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Cool gear for back to school

By Rebecca Hyler

Baltimoresun.com staff

July 25, 2008

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It's back-to-school time, and you're going over your child's zillion-page school supply list. Don't panic; we'll help you check off that supply list in no time. Our guide covers everything from standard yellow pencils to talking rulers. Yeah, they make those.

Put it in writing

When shopping for school gear, it's easiest to start with the basics -- but even when you're searching for essentials, the selection can be pretty overwhelming. On Staples' Web site, we searched for 'wood pencils' and were provided with more than 20 results. While a 12-pack of basic yellow #2's can be found ... well, pretty much anywhere ... try going the environmentally friendly route. We like Paper Mate EarthWrite #2 Pencils, which are made from re-claimed wood and pre-consumer waste materials. You can get a dozen EarthWrite pencils for less than $2, and they're available at office supply stores, like Staples and Office Depot.

While pencils are pretty basic, pens come in a wide variety. As far as we know, teachers still prefer blue or black ink. But does your child like fine or medium point? Rollerball or ballpoint? Retractable or stick? For commitment-phobes -- and youngsters just getting used to writing in ink -- there are also erasable pens. Try Erasermate pens, available at most office supply stores. You can get a 12-pack at Staples for $6.99.

Add some color to your child's pencil case with colored pencils or crayons. Crayola is our go-to. With smaller children, washable is best. You can find Crayola products in many office supply and chain stores, but sometimes, your best bet is to head to Crayola's Web site for deals. For example, you can get a 24-pack of Crayola Washable Crayons for $2.99 from Crayola's Web site. Older kids' supply lists will probably require colored pencils. Check out Twistables Colored Pencils by Crayola, available for $4.49 from Crayola's Web site. You'll never have to sharpen them; just twist them up. If you're looking for a variety of art supplies, the Crayola Portable Art Studio is your best bet. The kit includes crayons, colored pencils, markers and more; you can find it at BJ's Wholesale Club for $16.99.

Get organized

Organization in the classroom starts with a durable and versatile binder. We recommend Mead Five Star's Class2Class binder, which is equipped with an expanding file and a three-subject notebook. Mead's Trapper Keeper is another best bet. Betcha didn't think the ol' Trapper Keeper was still around. ... It is, and it's actually pretty cool. It includes a magnetic closure, interior pockets, durable dividers -- and you can customize its cover. You can find both binders on Mead's Web site. The Class2Class costs around $16, and the Trapper Keeper is $9 to $10.

The Double Binder, available exclusively at Wal-Mart for about $5, is another cool product. It's two binders in one; that way, your child can group similar subjects together. For example, the binder on one side can be for math, and the binder on the other side can be for science. Reading and writing could be grouped in a Double Binder, too.

As for notebooks, we were really excited about Mead Five Star's Flex NoteBinder. It's like a notebook-binder hybrid. It's flexible and small, like a notebook. But you can add and remove paper to it, like a binder. At about $10, this fancy-schmancy notebook is a little pricey. For more standard, less expensive notebooks, Mead Five Star also makes one-, three- and five-subject notebooks.

As for folders, our favorite was another Mead Five Star product: the Stay-Put Folder. In addition to pockets, the $2 Stay-Put Folder includes small flaps on the upper corners of the folder, so your child's papers will ... well, stay put. Don't forget to stack up on paper, too. Wide-rule is usually better for younger students, while college-rule may be preferred for high school. Again, try going the eco-friendly route with Ampad EnviroTech 100% Recycled Paper, available at Staples for $5.99 (100-pack) and many office supply stores.

Many assignments and projects are completed on the computer, especially in high school. USB flash drives are a great investment for high school students. They're durable and small (some can even attach to a keychain), they can store all of your child's projects for the school year, and probably, years to come -- and they're a heck of a lot more reliable than floppy disks. Your child probably doesn't even know what a floppy disk is, by the way. Feelin' old, yet?

"For the more tech-savvy shoppers, we're expecting flash drives -- like our Omnitech 1 GB USB Flash Drive -- to be popular, especially since flash drives are included on many back-to-school lists today," said Katie Sullivan, the public relations manager at Staples.

A flash drive with 1 to 2 GB should be plenty of storage for your high schooler. Best of all, the prices have really come down on these devices. The 1 GB Omnitech drive (mentioned above) is available at Staples for less than $10. And, after high school's over, your grad can take his/her flash drive to college.

Pack it up

Target and Wal-Mart offer plenty of pop-culture bookbags. There's Dora the Explorer, Sesame Street and SpongeBob for the little ones; Hannah Montana, High School Musical and Indiana Jones for tweens; and high schoolers will dig the fun prints and colors of Trans by JanSport bookbags, which typically run $20 to $60. Parents will like JanSport bags, too, because they're durable. JanSport has been making bags for almost 40 years, according to the company's Web site, so they must be doing something right.

Jenn Garrett of Bel Air, Md., swears by JanSport. On a recent trip to Target, she picked up a pink and white, heart-design JanSport bookbag for her 6-year-old daughter. "Her bookbag held up pretty well last year, so I decided to go with JanSport again ... It's a pretty good brand," Garrett said.

Office Depot is taking a fashion-forward approach to backpacks this year. "New this year, and very popular with teens, is a line of backpacks from surf photographer Aaron Chang. Office Depot is the only retailer to carry these products for back to school this year," said Stephen Olsen, vice president of supplies for Office Depot.

Your child wants something cool to pack his/her lunch in. You just want something that's going to keep food fresh. There are plenty of lunch boxes that feature your kids' favorite characters. At Target, we found a cool Barbie lunch bag by Thermos for $10. It's cute and colorful -- and more importantly, it features leak-proof compartments and it's easy to clean. At both Target and Wal-Mart, you'll also find " The Dark Knight" and "Speed Racer" lunch boxes by Thermos. The themed lunch boxes are insulated and include a separate compartment for sandwiches.

Chances are, your older child is going to want a lunch box with a simple, understated design. Try Arctic Zone lunch bags, which are available at Wal-Mart and Target for about $5. They come in a variety of colors and have an easy-to-clean, bacteria-resistant interior. Arctic Zone also makes stylish lunch 'totes,' which resemble purses. One of our favorite finds was the customizable Retro Tin Lunch Box, available on Target's Web site for $15. Kids can paint their own designs right on the lunch box!

The fun stuff

After you've checked off the basics, it's time to move onto the fun stuff. We found some supplies that are so cool, your child will be excited to head back to class. Well, almost.

Here are some of our favorite finds:

Target has a great new product this season called the LiveScribe Pulse SmartPen. Using the SmartPen, students can simultaneously take notes and capture audio (from a lecture, class discussion, etc.). At about $150, it's the most expensive item included in our guide -- but it's also the coolest.

"Students can then upload class notes and audio to their PC, share this with friends or replay the audio, which is especially handy when cramming for exams," said Joshua Thomas, a Target spokesman.

Another fun back-to-school item is the Magna Card Locker Accessories Kit, available at Staples for about $10. The kit allows students to add their own personal touch to their lockers with wallpaper, a mirror, magnetic phrases and more.

We also liked the Staples Problem Pad, available for about $4. It's a dry-erase board that students can fit into their binders. It's great for taking quick class notes or jotting down reminders throughout the school day. Plus, it was designed by a 10-year-old (kids know what kids like). Keagan Bolibol created the Problem Pad for the Staples Invention Quest Kids Contest.

Who knew going over class notes could be so much fun? Well, it can be ... with scented highlighters. SRX Superview Scented Highlighters, which we found at Target for about $4, come in refreshing lemon, strawberry and orange scents.

Crayola Total Tools is an entire line of fun -- and useful -- products that'll be a hit with both students and parents. For example, the Audio Ruler is a talking ruler; it measures lines and then voices the results. The Staple-Free Stapler binds papers together without staples and adds a fun stamp. The Ultimate Cutter goes where no pair of scissors has gone before. Its unique design allows it to cut at all those funky, awkward angles, and it won't cut skin. Crayola Total Tools can be found at Target, Wal-Mart and many office supply and arts and crafts stores, and they usually cost between $4 and $8.