March 19, 2021

Using a Notebook to Teach Information Storage and Retrieval Skills (Part 1 of 2)

The Teachers’ Corner:

The student “notebook” has been in place in some form for centuries.  From classical times and the use of slates through to scribblers to electronic notebooks it has been a mainstay in education all over the world.  When I was travelling through India two years ago, I made visits to several schools.  When I asked the principal at the school what the school needed most as a prelude to making a donation, the reply was always the same: “Notebooks.”  Notebooks remain a staple in terms of our own classroom supplies but, as I look at it as a former teacher, principal, superintendent, parent and now grandparent, I have to wonder why, if we insist on our students having it, we don’t use it more effectively?

As we all know, we have long been in the “information age.”  “Information is power.”  “Information is the new currency.”  We have all heard expressions of this type.  Most of that is undeniable so let’s take a look at the notebook in that context.

A notebook serves several purposes:

  1. It helps students record what was taught and provides a kind of abbreviated textbook.
  2. It’s a source for review for tests, assignments and examinations.
  3. It’s one of the bases for communicating with parents if the teacher is in the habit of having students take their notebooks home and have parents “sign off” that they have reviewed an assignment or homework or just glanced through it to see what was being covered in the program.
  4. Finally, it can be collected for parent-teacher interviews as a sample of their children’s work in the program if it’s not being sent or taken home for other purposes.

But it is also a great area for teaching about how to organize information in such a way as to be easily retrieved — the early stages of doing what we do now electronically.

When I taught so-called “hard to serve” secondary school students I was overwhelmed with the lack of organization of their notebooks (if they had any).  Typically, they opened up their backpacks only to reveal something that looked like the recycling bin — bits and pieces all thrown in together in absolutely no discernible order.  I decided, then and there, to try and change that.

What I did was supply my students with duo-tangs.  When they opened them up, they were surprised to find a series of blank colour coded forms called “Unit Dividers” organized with a place to add the “title of the unit” and three columns below: “Numbers”, “Date” and “Title of Note” for record keeping of each lesson.   I also purchased a supply of 3-hole lined note paper which I asked them to place between each unit divider.  I told them “This was going to be a very important part of their time in this class.  We are going to use your notebook to help you keep organized.  I expect you to have it in every class but if you think you won’t remember, I’ll keep it for you in the classroom — for now.

I also took a page from elementary teachers — and I knew I was taking a chance using it with my secondary students.  I bought stickers and brought in coloured pencils and told them that we were going to take time this period to “dress up their notebooks.”  I said anything was fair game except for drawings of a sexual nature or something that was racist or critical of others.  Beyond that, the field was open.

To my surprise these high school students went to work — and their creativity was really impressive. I saw some outstanding drawings (motorcycles, cars and vehicles and creatures: from the video games predominated) but others used the stickers and the coloured pencils to put their “mark on it.”  What I did quite accidentally was to give them a sense of pride and ownership in something that would otherwise be seen as “school stuff.”  They had a great time with the task — better than I had expected.

Once we got the notebooks in order, I began my own process of how I was going to use my notes on the “board” (e.g. black board, whiteboard, overhead projector, smart board, computer) to ensure what the students had in their notes was a reasonable summary of what we had discussed and what I felt they needed to know.  That called for a whole new approach on how I organized my board and what I did with handouts.  But it also began to generate in my mind what I could do to help students organize their information and teach them retrieval skills.

That’s the subject of the next blog in this two-part series.

See you next week!

Dr. Dan

Note:  Consider taking  Planning Your Blackboard and Student Notebook Entries” (the fifth webinar and eBook in the Art of Teaching Series).