UPDATE 2013: Read More on The $1 Textbook
UPDATE 2014: Read $1 Textbook FAQ

UPDATE 2015: Read No Frills Notebooks

I’ll be upfront and say I’m not a huge fan of textbooks. They try to do too much. Plenty of other people have gone on and on about the problems, so I’ll save some space. Textbooks crafted in a tower far from any real classroom can never fulfill the needs of a real classroom, even these digital ones from the future.

An Algebra Class Uses the iPad from MindShift on Vimeo.

High school students have to be there, the state mandates it. High school students aren’t the biggest fans of math. High school students are guaranteed to lack mastery of something when they walk into your room. If it takes 10,000 hours for absolute mastery and a 15 year old has only been _awake_ 65,000 hours, I doubt they have the absolute mastery you want.

How do we build mastery? How can we encourage students to learn from their mistakes? How can we simultaneously let them work in a way that’s comfortable for them? Highlight the information that’s important to them? Give them opportunities to build a math resource they own, they create, and they value? I tell you there are very very few textbooks I have that I value. And I liked school.


Enter notebooks. I started using them when I switched to Standards Based Grading in January 2011. Part of the system is the kids need to track their progress or it doesn’t really work. When I implemented the system, I had the students all get notebooks to use for the tracking section. The problem was that was about all I was requiring them to do with the notebook. I did see a raised level of note taking but I wasn’t fully integrating them into what I was doing. I still handed out worksheets, collected worksheets, graded worksheets, and watched the worksheets go into the trash.

The Beginning

For the 2011-12 school year, I did standards based grading from the start and required notebooks from the start. In developing my Math Boot Camp I generated quite a few problem sets, most half sheets. I debated whether I should have them turned in and checked as before. But the thought occurred to me, they have all this wonderful paper to work in, why have them complete practice they can’t reference again? From then on, anything and everything that wasn’t a test was condensed to notebook size and expected to be glued/taped/stapled inside.

In the end, a student has a resource that they created, they worked on, and that’s organized in a way that suites them. Some people like math folders where hand outs and such are stuffed in, but it lacks permanence. Loose sheets of paper are easily lost and chronological order is a little tough. Plus as a teacher you’re generating a LOT of copies. For most tasks, I find a full sheet of paper per student to be overkill. Half sheets or third sheets are the perfect size for a notebook and half the copies.

It is not a perfect tool. Some of my students only did the bare minimum, took few notes, kept it messy and full of papers, or randomly scribbled economics notes in them. The goal with notebooks is to elevate the performance of the middle and get the ones at the bottom to do more than nothing. Sometimes all they need is a guiding hand in organization. If I can choose between a messy notebook or a blank desk, I choose messy notebook.


If you want to use notebooks, as a teacher you should: 

  • Require a tracking system at the front for grades, assignments, whatever
  • Require any assignment you have to make use of the notebook
  • Adapt your material to fit inside a notebook
  • Require all assignments to be completed in the notebook
  • Require students to have their notebook every day
  • Require students to be accountable for the material inside


After a while, some pleasant side effects will emerge. Reviewing for tests is easier, posing a question on a topic will send them flipping through the book instead of staring at you blankly. Students will get the sense they did something in your class when they see how full their book is at the end of year. Matching activities and data collection will have a place, no longer glued to some construction paper and lost. Problem sets won’t exist in isolation on some worksheet. Students will have reference material to use while completing an assignment, building a poster, or reviewing a test. Handing out a problem set will send them running for the glue without reminders. More of them will take notes. Empty desk syndrome will be a thing of the past.

If you dedicate yourself to incorporating the notebook, it will work. If the kids understand that the notebook has value, that it counts as part of their grade, and that you expect it to be used, they will. If you give up and stick with worksheets or never look at them, students will figure that out pretty fast.

If mastery is the goal, give the kids a chance to make mistakes, give them a chance to monitor their progress, and give them a reason to value what you’re teaching them.


Below are some examples of real notebooks from my students and the various ways I made use of them:


In the rush to flood the classroom with technology, sometimes analog methods are a beautiful thing.

AuthorJonathan Claydon