November/December 2017 – Vol. 30 No. 2

Taking the Interactive Science Notebook Plunge

Posted: Tuesday, August 5th, 2014

by Jill Grace

I kept hearing about it for years. THE NOTEBOOK. It sounded interesting, it had good research street cred, everyone seemed to rave about it, BUT…I was intimidated. What is up with the input-output stuff? Besides, I was already doing a good job teaching, right?

It wasn’t until one particular bunch of kids in one particular school year that I realized I NEEDED to take the plunge. It was no longer an option. It was a tough group that year. I found I was hitting my head against the wall trying to help some underachieving students be successful. I figured that if the “Interactive Notebook” (which I will refer to as IN) was good for improving the literacy of students learning English then it had to be beneficial for all students. Literacy is one of the biggest roadblocks for many struggling kids, so why not try it? What also helped me was finally finding a really great resource that was my step-by-step guide for a middle school IN model that was backed by research (Kellie Marcarelli’s Teaching Science with Interactive Notebooks).

This article is intended to give you some extra advice on finally jumping in with both feet. I will admit, it’s HARD for the teacher at first, but it gets easier and the rewards are tremendous and worth that effort.

Did I mention: IT IS WORTH IT!

Here are a few reasons why I think it’s worth taking the plunge:

  • The IN model uses a dual page format where one page is the input (where students get info from reading, video, observations, lecture, etc.) and the other is the output (where they make sense of that input). Outputs ensure that every time students learn something, they have time to digest and process the material (what a novel idea!). Once students understand what outputs are, they appreciate the opportunity to select their own outputs and sometimes use the word “fun” to describe them.
  • The “aha!” connections Marcarelli describes in her book, which I call “big idea connections” in my classroom, force the teacher to make sure that what is being taught conceptually relates to a bigger purpose/concept AND gives students the opportunity to see that as well as they build it throughout a unit. In this article, I use the term “unit” to describe a course of study that may take three to six weeks.
  • Outputs and aha connections provide students with a tool for structured study. In my experience, no one really teaches kids how to “study” – that goes for teachers and parents, even when both parents are college educated. To “study,” most of my students tell me that they “re-read the textbook” the night before the test. I always encourage my students to ditch the textbook and instead go back to their outputs before a quiz or test and see what else they can add. It forces them to review the content on the input side and reconcile if the output is truly complete or if it’s missing information. In addition, the aha connections are basically a summary of learning and show a pattern of important concepts. These are great tools for studying!
  • Hello Common Core!!! As I went through some Common Core training this past school year, I couldn’t help but think, “That’s in the notebook…that’s in the notebook too, and (shocker) that’s in the notebook!” By using an IN with my students, I am supporting several Common Core ELA Standards.
  • The IN is a record of student work over the course of the year; what better way to see growth, or lack thereof? It is a powerful assessment tool.
  • The teacher notebook (which is a record of all directions) makes it easy for absent students to make-up work.
  • Parent-teacher-conference solved! For example:

Parent: So, Mrs. Grace, we wanted to meet with you today because we are wondering why Angel isn’t getting an A in your class. Angel is very smart and has always liked science.

Teacher: Oh my goodness Mr. and Mrs. Avery, this is so perplexing, let’s see what’s going on. Angel, let us start looking at your work. Can you show me page 43 of your IN so we can compare it to the directions in teacher notebook? Oh, you didn’t finish that last question?…

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the IN page says it all. Now, as a teacher, I obviously have to engage the students in class and not sit behind my teacher desk eating Twinkies while following up on the latest ESPN update. Assuming I’m doing my part, the onus is on the student and their notebook speaks for itself.

  • There is always something “to do.” You have two minutes before the bell? Sweet, add one more thing to your output!
  • The IN is a great way for students to stay organized. With all of their work in one place, and no loose pages, everyone has what they need. This has the added benefit of becoming a long-term resource. Let’s say it’s late in the year, and I ask the kids to recall the various chemical compounds that make up cells that we had learned about in September – we can easily navigate to the part of their notebook that has that information.

Worried? Start with One Class

I committed myself to FULLY using the IN model when I first started. This meant not cutting corners. My thinking was that if I wanted to see if it really worked for my kids, I should go for it in its full glory, even though I was intimidated. My only compromise was to do it with just one class my first year. That was the perfect solution for me because I felt I could handle that, it gave me time to see how I might tweak things for going full scale (all of my classes), and if I messed up along the way it was impacting a smaller group of students. The unexpected benefit of this approach was that one class felt special. They were my “pilot” group. They thought it was cool they were helping me figure out the process and were proud to tell me what was going well and not going well. It was a nice way to help me ease into it, and I then felt very comfortable moving forward the next year with all of my classes.


CCSAdSpiral vs. Composition

What a debate! Here is a handy-dandy pro/con list for you based on conversations with my colleagues. In the end, I personally decided to go with the composition book and I’ve been happy with it. You decide what will work best for your own classroom!

Notebook style pro/con list.

Notebook style pro/con list.













For the composition book, I use college ruled, but I know other teachers who use quad especially in classes that do a considerable amount of graphing. I’ve been happy with college ruled, especially after I discovered that 3M makes graph paper Post-it’s® (yes, I’m the girl who did the happy dance in aisle of Target when I first discovered these)! I’ve only had one parent seriously object to the college ruled size. This was a special case of a student who had difficulties with holding a pen/pencil and writing. Ironically, the child got a wide-ruled notebook, then proceeded to write teeny tiny anyway. Go figure.

Handling Handouts

The beautiful thing about the IN is that the kids can generate a lot of work directly into their notebook. Sometimes, however, I still have handouts that I want them to use. In this case, the kids attach these directly to their notebook page. Since I use the composition book, I reduce my copy size to 80%. Honestly, I’ve never had a kid who couldn’t read a cleanly copied handout at this size, with the one exception of students who, for vision impairment reasons, have all work enlarged.

The reduction in size does create the issue of trimming the page, however. I train my students to take care of this first thing when they enter the room. At the beginning of the year, this is an astonishing process. One would think that about half of the kids have never even held scissors before. It is almost painful to watch; laborious; it takes forever; but I try to maximize the time by taking attendance and sharing announcements, and they listen while they cut. Little tricks like setting a timer help: I start off the year by giving them 5 whole minutes and eventually the kids become faster (e.g. down to 1-2 minutes). Eventually we can eliminate time dedicated to this task and I just start class – the kids eventually become comfortable with setting the scissors down when we have to start something important, and picking them up to continue when they have those few seconds to do so. As with most things, the kids respond positively if I am positive with them and they have “buy-in” to the process.

What also helps with the issue of attaching handouts is having supplies ready. Middle school students can barely remember to bring a pencil to class, let alone scissors. My solution to this was to write a grant my first year of using the IN (you could even try ( to have notebook kits on the desks. A “kit” is a tub that contains enough scissors for everyone, a refillable tape dispenser (I’m not a fan of glue sticks for a variety of reasons, but with tape I also have to bring home the point about not wasting it and using foot-long strips), a hand-held pencil sharpener, a small metal ruler, and Post-It® notes (which we use when we need a little more space to do work). The kids have eliminated “not having supplies” as a behavior issue. If someone doesn’t have a pen that day, they can do their work in colored pencil.

I also have colleagues who don’t want to take the class time to cut pages. In this case, they fold the page in half and attach to the notebook page along the folded edge. They are happy with this process. I just decided to deal with cutting, primarily because I found that some of my kids would never actually unfold that page to see what was there.

In the end, my advice is to do what makes you comfortable as a teacher.

Map Out a Daily Plan for Teaching the Components to the Kids

During my first time trying the IN, Kellie Marcarelli’s book didn’t leave my side for months. In addition, a couple weeks before school started, I mapped out (based heavily off of Marcarelli’s suggestions) a daily plan of how each component was going to be introduced. That map stayed by my attendance book to allow for quick glancing. Having done this little bit of work ahead of time made me feel more comfortable and allowed me to worry about content once school started, rather than what I was going to do next with the notebook.

Start at the Beginning of the Year

I’ve known a few teachers who decided to switch over, mid-year, to the IN. Anecdotally, it just never seems to go well and it’s never met with the same type of gusto on the part of the kids. I find that it takes a while for students to see the value in the notebook. In fact, it takes exactly two units, one for the students to “get it” and the mechanics to sink in, and the second unit for them to feel really comfortable and see the benefits in their understanding. The IN feels like a lot more work to them, so if all of a sudden gears shift in the classroom mid-year and now they are being asked to use the IN, kids seem to resist it more. This has just merely been my observation from colleagues who have done this. In my humble opinion, if you‘re gonna go for it, GO FOR IT. Don’t wait.

Do Something Hands-On Right Away

Since the beginning of the year is all about notebook logistics, I don’t want to have bored kids ready to bang their heads on desks. I make it my mission to incorporate hands-on work immediately. Not only does this help maintain student interest, but the IN beautifully supports this sort of work and vice versa. I’m a big fan of getting kids on microscopes as much as possible, so a simple activity of observing something, whether it’s pond water, sand, salt, whatever, is a cognitively low-risk way for kids to DO something while starting to see how the notebook works.

These photos illustrate the first hands-on activity I have the kids do about a week into the school year. We are about to start discussing cells, but I am still teaching the notebook process. They will be learning about Antonie van Leeuwenhoek and the microscope, so I like to give them a similar experience of looking at water and seeing “animalcules.” Half the class starts at the microscopes observing water from my outdoor fountain at home and working on recording observations. The second half of the class starts by reading an article about van Leeuwenhoek and they record conclusions on their notebook pages. You will see that the article is attached “flip style” over those entries. When they finish one task, they switch over to the other and when the kids are done with both, they are prompted to work on the output. Since this is one of their first outputs, I make it very simple and something most kids are familiar with, for example, in this case you can see I use an adapted KWL chart.

To help the students know what to do in their notebooks, I project my teacher notebook page, (note: the photos I’ve shared are the teacher notebook pages). A nifty trick I learned from a colleague is to use two different-colored inks. Anything in black is something the kids must copy into their notebook, while anything in pink is an instruction of something they must do.

As the kids are working I remind them that if they have time they should do more than I ask (see “doing what I ask get’s you a 90%” ).

Hands-on work is so important. Not only does it help students develop skills in the practices of science and foster opportunities for them to discover knowledge in a student-centered way, it has the added benefit of being exciting for the kids and they pretty much don’t realize that I’m asking them to do all of this “notebook work.”

Watch ‘Em Like a Hawk for the First Month

As are most teachers, I am exhausted by the end of September. I probably walk a mile a day just in my classroom alone. I never sit, I CONSTANTLY am peeking over the shoulders of kids to make sure each one titled that page, finished a response, labeled that drawing, etc. At the beginning of the year, students have all new routines, a new set of teachers they have to get to know, new content, new dynamics with friends…this leaves little brainpower left to remember to update that table of contents. Don’t worry, though – after the first notebook check most students won’t need you to do this anymore.

Oh, and do your struggling students a favor, about once a week in that first month, grab their notebook in class and “tag it” to give them a little extra help if several things are missing. Let’s say page 15 is missing a title, they never finished their output on page 18, and their table of contents isn’t updated. Put small Post-it® flags on those pages as a reminder. Some kids need just a little more support in the beginning. I’m lucky that most of these students also have a support class with another teacher later in the day, and she is alerted to helping them catch up that work when she sees those tags.

Build a Pocket!

I struggled the first year with helping the kids figure out what to do with items that didn’t seem to belong on a page in the notebook – for example, returned quizzes, the class syllabus, etc. The solution was to build a pocket on the inside of the back cover of the notebook. With the help of a paraeducator, to whom I am deeply indebted, we hand-glued envelopes onto each notebook to act as pockets. The second year, when I decided to use the IN with all of my students, we were both disturbed at the prospect of doing that for all 170 of them. I came up with the most brilliant solution: let the kids design their own. I wasn’t expecting much and had even recommended just gluing on an envelope. Much to my surprise, many students secretly laughed at such a silly suggestion and built, no… engineered some brilliant pocket designs. Some even had a mechanism to hold paper in the pocket using Velcro or magnetic closures! I died and went to teacher heaven.

Duct Tape Is Your Friend

Seriously! It’s great for building pockets: check out the sweet leopard print pocket above that is the envy of every fashionista. Thanks to a plethora of pattern and color options it has the benefit of reinforcing notebook spines while adding that personal touch every student desires. Over the years, I have asked kids to donate their leftover cool duct tape and I now have a pretty decent collection. Any kid who asks can have some and I just ask that, in return, if they are in the position to donate a roll (even partially used), to please do so.

The Grading Dilemma

One of my biggest hesitations to switching over to the IN was how the heck I was going to grade student work. I just didn’t envision a reality where I was going to constantly collect 170 notebooks. Although homework isn’t an issue for me as it’s graded for completion and all I have to do is go around the room to stamp the work, my concern was over the class assignments I wanted to grade. Although I’m not a fan of the paper waste, I soon realized I could have something like an activity write-up be completed on a separate paper that got turned into me, graded, and then passed out and attached into the notebook. I’ve also found that, if needed, I can walk around and quickly grade smaller pieces of work when kids are taking a quiz or working on something independently when they really aren’t needing me. Problem solved.

Notebook Checks

There are a few ways to handle the notebook check that Marcarelli outlines in her book. I’ve seen teachers take a variety of approaches based on her suggestions. The one thing I’d like to emphasize, based on observations of these approaches, is to make sure you are involving the kids in the process. It is one thing to collect every student’s notebook and grade it yourself, but if you do this, also make sure that the kids are involved some part of that process. They need to be included in the evaluation of work quality. If not, the notebook becomes more about pleasing the teacher, rather than supporting the metacognitive process. This does create a logistical challenge of making sure kids are doing a fair job and honestly, you just need to find a method that works for you to help with this, but two suggestions I can offer are to have students work in groups and/or recruit older students. By putting students into groups, they have multiple notebooks to compare and discuss and the whole team can come to consensus on scoring. Although I use smaller groups for everything else in my classes, I like the notebook checks to happen in groups of six as this allows for a nice blending of skills at the table to help compare work samples. If they’re available, older students can also be a huge help with the first notebook check. The reason for this is, no matter how many times you have explained the process, students still seem to have a lot of questions the first time they grade a notebook. I’m lucky that I can bring back a few former students to help me facilitate the first class notebook check and they do a brilliant job. After the class goes through the process the first time, they understand it, and I don’t need the extra help after that.

One of the greatest benefits of the process of student involvement in the notebook check is that students will finally inherently understand the notebook as a tool. The notebook will finally “click” for most students. You will see work quality be significantly better after that first notebook check. It’s pretty groovy.

A final side note for you, I have discovered there is a need to chat with the kids about not letting “pretty or ugly fool you”. In other words, you actually have to READ what students have done to see if the work is good. Just because a notebook is gorgeous with perfect writing doesn’t mean it’s high quality. In contrast, just because the writing is practically illegible, doesn’t mean it’s not high quality. “Oh, and now you know why teachers appreciate neat work”, I say to the grader with a huge smile on my face.

Doing What I Ask Gets You a 90%

Hands down, this is perhaps one of my FAVORITE aspects of the notebook. If you want to score higher, you have to do more. I feel this really helps kids transition between elementary and high school work ethic. This helps them build independence in their learning. The reality is, in real life, the people that are successful go above and beyond. You can still get an A if you do what I’ve asked, but to score higher, add in an extra claim evidence statement, use some new vocabulary you have learned in conclusion, add labels to that observational drawing, s-t-r-e-t-c-h yourself. I secretly imagine my students thus develop an internal voice weighing out their options, “If I do just a little bit more, then I’ll get that extra 10%, and that would give my grade a little more cushion and I won’t have to pester Mrs. Grace about raising my grade at the end of the grading period…” (a teacher can dream, right?) I’ll be clear here that the “what I ask” is determined by what I feel my students can accomplish in a given time period, so going above and beyond is entirely realistic.

What if a Notebook Is Stolen? (Gasp!)

My policy is, if your notebook vanishes, no matter the reason, you have to rebuild the current unit, even if it is the last day of the unit. This happens to maybe one kid a year. It’s no fun making up that work, usually done in my room over multiple lunches, and all the other kids hear about it. Magically, no notebook ever goes missing again.

Yes, kids lose stuff all the time, but a missing IN is really rare. To be honest, I think this is such a rare event because the kids love their notebooks, even if they won’t admit it out loud. They have put a lot of work into them. They are proud of their work. They know it is important.

Save About a Dozen Notebooks for Next Year

Obviously, you can’t do this your first year unless you have a colleague who can loan you some. At the end of each year, I ask about a dozen students to “loan” me their notebooks for the year, and they just have to come see me at the end of next year and I will return them. I use them as work samples when teaching kids about the notebook in the fall. I place them on tables during Back-To-School-Night so parents can see what the notebook is all about. I also appreciate having them as samples for parent meetings where they can be used to compare student work, so I should also mention that I borrow notebooks from students with a range of abilities. These have also come in handy when I work with other teachers.

Ironically, this borrowing practice has shown me how valuable the notebooks are to the kids. Several students “forgot” to come pick up their notebooks at the end of the 2013 school year. The following fall, about six weeks into the school year, I had five of these students come back – in a PANIC – begging me for their notebook to help them in their freshman bio class. I can’t think of a better endorsement of the IN except, perhaps, for awesome notes left in my yearbook at the end of the year.


Yearbook entry from a student.

So, what about you? Do you use an IN in your science class? What advice do you have for teachers thinking about taking the plunge? Join us on our California Middle School Science Teacher Facebook group to continue the conversation (if you aren’t yet a member of the group, just request to join).

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Written by Jill Grace

Jill Grace

Jill Grace is a Regional Director for the K-12 Alliance and is President of CSTA.

11 Responses

  1. Last year was the first year that I did the ISN. (Interactive Science Notebook)
    I LOVED it as a tool! It was great for parent conferences, the parents were very appreciative of everything being in one place; I loved that too! This was a big change for the students also, but for many of my organizationally challenged kids this totally helped!
    The great part was when I did the notebook check at the end of each unit the kids had to take it home and review it with their parents. They comments that I got on those papers were very telling.
    Last year was my first year with it, and I had planned to do it all, but realized after my first unit that my BIG IDEAS page was almost blank. It was my fault for not making the time at the end of my many labs and activities for kids to make the connects. This is going to be my focus for this next year. (We start in two weeks!)

  2. That’s fantastic Emily! Thanks so much for sharing and for commenting in the Facebook group!

  3. Thank you, Jill, for this timely article. I’ve wanted to try this for a long time. (I sadly confess to having a pile of clipped articles about interactive notebooking from various sources dating back to as far as 2010!) I am a bit nervous about the whole endeavor as I’ve been very comfortable for the past twenty-odd years with a traditional science notebook format. I am going to take the plunge this year because I know the benefits to students will far outweigh the time and effort on my part. And I, too, have Kelly Marcarelli’s excellent book but your article provided lots of good tips and most importantly, the motivation and inspiration!

  4. Can you recommend a resource to two to help me get started? i teach fifth grade in CA. I want it to be aligned to the standards.

  5. Thank you, Jill. Your article is well written and is very engaging. I love the teacher voice coming out from every line you wrote.
    Students motivation to work on their notebook is an important component of instruction. We have found that high school students in a chemistry classroom had different ideas regarding why the notebook was valuable to their learning. However, they all took a positive stance with respect the use of their notebook.

  6. Thanks so much for the comments everyone! For those of you interested in notebooking at the elementary school level – I’ve started a conversation on our elementary Facebook group: California Elementary Science Teachers:

  7. […] For more information about setting up the notebook please visit: 7th Grade teacher Jill Grace’s blog post, “Taking the Interactive Science Notebook Plunge” […]

  8. […] 7th Grade teacher Jill Grace’s blog post, “Taking the Interactive Science Notebook Plunge” […]

  9. Thanks so much for the insite on the INB! I have creative something close to this type of notebook, but I want to dive into the INB because I know that it works! My problem is that I’m not confident that my students will use them, bring them back and forth to school everyday and put as much effort into them as your students… any advice would be greatly appreciated!!!! Thanks so much.

  10. […] still not sure if you want to take the plunge- do some additional research. I recommend taking the interactive notebook plunge published by the California Science Teachers Association to help address some of your concerns. Good […]

  11. […] teachers where, again, teachers modified the technique to fit young children and pre-teens (see here and […]

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