Organizing the Shelves

This summer I decided to prepare for the new school year a little backwards: I made my booklists, ordered books, and then I cleared the shelves of the old school year.   And it worked much better.

As I get older I continue to make peace with my non-sequential brain.  At the beginning of the summer, I looked ahead at everything that I knew would be happening between May and September.  I knew that Gareth would be gone for three weeks, the other kids would have some local camps, and that we wanted to take a big vacation at the end of July.  In the past, I’ve liked starting formal academic work in July, but for the last couple of years, that just hasn’t worked out.  Not starting in July hasn’t really worried me this year because we’ve settled down well unschooling, and by that I mean intentional unschooling and not just hanging out on vacation.  Anyway, I knew that Gareth would be doing three weeks of college classes so he would be covered, and that reading aloud, strewing, and preparing for and taking our big trip (more on this later) would do for the other kids.  In the past starting in July has helped us cover the ground we needed to cover without being frantic, but this summer has seen a lot of academics done one way or another.

What did worry me was the very real possibility that I would get stuck in the clearing out/cleaning up/putting away process and have no time left to give the new year some kind of order before Labor Day.  Last year my teenagers and I discovered how much more smoothly our days ran when I put their reading and writing assignments on a blog, along with various links for them to check out and any special instructions or commentary I wanted to give them.  The kicker there is, of course, that I have to keep up with the blog in order for them to do their part by following it.

So I decided to flip my usual routine in order to get the most important things done first.  Here’s what I did:

  • Spent many hours while nursing squinting at print-outs of Ambleside Online trying to figure out how to squish various years together (7/8 and 11/12 primarily).
  • Spent more hours nursing looking at other booklists and catalogs to find medieval/Renaissance and modern era books for high school.
  • Created a giant and incomplete spreadsheet to keep track of the enormous number of modern era books for high school.  Scribbled on it a lot.
  • Signed the teenagers up for online classes.
  • Put books in my Amazon cart and stared at it morosely for some time, wondering what I could possibly take out.
  • Ordered too many books for high school.
  • Could not keep the four younger boys sorted out without making a combined chart for all of them freehand on paper.
  • Decided to supply the boys with twentieth century themed Landmark books this year.  (I used Jen’s list, available on this page.) Ordered a bunch of them only to see the boys immediately pounce on the stacks.  Had a mild panic attack, wondering how many more books I would have to find to finish the year.
  • Needed a place to put all the books, so I started cleaning out the shelves.

school bookshelves

I got through the big shelves last week, but I’m now using many of them as holding areas for the books I’m considering for assigned reading which is why the shelves still look a little stuffed in this picture.  (I would love to sort books using dishwashing tubs, but I don’t have the space.  So I have to empty and re-empty the shelves themselves.)  After I get done sorting, I’ll only keep the books for our first term on everybody’s personal shelves.  I don’t like to assign too much reading, because I do like to make time for strewing and for free reading on topics of interest.  So what I need to do now is to sort the books into assigned/choice/strew piles.  I’m hoping to do that this week around preparing for our big trip.

(We’re going to Wyoming and then to Dinosaur National Monument in Utah!  Everyone is excited, but the driving and the food preparation are both a little daunting.  Prayers appreciated.  Really.)

Something else I should mention about cleaning out the shelves is that they are in our dining area in our eat-in kitchen.  That means that when I clean out the shelves, we eat in the family room on the floor because I have to dump everything onto the table.  In this picture you can see I’m not quite done finding homes for everything — a shelf in a different bookcase needs fixed before I can put that big stack of Life of Fred Elementary books on it, and I’m going to take the Miquon books apart and file them in a notebook like this one.

Since I like to see pictures of other people’s shelves, and I like to know what other people do to get ready for the next school year, I thought you might like to see what my shelves look like while they’re somewhat in process.  They don’t stay neat for long.  Witness the envelope stuck on top of George’s books:

6th grade shelf

… containing a plan of a moon base that he intends to send to NASA.  (Lots of science books on his shelf right now.)

Or the twins’ shelf…

3rd grade shelf

Because apparently they need protection while they do their work.

Anyway, the takeaway here is that we use these shelves heavily, for many purposes.  (Ahem.)  So keep in mind that these are working shelves and some time in August or early September, hopefully I can show you some “finalized” pictures for our first term of work.

In the meantime, here are some summer prep shots…

upper shelves

It’s really hard to get a good camera angle in this room because it isn’t very big… and there’s a table in the way! These are the upper shelves.  (Also, if you’re curious… these are the Ikea hack bookshelves pictured here as they were going up.)  From left to right…

Top row:

  • Document boxes containing print-outs of booklists, helpful blog posts, lesson plans, Ambleside Online year lists
  • High school files
  • High School lab materials shelf.  Right now there is only a giant textbook on it which we’ll be using for reference and which will be moved when I get a better place for it. The Microscopic Life box will stay.
  • Another empty shelf that you can’t see because of the light.  Will probably be used for more science stuff.

Second row from top:

  • Another document box for me, plus phonogram flash cards and a pile of papers awaiting the delivery of more document boxes
  • A basket of paint and brushes, glitter, hot glue gun (I need more containers for this shelf)
  • Personal whiteboards for Logic of English.  These have absolutely no place where they fit.  I need to explore wall-hanging rack options.
  • Gareth’s overflow shelf.  Full of 12th grade books to sort right now.
  • College correspondence shelf.  Used for application materials, viewbooks, important testing documents, etc. (Yes, I know it’s a pile.  We’re pilers.  But as the application process progresses this year, we will probably use manila or plastic envelopes to hold materials by college.)

Third row from top:

  • My teacher’s guides, etc., that I need for curriculum
  • Art books, scissors, face pencils, colored pencils
  • Camera and bag
  • Gareth’s shelf (lots of books to sort right now)
  • Elementary/middle school science materials shelf (right now holding a K’nex bridge in progress, but I’m going to need this space for a collection of experiment materials)

art shelf 1

Fourth row from top:

  • My commonplace books, planner, and household notebooks
  • More art books and glues that are okay for the younger kids to use
  • Microscope, dissecting microscope, microscope books
  • Katydid’s shelf (10th grade) with books for planning
  • George’s shelf (6th grade, pictured in close-up above)

10th grade shelf

Fifth row from top:

  • More curriculum guides for me: Winterpromise, Animals and Their Worlds in binders and Building Foundations of Scientific Understanding (v.1-3)
  • Art materials for the 4 and 6 year olds: a tray of plastilina with tools, crayons and markers, oil pastels, safety scissors
  • Nature journals, watercolor pencils, watercolor pans
  • Cuisenaire rods (This will be a math shelf, I hope)
  • K’nex simple machine and bridge building kits

nature journals

Shew! These bookcases really hold a lot of volume.  Here are the bottom shelves that are hidden by the table:

lower shelves

Second to the bottom row:

  • My collection of preschool/elementary activity books, which may or may not stay here.  I had high hopes that I would use them more often if they were out here, but that mostly didn’t happen.  I’m waiting on a bookcase for the computer room (which we’re in the process of redoing right now) and then most of these books will probably move out there.
  • More art materials for the 4 and 6 year old: yarn and chenille stems in a tray, foam stickers and felt/foam shapes in containers
  • A basket of field guides
  • The twins’ shelf (3rd grade-ish)
  • Chipmunk’s shelf (1st-2nd grade-ish)

preschool art shelves

Bottom row:

  • Coloring books in magazine holders (not pictured)
  • A basket of blocks, playdough, and sculpey
  • Old copies of Ranger Rick and Nature Friend (I’m not sure whether these belong here, since nobody reads them that often.)
  • An empty shelf which I would like to use for some Montessori materials if I can figure out how to get them into containers the baby can’t open
  • Leo’s (preschool) shelf, empty right now

So that’s the skeleton of our homeschool space.  Now I just have to decide what books to use, create those blogs, collect the remaining science materials… and oh yeah, take a 3000 mile round-trip out west and back!















  1. Wow! Impressive! Never can have too many shelves. Have fun at Dinosaur! We went there in May. It was awesome but hot as heck. Can’t imagine how hot it will bein July. Yikes! Bring plenty of water. Oh, and we stayed at the KOA nearby. It was really nice.
    Theresa recently posted…If you give a kid a piece of amber…My Profile

    • Well, we were going to try to go to Yellowstone, but that fell through. So then we decided to try Dinosaur… but we may also hit Rocky Mountain National Park on the way back. The boys have been reading up on all of it, so we’re excited!

  2. You know I always LOVE posts like this, I get so excited when I see pictures of books:):) I’m crazy I know. anyhow loved reading all about the different shelves:)
    and you’ve inspired me to share an update of my new library set up (coming soon)
    Erin recently posted…Celebrating Father’s Ordination to the PriesthoodMy Profile

  3. Thank you for the trip through your shelves! I love the idea of a College Correspondence shelf…I’m going to need one of those. We are still a full year away from that time, but already I’ve got a few things trickling in and shoved into my closet. *yikes* A shelf would be much better. :)
    Amy recently posted…Like a SpongeMy Profile

    • We kept shoving things on top of his other books up high because I was terrified of losing them. (Stuff like ACT and SAT registration tickets, which you are apparently supposed to guard with your life.) So when I redid the shelves I just scooted all the college stuff over a shelf. We’ll see how this works in practice; his list isn’t terribly long, so maybe we’ll be able to handle the paper in that space. In Alison McKee’s book about applying to college for homeschoolers, she mentions gathering all the paperwork into one manila envelope per college, and I thought that sounded easy enough for us to handle.


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