Working on my students’ note taking

I’m horrible at helping my students take good notes. Have been for a while. Several years ago, when I started adopting some of the Thinking Classroom norms (like the use of large whiteboards around the classroom), my pedagogy got more robust, but I noticed that my students began writing down fewer notes (mainly because they were using all those lovely whiteboards so much). This trend has continued ever since. Even before that, however, the notes my students took consisted mainly of the guided variety. Don’t get me wrong, guided notes have their place, but mine asked that students simply fill in blanks in a gigantic packet that I used a forest of trees to copy off for them. There was no introspection, no thinking, and no actual note-taking.

This year, I’m making it a goal to do better. The push came from a co-teacher I had last year who, after 30+ years in the classroom, retired in June. In one of our last conversations, I asked for her advice. Given her vast experience as an educator and our year together as co-teachers, how did she think I could improve? Her suggestion: Help my students take better notes.

Her insight was simple, but it shed light on an aspect of my teaching that I avoided for years. Thanks to her, that changes this year! Here are three small things that have helped me place a greater emphasis on effective note-taking so far. By doing them regularly, I hope to uncover more ways to improve my students note-taking skills.

1. Requiring spiral-bound or composition graphing notebooks. To help students take more ownership over their notes, I’ve long since abandoned my use of packets and instead moved towards students using graphing notebooks for their record keeping. Despite doing requiring graphing notebooks, given some of the other things I’m doing with them (see below), they feel very different now. In the past, the notebooks existed on the periphery. This year, they’re more of a centerpiece.

Stickies from a note-taking gallery walk early in the year

2. Being explicit from the start. I started the year with a couple of lessons explicitly focused on note-taking. The idea was simple: The students used the whiteboards put up their notes on a few problems and then did a gallery walk. They used stickies to cite what was good about the notes they saw on the boards and also stated how they could be improved. In the past, I uttered the oft-heard teacher phrase “I would write this down” to my students, but I never dedicated class time to discuss with them what quality notes can look like. I try discuss this a daily conversation now, but because I’m not used to doing it, I have to remind myself constantly.

I’m regularly collecting students notebooks this year

3. Collecting notebooks. If note-taking is a priority for me, I’ve decided to attach a grade to it — at least for this year. I’m collecting my students’ notebooks once every two weeks and scoring them on completeness (are the problems there?), accuracy (are they correct?), and details (are they specific?). It’s a quick two-minute spot check that I use to give the kids small, but immediate feedback on their notes. In the future, hopefully I can find ways to make note-taking an indispensable aspect of our class and thus not have to grade it, but for now, I’m holding this carrot in front of students as motivation. We both need it.

1-2 times a week I supplement student notebooks with info that they glue/tape into their notebooks

4. Using “inserts.” Once or twice a week, I’m giving students something to tape/glue into their notebooks. I’ve gotten all creative and am calling these slips of paper “Inserts.” The Inserts usually highlight an important idea or important example that supplements what we discuss in class. This gives their notebooks the feel of an interactive notebook, but it’s much simpler and a lot less work. For the first couple, I’ve just found a 3″x4″ graphic I found on Google, printed it on colorful paper, and put tape out. It takes two minutes for the students to tape it in. Truth is, I don’t have the capacity (nor the desire) to build interactive notebooks with my students. The Inserts help me add depth to the notebooks, but not get in over my head.

My bucket of fun, random stickers that I’m dishing out this year

5. Giving out stickers. This summer I decided to start giving out random stickers to students this year when they do something good. I figured it would be a fun. Who doesn’t like a good sticker? Crazily enough, little did I know how well this idea would jibe with my newfound notebook fixation! When I given the stickers out, guess where the students put them? ON THEIR NOTEBOOKS. Win! We’re developing a notebook culture and have all these cool, random stickers to customize them with.


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