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10 Reasons Not to Use Interactive Notebooks

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Interactive notebooks are riding a crest of popularity in both elementary and secondary schools. A brief Google search finds 6,850,000 results for “interactive notebooks” (INBs) in all subject areas: math, science, reading, language arts, social studies/history, foreign language study, and art. Some schools are now completely cross-curricular INB instruction in all subject areas and homeschool education has especially latched onto this educational approach. Whether you are an INB aficionado or skeptic, veteran or noob, it’s helpful to take a step back to analyze the pros and cons as to whether INBs should have a place in your classroom. Let’s start with the cons and examine 10 Reasons Not to Use Interactive Notebooks. My next article, 10 Reasons to Use Interactive Notebooks, will strike the pro and con balance. I’ve also written Interactive Notebooks: Research, History, and Definitions. Finally, I compiled a helpful checklist of essential selection criteria for teachers and schools considering purchase of INB programs.

I certainly have no ax to grind regarding INBs. I sell my own Teaching Grammar and Mechanics Interactive Notebook  introductory Spelling Rules and Parts of Speech unit on my store at Teachers Pay Teachers. I also sell a more traditional grammar, usage, mechanics, spelling and vocabulary program (See product information at end of article). So, I am well-acquainted with the pros and cons of INBs in the ELA subject area. I have also used the Teachers’ Curriculum Institute (TCI) Interactive Student Notebooks to teach history/social studies and loved this instructional approach. Additionally, I am currently writing a grades 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 Teaching Grammar and Mechanics Interactive Notebook series. However, INBs are not for everyone.

To get beyond my own biases, I checked out dozens of INBs and INB templates (most INBs use foldable, pop-out, 3D graphic organizers) in all subject areas: both products for sale and sharable lessons found on teacher blogs, Pinterest, and Facebook. I focused on reader comments to produce the following 10 Reasons Not to Use Interactive Notebooks list. On Teachers Pay Teachers I read over 5,000 individual comments on the INB products and purchased the two most popular (and wonderful) products for thorough review: Erin Cobb’s Interactive Grammar Notebook for Common Core Grades 4-8 (over 12,000 sold with 5,909 product reviews at the time of this writing) and Nicole Shelby’s grades 2-5 Interactive Language Notebooks (14,531 product reviews). About 98% of the product reviews for these two products were positive; however, because Teachers Pay Teachers offers incentives for reviews, the vast majority of the reviews are completed upon first glance at the materials and not after using the materials in the classroom. Most reviews are extremely brief, such as “Great!” “Thanks for sharing,” etc. For the following list of 10 con reasons, I’ve included actual comments from all INB product reviews, staff room, conference workshops/webinars, and a few of my own. I’ve intentionally decided not to cite names or products referred to in the reviews. My goal is not to offend, but to inform.

10 Reasons Not to Use Interactive NotebooksInteractive Notebooks

1. Interactive notebooks waste too much class time. Because INBs involve copying, coloring, writing, cutting and pasting graphic organizers (plus many other activities), many teachers find that this instructional approach takes up too many classroom minutes. Plus, some students just take much more time than others. INBs may be more conducive to elementary teachers or secondary teachers on a block schedule, rather than to secondary teachers on a traditional five or six period per day schedule.

2. Interactive notebooks require too much prep time. Creating both teacher input and student response activities is extremely time-consuming. Many teachers have purchased published INBs to save time, only to find that the advanced preparation required to complete complicated INB activities is much more than expected. Most INBs require voluminous copying (and copy expense), pre-cutting (to save paper costs), sorting, and distribution of the copies, markers, glue, scissors, and the notebooks themselves. Plus, most INB publisher programs require teachers to create their own notebooks as models and as reference for absent student make-ups.

3. Interactive notebooks require too much correcting time. Every Friday afternoon, I help one of my favorite seventh grade history teachers out to the parking lot with her two folding crate carts full of 115 INBs. She actually has 230 students, so she staggers the bi-weekly grading (She sees each class every other day). Yes, she uses peer grading, some self-grading, and only grades selective work, but even with these work smarter, not harder techniques, it takes her all Saturday or Sunday afternoon.

4. Interactive notebooks are a mess. It doesn’t take a neat freak to abandon the INB instructional approach. You may be a great housekeeper at home and in your classroom, but even well-trained students do no always share your values. Despite the best classroom management skills, glue spills, tiny paper scraps, ruined INB covers (or lost INBs) will be headaches for any teacher using INBs and for every custodian. At my school custodians vacuum only once per week. The last period of the day gets clean-up duty, but it’s not perfect. Plus, INB clean-up takes up more class and prep time.

5. Interactive notebooks can dumb-down content instruction. The Common Core State Standards have “upped the rigor” for most Interactive Notebookssubject areas. The high stakes PAARC and Smarter Balanced tests do not assess the way that most INB programs approach teaching and learning. The simple fact is that many times content and practice is limited to what will fit in the “cool flower petal” foldable. The graphics lend themselves to Depth of Knowledge, or Costa’s Levels, or Bloom’s Taxonomy lowest levels. The “Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally” (math order of operations), “King Henry Doesn’t Usually Drink Chocolate Milk (science metric units), or F.A.N.B.O.Y.S. (ELA coordinating conjunctions) work great for 3D graphics, but not so great for higher level thinking skills.

6. Interactive notebooks focus on teacher-centered instruction. The design of INBs is centered on teacher input (traditionally the right side of the page, but others go left) and student response (on the opposite page). The rudder steers the boat; the boat does not steer the rudder. Although some teachers in flipped or inquiry-based classrooms still use INBs, this is uncommon. Yes, students can personalize their responses and extend their learning with INBs, but time and resources are limitations. Additionally, INBs focus on grade-level instruction; the focus is on the content or skills (the Standards), not the individual student’s needs. None of the INBs I have seen do a decent job of individualizing instruction or helping students (remedial, EL, special ed) catch up while they keep up with grade level instruction.

7. Interactive notebooks do a poor job of assessment-based instruction or learning. Rarely do INBs include formative assessments of the focus Standards or teacher’s behavioral objectives. Some would argue that INBs use embedded assessments in the application and response to teacher input found on the foldables; however, most of this is copying or done in pairs or small groups. Students get no immediate feedback and teachers don’t usually adjust instruction or re-teach according to the student work. I have not seen diagnostic assessments incorporated into INB programs. Therefore, individualized or differentiated instruction is precluded without access to student diagnostic data. Most teachers do allow students to use INBs on unit tests.

8. Interactive notebooks instruction is supplemental and reductive. Most teachers and publishers use INBs as supplemental anchor Standards instruction. This is particularly true with Standards-based INB programs. For example, many of the ELA language (grammar, usage, mechanics, spelling, and vocabulary) programs restrict instruction to the listed Language Standards, ignoring the grade to grade Progressive Skills Review and other key content and skills in the subject matter which is foundational for instruction (and assumed by the Common Core authors). Any supplemental (or core) program is reductive. Time and energy focused on one instructional or learning task takes away time from another. (As an author aside, for years I have railed against spending valuable class time babysitting students while they do sustained-silent reading for this very reason. Click to read). As an example of the reductive nature of INBs, the inordinate amount of time and energy expended with these notebooks on some Standards takes away from the purported purpose of the INBs: to prepare students for reading, writing, speaking, and listening. Plenty of preparation, but little practice. It’s like appetizers without the main course. Teachers certainly do modify INB instruction by picking and choosing which lessons to do or not do, but this tends to foster hodgepodge instruction with little fidelity to a published program.

Interactive Notebooks

What Teachers Have to Say About Interactive Notebooks

9. Interactive notebooks are not “real world” instruction. Most of our students will not attend universities in which professors will use INB instruction. Most of our students will not wind up in workplaces in which they create learning or product portfolios (Certainly there will be exceptions). Additionally, though some teachers and publishers have integrated online resources into INB instruction, the focus is paper. I am intrigued with notion of a digital INB and am in the process of integrating that learning platform into the traditional INB I am working on… you can cut, past, color, and copy on computers 🙂

10. Many students hate interactive notebooks. My mom worked as a “soda jerk” during her high school years in a small Texas town drugstore. After her shift she was allowed to make herself one treat. Her favorite treat was a pineapple sundae. After two weeks of pineapple sundaes, my mom never ate one again. Due to the trending popularity of INBs, your students have “been there and done that.” They are tired of the same pineapple sundae, even if you are not. It is certainly not true that every upper elementary, and especially every middle school student, loves to copy, color, cut, and paste. Some students, like my youngest son, are not artsy fartsy, even if their teacher spends hours on Pinterest daily. Instead of building a medieval castle, we begged his seventh grade teacher to let him write a report of medieval castles. Instead of coloring everything in the INB, we begged his eighth grade teacher to let him produce a collage of computer images. Some students just learn differently and prefer other means of acquiring and processing knowledge.

Interactive notebooks are not for everyone. For a more systematic and comprehensive language curriculum, Mark Pennington, has written the assessment-based Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) Grades 4-8 programs to teach the Common Core Language Standards. Each full-year program provides 56 interactive grammar, usage, and mechanics and include sentence diagrams, error analysis, mentor texts, writing applications, and sentence dictation formative assessments with accompanying worksheets (L.1, 2). Plus, each grade-level program has weekly spelling pattern tests and accompanying spelling sort worksheets (L.2), 56 language application opener worksheets (L.3), and 56 vocabulary worksheets with multiple-meaning words, Greek and Latin word parts, figures of speech, word relationships with context clue practice, connotations, and four square academic language practice (L.4, 5, and 6). Comprehensive biweekly unit tests measure recognition, understanding, and application of all language components.

Pennington Publishing's Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand)

Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand)
Grades 4-8 Programs

Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) also has the resources to meet the needs of diverse learners. Diagnostic grammar, usage, mechanics, and spelling assessments provide the data to enable teachers to individualize instruction with targeted worksheets. Each remedial worksheet (over 200 per program) includes independent practice and a brief formative assessment. Students CATCH Up on previous unmastered Standards while they KEEP UP with current grade-level Standards. Check out the YouTube introductory video of the Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) program.

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