Earlier this week, one of my administrators stopped by to talk about long-term school goals for the next few years and the role I might play in achieving them. I love what I am doing right now but have to admit new opportunities to learn and grow in the profession always excite me!  I am voluntarily setting aside about four precious weeks of summer for professional development because it really is my thing.

Immediately after our conversation, I couldn’t help but focus on how I will eventually adapt what I do now to suit a different audience and purpose, particularly how I might adjust the interactive handbook that’s an integral part of how I manage class.

In recent posts, I have frequently alluded to that staple of my classroom– a handbook I use almost daily with my students. When other teachers hear about it, many equate it with a writer’s notebook, which is understandable, as those prized possessions are not uncommon in the English world. However, that doesn’t really capture its essence.  Others interpret it as an interactive notebook full of foldables and sketchnotes, all painstakingly assembled. It’s not quite that either.  The truth is, it is simultaneously neither and both.

Let me take the time to clarify.

Writer’s notebooks, as I understand them, are a mostly self-directed journey of discovery, a place for recording possibilities, and an opportunity to practice writing as a way of knowing.  In the notebooks I’ve built on my own or as a part of a class, one can easily find brainstorming, jotted thoughts, quotes that have struck me, questions to ponder, rough drafts, taped in items, and lists of a myriad of things.  They have always been a place to hold onto my thoughts, although they tended to be a jumbled mess of disorganization with post-it notes sticking out in every direction to label those things I considered most important. They are a playground, a mom’s wallet full of tiny scraps of memory, and a hiding place all wrapped between their binding covers. They are full of sacred ideas, silently shouted thoughts, and safe exploration.

I view an interactive notebook as a place where students can warehouse class activities, resources, and notes.  In an English class, they may have waterfall foldables with examples of parts of speech or figurative language, flow charts of the steps needed to work through a literary analysis,  or lists of vocabulary words to learn. When used with intentionality, these nifty tools help students organize resources systematically and basically become a handmade textbook or a portfolio-type record of learning.  Often, they are structured in such a way that students experience a lesson and in a one-page spread opening of a notebook, they attach their work on one side, while they practice on the other. Many people have practically made themselves a second career selling resources for them on Teachers Pay Teachers, and Pinterest has almost as many pictures of interactive notebooks as it has recipes.

These two very different approaches to notebooking are the parents that came together to birth the idea of the handbook students and I build, and the dominant genes in the mix definitely come from interactive notebook lineage.

The primary purpose of what we do is rooted in maintaining access to their most important notes and lessons. Good writing skills are transferrable to different genres, audiences, and purposes, and we explore these and practice them all year long, but multiple months of keeping track of a few particular resources a teacher deems important is a lofty goal for even the most organized of students!  That’s the strength of attaching them all in a common spot.

Some of the contents are handwritten notes, while others are a copied resource or a foldable manipulative.  Although the idea of those kinds of items may cause some secondary folks think about dismissing them, envisioning very elementary projects, these do have a place in the upper grades! Most are folded to physically show how ideas layer or — more likely– they’re designed that way to conserve space.

Composition notebooks are available in varying amounts of pages, depending upon the printing company and the vendor.  I learned this the hard way the first year I tried using them in class!  Typically, though, they do have 100 sheets. Since I want the notebook to serve a dual purpose as a handmade textbook and also a writer’s notebook, I budget pages for both.  Only the most important resources go into the handbook.  It varies from year to year as I change grade levels and courses, but we generally use the first 50-60 pages for the handbook and the rest for writer’s notebook.

The writer’s portion is sometimes a guided activity, like brainstorming topics of interest for writing projects,  but the rest is their space to use as they see fit.  Many honors students use it as a place to record information about the AP-worthy titles they’ve read so they can access the information to review when they someday take the AP Literature test. Aspiring poets view it as place to play with words. Some get extra help with essays and assignments, and we write additional notes in that space.  Occasionally I have them talk to me as a pre-writing activity, and I scribe their important ideas, words, and phrases.  How it is used is up to the student who owns it.

Next year, between the two areas, I plan to budget some space for conferring notes. I have not decided exactly how I will use it or whose responsibility it will be to maintain it, but I have time to think about it between now and then.  As I envision it right now, the student and I will probably share the job.

So much about high school is a delicate balance between control and freedom, guidance and exploration.  It’s only suitable that the notebook we use in English class would fit that description too.