One thing about school kids in our culture is that they make a lot of stuff. I am a parent of two boys and I’m also an avowed archivist. Over the years, I’ve developed some practices for managing and storing the stuff kids make, collect, and earn over the course of childhood.
Since my oldest child is 18 and is graduating from high school next month, I’ve looked back at the archives for him and his brother (who is 16), and I thought I’d share the exact materials and methods I’ve used.
Let’s start with some basic learnings
- Format is destiny. I’ve learned to use the smallest vessel possible. This also enforces a certain thematic cohesion. For example, you won’t see 9 x 12 art sheet projects coming home much past 6th grade. Grouping items of similar shape and size makes more sense through time than you’d think
- Chronological order is best order. I just flow all objects through to the archive w/o regard to what grade they’re in, what class it is, and so on. This allows you to see it all at once, flip through fast, and see your own themes rather than something imposed by the archivist
- Annotate everything. Everything seems obvious in the moment, but as time passes, you may wonder who made what, what grade it was, and so on. A simple notation on the back of every item— name, grade, month, year— eliminates all the guessing
- Focus on the child. This means if you have more than one child, make sure you make their archive 100% about them, with separate and distinct portfolios/ boxes/ whatever for them. If also means that each object should relate to them rather than you & them, their teacher & them, their sibling & them— whatever. The idea is that this is a collection that will be theirs someday— something uniquely about and for them
- Don’t bog down the child with the past. There is a danger here in glorifying the past and / or force-feeding a whole shelf-full of crap that they don’t want in their lives. I rarely talk about their archives and we don’t make a show about going through it— I just quietly build it. As they’ve gotten older, and I am less intrusive when it comes to digging through their schoolbags for material, they make sure to give me things they want to keep for them. Having said that, I couldn’t care less if one day they incinerated their entire collection. Nostalgia is death
- Focus on output and documentation rather than achievement and excellence. Certainly there are way more “A” papers in the archive than “D” tests, but I don’t shy away from putting in things like artwork that cast me in a less-than-great light (“this is how dad swears when he’s mad” doodle in 2nd grade). It’s also easy to make judgements about their work— and I do plenty of that in the normal course of parenting, tryna get them to do their best. But it’s important not to use an archive as yet another way to mess up your child about the pending doom of high school or college acceptance. That stuff is whack
- Decide what you care about and collect for that. This is where one has to decide what’s wheat and what’s chafe. For me, I focused on original expression— writing, drawing, essays. That means I throw away standardized tests and worksheets, no matter how well they did on them, and I optimize handwritten, hand-drawn items. I want them to look back and see themselves
- Never stop collecting, never stop winnowing. In order for this to work, you can’t let there be huge gaps. The good thing is that it sort of fits in with the overall need, as a parent, to pay attention to what your kid is doing. Go through their bag and make your piles. It doesn’t matter how long it takes you to get to the pile, as long as the pile is there. I’d say I would keep 10% of what comes home in the pile-making stage, and throw away maybe 50% of that in the winnowing stage
Here’s pictures of the entire end result
Basically one shelf-full for each kid and a sliver of a closest for the posterboard-sized stuff (the large portfolio at the top holds material for both kids— it’s the only vessel shared between them). It’s really not a whole lot of stuff, when you think about the enormous amount of material we generate.
Here’s a look at each type of vessel, and what I put in each:
Baby pictures (1)
This is your basic baby album. I like to approach it as a record of the beginning of their lives. I have it from the first shot— basically the minute they are born — through their first year.
I want to make sure they have a good record that consists only of themselves, not conflated in the rest of the family albums— of which I have plenty!
Master file (2)
This is the running collection of the major events— starting with something like “baby’s first dirty feet”— all the way through to a high school diploma.
The 8 1/2 x 11 format covers report cards, school pictures, sports photos, certificates of achievement, First Communion-style commemorations, ACT reports— things of that nature. I also sprinkle in smaller objects like school ID, so that they stay in chronological order. As they get older and you notice the track of things, you can place items here that seem canonical, like a photo of their first vote in the student council elections or something like that.
There is a separate portfolio I keep, called “Vital” that has stuff like passports, medical records, and so on.
Art portfolio (2)
This covers the classic “I made a picture at school!” stuff. Once items started coming home in this format—this is pure grade school stuff— is when I learned that “format is destiny”. One day, all of this will be gone— no more art comes home.
Art box (1)
This covers the larger format colored art paper popular in elementary school. The box format allows for the 3D component that a lot of the work has — yarn, glued-on objects, etc.
You’ll find that this box will get filled up fast and it may be the hardest type of output to winnow. We have to make our own choices, but I just try to apply the principles of what pleases you and the child— what will you want them to see decades from now. I like things that reference current events, trends, or memes— it’s always good to have time markers in there.
Objects case (2)
The bulk of the archiving I describe here is about flat files— storing pieces of paper in various formats (photos, art, reports, etc). But as we move along in life, we collect and generate all sorts of three-dimensional things worth saving. That’s why I use these clear plastic cases. I just put them on a shelf and add as time goes by.
This includes things they’ve made (bookmarks, ceramics, rings out dollar bills), milestone items (baptismal candle, graduation lapel pins, sports medals), things they’ve acquired (seashells, rocks, flattened pennies, souvenir pencils).
I also place things that I pick up on business trips that they probably wouldn’t be all that jazzed to get (something from a museum shop or something) but that I want to make sure they have.
Daily file (2)
This is the place where I put the day-to -day output. When I first started doing this, I thought I wanted to collect representative pieces of their education. For example, I’d keep a math sheet from 2nd grade, just to show what mid-2000s elementary school looked like. I was capturing too much material and not getting what I wanted: a log of their development— the good, the bad, and the neutral, so that they could see, going back through time, who they were, and by extension, who they are.
In my own life, I have had many experiences that feel like zigs or zags. Looking back, from a different resolution, the line is straighter, and there are precursors that didn’t feel like they were when it was happening. That’s the purpose here— to show that line.
The kind of stuff that ends up in here changes through time: ultrasound images, their first drawing of heart, crafty paintings made at home, letters to Santa Claus, school reports, and so on. For nearly every grade, there are two or three major assignments— a country report, a report on a famous person they pick, and so on. This is the place for that.
I also like to collect items that show the context of the school— newsletters that have pictures of all kids in the class, things of that nature. I want them to be able to look back and see their classmates through time
I also place other things like the dust jacket for the first book they are really into reading on their own or the train ticket they used to get to a first concert— things like that.
There can be not-so-great things in here: a contract that one of my sons forced me to sign, pledging to “not flip out for until 2009”.
As they get older, I found that more of their assignments are turned in online and they are more reticent to give it up to me. I find my ways to keep the collection going, but it does slow down. At the end of the semester I go through their bags, and I copy/paste/ save/ print any time they ask for help on a particular paper. Gotta get what you can with teenagers!
Art portfolio (1/2)
This archive system relies heavily on Itoya profolios. I like them because they hold the items in place, have a sturdy exterior, and allow you to flip through lots of material fast.
But there are a number of paper items that are too big for any of the profolios. These are the results of the “zomg I need posterboard for a project due tomorrow and Target closes in 20 minutes”— the state reports, “All About Me” boards, and science projects that kids usually do in middle school.