An Answer to the Overloaded File Cabinet: The Unit Box

We all get great ideas from many sources: the English Journal, teacher conferences, and our co-workers. Frequently, however, we don’t need those ideas right at that moment. What can you do with the perfect idea that you don’t need right now? Also, after having taught a few hundred years or days, each of us has acquired scraps of notes, copies of handouts, and of course, unit and lesson plans. Trying to keep up with all of this can overwhelm even the most organized person with time on his or her hands.

Dianne Robinson offered a suggestion which was printed in the November, 1983 issue of Notes Plus which is a start. For several years now I have done just what she suggested: that is to put all my information into notebooks. While this works quite well and I highly recommend it, I have a suggestion to make which goes one more step.

The solution is what I call a unit box. It consists of nothing more than a heavy cardboard box (I find that the boxes which hold 10 reams of paper are ideal and readily available around a school). Into this box I deposit everything that I will need for a single unit.

In my classes I have seven units which are broken into literary units consisting of the short story, novel, modern drama, Shakespeare, poetry, and skills units consisting of writing instruction and the research paper. In past years I have used notebooks for papers and then stored all the other materiel in drawers, closets, and wherever I could find a cubbyhole. Frequently, I would forget about a wonderful tape or photocopied story because it was out of sight/out of mind.

This year I gathered up everything and dumped this material into a box labeled according to the unit. Into my short story box I placed the following:

  • photocopied short stories not found in our text
  • photocopied handouts which had been used as class copies
  • books on teaching the short story
  • pamphlets
  • cassettes of taped short stories
  • video cassettes of short stories
  • interest items such as a purple rabbit’s foot for “The Monkey’s Paw”
  • transparencies explaining elements of a short story
  • •bulletin board materials (all the letters, pictures, etc. necessary plus a photograph of the completed display)
  • an idea notebook which contains everything that I’m not currently using even if I don’t think I ever will (life always has surprises for us)
  • a course notebook which contains specific content material for each class (I photocopy all my short stories), notes for each story, as well as both daily and major tests
  • a major notebook which contains everything needed to teach the unit including unit plans, daily plans, notes on films, handout masters, master of photocopied stories, notes on all input, and a list of all available A.V. in the library or service center

One question you may have is over the notebooks. At present I have three notebooks in my file which will soon expend to four. I’ll admit that soon gets to be quite an expense. No, I don’t spend all my raise on them. Instead I scrounge. I watch when a kid throws away one. Very often a little tape on the binding will make it usable. At the end of the year, students frequently leave theirs in their locker for the janitors to dispose of. I also have found that large corporations distribute information in wonderfully expensive ones. When the period of exposure is over, the company representative no longer has a need for the folder. And if I can’t get them any other way, I buy them at the beginning of the school year when the price is lower.

The nicest part about the unit box is that as the year progresses, if I come across something (perhaps I videotape a good production of one the stories from our text or even get an idea from a generous source), I just drop it into the box. I make no attempt to file it at that time. When I get ready to teach the unit, I go through everything in the box and sort and file. I then can make up my unit knowing that I hove considered all my possible sources. Another advantage is that the box is easy to store and to carry home when I need to work on it. It seems to take up much less space than those boxes I previously had to store wherever I could find space.

One lost thought. If you are like me, you read the various journals and wish that you could utilize the marvelous suggestions. With this plan, it is now possible. As I come across one too good to pass up, I make a photocopy for my box. I make sure that the source is noted and then really “wow” my curriculum supervisor by citing it in my unit plans as an aspect of my teaching plans.

The hardest port of this plan is just doing it. But don’t try to convert everything at once. Instead, just do one unit at a time. As you teach each unit this year, begin to gather up and drop everything into a box. By the end of the year, most of your work will have been done. Then you won’t have to promise yourself that this is the year you’ll get organized.

originally published in Notes Plus, a publication of the National Council of Teachers of English    Urbana, Illinois 1987

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