How to Set Up an Interactive Notebook in Any Classroom

Interactive notebooks are useful in any subject area. In my science classroom, students used them for all of their Do Nows, all of their notes, and many daily assignments. Every day, the students knew they had to get their interactive notebook, fill in the Table of Contents, copy the Do Now questions, and answer the Do Now in sentences. When we went over the Do Now answers, the students would sometimes add to or change their answers so they had accurate information. Then, if we took notes that class period, the students knew exactly where to write them. They would add any vocabulary words to their glossaries. When it came time to study for a test, the students had potential test questions and answers from all the Do Nows and they had all of their notes organized neatly so they could find information quickly.

During the school year, I kept an interactive notebook as well. When a student was absent, I could show them my interactive notebook or make a copy of certain pages to distribute. Interactive notebooks have proven invaluable to me as a teacher. They show everything we learned, when we learned it, and how we learned it. That makes lesson planning so much faster and easier the next year. I love interactive notebooks and would never go back to not using them in my classroom.

Interactive notebooks are adaptable and can suit the needs of each classroom and subject area. There are different ways to set up interactive notebooks. Below you will find directions, pictures, and advice on how to set up a basic interactive notebook for your classroom. Here is a how-to guide in English and Spanish you can provide for your students.

First, instruct your students to purchase a composition notebook. Composition notebooks were the only required supply for my classroom and should cost less than two dollars. I strongly recommend composition notebooks over any other kind of notebook. Composition notebooks are durable and, in my experience, can even hold up to a year of abuse from middle school students. All other notebooks tend to fall apart quickly. Plus, students are tempted to tear out notebook pages to use for other purposes.

I always set up interactive notebooks on the first day of the second week of school. That way students have plenty of time, including a weekend, to go out and buy one. I encourage students to bring in their composition books early and keep them in my classroom so they are less likely to be forgotten on the day we need them. Inevitably, you will have some students who will not bring a composition book on time. For those students you have two options. One, have a stockpile of composition books for students to purchase from you. (Office Depot usually has a back to school sale where you can buy loads of composition books for only a quarter each.) Two, have students write detailed notes on how to set up their composition books so they can do it at home on their own.

Setting up interactive notebooks takes longer than you might expect. I always dedicated at least a full hour of class time to getting them done. Even then, I sometimes had a few students not quite finished in the allotted time. On the day you plan to set up interactive notebooks, make sure you have a completed example (or use the pictures from this blog post) for students to reference. Start by having students number the pages in their interactive notebook. Have them number the outer, upper corner of every page, so if you were to flip through the pages quickly with your thumb you would see every page number. Refer to the picture below.

Numbering the pages takes between ten and fifteen minutes, so while the students are numbering, pass around a few permanent markers. With the markers, students need to write their first and last names, class name, class period, year, and grade on the cover.

Also, with the permanent markers, students should write their first and last names along each side of the composition book. This will help students find their interactive notebooks much faster at the start of class. (The students in my classes were not allowed to take their interactive notebooks out of the classroom. Without this rule, you can expect many interactive notebooks to never make it back to class. I did make the occasional exception to this rule for responsible students who requested to take their interactive notebooks home to study.)

I haven’t tried this with a class before, but consider adding a color-coded system to quickly separate interactive notebooks by class period. You might try a certain color of sticker for each class period. Students can add a sticker of their class’s color to the upper right hand corner of their interactive notebooks.

Once students have finished numbering the pages and labeling the outside of their interactive notebooks, they are ready to create the table of contents. Use the front and back of the first five sheets (pages 1-10). Students should make three columns: a column for the date, title, and page number of each entry. If students use rulers to do this, expect it to take 10-15 minutes. See the pictures below for how the table of contents should look.

Below you’ll find a picture of a completed table of contents.

Now the students are ready to make their glossaries. Some teachers require students to write the vocabulary words and their definitions. If this is something you want to do, have no more than two letters per page. I only required students to write the vocabulary words and page numbers in their glossaries. To label the glossary like I did in my classes, have students use the last three sheets of paper in their lab books. Label the top of each page “Glossary.” Then divide the page into four even boxes. Write one letter in the corner of each box. See the pictures below.

When you get to the last page of the glossary, put U, V, and W in their own boxes. X, Y, and Z, since they have so few vocabulary words, will share a box. See the image below.

If during the year the students run out of room in their glossaries, simply put a sticky note over the top of the box.  My students never had enough room in the C box, as you can see in the picture below.

Once the students are finished making their glossaries, they are done! The interactive notebooks are now set up and ready to use. You can get a how-to guide with step-by-step instructions and pictures for your students to make creating their interactive notebooks even easier.

Like I mentioned earlier, I did not let the interactive notebooks leave my classroom. If you implement this rule too, you’ll need to have some sort of storage system in place. I liked using plastic milk crates because they were inexpensive, sized perfectly, and kept the interactive notebooks neatly organized. I bought six crates and then labeled them alphabetically, with several letters for each crate. The students placed their interactive notebooks in the crates by last name.

The first year I used interactive notebooks, I had the crates divided by class period rather than alphabetically. I do not recommend this. I had close to forty students in each of my classes and it took FOREVER for all of the students to locate their interactive notebooks when they were all crowded around the same crate.

As far as grading the interactive notebooks, I graded them once each quarter. I have tried many grading methods over the years, and I finally have one that works for me. My interactive notebook grading check comes in three versions (all versions are in both English AND Spanish), and it's FREE.

Middle school science teachers: I have tons of science interactive notebook pages you and your students will love. My interactive notebook pages are unique because they are heavy on content and fun practice while not involving tons of time-consuming cutting, folding, and gluing. Check them out!

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