Just about a year ago, I gathered my thoughts and samples into The $1 Textbook, an outline of notebooks and their importance in my classroom. During the 2011-12 school year, I began the year with notebooks and by the second semester had found a way to adapt my planning to incoporate them. For 2012-13, I set out to make every assignment notebook compatible, seek out more group projects, and incorporate the notebook better into the way I present material. Last year was heavy on philosophy, this year I'm back to focus on implementation, impact, and iteration.

What I hope you take away from this is that a simple idea completely changed everything about how I conduct class, from student expectations to my own lesson planning expectations.

Some hours after this was posted on June 11, I teamed up with James Cleveland and Megan Hayes-Golding to present multiple ways of using notebooks for math class. Interactive Notebook Ideas is available as a replay from Global Math Department.


My interest in notebooks began in 2010, and was amplified by Standards Based Grading. SBG necessitates a way for students to track their grades to have the proper impact. A cheap and efficient way for them to do this is in the front of a notebook. It's large enough they won't lose it, and creates a bit of ownership because I'm not having them fill something out I made. As long as they're doing that, there have to be creative ways to exploit all that extra paper they've now got with them.

My specifications for notebooks:

  • composition notebooks work great, they consistently last an entire school year, but are not explicitly required
  • the first two pages of the notebook are for tracking assessments, all students are required to do this
  • all handouts go in the notebook via staples, tape, or glue
  • all class work is to be completed in the notebook
  • all data tables for group work are to be in the notebook
  • students may change notebooks at semester or in the event they lose it
  • students may store the notebook in the room at all times if they choose
  • assessments can be kept in the notebook, but was not required

 How I support my specifications:

  • two notebooks per class period are raffled off at the start of the school year
  • three staplers, two tape dispensers, 30 safety scissors, and 30 glue sticks are always at the front of the room
  • buckets are provided for storage and labeled by class period
  • SBG charts are worth 10%, group work 10%, and class work 20%
  • explicit class time is used to begin SBG charts at the start of each semester, this lasts through Test 3
  • SBG charts are checked every 3 weeks
  • all handouts are small enough to fit in a composition notebook, 1/2 sheets or 1/3 sheets
  • all handouts are titled with the matching SBG topic name as best as possible
  • class work is graded by quick inspection and marking grades on a clipboard       
    • class work is just that, work done in class, doing work at home is not required, though my methods are not incompatible with homework
    • typical class work grades are 0, 50, 70, 80, 90, 100; not much nitpicking is done
    • class work is checked for completion, not accuracy
    • class work is reviewed as a group to check for understanding, students are responsible for giving themselves feedback on it
    • class work is sometimes checked in batches "show me work from today and yesterday please"
    • class work is not necessarily graded 
  • random "notebook health inspections" are conducted to catch students who are being lazy about taping/gluing/stapling
  • work presented as a poster has been done previously or simultaneously in the notebook

 Other than some students being critical of my ability to cut 1/2 sheets and 1/3 sheets, this structure works pretty well. I don't grade every bit of class work because I don't want grades to be their sole motivation for getting it done. I check often enough to keep them thinking about it but not necessarily be fearful. From time to time in Algebra II I will do a bit of a crackdown if a class is being bad about completing their work. It varies every grading period but if I give out 8 assignments I might check 4.

From time to time a student will claim their notebook was stolen. It's almost always at the bottom of the wrong classes bucket. Maybe 2 out of 150 will legitimately disappear during a school year.


I conducted quickie exit interviews of all my Algebra II students to gauge their opinions on some things. Algebra II is a great group to ask because the age and skill rnages are huge. First, I had them rate their ability to keep up with the notebook on a scale of 1 to 10. Students typically grade themselves harshly, and 7/10 was the most common. Only a couple said 10 (and I agreed) with a sprinkle of 8s and 9s. The followup related to being required to keep the notebook. Would they have kept their class work organized if not given a structure to do so? Easily half (~30) said no. Others said they would, but it wouldn't be quite as organized, they'd have a folder with all their papers in it or something. All students rated the notebook as a reliable resource, but I'm not sure I asked that question well enough (it was a bit leading). Any volunteers to help me create a double blind survey?

There are two big takeaways from interviewing these students. One, organizational structure is not intuitive. As teachers, our experience is often a trap. We've been organized indiviuals for decades, so the solutions are obvious. We forget what it's like to be 15/16/17. You learned important lessons in organization from SOMEONE. Hey, now you're that someone. Teach before you expect. Second, 60 students rated their ability to adhere to a dictated structure at 6/10 or higher. All 60 of them are not A students. Many of them were C/D students. But were it not for this organizational intervention, how many of them are your D/F students who never write anything down and lose everything they're given? A simple little notebook can create a dramatic difference in the performance you get from students. The top will always be the top, the middle raises their game, and the bottom isn't so bottom anymore.

Professionally, I am forced to consider the notebook as a resource when planning my lessons. Assignments got shorter and more focused to fit the size constraints. I wasted a lot less copier paper. Matching activities are easier to implement because they could be relevant portions of notes, not lost in a folder or in the trash can. Group activities are no brainers. I'm not creating elaborate data tables and running off 100 copies, I'm sketching out important things to write down and THEY make the data table. I can incoporate reference tables (such as how to identify a hyperbola vs. an ellipse) into my presentations and feel like it will get used. I quit wasting time on test reviews because my assignments ARE the review.


There is always room for improvement. Some considerations for next year:

  • increase the size of the notebook buckets, it got a tad cluttered
  • a lot of students admitted they did not reflect much on the SBG sheets
  • a backup of SBG scores need to be kept by me somewhere
  • tests need to be kept in a makeshift pocket in the notebook
  • be a little more critical of class work completion
  • keep a stockpile of spares, a few students lingered for months under the pretense of buying new notebooks

Overall, I love the effect of notebooks. It sets a tone that work is expected from students every day, they are accountable for that work, and that work is there to help them in the future. And there's no way they can argue we never do anything, there are 30 kids keeping records of what we do.

AuthorJonathan Claydon