My first quarter with the “Interactive Notebook”

This year, I have been doing everything with modified “interactive” science notebooks for my biology and physics classes. Everything. I even keep one myself that helps me plan, sketch things out, and use as an example.  Its also handy when students complain about tedious tasks, like numbering all the pages.

“You can do it!  I’ve done it twice!”

As I posted earlier, I’ve been using Teaching Science with Interactive Notebooks by Kelli Marcarelli.  This is a great book and I recommend it highly, even at full price.  Kelli gives all the information you need to put together a comprehensive course using interactive notebooks (rather than say, binders or a file cabinet full of folders).

Anyway, I wanted to share with you what I’ve learned.

1.  Do your notebooks in a way that makes sense to you.

It makes just about zero sense to me to have the input page on the right and the output page on the left. None.  When we do the “input/output” pairs in my class, my input (usually notes) goes on the left, student work reflecting on that information goes on the right.  I get that this works for some people and for some students, but no scientist that I’ve ever met does anything except keep notes and data in chronological order.  We always move chronologically and no skipping around on pages.

2.  Keep a notebook yourself.

Keep a notebook yourself.  Not only is it a fun scrapbook of what you’ve learned, but you can use it as an example of what students should be doing.  The only thing that’s a bummer is that if you put answers in it, students will just copy your notebook.  Mine is a good example for layout and the contents for each page, but I’d get a pretty low score on a notebook check because its incomplete and doesn’t have any of the answers or extended response writing that I require of my students.

3.  My students really like notes.

Who knew?  I had been giving notes on a white board, because I thought that modeling note writing would be good for them.  They hated it.  I gave my students a short feedback sheet and asked how the class could be better – and they asked for more notes not on the whiteboard.  The other teachers are now stopping by and mentioning that my students are happy to have notes for their notebooks.  (I feel that students doing this seems a little weird, but whatever.)  One commented the students were happy because they have seen the changes I made to the class after their feedback and they feel like I’m listening to them. (Little happy dance!)

4.  You really do have to show students what to do with an output page.

This is the odd thing about these interactive notebooks – just like learning inquiry, students have to be taught how to produce “output” that is “reflective” on whatever you focused on in class.  For now, I have been giving them figures to put in, or tiny pictures they can use to make a concept map, or I use my document projector and model how I reflect on the material.  This is the one you have to set them up to be successful on, or they freak out and hate the notebooks.

5.  Interactive notebooks might be an “all or nothing” thing.

I’m not sure on this idea yet, but students love that they have JUST ONE NOTEBOOK in my class.  In fact, I provide them with tape and scissors so that everything is physically attached (we have a shake test – stuff falls out, and your notebook doesn’t pass the shake test!) Many have commented that they don’t like having an interactive notebook that they use “just sometimes” in their other classes.  Then they have to keep track of their regular binder, their textbook (I requested a classroom set of texts so students don’t need to bring them), and their interactive notebook.

6.  It would have been a good idea to specify how many pages should be in their composition book.

My students purchased their own composition books.  Some students have books with 100 sheets (like me!), giving us 200 pages to work with (Friday, the end of the second week of the second quarter, we were on page 93).  Some students have books with 70 sheets, they are getting close to that 140th page.  The simplest solution is to get another book and just continue page numbering.  I haven’t decided if we’re going to tape the books together or not at that point.

So, how do I plan with this thing?

Firstly, I do everything my students do, and on the same pages that they will.  (Now, my physics students do practice problems and we’re off, but it doesn’t bother me with them.  They are ok with the instruction “go to the next page in your notebook”, I think because they just have more experience.  Part of what I’m doing in Biology is teaching them how to mature as students and stay organized, and chaos ensues when they start straying from the order.  And there’s NO REASON they need more space than I use.  Period.)

I’m very fond of my page that I made when we did systematics and classification.  Every student got a page with pictures of insects, and had to sort them.  I sorted mine by morphology (one pair or wings, two pairs of wings, “bugs”, “arachnids”, “many legs”) – I tried to do it like they might.  I also might have looked up all their classification details and made a table, but hey, that’s what interactive notebooks are all about!  Going a little further.  (They are on post it notes so I can take them off the page and move them around.)  Make sure you do it yourself either before or with your first class (my first biology section is only just more than a dozen students, so sometimes I work on my notebook alongside them) so that you know what it will look like, and students who are more visual can understand what you want them to do.

page19 Insect Classification
page19 Insect Classification

I also did a cool food web page, and I only knew I needed two pages for this because I tried doing it first.  Students were first given notes on foodwebs then a handout with all the pictures of animals on them.  Each picture has a description beneath it that says what the animal eats and what eats it.  Students were directed to arrange them on the two pages with arrows going from the food to the predator, and some struggled with that.  However, we kept talking about them and I’m confident almost every kid understood food webs and trophic levels by the time we were done, because they’d struggled with sorting out a food web rather than just looking at a figure.

page22_23 Food Web
page22_23 Food Web

Lastly, here is an example of my lecture plans alongside the page students produced.  When talking about the idea of an ecosystem being made of parts that work together to complete a bigger picture, we read the Lorax aloud and then made a concept map showing how the characters (and sometimes things) in the story interacted with one another.  I put the main ideas I wanted to cover and how I wanted to cover them on post-it notes, which allowed me to best arrange my presentation of these ideas without stressing about how my notebook looked (also, I was still lecturing “chalk talk” style here – which many students didn’t like and I’ve abandoned in favor of powerpoint for now).

Here are my notes (page54-system notes Lorax)
Here are my notes (page54-system notes Lorax)
And here is the concept map (page55- Lorax concept map)
And here is the concept map (page55- Lorax concept map)

Students were given the pictures in the concept map and asked to arrange them then write what the interactions between the characters was in the story (they were read the story and also given the text as a handout – yay for Common Core wanting more text in science).  It was difficult to get them to complete this, even though I really liked doing it myself.  I suspect students didn’t want to read the story, or they froze up about where to put the pictures on the page and ran out of time – this one will definitely need revision next year.

Wanna see my notebook?

Here’s my biology notebook for the first quarter, “Ecology”.  I am not showing some of the front matter because it comes almost verbatim from Ms. Marcarelli’s fine book. (Head’s up: this looks fine on a PC but doesn’t come through correctly on my iPad.)

Dr. O’s Ecology Unit in her Science Notebook (Planning Notebook)

The Sacred Profession goes into great detail about using the interactive notebook in her high school history class. (HERE) (If you get stuck on her blog, I won’t be offended. Go. Have fun.)

12 thoughts on “My first quarter with the “Interactive Notebook”

  1. This is fantastically helpful. I am doing a notebook for the first time this year, but only for labs, demonstrations, and some reflection. While it is helpful and the students like it, I’m recognizing that only using it sometimes is a problem. Could you elaborate on what you are doing with notes? That’s an area I have yet to touch with the notebook and would be curious to hear your method.

    Thanks for the examples. It’s so helpful to see what other people are doing with this tool.

  2. The input and output is specifically designed that way because it is linked to the way the brain processes information. The left side of the brain is used for orderly and systematic note taking (so this is done on the right side); the right side of the brain is used for creative expressions of understanding (so this is done on the left side). Doing the notebook this way forces the opposite of the brain to interact with the information normally processed with the other side of the brain. So in essence you force your whole brain to be involved in the process which should increase learning tremendously. Hope this rationale helps.

    1. Christy – thanks for your comment. I do understand that the “left-brain, right-brain” argument is the supposed reasoning behind how some choose to lay out their notebooks, but based on evidence, I think its hogwash. I have always wondered if the “informational” right side and “reflective” left side of a notebook originated with teachers and students writing on the right side and then having a left side that would otherwise have been left empty, so students could get more use from that space by focused reflection rather than unfocused doodling. Further, ideas about “left-brain, right-brain” ideas come from days when various neurological disorders were treated by separating the hemispheres of the brain surgically and today location of brain activity should not really have any bearing on evidence-based educational practices. You can read more about this at

  3. Do you have your students work up an “A-Ha” statement for scientific ideas? I’ve tried doing this as a class, as suggested in Marcarelli’s book, but am getting frustrated with the amount of time it takes, and how students keep opting for the vague, flippant, or (most often) shortest proposed summary statements, even after discussions about writing and choosing statements that are clear, thorough, and supported by lab/class activities. How do you handle the lesson summary piece of the interactive notebook?

    1. This is hard. In fact, I quit notebooks entirely by about April. It was probably somehow my fault for not generating buy-in, but it was exhausting spending so much effort just to help my students be organized.

      Last year, some students LOVED the interactive notebooks. I loved them. Unfortunately a few really hated them. So much so that my the end of the year they were taking them to the administration and complaining that I was grading them by the rubric and changing their grades after they self-scored themselves near perfect scores. And I was unofficially reprimanded and asked to either grade them all myself (which literally would take me 8+ hours because kids did not follow directions and it took forever) or not grade them at all. At that point, I ditched notebooks entirely for that year.

      I also really struggled with the A-Ha statements. The majority of my students either did not have the skills to write them or were just uncooperative. When I assigned a unit thesis, 3 students of 100 did them. Its difficult to stick to a high-stakes assignment when the admin are looking for a certain number of students to pass your class, and they refuse to do assignments in mass, even when I gave them class time to work on them.

      This year I’m at a new school where interactive notebooks would probably get more support from admin and more buy-in from students, but some of the struggles are still there. I’m having students use binders and its resolving so many of the organizational problems I had before (we did a lot of cutting and pasting before – now I just hole-punch and they are ready to go!).

      One way to go might be to use some sort of culminating review activity for the overall unit. I’ve been dabbling with unit projects, but that’s not been well received for being “too long” in terms of a project that lasts the entirety of the unit. I’m also considering a culminating project, but this year is a first year at a new place, so I’m doing a run of my curriculum without too much invention. These are things I’m definitely hoping to iron out next year.

    1. I did them with sophomores, but when the principal at that school (I’m no longer there) told me I could no longer require students to check their own notebooks, I abandoned them, because enforcing work became really difficult with the number of students I had.

      I now require a notebook, but it’s much more student led and works better for my current students. I think interactive notebooks would have worked if I could have continued to have students do self checks.

  4. Hi, I teach Physics to juniors in a low income area. My classes have a wide range of skill level. I do have some students who perform at a fairly high level. But, I would say 60% of them are lacking organizational skill. What I realized over the years, is that because of that it is hard for these students to connect the dots. And Physics remains a multitude of disconnected information, equations and problems. I would like to try teaching Physics with an Interactive Notebook. Could you please share some ideas from your Physics Notebook. Thank you very much

  5. Dr. O. Thank you so much for your Interactive Notebook. I’m trying to design an Interactive science notebook for teachers in E. Africa so seeing your model is so very helpful.
    All the best

  6. I’m curious as to where you obtained the Lorax Images. I really like the idea and would like for my students to do something similar but I have not been able to find the correct images.

    1. You know, I only taught that course one year before I switched schools. Let me look around and see if I saved them somewhere – remind me if I forget to get back to you!

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