How to Use Interactive Notebooks for American History
If your students are anything like mine (and my son), they constantly ask questions like, “Why is this important?” or “Why do I need to know this?”
I find that question usually pops up when students aren’t engaged in the topic or don’t understand what to do. After I began using interactive notebooks in my American history classes, I heard those questions a lot less.
However, there are ways to implement interactive notebooks – and things that don’t work as well. Here is what I found worked best with my history students and what didn’t work.
Ways To Implement Interactive Notebooks for American History
- Improved Student Notes
Before using interactive notebooks, I read a lot of blog posts about them. Often, when teachers didn’t like interactive notes, I noticed they often gave students blank templates. Honestly, blank templates are no better than just asking students to take notes by themselves, especially in upper elementary and middle school.
Students in these grades are still learning to “read to learn” and don’t know how to take notes. I found that I was either taking the notes for students, by simply telling them what to write, or having students write their notes independently, which were usually a hot mess. (I find the same thing with my son’s classes.)
When teachers have students copy the notes, they mean well. I did. I thought I was helping students. In reality, I was the only one in the room thinking – students just sat back and copied. By giving them all the information, students did not have to read to learn – they just had to copy. It became rote learning.
If I had students take their notes without guidance, a few things happened:
- Students wrote the entire chapter into their notes. (That is what I did as a student.)
- Students didn’t take any notes because they didn’t think anything was important.
- Students did nothing because they didn’t understand what to do or were scared to make a mistake.
- Students took notes, but they were a hot mess.
As students begin reading to learn, teachers need to support students’ learning with scaffolded notes. There are many ways this can be done, but students need to be taught a framework for determining the main ideas and for organizing their notes. For my interactive notes, I either provide specific questions or topics. This gives students a guide to their reading – they know what they should learn by the end of the text.
Does this have to be an interactive notebook? No. There are a variety of note-taking styles that can be used, and teachers should use one that works for them. The key is to use the strategy consistently and model, model, model how to use it. However, I like interactive notebooks for specific reasons.
- Better Organization
I love interactive notebooks for a few reasons, and one is because other notes didn’t work for me. Cornell notes can be great for students. I found them boring to take – and I found it difficult to keep my notes all lined up. I also didn’t like them because I have large handwriting, so using a small portion of the page was frustrating. I also found that notes got lost, especially if the notes were written on loose-leaf paper.
Interactive notebooks kept the notes more organized. Yes, there are issues with them as well, but I found ways to provide support to students and that the benefits outweighed the drawbacks. The most significant benefit was that I could keep everything in one place. Instead of having a map on this handout, which inevitably got lost, I could add it to the notes. I also could have student reflections added to the notes. By modeling the notebooks, I made it easier for students to keep everything together.
Now that many students have access to devices, interactive notebooks can be used with paper templates or digital notes. Using both methods allows teachers to vary their routines and use the format that best fits their class situation. Perhaps digital notes work best one day, but foldable templates are better for a different activity. Digital templates could also be printed and glued or taped into a notebook for days where devices aren’t available, or classes run short on time.
Having both options also allows teachers to differentiate learning for their students. Students with IEPs might need a digital option. Another student with vision problems might need to be given the notes in a printed format. Some high-energy students may need a hands-on option to cut out the notes. With a little planning, teachers can provide the best method for all their students.
- Student Reflection
It is important to use activities that force students to think about what they have learned. I try to add in writing questions that make students think about why what they learned is important. For example, I might have students complete a map, and then ask them questions about how the date on the map supports what they read.
Interactive notebook shouldn’t be just notes. Teachers can include reflection activities like writing a text conversation between two historical figures, designing a t-shirt to represent a culture, or other activities that allow students to be creative and think about what they have learned.
I also include main events in timeline activities, so students get a better understanding of how events in American history lead to one another. Books often jump around to make lessons flow better. For example, so much happens during westward expansion that lessons focus on one topic, although the events each in lesson overlap. Without a timeline, students don’t always make the connection between events.
5. Practice Fine Motor Skills
An unfortunate result of the focus on testing has led to a lack of fine motor skills in students. They are no longer doing arts and crafts, and many of them struggle to use scissors properly – even into middle school. Most kids aren’t doing crafts at home either – with many families focusing on gross motor skill development with sports. Many students aren’t writing as much either, as they now use their phones for texting and other entertainment.
Yes, this means that using interactive notebooks can take a lot of time, but I feel it is important for students to write and use scissors. The lack of fine motor skills affects students in other ways. For example, students who can’t use scissors often also have difficulty using a knife.
So how can teachers use interactive notebooks without having them eat up a ridiculous amount of class time?
- Use basic template shapes. Cute shapes are, well, cute – but unnecessary. I can add the image of a person on a square background and cut prep time in half.
- Arrange multiple templates back to back – easy to do it using straight-edged templates. If the templates are flush on the page, students can cut out two templates with one cut.
- Cut and glue a week of templates at one time. This saves a lot of time getting and putting away supplies.
- Use “Do Now” or morning work time as prep time.
- Set a timer. You have to teach students to get ready within a specific time frame – or they will use as much time as you give them. It does take longer in the beginning, but, especially if you use the same template shapes, students will get faster at this with practice.
- Have faster students help slower students or prep the notebook for absent students.
After using interactive notebooks, I found that student retention of the information improved. Students took guided notes, improved their reading comprehension, and completed various activities to process what they learned.
The students that previously had complained the most were often the ones who enjoyed the interactive notebooks. It gave them an outlet to move around and helped them know what to do. They often felt more successful. They also had their notes in one place, making it easier for them and their parents to know what to study.
For me, I found the benefits far outweighed the drawbacks of using interactive notebooks. It does take time to train students on how to prepare their templates and use the notebooks, but once that is done, I found my students retained and understood the material better than with other notes.
If you are interested in purchasing premade notes for American history, I have resources for both upper elementary and middle school. The middle school resources go into more depth, as older students are expected to understand the information in more detail. In addition, both sets of resources are available in both traditional and digital formats.