Teaching Strategies

5 Tips For Using Interactive Notebooks In High School

December 15, 2016         Updated December 11, 2016

When you are teaching high school, you have to have a certain level of coolness. Of course, the minute you try to be cool, you are no longer cool. That’s just one of the many Catch-22’s of dealing with teenagers. So when I do interactive notebooks with my high school seniors, I have to watch the gimmick level. Seventeen-year-olds smell a cutesy project a mile away.

Interactive notebooks can be many different things to many different people. For me, the underlying concepts are that they are a place for students to physically attach all of their classwork, that all students have basically the same things on the same pages, and that we rarely if ever do any kind of note-taking. You can read more about why and how I use interactive notebooks in this post.

People are often surprised when I tell them that I enjoy teaching high school—but I think that teenagers are great. They have their own needs and issues, though, and I’m not above a few tricks to win them over. These are my 5 tips for using interactive notebooks in high school.

1. Give students choice as often as possible. If I know that a freewrite and a comic will both achieve the same outcome of getting students to focus on the figurative language of a specific passage, then I don't really care which option students choose. Choice goes a long way towards student buy-in, so I incorporate it whenever possible. And I have to check myself often, asking if I am tasking them with something because I think they’ll learn or because it’s what would make the class easiest for me.

2. Keep in mind different learning styles when planning activities. I always have a running list in my head of what we are doing, what we have done, and what we will do. If we did group work yesterday, then I try to get some quiet reflective writing time in for today. If tomorrow is going to be heavy on writing, then I might have students make a chart or a comic today. I don't cover every learning style every day, but I do hit most in one week.

3. Make questions and activities rigorous and useful. High school students smell busywork a mile away. But when they understand why they are required to do what I have asked them, then they are much more likely to be on board with the assignment. Similarly, it might seem easier for me to assign them a simple task that I know they’ll be able to achieve, but they also know when I have dumbed down or not expected much from them. So I revise my activities and handouts to make sure that they are all sufficiently challenging.

4. Have a few systems in place to keep on top of it all. Just because high school students will be voting, in college, or in the work force in a year or even a few months, doesn't mean that they don't need some help setting up systems to keep track of all of their work. Keeping a running list of pages and assignments somewhere visible in the classroom goes a long way towards getting students to organize their own notebooks. Additionally, when I take the burden of the simple tasks off of them, they’ll have more time and energy for the truly difficult tasks.

5. Always have the long game in mind. I don't use interactive notebooks so that I can fill pages and pages with useless work that will keep my students occupied and subdued. If they are drawing a picture, it is because I want them to focus on the visual image created by literary devices in a particularly rich passage. If they are making a chart, it is because I want them to look at power dynamics in a text and how class and gender play into who has the most access to power. These are the types of things that I want students to remember if I run into them on the street in one or five or ten years. Ultimately, I don't really care if they remember what year the Globe theater was built—but I do care if they feel that they have the confidence to see a Shakespeare play—so I create the notebook work with those long term goals in mind.

I’m not sure that any of my students would describe interactive notebooks as “cool,” but I do get an occasional “they’re alright I guess” which if you know teenagers means that you have struck gold.

This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we've preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer's own.