Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Interactive Notebooks: Maybe Yes, Maybe No

I remember when I first heard the term "interactive notebook" I was excited to see some new approach to using something with technology. The word "interactive" led me to believe that somehow a digital device was involved. But no, it's a spiral notebook in which students glue, paste, staple, or tape handouts. Students create a table of contents and then number each page so every student is literally on the same page as is the teacher. Huh.

So I get why teachers like interactive notebooks and I applaud why and how teachers use them. You can sense the "but" loitering at the end of that sentence, can't you? Well, it's coming; however, if this concept of interactive notebooks is new to you or you've been wrestling with a way to do it well, please read this article from Edutopia as this teacher, Christina Gil, lays out the how and why extremely well. You might also check out Ms. Legenski's Google site where she has posted some information for parents about the why and how of interactive notebooks as well as her rubric for grading them. (She's got some nifty other stuff on that site, too, but let's not get distracted just now. And the picture above is from her site.)

To Ms. Legenski's point, students use a range of skills including visual and linguistic intelligence and note-taking is an active, focused experience. I want to dwell on that last point for a bit because I know note-taking is become a lost skill and it's a very important one for students.

If you read Ms. Gil's article or scroll through Ms. Legenski's site, you'll note (see what I did there?) that an interactive notebook provides opportunity for guided note-taking. I've created guided notes graphic organizers because I know students don't know how to take notes. I remember studying and highlighting pretty much everything in the book (though I color-coded it) because I wasn't sure what was most important. Why? I didn't know what was going to be on the test. Yea, some things never change.

The point is that students don't know how to take notes because they don't know what they need to know and, more significantly, they don't realize that note-taking helps them solidify information they may want to know. I could talk about the brain research (see Additional Resources below), but little of that will come as any surprise. And it's not the devices--pencil and paper--but the time involved for students to take notes.

Think about how many times you've heard something of interest and scribbled a note in a margin or on a sticky note. How much text was that? A sentence or two? A phrase with a question mark? A reference to an author or article? But enough to remind you to follow-up because there is something you wanted to learn or understand. There are several reasons we take notes as adults and most of them are about our own learning and being able to share our learning with our colleagues. Our "test" is our work and our lives--things about which we care and for which we have motivation for improvement.

When we ask students to take notes, WHY do we want them to take notes? To learn? To be able to study for a test? There's a big difference between those two purposes.

In Ms. Gil's article, she notes that the left side is for creativity and the right side for objective material. The left side might be for notes or charts or something potentially creative with regard to the objective material on the right. What bugs me about that? I feel constrained and I'm not even doing the interactive notebook as a student. Would I really get to create graphs the way I want? Would I be able to take notes the way I want? Maybe mapping? Maybe sketchnoting? Maybe an informal outline? What if I needed more space because I don't want to get docked for work that might seem messy or disorganized? Could I put "Con't on page xx" if I need more room? And if I need more room, where would that be? More on this shortly.

The other thing that bugs me is that only the right side needs to be studied for a test. So any connections I make with the learning, or any connections I make with my classmates' learning could be limited to the left side or has to be part of the right side? How do I, as a student, determine which is which?

I do like the way Ms. Gil lays out grading. She says that 50 percent of a student's grade is "based on just four pages." The students choose three pages for the teacher to grade and the teacher chooses one so she believes that students show her their "best work," she gets "to learn what they like and what they're proud of." I really like that. So Ms. Gil's grading strategy plus Ms. Legenski's rubric makes sense. . except for the constraint of the pages.

In all honesty, I can't imagine that students would write or draw more than one page but, as I've said, the limitation bothers me. I'd like students to have the flexibility to do more or other than reflects their learning. I suppose that most teachers know roughly about how much of a spiral notebook is going to be used each year. I think my solution would be this: students start from the front of the spiral notebook. We all do the TOC, etc. But then students can turn their notebooks over and upside down, so they're writing in the back but it looks similar to the front. This is their continuation and freestyle section. They need to create a TOC for this section as well so they can number the pages (B1, B2, B3, etc. for the back of the book) so when they write "Con't on. . .," they can identify the page to which the teacher should go.

I can imagine some teachers pushing back for several reasons. It might be too confusing for the students or for the teacher; and it might be too distracting for the students during class, while they're studying or working with their partners or groups. Sure, it might. But that might also become the section in which students make connections and think on paper when they're studying or when they're reflecting on their learning. It could happen, especially if we give them the opportunity.

When we ask kids to take notes, yes, we want to make sure they are prepared for the test, but we should also want them to make connections with their learning. And connections that make sense to them in their own ways. Because as they learn to make connections, to think widely and creatively, to imagine and dream beyond the moment, they may begin to discover something remarkable about themselves.

There are lots of strategies to help students reinforce their learning that can be part of the interactive notebook. In fact, when students do some sort of activity that might not require a handout that gets pasted on the objective right side of the interactive notebook, there should be some way for students to include reflections on their learning or some sort of reporting on the activity they did and what they learned from it. For example, one of my favorite activities is a variation on tic-tac-toe. In one class we had students create 10 questions based on the work they had done the day before. Then students were put in pairs and they quizzed each other based on their own questions. Students had to confirm each other's learning by referring to the worksheet/graphic organizer they'd worked with the day before. If a student was correct, that student got to put his or her X or O in a space. If the student wasn't correct--and the teacher was the arbiter--they lost a turn. And so it went until someone won or they reached a draw. Then students switched pairs and did it again. We did three rounds and students reviewed the same information but through different questions.

When we were done, we were done. If that teacher had had students doing interactive notebooks, I think we would have put the worksheets in the notebooks. I would have wanted students to put at least their questions in their notebooks but I also would have wanted them to revisit their questions and make notes to correct any questions or to expand on any questions. That might have required more than two face-to-face pages and that should be okay, especially if it expands student learning and helps them to start thinking differently not only about what they're learning but how they're learning.

My thinking is that teachers continue to do interactive notebooks, providing guidelines, creating structures so students can learn to take notes and be better prepared for tests. However, I would love for teachers to relinquish some control of the TOC, even if it's to allow that backwards TOC from the back of the notebook so students can truly be creative, expansive, imaginative, even collaborative if they want. Let's unleash the learning.

Additional resources
For Note Taking, Low-Tech is Often Best
The Magic of Writing Stuff Down
3 Fun Strategies for Note Taking
Take Note: Five Lessons for Note-Taking Fun
Take Note! {Note Taking in the Primary Classroom}


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