Interactive Notebooks

Although I think a system I’ve been using to encourage students to keep good notebooks works really well for me, and might even work well for students, I am not exactly sure what they’re writing down and whether or not they are truly using their notebooks to the greatest capacity. Therefore, I am going to try Interactive Notebooks next year. In case you haven’t heard of Interactive Notebooks, they are a system for taking notes developed by Addison Wesley as part of their History Alive! program. Teachers quickly adapted the resource to other subject areas.

What are they?

Essentially, Interactive Notebooks (INs) are a format for taking notes that encourages organization, making connections, and interaction. The Interactive Notebooks Wiki describes them as a way “to enable students to be creative, independent thinkers and writers.” The beautiful part of the IN to me is that students are encouraged to do assignments as part of the notebook, which will mean I will have fewer smaller assignments. For example, I frequently ask students to do close-reading assignments with questions in small groups. With an IN, the assignment can be part of the notebook. When INs are collected, I can assess the assignment as part of the overall notebook, which should cut down on some of the time I spend grading.

What do they look like?

Greece Central School District, as always, has wonderful resources related to INs, including a picture of what a language arts IN might look like (click to see a larger image):

Interactive Notebook

How do you set them up?

Students should use the right side of the notebook pages for testable material: notes from class and group discussions, reading, video and audio presentations, and lectures; literary terms; vocabulary; and assignments. The left side is for reading responses and journals; graphic organizers; songs, pictures, cartoons, and poems; connected or related ideas; reflections, quotes, perspectives; and mnemonic devices and memory aids. Take a look at the sample page above, and you’ll see it action.

What materials will I need?

Depending on how you want your students to organize their notebooks, you will need different tools. For instance, most teachers discussing INs seem to loathe 3-ring binders. To me, it makes more sense for organizational purposes to have a 3-ring binder as opposed to a spiral-bound notebook or composition book—there would be less need for pasting, for one thing, and it would also lie flatter when closed because 3-ring binders are designed to hold a lot of paper. Here is my list of supplies:

  • 3-ring binder (1-1½ inches)
  • notebook paper
  • highlighters
  • colored pens or pencils
  • subject dividers
  • a glue stick or tape
  • a pencil bag (or students can keep tools in backpack or purse)

The binder, paper, and pencil bag are probably self-explanatory, but highlighters and colored pens/pencils are used to underscore ideas or add color, both of which seem to help students when they are studying. The subject dividers are optional, but if you divide your course into units based on either a textbook or curriculum, you might consider them. The glue stick or tape is for affixing materials into the notebook.

Where can I learn more?

Start with the Interactive Notebooks Wiki, but be sure to check out Greece Central School District’s information, too. I also created this presentation for my own students that you are free to read, download, and adapt for your own purposes (it is licensed under a Creative Commons License).

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An Experience with Wuthering Heights

OK, I didn’t plan very well, and I ran out of time at the end of the school year. I really wanted my students to experience Wuthering Heights, but I knew there was no way we had a enough time to read this layered, complex, richly woven tapestry of a novel. So I kind of cheated. We watched what many fans and critics believe to be the film version that most resembles the book, a 1998 Masterpiece Theater production (purchase here) that stars Robert Cavanah and Orla Brady as Heathcliff and Catherine. I have to say after watching it that I agree. The story of Linton, Cathy, and Hareton is intact—the most famous film version ends shortly after Catherine’s death.

My students certainly didn’t complain about viewing the film. I am not sure they necessarily expected to like it, but as we continued to watch, I noticed that many of the students were slowly becoming transfixed by the story. They were making interesting connections (Heathcliff to Frankenstein’s monster—one student said she wanted to feel empathy for both characters, but then they would do something horrible to an innocent person, and she couldn’t feel bad for them anymore). Every once in a while, I saw them pull their genealogy charts out of their notebooks to consult. Three students said they really want to read the book now. When Heathcliff began digging up Catherine, some of my students said, “Mrs. Huff! What is he doing?” I replied, “Exactly what it looks like.” They were horrified. They were rapt. When it ended, two girls in the back applauded.

I am not so foolish as to believe every student in the class liked it, but we did have an excellent discussion about it. I discussed the ingenious structure of the novel and the doubled characters. The students genuinely seemed to enjoy the film, and the only complaint any of them lodged was that the actors seemed a bit too old for their parts (true, but they also agreed that perhaps younger actors might not have had the range to deliver the performances, either).

Showing the film before (or instead of) reading the novel was something of an accident on my part this year, but I am wondering if it might not be a bad idea to show the film before reading the book next year. Students can learn the story through film, and enjoy the technique and craft of the novel perhaps more for knowing and understanding what’s happening. I certainly teach Shakespeare in that way sometimes. I’m just glad my students have had a good experience with Wuthering Heights. At the end of class today, I mentioned to some straggling students that I was glad they’d enjoyed it because I found at least two Facebook groups organized around hatred for Wuthering Heights. One student responded, a completely puzzled look on his face. “Really?  Why?” His tone seemed to say he just couldn’t imagine why anyone would hate that story. YES!

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No Blogging = No Reflection

My full schedule has not been conducive to blogging. I haven’t dropped off the face of the earth, but I’m not blogging as much as I have in the past for two main reasons 1) grad school, and 2) department chair. Well, I’m not taking any classes this summer for a variety of reasons, most of which have to do with money, and I will no longer be the English department chair at my school. I think it’s a good thing for my family that I will no longer have this role. I am hoping that giving up this leadership role will enable me more time to be reflective here at my blog.

Like my students, I can feel the end of the year. We really have just three more weeks before final exams. I am noticing that I’m working hard to try to keep my students engaged. In the past, I’ve given in to spring fever, but I’ve learned that I have to work extra hard at the end of the year on planning engaging lessons. I am not going to flatter myself that my students always respond the way I wish they would, but I had a great class today (at the very end of the day, no less) in which we read and discussed Robert Browning’s poem “Porphyria’s Lover.” I created the lesson plan I used today about 10 years ago as part of a model lesson for a job I really wanted (and got). I also published it in an old edition of Ideas Plus (I think it was No. 16, but I’m not sure). I’ve described it in a previous post. Because this is only my second year teaching British literature (my passion), I have only had the chance to teach this lesson three times, but each time, I have had the same success with students. It’s so exciting to see them debating about a poem, each side pulling out lines to back up their claims. It’s a great little close reading exercise that can be done in a class period. It’s important for me to have time to reflect—to celebrate the successes and dissect the flops.

When it works and a class is really clicking, and all the students are into it, there’s nothing quite like teaching.

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