class–it works well, but this is usually a “straight A” or A/B female student who reads way above grade level, speaks out in class, studies without being required to, and generally can do no wrong in the classroom.

For other less organized students, it usually works well too, but it takes some time. At the beginning of the year, the approach seems to lack credibility with about 1/3 of the students who’d rather carry nothing at all, but by December, I usually catch most students using the reference sheets without being directed to, asking me for replacements because they lost it and actually need them, and in generally flipping back and forth throughout class based on the mini-lesson or project-based learning activity.

For the 5% that it doesn’t work well for, I’m not sure there is a design other than their own internal “system” that would work.

I have intended for years to “progress” this to something that doesn’t sound so dry–maybe something more conducive to creativity, innovation, and self-direction. I’m also curious how tablets, BYOD, apps, and other learning technologies factor in. Have they made the binder obsolete? Can Evernote, Google Drive, the Purdue O.W.L., and the cloud itself replace a well-stocked hold-it-in-your-hands journal?

Should students be given a choice–simply tasked with “finding what works for them,” or is it part of our jobs as teachers to model how to organize what and how they document their progress through your class? Never being quite sure, I continue to use the above model. As far as what it says about how I see Literature, the Writing Process, and other bits of content from the class I teach, I’m not sure.

The closest to a takeaway I can come up with is that, if the work is appropriately rigorous enough–and hopefully sufficiently personalized–students will need a lot of support to demonstrate understanding, see themselves as learners, and ultimately grow into their own potential.

Image attribution flickr user dfkid; The Metaphor Of The Classroom Journal