So I’ve been thinking a lot about notebooks and how I want my students to take notes and keep their notebooks.My first year of teaching (when I taught 6th grade math and science), I had no specific method that I remember, and my students often didn’t even come to class with a notebook or take it out. I tried to revamp in January by giving everyone a notebook, and having a specific set-up procedure, but it still was quite vague, so it stayed quite problematic. My second year, I tried using Cornell Notes with my 8th graders at my new school, but I didn’t really know how to do the Cornell Notes well, and I often found that the students questions were really just headings for different sections (in part because that year I did a TON of direct instruction). Around year three, I discovered interactive notebooks, and I liked that idea much more, so I started shifting my notebooks towards that, but not entirely.

The last few years, I’ve been pretty consistent with my notebook practices. I’ve had my 8th grade students get graph paper composition notebooks. In class together, we set up the table of contents, a glossary at the back, and we number the pages. Each day when students come in to class, they write a table of contents entry shown on the board with the date, the page number, and the topic for the day (usually a shortened version of the focus question). Then they do the warm-up (unless it’s a handout) in their notebook. Some days we solve math problems in our notebooks (based off of things on the board or from discussions), while other days, we work on handouts with problems typed up (especially if there are graphs or lots of specific geometry or word problems). Every night for homework, I had students write a reflection called “My Understanding,” though after push-back for two years from my students, I wound up dropping it at the end of last year to some degree (especially for my ICT class, where my co-teacher wasn’t on-board). Next year, I plan to bring My Understandings back, but I have some new thoughts about how I’m going to do it (especially with younger students).

However, with my notebook system, there are a few things I’m not crazy about that I want to try to solve before September. First, because I use SO MANY handouts, my students have trouble organizing all of their papers. Some of the more successful students store everything in a section of a binder (where they use a three-hole punch on their own to enter it), or they store everything for each unit in a folder, or they attach it to daily into their notebooks (which makes the notebooks incredibly thick!). In the past, with my 8th graders, I’ve had them choose the method for organizing it that worked best for them, with my default being to give them a two-pocket folder to store handouts in… But they do become overwhelming and huge. If I do half-sheets, I try to have students glue or staple (or tape) them into their notebooks immediately, because I found those to be small enough they weren’t too problematic, but it took time to pass those supplies around the room. And last year, I had some students who used office supplies inappropriately every time they were passed out (intentionally, because they were bored), so I stopped being able to do that. I’m nervous about having even younger students who might have more problems with it, but I’m also thinking they might take it more seriously. I see all of these blogs with posts about having students cut out things and glue them into interactive notebooks and I scratch my head in wonder because I’ve never seen a class of mine where I thought we could accomplish that in a reasonable amount of time – and I want us to spend our time together problem solving, and not designing pretty/fancy/or even organized notebooks. I know that to some degree, I sacrifice the possibility of the notebook being more useful with the interactivity, but I can’t manage it mentally (at least, not yet), so I just focus on good graphic organizers and handouts to support the students in taking notes when I think it’s necessary.

With the warm-ups in the notebook, my colleagues pointed out that I’m not really able to give a grade for those on a weekly basis. She had students do all warm-ups for a given week on a handout that was brightly colored and collected on Friday. It always had a graph and blank space, and the problem was on the board. Students had to start the problem immediately and then had the opportunity to get the “notes” down when the class went over the warm-up, so theoretically, it should’ve been an easy classwork grade for all of the students. In reality, some of them lost the papers and when they replaced it, they were then penalized for missing days, or they didn’t copy the notes during the class review, and they didn’t finish it, so they didn’t get good grades for it. So I sort of like this idea for warm-ups in theory, but I’m not 100%. Especially if I’m considering using number talks with number strings for my warm-ups; then I’m definitely not sure how I would do this task!

With my glossary in the back, I’ve had students set it up alphabetically in reverse, so they’ve done pages A – Z. On each page, we have three columns: one for the word, one for the definition, and one for examples. Inevitably, there are always pages that wind up more full than others (in 8th grade, S was usually full with words like slope, scatter plot, and similar). I didn’t feel like students referred to their glossary unless prompted to, and I wondered if it would be better to have students sort words by unit (except, of course, that we learn some words in an early unit and then continue to refer to them all year – especially academic words like skeptic or consensus, which are not topic-specific). So I’m not sure how I want to do a glossary. For some words, where counterexamples were especially important, I would use Four-Squares vocabulary organizer with the word in the middle, the definition, the characteristics, and then examples and counter-examples in each quadrant (most notably with words like rational and irrational in 8th grade).

Additionally, I found that students either didn’t refer back to their notes or use them in a good way, unless they already knew good note-taking strategies. Some of my most successful notebook users were students who reread their notes, highlighting and “tagging” pages with post-it notes or students who looked at formulas and other important details and wrote them down in a separate section of their notes.

The other thing I found problematic was at the start of class, students were supposed to set up their table of contents, but it took some of them a VERY long time to do… and I’m not sure it’s better/more useful than opening their notebook to a clean page, writing the date and the topic on that page, and beginning whatever notes we need right there. I’m almost tempted at the end of EVERY DAY to have them write a one-to-two sentence summary of what we did/learned/talked about/investigated in class if it was on a handout (or not in their notebook) so they have a running record of it, like “Oh, right, 9/30 was the day we learned about “zero pairs,” but we did it on a handout using algebra tiles.”

So I have a couple of ideas about what I think I want to do with my students’ notebooks for the fall & a couple of questions. I know I definitely still want graph paper notebooks (even though I’m moving down to 6th and 7th grade from 8th) because I think the resource will be invaluable to have on hand so they can ALWAYS make a graph if they need to. The biggest question on my mind is whether it matters if the notebook is spiral bound (and kept in a binder), a section of paper within a binder, or a composition notebook. I can find pros and cons for all three.

Composition Notebook:

Pros – students will ALWAYS have their notes, because the pages are hardier and rarely fall out unless the student tears out too many pages. Typically, composition graph paper notebooks have the most pages of the cheaper notebooks.

Cons – it’s the hardest to manage outside papers/handouts, because the notebook doesn’t have anywhere to store them. They also seem to sell out at the store first. If you fold the book too much, the binding can split, which makes them harder to place under the document camera sometimes. Hard for me to copy/study/collect student work and give any meaningful feedback on it.

Spiral Notebook:

Pros – These notebooks could be stored within a binder to protect them and keep them as part of a math section. There’s some flexibility if they’re stored within a binder because then they have a place to keep handouts organized. Additionally, some of the “fancier” spiral graph notebooks (by 5-star?) have pockets to store handouts within them. If they have perforated pages, the students can also easily rip pages out to submit work (though the con is that the students may sometimes leave the little bits attached, perforated or not!). Finally, because the notebook can be folded in half so easily, it fits under a document camera pretty easily.

Cons – Pages are not super secure in spiral notebooks, and if these notebooks get crushed in the backpack (as they often do), the binding can become problematic and the pages can be hard to turn, and the pages can rip out of the notebook easily. I also found that these notebooks typically have 10 – 20 pages fewer than the composition notebooks.

Section in a Binder with Graph Paper:

Pros – Handouts can be integrated right within the notes pages. There’s flexibility of where students store their work and how, as well as the flow of work from notebook to handout and back again (although they won’t usually be able to take multiple-days worth of notes on the same pages). Students can easily submit work to me that they do in their notes and then put it back into their notes when they receive it back from me.

Cons – Most likely to lose pages, because the holes get torn up or because the pages get lost. Also, unless purchased in a notebook, most graph paper for sale doesn’t come pre-three-hole-punched, so that’s an added step. Additionally, binders can be crushed in bags or can be heavy/unwieldy to carry around – especially if they need multiple binders for multiple classes.

I’m curious about what other people do and why. I think I’m leaning towards letting students decide, but emphasizing my personal preference/default is composition notebooks, followed by the spiral notebook within a binder they use for multiple subjects.

Additionally, I’ve been reading the book Thinking Mathematically (a gift from a professor I worked with last year), and in it, the authors talk about something they call “RUBRIC WRITING” which I love. I haven’t gotten very far into the book yet (too many books to read, too little time!), but I love the idea of having students reflect on their problem solving process using these four key words: “Stuck! Aha! Check, and Reflect” – the book explains the kinds of things students should write down when they realize they are having one of those four types of moments. I love this and I think I’d like to incorporate it.

My NB goals for the 2016-2017 year:

  • Have a daily process that students follow using their notebooks, whether we’re working on handouts or directly in the NBs.
  • Ensure students understand how to use a notebook’s pages sequentially by numbering the pages, dating them, and then opening specifically to the next unused page. You laugh that I mention this (in middle school), but in the last three years of 8th grade, I’ve had at least one or two students (especially kids with IEPs) who would just jump around to ANY blank page within the notebook when it came time to use it.
  • Have a record of their thinking process and have them do both problem solving (drafts!) as well as writing about math in their notebooks.
  • Have students see their notebooks as resources and useful.

In the past, I’ve given students a notebook grade based on their “completion” – inclusion of certain activities that we’ve done that have been super specific (not necessarily just notes), as well as the set-up. One thing I noticed was that while there were students who didn’t participate verbally in class who had amazing notebooks (i.e. clearly they were focused even though they were shy/silent/quiet), the students who struggled the most in math class (with grades and behavior) always had poorly organized notebooks with missing sections and without following the procedures/routines I had set up. So they would sometimes get penalized for missing words from their glossary or having no table of contents entries or dates/page numbers. I would write comments each unit when I collected and graded notebooks during their unit exams, but I never saw a dramatic change in anyone’s notebook grade – I could’ve predicted most students’ general range based on their first notebook check grade. So that tells me they’re not growing or changing in terms of their notebook habits and that makes me question the validity/usefulness of grading the notebooks (again, perhaps another post, outside the scope of this one).

How do other people help their students (especially middle school, but any age, really) organize their work in math class?


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