Reinventing the Student Notebook

Three years ago, during my first year at Morgan Park Academy, I had to improvise part of a lesson after I was left without one of the handouts I planned to use.

I tried a slightly different way to get my seventh-grade English students to engage with the classic Robert Frost poem “The Road Less Traveled.”

I had them take out a piece of notebook paper and draw their understanding of the poem. Think about what the poem represents. What do you think it means? What images are most prominent? What colors come into your mind when you read it?

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The students loved this approach. Some of them drew compelling images from their interpretations of the poem. When asked to explain their images and how they connected to the poem, they had clear, analytical answers that showed their understanding and a higher level reading of the poem.

This success got me thinking: How can I do more of this in my classroom?

The Interactive Student Notebook

Inspired by my accidental discovery — and especially enthused about its potential for reaching students with all types of learning styles — I talked with Dan Peters, a colleague in Middle School humanities who is passionate about what’s called the Interactive Student Notebook (ISN).

For both my English classes and Mr. Peters’ history classes, the concept is the same: On the right side of the notebook, students record the information they’re getting from the teacher. On the left side, they practice that lesson. Here they have an opportunity to creatively represent what they have learned.

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Incorporating the ISN has allowed me to reach all kinds of learners. The more visual learners and hands-on learners have space to create and to showcase their understanding of concepts in different ways, while the more auditory learners have a place to record what they hear for later study.

Students who struggle to speak in front of the class can show in the notebook that they understand the material; those who like to write have the space to do so; and those students who like to use drawings or symbols as notes can include them, too.

The ISN gives students the opportunity to do all of these things and more.

It has also given me the opportunity to be more creative with the types of lessons that I teach. As we continue to work to align our curriculum more closely across departments, using maps in their notebooks allows students to make connections in history classes while showing their comprehension of a novel’s setting in English classes. Alternatively, students can draw their interpretation of characters, which displays their understanding of character analysis and which can later help them as they transition into writing paragraphs about that character.

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Seeing Process in the Final Product

The ISN is both process and product. It allows students to see the transitions between assignments, giving them the opportunity to see how larger projects and assignments fit together and to know that they have done much of the preliminary work.

As students see that they have been engaged in a longer process of analyzing, writing, editing, revising, and creating, the anxiety begins to lessen, for the ISN has helped them become more organized, keeping all of their lessons in one place. They have what for them is a quite profound and calming realization: It’s all easily accessible in my ISN.

Process is a key factor in authentic learning, but the ISN is also about product. At the end of the year, students can look back at all they accomplished, how they changed as writers, as readers, and as critical thinkers. It is a testament to their hard work, determination, and above all, progress to the next level.

Incorporating the ISN into my classes has changed the way I approach teaching English in the Middle School. Sure, we still read and write a lot, but we also use other ways to discuss, analyze, and create our own understandings about what we are reading, writing, and thinking. The result is a more lively and engaged classroom.


By Sandra Burgess

Ms. Burgess teaches seventh- and eighth-grade English and is curriculum leader for the English department.

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