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Delicious Physics Binders

We don’t use a textbook in my class. So my students’ binders are their key physics possession. When I first started teaching, I foolishly just assumed that when I told them to get and keep a binder for my class, that they would know how to do that (and would do it). During that first year, it became excruciatingly obvious that organizing themselves well for a class was not a skill that many of my students possessed.

Still, setting up and maintaining a binder is a great skill to take with you to college (and to be able to use for the rest of high school). Organization is not a “natural” skill (show me a baby that is ready to use a label-maker and I’ll start changing my mind). So if it isn’t innate, it must be learnable. Indeed, I speak from personal experience here.

For the past few years, I have provided binders for my students. The binders come set with tabs, handouts, graph paper, the first Modeling packet, and a nifty nameplate. Most students are immediately grateful for this “gift” (they do pay for the materials out of their student accounts… and the binders are MUCH cheaper than a textbook), recognizing the value. Many report that they are much more organized in physics than in any other class. And I often see the binders still hanging around the next year, appropriated for another subject.

After using the binders for a year, they have an idea of what it looks like to be really organized for a class.

The Making of a Physics Binder

I am putting together my binders now. I am going to document the construction here. You can see what they look like and how I put them together.

The nacent binders, just unloaded from their boxes, sit waiting to be filled with physics and to be loved by students.

I use Staples Better Binders because of the nifty (yet sometimes annoying) rubber binding. The front plastic view sheet may fall off, as may the built-in pocket folder inside (not actually very useful), but the binders themselves are very durable. I’ve had one student break the rings, but other than that, they have managed to stand up to student abuse care each year.

The downside of these binders is that the durable rubber binding makes them harder to slide into backpacks. But when I ask students at the end of the year, they usually agree that the durability trumps the annoyance.

I put 5-tab plastic dividers into the binders. I like the ones with the slash pockets because the binder pocket isn't very sturdy. These are legit tab dividers. Also, they come with box tops on the back of the paper. By the way, does anyone need box tops for their school? I have a ton...

I print the tab inserts so they look even more professional. If you've never printed tabs for your binder before, you've really been missing out.

Piles of materials ready to go into the binders. They start with the first packet (CVPM), the course handout (How to Succeed in Physics), the full objectives list, advice from former students (from old course evaluations), and some graph paper.

Stocked and ready to go!

Last, but not least, the binder gets a spine insert. Here's mine from last year. The tag informs anyone who finds the binder sitting around somewhere that they should return the delicious physics binder to the person listed. I print these for each of my students, too. And I go around picking them up sometimes when they look like they've been forgotten somewhere. Students occasionally "lose" the binders (that is, leave them somewhere on campus and forget where), but I've never had one go lost and never get found.

During the year, I have also started giving out sticky write-on tabs for each packet to help them keep even more organized with all of the materials that we hand out in this class. With all of my students walking into class impeccably organized from day one, that’s one fewer hurdle that they have to jump to start becoming physics masters. For students with organizational struggles that have made other classes more difficult for them, they start out on equal footing, here. I like to think that even though learning physics requires keeping track of many threads that all depend on one another, my class is one that sets up kids with ADHD for success. Of course, the things that help them also seem to make it better for their (usual levels of teenage scatteredness) classmates, too. A win for everyone!

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About Kelly O'Shea

I teach high school kids physics at an independent day school in NYC. Less homework, more thinking. Follow @kellyoshea


6 thoughts on “Delicious Physics Binders

  1. Anyone who knows me knows that I am anal and I like organization. :) I do ask my students to organize their binders. I even went as far as requiring them to organize and would check periodically (sometimes announced, sometimes not) just to make sure they were doing the upkeep. I felt it helped me through my high school/college years and wanted to pass/teach that skill along to my students. I like how you said its “one fewer hurdle that they have to jump” through. This is definitely the case for my students – they have a lot of things going on with them and if I can help do away a minor headache, then I will. Now starting with SBG, I won’t be doing that anymore, but I might incorporate it into some kind of reward system that they can earn points that are not recorded in the gradebook and redeem them anytime they wish. I’ll be posting about that later on, sooner than later I hope!

    Posted by Harry Wood | August 18, 2011, 11:51 PM
    • I think that students want to do well and to be organized (because it would help them do well). If you put them in a situation where it is easy to be successful at that (like giving them a binder already built to make it easy to continue to be organized), most of them will do it. No extra carrot needed. I think a lot of the time it is easy to see students as not wanting to do something you think would help them when actually they just don’t know how to do it. They might not even understand what it is well enough to ask for help. Once you teach them how to do it (like showing them exactly what an organized binder looks like), suddenly it is much much easier. :)

      I did the binder check my first couple of years of teaching, and their binders were disasters. Now that I do the preloading, I never have to check. I see them during class, and they are almost all in good order. Also, lots of time saved on not having to check. And maybe more implicit trust in not checking through their belongings.

      Posted by Kelly O'Shea | August 19, 2011, 7:10 AM
  2. @Kelly
    I too tightly structure the course notebook. Binders worked for me in other schools but not for these kids so I had to do something. “Loose leaf papers” meant “lose the leaves of paper”. I gave up binders 2 years ago for spirals and maintaining an “Interactive Notebook” a la AVID . I maintain one for each section. And, like you, because of this I don’t need to check for organization. The Table of Contents, rubrics, safety and assignment directions plastered into the front pages (the “physics survival manual”). It’s the completion (I teach in a low SES school where the concept of doing work outside the classroom is not ingrained).

    It was interesting was seeing a kid decide to keep her notebooks for other classes in a similar format, and another did a university summer program where the instructors were amazed at her notekeeping, which she learned in Physics .

    Another benefit? As a long time Modeler, I now use about one half the paper. That’s no mean feat when you look at the CASTLE materials.

    Posted by SherryB | August 21, 2011, 1:03 PM
  3. Do you have a blog post about how to put the graph paper watermark on your handouts? That is something I need to start doing myself.

    Posted by Paul | March 8, 2013, 9:08 AM


  1. Pingback: Day –3: Binders, assemble! « O'Shea Physics 180 - August 31, 2012

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