One of the stereotypes of high school classes, especially history classes, is that most instruction consists of dry, boring lectures. The teacher from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off as played by Ben Stein comes to mind.

In 1930, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, in an effort to alleviate the effects of the . . . Anyone? Anyone? . . . the Great Depression, passed the . . . anyone? Anyone?

The tariff bill? The Hawley-Smoot Tariff Act? Which, anyone? Raised or lowered? . . . raised tariffs, in an effort to collect more revenue for the federal government. Did it work? Anyone? Anyone know the effects?

And while direct instruction delivered this way has very little impact on long-term learning, we also understand that kids need to be able to gather and organize basic information so that they can apply that information in creative ways.

We also know that graphic organizers are great tools for this task. One form of graphic organizer that works very well is something called Interactive Student Notebooks. I was reminded of ISNs this week when I got an email from a teacher looking for ways to integrate technology into their use.

ISNs are the anti-thesis to the old style outline notes that we were taught as students and many teachers still use. Interactive Student Notebooks allow students to record information in an engaging way that’s based on brain research.

At a very basic level, an ISN is simply a notebook or binder with each page divided in half – a right side and a left side. The right side or “input” side should be used for taking class notes, notes from a video or discussion or from assigned readings. This can be done in a traditional outline format but teachers can also model a variety of visual models such as flow charts, annotated slides or other simple graphic organizers. Basically the rights side is where a student puts information that everyone in the class needs to know.

The left side or “output” side is where application of that information begins to happen and where students start the processing of new ideas. You should ask students to use illustrations, diagrams, charts, poetry, colors, matrices, cartoons, and the like. Have kids articulate their opinions, agree or disagree on controversial issues, ponder hypothetical situations and ask questions about new ideas. Early in the process, you will need to model what these activities might look like. These activities help kids understand that simply writing down lecture notes does not mean they have learned the information.

So what does it look like?

This example from the History Alive people shows a student taking class notes on late nineteenth-century industrialism on the right side of her notebook. Later as homework, she created a topical net on the left side using the information from the right side.

Why use ISNs?

  • ISNs encourage students to use both the visual and linguistic parts of the brains.
  • Note taking becomes a much more active process. Students become directly involved in constructing their own knowledge. Much of the work is actually doing something with the information.
  • ISNs encourage students to become more organized in the learning process. Kids begin to see relationships in the process of doing history. Many teachers also ask that students use highlighters, subject headings, underline and colored markers.
  • Over time, ISNs become a portfolio of the student’s work. You, the kid and parents can track progress throughout the school. ISNs also provide an excellent review tool.

There are tons of ways that you can use the left hand side of the ISN (courtesy of History Alive):

  • Advertisements
    Design advertisements to represent migration, settlement, or the significance of a specific site.
  • Annotated Illustrations
    Make annotated illustrations to recount a story of travel or migration, to represent a moment in time or to label architectural features.
  • Annotated Slides
    Use simple sketches of powerful images, accompanied by annotations, to help students understand difficult content.
  • Book / CD / Video Games covers – design the layout using information from the right side.
  • Caricatures
    Draw caricatures to present the main characteristics of a group in history or how an individual or group was perceived by another group.
  • Eulogies
    Write eulogies to extol the virtues of prominent historical figures or civilizations.
  • Facial Expressions
  • Draw facial expressions to summarize the feelings of groups who have different perspectives on a single event.
  • Flow Charts
    Create flow charts to show causal relationships or to show steps in a sequence.
  • Forms of Poetry
    Write various forms of poetry to describe a person, place, event or feeling of a moment.
  • Historical Journals
    Assume the role of a historical figure to keep a journal that recounts the figure’s feelings and experiences in language of the era.
  • Illustrated Dictionary Entries
    Explain key terms by created illustrated dictionary entries. Write adefinition, provide a synonym and an antonym, and draw an illustration to represent each term.
  • Illustrated Outlines
    Use simple drawings and symbols to graphically highlight or organize class notes.
  • Illustrated Proverbs
    Create illustrated proverbs to explain complex concepts.
  • Illustrated Timelines
    Create illustrated timelines to sequence a series of events in chronological order.
  • Invitations
    Design invitations that highlight the main goals and key facts of important historical events.
  • Mind Notes
    Draw and label outlines of the heads of important historical figures. Fill in the outline with quotations and paraphrased thoughts from that person.
  • Mosaics
    Synthesize information from a broad content area by creating mosaics. Use visuals and words to represent similarities, differences and important concepts.
  • Perspective Pieces
    Design drawings or write newspaper articles to represent different perspectives on controversial figures, events and concepts.
  • Pictowords
    Create pictowords (symbolic representations of words or phrases tha show their meaning) to help define difficult concepts.
  • Political Cartoons and Comic Strips
    Create political cartoons and comic strips to provide social or political commentary on important historical events.
  • Postcards
    After studying specific content, write postcards to summarize information about places or events.
  • Provocative Statements
    Have students react to provocative statements to introduce historical themes or to critically assess a historical period.
  • Report Card
    Use graded evaluations to assess the policies of leaders or governments.
  • Sensory Figures
    Create sensory figures (simple drawings of prominent historical figures with descriptions of what they might be seeing, hearing, saying,feeling, or doing) to show the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of historical figures.
  • Spectrums
    Place information on a spectrum to show multiple perspectives on a topic or to express an opinion about an issue.
  • Spoke Diagrams
    Create spoke diagrams as a visual alternative to outlining.
  • Venn Diagrams
    Develop Venn diagrams to compare and contrast people, concepts, places or groups.
  • “What If?” Statements
    Use “what if?” statements to apply newfound knowledge to hypothetical historical situations.

Have fun!