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Portfolios Demystified

Put Paper in Its Place, Part 5 (of 5)

Welcome to the final segment of the “Put Paper in Its Place” series! If you’re a homeschooler and if you’ve been reading the entire series, this last section should just help you synthesize everything. As you may already suspect, I am not an advocate of keeping every single worksheet, piece of art, or diorama produced by the little darlings. Shocking, I know. Surprisingly, neither am I an advocate for trashing everything. You’ll be pleased to know that a middle ground exists. It’s called a portfolio.

The word portfolio usually strikes fear in the heart of homeschoolers. I have to keep a what? Why would I want to keep all that stuff? But all of the shadow boxes, insect project boards, wooden villages, and authentic medieval costumes won’t fit into a binder! Yes, I have heard all these comments and more whenever the topic of portfolios comes up. Yet, I always reply that a portfolio is not only a necessary thing, but also a good thing. Let me show you how and why.

What is a portfolio, anyway? I decided to look up the word in my official Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition to see what its normal usage is. After all, it’s a unique homeschooling word, right? At least, I thought the way that homeschoolers used the word was specific to us. I almost fell off my chair when I read this definition: “a selection of a student’s work (as papers and tests) compiled over a period of time and used for assessing performance or progress.” So much for being revolutionary. Regardless, a portfolio is a collection of your child’s scholarly achievements.

(image courtesy of http://www.eHow.com)

How do you gather all this stuff? Do you just grab the last three pages out of your kids’ hands on June 15 and call it good? Do you wait until your high school senior tells you that his prospective college wants to see his portfolio when he visits tomorrow? No, no, no! On the other hand, you really don’t need to have the exact same number of papers for every subject perfectly typed on the computer and color coded in a set of twelve filing boxes.

A meritorious portfolio does not include every single assignment from every single subject. It includes a representation of work completed: the best writing samples, the best test scores, the best artwork, the best notebooking pages, and the best worksheet pages. It also includes pictures of 3-D projects, field trips, and other activities that can’t be condensed into a single written document. Set aside some work from every academic year. Do it as you go through the year so that it will not be an overwhelming task at whatever point you close out records for each year. I take my children’s desk binders about once a month, choose papers to go into the portfolio, and trash the rest, unless they’re needed for a later test.

The further your child gets academically, the more you may wish to weed out some of the earlier work. You may end up with only one kindergarten handwriting page and one first grade math test by the time your child graduates. That’s fine. Don’t take all of it out, though. I’ve attended homeschool graduations where a portfolio containing selections from twelve years’ worth of work was displayed. It was really neat to see the child’s scholastic progression through the years. Your child may enjoy looking back over her progress as well.

Okay, you’re collecting all of these papers and photos (of larger projects), so where do you put all of them? The best place for a portfolio is in a binder. Yes, even for you file foxes. The main reason for this is that a portfolio should be portable. (Extra bonus points if you notice that both of these words have port as the root, from the Latin word porto, which means I carry.) It’s much easier to carry a binder into a college admission counselor’s office than it is to carry a filing cabinet. You’ll definitely want a 3-inch size for this project. Feel free to let your child choose her favorite color, or buy the kind with the clear pocket on the front and have your student design her own cover.

Put subject dividers into the binder. File the papers from earliest (kindergarten or whatever grade you started homeschooling or saving papers) to the latest within each subject. Just save one out of every ten, twenty, or even thirty pages. Save more tests than regular worksheets. Save the best essays, and choose just one of those essays to show all of the child’s work—outline, rough drafts, corrections, and final draft.

I can hear you now: Why am I making a portfolio? It sounds like way too much work, and it’s not even required by my state! Do I still need to make one even if my child is not headed to college? Obviously, some states make portfolios mandatory, but aside from that, reasons abound for making one. If you choose not to give actual grades or not to fill out a report card (or its equivalent), then a portfolio becomes even more important. A portfolio gives physical evidence that little Johnny really is a genius—just as you always thought! Portfolios preserve hard work, provide evidence for skeptical grandparents or other family members and friends, help with planning for younger siblings, and record grades and/or levels earned and completed.

If you have piles and boxes of papers, start slowly. Set up the binder first so you have a place to put the papers you’re saving. Then go through one stack or box a day, perhaps while you’re watching TV at night, and eventually you will have a lovely portfolio of your child’s academic successes. I’m cringing as I write this, but I just have to reiterate that you must keep up with a project this large or it will get away from you. If you put a few papers into the portfolio every month or so, it will be no big deal, but if you procrastinate, you’ll find it more difficult to subdue the paper piles.

I hope you’ve found this series on paper to be helpful. The more I wrote, the more I realized could be written; however, this is it for now. I’ve provided you with the tips and encouragement that you need to conquer the paper monster once and for all.

** This article first appeared on the Lesson Pathways blog. **
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But I Might Need It Someday!

Put Paper in Its Place, part 4 (of5)

This is the post for which you have all been waiting. I’m going to give you a clutter-free way to save your entire favorite magazine articles, recipes printed from the Internet, and helpful seminar notes.

First things first: do not read any further until you have sorted through all of the papers already in your house (see the first article in this series, “Do I Really Need to Keep It?”). Next, set up your filing system. If you’ve been reading the whole series, you should have already chosen to set up either a filing cabinet/drawer/box system, or a binder system.

After you get your have-to-save papers under control, it’s time to sit down with a cup of tea and sort through your want-to-save papers. Go through every piece of paper and re-evaluate it. Are you really going to make that recipe, or is it wishful thinking that your picky eaters would actually eat the exotic vegetable recipes you’ve been hoarding? Are you going to re-read those notes and articles? Are they still relevant and helpful? If you can answer a truthful yes to these questions, then put those papers off to one side in stacks, i.e., recipes in one stack, home decorating articles in another pile, organization tips in yet another spot, etc.

Next, pull out all the back issues of the magazines you can’t seem to resist at the grocery checkout line or to which you subscribe. This is a good activity for when you’re watching TV or waiting for soccer practice to finish. Go through each magazine (quickly—it will take much longer if you re-read everything!). Try to remember why you saved the magazine in the first place. Did it have some great recipes you wanted to save? A new look you wanted to try for your living room? A great article on working from home? If you can’t remember why you saved the magazine, or if you can’t find any articles that you, in retrospect, really want to keep, then throw out the magazine (or put it in the recycling bin). Yes, I’m serious. Do I need to come over and pry it out of your fingers? It won’t hurt; I promise!

Go through all the articles you pulled out from the magazines and sort them into piles with your other want-to-save articles and papers. Now comes the fun part: organizing them in such a way that you’ll be able to reference them easily, which is the point of saving them.

Look at your (neat) piles. Do you have a lot of piles? Is each pile a mile high? Or, do you just have a few piles with a few papers each? For just a moment, set the recipes aside. We’re going to do something different with them soon.

Binder Queens: Decide whether one binder will be sufficient for your want-to-save papers. If not, figure out which categories can be combined and how many binders you will need. Make labeled dividers for each topic. File the papers from each pile. Either punch holes or put the pages into sheet protectors. That’s it!

File Foxes: Set up a new hanging file or files, depending on how many papers and subjects you have. If some themes can be combined, form a broader category for them. Then make labeled file folders for each topic. Put the papers from each pile in the proper file folder, put them in alphabetical order in your filing cabinet/drawer/box, and you’re done!

Let’s talk about the recipes now. Let’s face it, not all of the recipes will be as picture perfect on your table as they are in the magazine or online. Or, maybe you’ve tried certain recipes that didn’t go over too well with your family, yet you kept the recipe. Go through all of the recipes and trash the ones that you know you won’t be using again. Get another binder; a one-inch binder should be large enough, unless you have a ton of recipes. Yes, even if you’re a File Fox, this is an instance in which a binder is the best tool for the job. Get dividers and label them for each type of recipe you have: meats, vegetables, soup, desserts, salads, etc. Punch holes or put the recipes in clear page protectors.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I’m going to reiterate that in order for the system to work, you’ve got to keep up with it after you start it. I am the last person to tell you not to buy any more magazines or not to print off cool recipes from the Internet. But, while you read your magazines, turn down the pages of the articles or recipes that you think you absolutely have to save. When you’re done with the whole magazine, go back and review the turned-down pages. If you think you still have to save the articles/recipes/ideas, then rip them out and toss the rest of the magazine away. Either file the papers right away, which is obviously preferable, or put them into your to-be-filed bin to take care of later in the week.

There, you can have your cake and eat it, too!

** This article first appeared on the Lesson Pathways Blog. **
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How to Set Up a Binder System


Put Paper in Its Place, part 3 (of 5)

Welcome to part 3 of the “Put Paper in Its Place” series. Last week we talked about how to set up a filing cabinet/drawer system. Today I want to cover binder systems. Some people don’t have room for a filing cabinet, and some people want to utilize both binders and files.

I love binders. I love them so much that I have sixteen of them in my house. Seriously. Most of them have school stuff, and a few of them contain music or other things. Does that qualify me as a Binder Queen? Many Web sites espouse the use of a “life binder,” a “household binder,” or an equivalent. I’m putting a few links at the end of the article about binder organization. If you find more, please leave me a message. I’d love to check out other people’s systems and ideas! Instead of repeating what they have to say, I’m going to show you how to use binders instead of a filing cabinet or box for all of your papers.

I have found that the one-and-a-half inch to two-inch size binders work best. They hold a substantial number of papers, but not so many that you can’t find anything. They store easily as well. Remember to have a three-hole punch handy; don’t even think about just cramming the papers into a binder without putting them on the rings in the proper sections! For papers that are not the standard size or that can’t be hole-punched for whatever reason, invest in a box of plastic sheet protectors. Keep them with your three-hole punch near where you store most of your binders. Color-coded binders could be fun; use a sharpie to write the categories on the spines and fronts so you can see at a glance which binder is which. If you choose the white binders with the clear covers, you can slip a labeled piece of paper into the spine and make your own cover (or get your kids to design the covers for you).

Start by making a list of the broad categories of papers that you need to organize and store. Yes, I am most definitely the List Queen! Be sure to write down such topics as bills to be paid, paid bills to be saved (temporarily!), medical or health, important documents, personal papers, household appliances, etc. Feel free to use your own titles, and make sure your labels are relevant to you. You won’t use this system if the divisions don’t fit your needs.

Now that you have general list of categories, decide whether or not the number of papers in each category will require their own binder. Some subjects can be combined into one binder with several different tabs. For instance, you can have a tax binder in which you have tabs for deductible charitable giving (church and missions), deductible medical payments (receipts for co-pays and prescriptions not covered under your flex pay benefits), your paystubs, utility bills (if you run a business out of your home), and any other documentation that you need to save for tax purposes. You can make a household binder with sections for appliance manuals, warranties (be sure the receipts are stapled to them), and receipts for large repairs and upgrades (like new windows). Make one binder for important documents and personal papers that need to be saved. For those papers that shouldn’t be hole-punched, use sheet protectors. You can make a tab for each member of your family, or you can make a tab for each section such as birth certificates and social security cards. Set up a family binder. Make a tab for each person and file medical records, school papers, work reviews, or whatever is applicable. If you homeschool, you will no doubt have several binders just for school, but I will cover that aspect in a few weeks. Stay tuned!

Now that you’ve got your binders set up, it’s time to fill them. Set your binders out on the kitchen table. Pick up a random pile of paper (I know you’re hoarding them somewhere!). Go through the pile piece by piece and put each paper next to or on top of the appropriate binder. If you don’t REALLY NEED to keep it, TOSS IT! It won’t hurt; I promise! When you’re done with one pile, put those papers into the binders behind the right tab. Then, move onto the next stash. After you get your binders set up, find a place to store them. They can go on a bookshelf, on a shelf above your desk, on top of the refrigerator, or on a shelf in the closet.

I realize that it is not always feasible to file every single piece of paper the instant that you touch it (which would be preferable), so you need to set up a to-be-filed spot. This spot should be convenient and contained so that you’ll actually use it and so that the papers won’t accidentally be knocked to the floor or all over the desk. I suggest using either an upright hard plastic folder holder or a single letter tray. The easiest way to keep everything straight is to have three slots: to do, to be paid, and to be filed.

Since I have seen many desks, countertops, and floors overflowing with papers, I’m going to repeat the admonitions from my previous paper posts:

1. Sort the mail over your garbage can. Take what’s left and immediately put it in the appropriate in bin: to do, to be paid, or to file.

2. Go through those in bins weekly (go through the to-do bin daily).

3. As you put each paper into the appropriate binder behind the applicable tab, ask yourself if you really NEED to keep it. If not, toss it! Also, as you file each paper, ask yourself if you STILL NEED the other papers in that section. Toss the fliers for events that have already happened. Toss last year’s field trip permission form. Toss last year’s utility bills. Please!

4. The process of setting up your binders and going through all your papers will take some time. Be patient and be persistent.

5. Keep at it! Train yourself to pick up those stray papers DAILY and to put them where they belong. Before you know it, filing papers in your binders will become a habit.

Ta-da! You are now a Binder Princess! The more time you put into maintaining your binders and the more binders that you accumulate, the closer you become to attaining Binder Queen status. Next week, I’ll be talking about what to do with the stacks of magazines lying on your coffee table and all those neat recipes you printed from the Internet.

Here are a few links to certified Binder Queens:

Cindy Rushton shares tips on how you, too, can become a homeschool binder queen.

eHow has tips on school binder organization tips.

Great, free, printable forms to help you and your kids organize your binders can be found on the ESL Printables Web site.

** This article was originally posted on the Lesson Pathways blog site recently. **

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How to Set Up a Filing System

Put Paper in Its Place, part 2 (of 5)

Does your paper pile look like this?

Now that you’ve disposed of all the dross (see last week’s post, “Do I Really Need to Keep It?”) it’s time to set up a filing system that will work for YOU. If you don’t have room for a filing cabinet, or don’t want a filing cabinet for whatever reason, I’ll be writing about setting up a binder system next week. The key here is to figure out what will work for you, not what works for someone else. If you have a method of storing papers that works, you’ll have a much easier time actually using it. And, that is the point, right?

First things first. You do NOT need to go out and buy an expensive, wood-grain, four-drawer filing cabinet. Spend some time thinking about how much paper you REALLY need to keep. If you’re just an average family, probably one drawer is sufficient, or even a filing bag/box, or a large filing envelope (or two). If you’re filing homeschool papers or if you have a small business or work from your home, you may need a two- or three-drawer cabinet. Resist the temptation to acquire more storage space than you need. Empty spaces (files) have a tendency to get filled, so the more space you have, the more stuff with which you’ll fill it. Here’s this week’s true confession: the small, two-drawer filing cabinet that I use was garbage-picked by my dad for me. I spent no money on it!

Before you start labeling every folder in sight, take everything out of your filing cabinet. Gulp. Pile it neatly and temporarily on the floor or desk. If you have hanging files, start with those. Begin with larger categories. For instance, label one file “Bills to be Paid.” Label another file “Utilities.” Label one “Health Care” and one “Important Documents” or “Personal Papers,” and so on. Take a look at the papers you have and make hanging files to fit them. If you don’t have hanging files, make a file folder for each of these categories.

Now put the hanging files (or file folders) into your cabinet or container in alphabetical order. It’s okay if you don’t have something for every letter of the alphabet or if you have several things that start with the same letter. Just put everything in order. If you started with hanging files, now go through and make separate file folders for each smaller subject within each larger category. For instance, within the “Utilities” file, put a folder for each utility bill that you plan to keep (for only a few months, of course). In the “Health Care” file, make a folder for each person in your family and/or a folder for things that can be deducted from your taxes. Not all of your categories will have sub-categories. If you have school-aged children, make sure you have a file labeled “School” and then a folder for each child within that file. If you homeschool, put the papers you’re required to keep by the state into the appropriate folder. If your children attend a public or private school, this is where you file the plethora of papers they bring home.

You do not have to own a labeler to make this system work. You don’t have to have pretty, matching file folders to make this system work. For a long time, I put plain, white, address-type stickers over pre-labeled, used folders with my hand-written titles.

At this stage of the game, you should have a filing cabinet (drawer, box, envelope, whatever) full of hanging files and folders that are all neatly labeled and are in alphabetical order. Now go through your neat stack of papers one by one. Put every piece of paper in the appropriate folder. You may come across a paper that doesn’t have a folder. That’s fine; just make a folder for it right then. You may come across a piece of paper that you don’t really need to keep. Toss it! WARNING: this process may take several days if you have a limited amount of time to work on it. Don’t give up! Keep working at it, and before you know it, you will have a beautifully organized filing cabinet.

The next trick is to keep your filing cabinet organized for the long haul. Yes, it can be done! I realize that it is not always feasible to file every single piece of paper the instant that you touch it (which would be preferable), so you need to set up a “To Be Filed” spot. This spot should be convenient and contained so that you’ll actually use it and so that the papers won’t accidentally be knocked to the floor or all over the desk. I suggest using either an upright hard plastic folder holder or a single letter tray. You can add another slot called “To Do” if you wish. Train yourself to file papers from your “To Be Filed” folder weekly. It should not take more than ten or fifteen minutes if you keep up with it. Condition yourself to check your “To Do” file daily and take care of business as needed. This way, you won’t run out of time to order from your kids’ fundraisers or forget to make cookies for youth group.

One last piece of advice: carefully evaluate every piece of paper that comes into your home as it arrives. If you don’t need to keep it, throw it away right away. If it needs attention, but not immediately, put it in one of three folders: “To Do,” “To Be Filed,” or “Bills to be Paid.”

That’s it! It may take a while to get your files set up in a way that works for you (and to go through all the papers you already have to make sure you really need to keep them), but it is time worth spending. Be persistent, and eventually you will achieve your desired result: an organized filing cabinet/box. Discipline yourself to keep it that way. You can do it!

** This article first appeared on the Lesson Pathways Blog this past Friday. **

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Do I Really Need to Keep It?

Put Paper in Its Place, Part 1 (of 5)

Most articles I’ve read about putting paper in its place start with storing your most important documents (whatever they may be) in a safety deposit or fireproof box. I’m going to start at the opposite end of the spectrum. Let’s take a look at the plethora of papers that come into your house daily.

The first thing you need to do is to sort your mail standing over a trashcan. That way, all the junk mail and fliers for stuff in which you are not interested doesn’t even get set on a counter. Then, take the rest of the mail and put your bills in a to-be-paid file, tray, or slot on your desk. Put invitations, surveys, and anything else that requires a response in a to-do file or bin. Post other necessary information near your family calendar. (What? You don’t have a family calendar? Hhmmm, maybe I’ll make my next article about that.)

Take a similar approach with papers your kids bring home from outside classes (or school), sports, church, or party and event invitations. If you need to fill out papers, put them in your to-do file. Make a note on your family calendar of important dates. Read the other information, then toss the papers or file them (temporarily) in the appropriate folder or binder section. Important note: flip through your to-do file daily.

Before we can get to organizing files or binders, you need to take some time to clean out the dead wood that you’ve already got cluttering up your desk, floor, and filing cabinet. Get a large trash bag and make sure your shredder is plugged in. If you have any old invitations, fliers, newspapers, magazines, or letters, throw them away. If you cancelled checks, keep ONLY those you need for tax purposes (more on that shortly) and shred the rest. If you have any banking records from more than seven years ago, shred them. Seriously. Shred the deed to the clunker car you bought when you were sixteen. Please. Shred ALL of the utility bills that are more than a year old.

Now that you’ve cleaned out all the unnecessary papers, look at how much room you have to organize the papers you really do need to keep! In my research, I found that the general rule of thumb is to keep financial papers pertaining to taxes and investments for seven years. Period. It is suggested, though, that you keep a copy of your tax returns (but not all the other papers) permanently. Since I’m not an accountant, I will add this disclaimer and tell you to check with yours to make sure that you’re keeping the right papers for the right length of time.

So, what about bank statements, utility bills, and the fifty-zillion receipts littering the top of your desk right now? Bank statements should be saved for no longer than a year, so as you put this month’s statements in your file, throw out any statements that are from last October or earlier. It’s a good idea to save utility bills for several months for proof of residency or other issues, but it’s unnecessary to save them for longer than that unless you use them as tax deductions for a home business. Again, ask your accountant for his recommendations. Make a file for each utility bill, and as you put the new ones in each month, throw out ones that are older than three months or a year or whatever your accountant suggests. Receipts only need to be saved if they are tax deductible (in their own file), for a warranty (staple it to the warranty and file it with the owner’s manual), or for something that may need to be returned (clothes or tools, for instance, but weed these out regularly). The rest should be entered into your computer budgeting program weekly and then thrown out. I promise it won’t hurt!

Personal papers that need to be kept permanently (birth, death, and marriage certificates, citizenship and naturalization papers, separation and divorce papers, military records, social security cards, etc.) should be kept in a safety deposit box or in a fireproof box. Only a limited number of other items should be kept on a long-term basis and updated regularly. These include medical histories, employment, insurance, real estate and tax return records, insurance policies, and things like advance directives. These papers should be kept in a fireproof box in your home so you can readily update them and have access to them. Some papers need to be kept in a safe place only for as long as they are in effect: wills, car deeds, records of car repairs and service, passports, and owner’s manuals. If you keep these things in a filing cabinet, make one file for each type of record. Label it clearly and file it in alphabetical order.

I could say so much more about putting paper in its place, but I don’t want to overwhelm you. Besides, until I started writing this post, I didn’t realize how much information was out there. In fact, there is so much more information to cover that I am going to write four more articles in this series—one every week for the month of October. Whatever you do, do NOT print this article out—you’ll just create more papers for which you would have to find a place!

** This article first appeared on the Lesson Pathways blog last Friday in honor of National Get Organized Week. **