Organizing Files

2018-10-07

As teachers, we have a lot of data, and how we organize our files impacts whether we can easily share them with other teachers in the future. Here are some organizational tips I've learned over the past decade that I think will help you keep your data organized so you can work smoothly with other teachers to develop excellent educational materials. Let's assume you have a shared drive, such as a local network folder, Google Drive, or Dropbox.

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If you think it's useful, and you only have a paper copy, scan it. Some people have physical folders with copies of all the great worksheets they've made or received, but generally speaking, digital is better. Here's why.

  1. You can email it to a friend or coworker.
  2. Your shelf won't fill up.
  3. You can search for it quickly by name.
  4. You can copy/paste good parts and use them in new materials.
  5. You can easily take it with you when changing jobs.

Our school has a photocopier/scanner combo machine with a feeder. It scans stacks of papers and makes PDFs. If you have that kind of device on hand, scanning things is quick, and surely it will benefit you later.

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Let's suppose you have a bunch of documents. You might keep them on your computer in folders like this.

Homework ├ 2016 ├ 2017 ├ 2018 ├ Amazing Plants (2).odt ├ Copy of Amazing Animals.odt New ├ Letter to Parents (New).odt Notes ├ Eighth Grade ├ Ninth Grade ├ Letter to Parents.odt ├ Seventh Grade ├ Grades (2017).ods ├ Grades (2018).ods Oral Communication ├ 2012 ├ 2013 Pictures ├ Summer Slides.ppt ├ Summer Slides PDF.ppt.pdf Tests ├ Seventh Grade Term 1 Test.odt ├ Seventh Grade Term 1 Test (Old).odt Worksheets

When we start creating and organizing data, something like this seems like it'll work. But over time, issues creep up. Here are some tips that help things stay sorted.

  1. Make the year folders top-level. If you have file names like Grades (2017).xls and Grades (2018).xls, you're mixing last year's data with this year's. It makes more sense to have a folder called 2017 and another called 2018. Put grades inside those folders.

  2. Don't use parentheses. In the above example, consider these two files.

    Tests ├ Seventh Grade Term 1 Test.odt ├ Seventh Grade Term 1 Test (Old).odt

    The bottom file is apparently old, but next year, both files will be old. What should your file names be then? I don't know! But if you sort the data by year at top level, you can avoid this whole problem.

  3. Remove pointless words. Here's a directory worth cleaning up.

    Homework ├ 2018 ├ Copy of Amazing Animals.odt ├ Amazing Plants (2).odt

    They probably got those names because the user was copy/pasting files, and the system automatically added Copy of and (2). To make the data easy to read, we should go through and rename files, removing the extra text as appropriate. It would be much prettier if it looked like this.

    Homework ├ 2018 ├ Amazing Animals.odt ├ Amazing Plants.odt

  4. Use numbers instead of words. The example has notes for Seventh Grade, Eighth Grade, and Ninth Grade. If you sort the directory alphabetically, it shows up like this.

    Notes ├ Eighth Grade ├ Ninth Grade ├ Seventh Grade

    That's awkward because seventh grade comes last. If you use numerals instead, it looks much more sensible.

    Notes ├ 7 ├ 8 ├ 9

  5. Don't repeat extension information. In the above example, there's a file, Summer Slides PDF.ppt.pdf. The file type is expressed by the end of the file name, so it should simply be called Summer Slides.pdf. Duplicate information about the format makes things hard to read, and it's not needed.

  6. Preserve the original file. In the above example, there are two related files.

    Pictures ├ Summer Slides.ppt ├ Summer Slides PDF.ppt.pdf

    It looks like the user made a PowerPoint file and then generated a PDF of it. There are good reasons to do that — for example, I often copy data onto my tablet, but my tablet doesn't support PowerPoint. As a temporary measure, it's reasonable to make PDFs, but for archiving, it's unnecessary. When you or another teacher is looking at the data next year, the original file is by far the most useful, because it can easily be modified to fit new situations. The PDF doesn't help, so delete it and be happy.

  7. Use the date if really needed. In the above example, there are two related files.

    New ├ Letter to Parents (New).odt Notes ├ Ninth Grade ├ Letter to Parents.odt

    Most of the time, you don't need both files, so you should just replace the bottom file with the top one. However, sometimes you really want a record of something. Perhaps you sent a letter, realized there was a typo, fixed it, and sent a new version. In that case, you could put the date in the file names, like this.

    Notes ├ Ninth Grade ├ 2018-09-01 Letter to Parents.odt ├ 2018-09-05 Letter to Parents.odt

    This works well because the two files are in the same folder, and the file names tell us which was sent when. Always use the format YYYY-MM-DD or YYYYMMDD. This is unambiguous — you don't wonder whether 9/3 means September 3rd or March 9th — and it automatically sorts in chronological order.

  8. Don't assume course names will stay the same. The example has a top-level folder, Oral Communication. That class used to be offered in Japanese high schools, but several years ago the national curriculum was revised, and it no longer exists. Instead, there are two related classes, English Communication and English Expression. If I want to organize everything by course name, what do I do? Should I leave Oral Communication there, knowing that new teachers will never look at it? Should I rename it to English Communication, because the two courses are similar? It's unclear what to do, but if the data were sorted by year at top level, we wouldn't even be asking the question.

  9. Don't assume event names will stay the same. This is similar to the previous point. My school has an event called "International Day", but it used to be called "MECC", and from time to time it's called "Board Game Day". If file organization depends on the name staying the same from year to year, it's going fail.

  10. Video files might need special treatment. If you have lots of very large video files, perhaps you can't just copy them to a new folder each year, because it might fill up your hard drive. You might need a separate top-level folder just for videos. In my experience, only video files are large enough where this is a concern.

    If I'm using large videos that are on YouTube, I like to keep the URLs in a notes file, and I can download the videos again in the future.

    I always take videos of students' presentations. This lets me grade the presentations at a leisurely speed, and when students have questions about why they got a particular grade, we can watch the video together. A month or two after the term ends, I delete most of those files, saving a few of my favorite ones to be used as examples in future years.

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If we apply the above rules to the initial example, we get a directory structure that's much easier to navigate. It would look something like this.

2012 ├ Oral Communication 2013 ├ Oral Communication 2016 ├ 7 ├ Homework ├ 8 ├ 9 2017 ├ 7 ├ Homework ├ Worksheets Grades.ods Term 1 Test.odt ├ 8 ├ 9 2018 ├ 7 ├ Homework ├ Amazing Animals.odt ├ Amazing Plants.odt Grades.ods Term 1 Test.odt ├ 8 Summer Slides.ppt ├ 9 ├ 2018-09-01 Letter to Parents.odt ├ 2018-09-05 Letter to Parents.odt

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I like to create materials for classroom use, and I enjoy sharing those materials with others. This is particularly important for a school like mine, where we have several native teachers on staff. Every few years, some teachers go, others come, and there's a decent chance that we teach different grades or courses than what we taught previously.

When you're planning for a class you haven't taught before, or haven't taught for several years, the first step is to ask last year's teacher for their data. If that data is organized well, you'll definitely appreciate the work they did to get it that way.

Some teachers are self-conscious about sharing their materials. They might refuse to upload files, or they might upload them but leave everything in a horrible mess where we can't really tell how things were meant to be used. Perhaps they lack confidence, and they are worried that if other teachers see the low-quality materials, their poor teaching practices will be revealed. This type of concern is understandable, but if you're feeling it, here are some things to keep in mind. First, we all make mediocre materials from time to time, and yours won't be the worst. Even if some of your materials are mediocre, there are probably some gems that will excite your coworkers. Second, materials are only one aspect of teaching, and looking at them doesn't give other people enough information to judge your general effectiveness as a teacher. Third, if you're going to continue teaching in the future, then sharing your materials with others is a great way to get their feedback. If they find typos, they'll tell you, and if they make an updated version, just ask them to send you a copy.

Be positive, share your data with other teachers, get their feedback and their data, and work together to create cool stuff.