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The Great Paper Chase
Cassandra Frear, 1/29/2010

"Our two greatest problems are gravity and paper work. We can lick gravity, but sometimes the paper work is overwhelming."
- Dr Wember von Braun,
quoted from Time Management for Unmanageable People

Where is the school room in your house? Are you happy with it? Does it work well for all of the things you and your children do? Does it tend to be messy? Can you find things when you want them?

If you are like us and most of our friends, homeschooling is messy. We had a grandmother who would stop by for visits and poke her head into our school room.

"Oh my, what a busy room," she would say, "What a busy room!"

Busy, it was. When my sons were learning at home, I felt like I was holding back a wall of clutter that might flood the house and cover everything. Some nights, I dreamed that the paper and books grew until there was no room for us, and we escaped through a window and ran down the street. But the next morning, it was clear that escape was not possible. I would not get out of this so easily. I had to make peace with our paper habit if I was going to keep my sanity.

We picked up after ourselves, mind you. I was constantly picking up and putting away. But the mess grew a little more every time I turned my back on it. I used to say that paper was our house weed. It was an unruly thing that popped up in every crack, every bare spot, every place where there was light and moisture.

I had shelves. We used them. There was a desk for each person with drawers to keep their personal effects out of the general fray. I had labeled boxes. Our school room had three trash cans. Never mind. The paper still piled up under the windows, on the desk tops, over the couch in the living room, at the kitchen table, on the family room coffee table, by the beds, and on the floor where the cats liked to claw at it and chew on it. Even our animals were paper-crazed. They thought every piece of paper was material for a paper ball to chase.

My sons would make stacks of paper balls and then toss them, one at the time, for each cat. Down the hall, bumping on the steps, through the foyer, under the furniture, into baskets and shoes, under tables, the paper wads went. Anywhere and everywhere, the cats chased their paper -- tumbling down the stairs, sliding across the wood floors when they couldn't stop in time, even crashing into walls and doors. As I watched their antics one evening, I realized that this was what I was doing, too. I was chasing paper!

In my kingdom of paper, with a paper-glaze over my eyes, stacks of paper around me, and paper-lovers in every room of the house, I slowly worked my way toward a sort of order that kept a lid on the chaos. Over time, with practice, with trial and error, we did eventually put our problems with paper behind us.

How did we win the paper chase?

We stored it automatically. That way, it never had a chance to pile up.

One of our biggest problems with paper was that, although we had a school room, we homeschooled all over the house. No amount of planning could prevent this. I learned that if we have the space, we are going to spread out and fill it. That's just the way it is. So instead of fighting this natural trend, I decided to embrace it. I began seeing every room as a room where school took place.

I put magazine racks beside every reading chair or couch. I put open containers by every desk. Whatever was being used -- read or written in -- went into the open container as the student stood up. When someone forgot to do this, we could toss the stuff into the container next time we walked by. It all went in together -- all of it. Not because that's how I thought we should organize. But because that was the only way to make it happen. It had to be automatic.

When the containers were so full of clutter and paper that they were overflowing, I would clean them out. I would take an hour on a weekend and put the papers either in the trash, in a portfolio binder, or back into the container. Occasionally, an object really belonged in a bedroom. Books that were finished went back on the shelves.

Magazine racks and crates sat by each bed to collect books, periodicals, and papers. My kids read and wrote all over the house, even when falling asleep. As they reached to turn out the light, they could drop whatever was in their hands into an open container waiting by the bedside table. This was automatic storage, right in the path of motion.

A large crate sat by the breakfast table. As we rose from the table, the daily paper was dropped into it. No more newspaper clutter. When the box was full, we emptied it. Automatic storage again, right in the path of motion.

Twice a year, I bought stacks of paper folders with pockets for 15 cents each at Staples. I used them to hold all the papers associated with a topic. This worked really well most of the time. A study of Hamlet, grammar rules, science experiments, the second World War, a presentation for writing class -- these could be collected into a paper folder as we studied and worked. The paper folder could be dropped into an open container. The next day, we could find it all again.

We started buying spiral-bound notebooks for each subject and using them, instead of loose notebook paper. This way, the work was stored as it was being done. The pages were in chronological order, and none of them were lost. This made the record keeping* easy to do. There were no more wild, desperate hunts for missing documents.

In every room of the house, I asked:

What is happening here?

Where is it happening?

Where can I put open containers on the path of motion?

Even better, is there a way to store the supplies as the work is being done?

These questions guided me in creating order that could be maintained throughout the year. My kids were happy because they could learn spontaneously and freely. I was happy because we were not drowning in paper. While it's true that our home would never have been the subject of a magazine article on neatness, this worked in real life for us.


Cassandra Frear http://www.applepieforhomeschools.com Cassandra homeschooled her two sons through high school graduation, and now leads a wonderful blogsite offering ongoing support and encouragement to homeschooling parents, especially mothers. She has also been the keynote speaker twice at the PHAA High School at Home Conference, and has been a regular writer for our print publication Pennsylvania Homeschoolers. She currently resides with her husband in North Carolina.


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