Why You Should Use Civics Interactive Notebooks In Your Classroom

by | Jun 2, 2020 | Distance Learning, Interactive Notebooks, Social Studies | 0 comments

In Florida, middle school students need to take an end of course (EOC) exam for Civics. For most students, this is one of their first experiences with taking an end-of-the- year final exam.

In addition, many middle school students still struggle with executive function skills, such as organization. Most of them can’t find their papers from last week, let alone last semester. This is a frequently occurring issue for teachers trying to instill study skills in middle school students.

On top of disorganization and lack of study skills, civics is just a hard subject for a lot of students. I really enjoy civics, and I had to really think about why kids often hate the class. (I don’t remember loving it as a student, either.) What I realized is that civics deals with a lot of abstract concepts, like freedom and justice.

Why Civics is Difficult for Many Students

According to development psychologist Jean Piaget, abstract thinking doesn’t develop until the final stage of development, the formal operational stage. For the majority of people, this stage occurs between the ages of 11 and 16. (Abstract Thinking, Goodtherapy) Middle school students are usually between 11 – 14 years old, so many kids have not fully formed the ability to use abstract thinking when they take civics in seventh grade.

Furthermore, civics become engaging when you can see how laws directly affect you – just ask driver’s ed teachers about their students’ motivation levels. Students start to show more interest in civics when they are close to driving, voting, and draft age (not to mention legal drinking age.) For younger students, they often do not see the connection between laws and government and their lives.

How Civics Notebooks Help Students

Let me explain my anecdotal experiences with interactive notebooks. My daughter is definitely a math person, and her class was the first to take the civics EOC. She came home one day and informed me she needed help because she wasn’t passing any of the practice tests. I asked her how long she had, and it was only a week before the test. (This is pretty much par for the course with my kids asking me for help – last minute.)

Interactive notebooks were being discussed a lot by other teachers and education writers, so I thought we would give them a try. I frantically took the civics standards and created interactive templates with guided questions on them. My daughter and her friend came, and I taught them the entire civics class in a week.

They both earned top scores on the EOC.

I thought, “Wow, that is pretty amazing!”

It just so happened that I had to cover some of the same standards in my 5th grade classroom, so I edited the questions to fit the standards and tried them out. Many students that had complained constantly about every little activity were suddenly engaged and willing to at least attempt the work. The cutting and gluing allowed them to get the kinesthetic movement in and settle down to focus. Their retention of the concepts increased when I compared the test scores to previous units.

That is how I became convinced that notebooks are worth the effort.

Do you have to use interactive notebooks?

Honestly, no. I think any specific organized notebook system works. You need to find a style that works for both you and your students. Not every kid does well with interactive notebooks, just like some won’t do well if they have to copy notes.

Futhermore, I have seen different styles of interactive notebooks, and they are not all the same. When I use them, I create them in a specific way that I found worked better for my classes:

Why You Should Use Civics Interactive Notebooks in Your Classroom
  1. I always include guiding/scaffolding questions or at least topics. 

Most students have not yet learned how to efficiently take notes on just main ideas and key details. They either write everything or nothing.

A lot of students also need the reading support for heavy reading material, as a lot of social studies texts are.

    2. I use simple shapes 90% of the time.

So many students do not have strong fine motor skills. In my opinion this is a direct result of too much focus on early reading and testing, because we no longer have enough time to do arts and crafts and other activities that build fine motor skills. At home, parents often focus more on gross motor skills (sports, sports, sports.)

I had fifth graders that could barely cut with scissors. 

With that in mind, I stick to graphic organizers with straight edges, because circles and cut shapes take forever to cut out. I cannot justify the class time sacrificed to cut out cute shapes every week.

    3. I keep my templates flush together on the page.

By putting the edges of the templates together, I saved a lot of cutting time (and headache) of having to cut each shape separately. It takes fewer cuts to cut out the templates, and I am often able to get the week’s templates cut out in one session.

I just planned ahead and have the students glue all the templates in on the same day. That way, we didn’t haven’t to pull out supplies, cut, glue, dry, and clean up every single day – and saved a lot of class time.

  4. Not every template folds.

Honestly, just because you are taping or gluing things into your notebooks doesn’t mean it has to be complicated. (Nor does everything need to be on a paper glued into the notebook – sometimes it is better to just write on the page.)

I look at the information I want students to learn, and I decide what I think is the best way for them to understand and analyze it. Sometimes is it just a map that we will color and label; other times it might just be a table. 

  1. I build in review. 

I like to also add in sorting activities and other ways to make kids think about the information they have written in their notes. One, it is more fun than a multiple choice or test-like activity. Two, it is more accessible for students that struggle with certain skills, like writing a lot of text or visually tracking information on a page (like in a matching activity.)

To check these review activities, sometimes I had students turn them in to me first to check. The next time we glued, we would glue the reviews right in our notebook. My motto was always no loose papers. (A loose paper is a lost paper.)

  1. Some students really need print outs or support cutting and gluing.

There are always a few students who just really cannot cut. Sometimes they do have an IEP for a learning challenge (like vision or motor skills.) No matter how simple the shapes are, some kids will always need a little more support.

When teachers began using digital resources, including digital notebooks, I realized that it would be very convenient to have the same foldables in a printable format for students with IEPs. At that time, I began creating digital versions of my interactive notebook.

As a bonus, the digital notebooks are great if you are 1 to 1 or sometimes just like to switch things up. I found that having both options allowed me to select the format that was best for my needs. If the wifi is down, you could always print the things out. If you had a sub and couldn’t use your tech, then have paper copies allowed you to not have to completely redo your plans.

Personally, I prefer to use the cut and paste traditional versions and supplement with digital. That kinesthetic movement allows kids to use some energy, and I do feel the action of folding and processing what you are learning helps. However, there are definitely times where digital is better.

Do you still have questions about civics notebooks? 

Contact me by commenting below or emailing me!

I’d love to help you be a success with civics. 

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Over twenty plus years, my educational career has spanned four continents and two states, as well as eight grade levels!

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