I fell in love with the idea of an interactive notebook the very first time I heard about it. Putting that strategy into practice in my middle school classroom was another story, though. After several false starts and lots of minor adjustments I finally found a process that worked for me and my students. I don’t follow the guidelines for an “official” interactive notebook with left side for input and right side for output. Instead, my classes use our notebooks as a place to collect just about everything we do as part of our learning. Here are some lessons I learned along the way.
1. Choose a purpose for your interactive notebook
Will your notebook be a portfolio to show off your students’ progress? Will it be a study guide and reference tool for students? Or will it become a piece that you will assess for a grade? Think about what entries students might make in their notebooks. These could include notes, journals, illustrations, skills practice, constructed responses, work samples, handouts, and more. In my final iteration of interactive notebooks (or INBs), students actually kept two separate notebooks: one for a reference guide and one for a record of daily work. Knowing what you want to achieve with an interactive notebook will guide you in setting it up for success.
If your primary purpose is to create a reference or study guide, I suggest using a composition notebook. That helps keep everything in a single place, especially for students who need some help with organization. If you want to create a portfolio, you might want to use a pocket folder or binder as your notebook.
2. Plan a Table of Contents
For my reference guide notebook, I listed out all of the pages I wanted students to have in their completed notebooks. I decided on the order, organized by subject area with literature topics together and grammar topics together, etc. After the first year, I definitely had to make some adjustments to this plan! That’s okay, in my opinion, an interactive notebook should always be a work in progress.
For a notebook that is an ongoing record of work or learning, you don’t have to pre-plan every page. However, you should leave space (2-3 pages) for a Table of Contents at the front of your notebook. Each time you add to a page in the notebook, you will have students list that entry on their Table of Contents.
3. Insist on numbered pages
Either way you plan your Table of Contents, have your students number all their pages at the beginning of the year. If they don’t do this before you get started, chances are some of them will never get their pages numbered! Having numbered pages is a lifesaver for keeping students and yourself organized with what should be in the notebook.
With middle school students, it may be okay to number only odd pages (time-saving tip). I prefer to have the page numbers in the upper right corner; that seems to be the easiest way to quickly thumb through and find the page you need.
Invariably, someone would skip a page or skip a number in this process. I just let students rip out a page that they accidentally skipped over and didn’t number. You could also leave it in as a bonus page for doodling or whatever, but then kiddos might deliberately “accidentally” skip pages! Inserting a page when they’ve skipped over a number is a little trickier, but it can be done. I kept an old notebook for spare parts. Just have a student rip a blank page from it and then tape it into place in her own notebook when needed.
4. Help students navigate their notebooks
With a notebook used primarily for notes and study, students may need to flip back and forth between pages or sections. You can easily make tabs to mark important sections of your interactive notebook. In my reference guide notebook, we made tabs for Middle School Survival Skills (yep, they needed it!), Literature, Parts of Speech, CUPS (capitalization, usage, punctuation, and spelling), Vocabulary, and Writing. If you are adding to your notebook chronologically, you might use tabs like this to mark units of study or grading periods.
Print on colored paper that is a little heavier than copy paper. Cardstock would work, too, but it is more challenging to fold and glue into place. After cutting the tab out, fold it and place glue dots on the back. Glue the open tab to one side of the page edge so that it sticks out about 1/4 inch. Then close the tab and glue it to the other side of the page, too.
You can grab the template for these tabs here.
Another way to help students quickly find their place in the interactive notebook is to use a bookmark. Pre-cut ribbon into 8-10 inch pieces and glue into the back cover. (Liquid school glue is more permanent than hot glue, and safer, too!)
You could also make these adorable bookmark page corners from Red Ted Art. Just plan to keep a few spare templates because someone will lose theirs at some point in the year.
5. Plan for storage, or not
Some teachers keep their students’ notebooks in the classroom to ensure that they will always be available when needed. I didn’t like this option because I want my students to take ownership of their notebooks and to use them for studying. The notebooks are for them more than for me.
If you do choose to keep the interactive notebooks in your classroom, think about how you will organize them. Do you have a cabinet, shelf, or locker space available? A set of sturdy plastic crates will work, one for each class section you teach. Plan for how students will access these during class. Will they automatically grab them as they enter the room? Or will student helpers distribute and collect them each day? You do not want to have to deal with picking them up and putting them away yourself during each class changing period!
Allowing my students to take their notebooks home each night, I did occasionally have someone who forgot to bring it to class. I dealt with that just as I would any other supply a student needed–probably too leniently. Anyway, I gave him a sheet of loose leaf paper to take notes on or glue work onto and then had him staple that page into his notebook the following day. I only ever had one student who consistently could not get the interactive notebook to school, so I made a space for that one notebook on my bookshelf and kept it there (#accommodations).
For ideas about some techniques that will save your sanity, read Interactive Notebook Tricks to Teach Your Students.
If you have a tip that makes interactive notebooks work for you, please share below!