I’m obsessed with keeping notebooks. I have drawers full of them for collecting thoughts and ideas generated during faculty meetings, conferences, and workshops. So many treasures: lists of things to do, illustrations to remind me how to replicate, questions, unfamiliar terms, and examples of strategies I want to remember.
So it’s hardly a surprise that notebooking is a key practice in my elementary science instruction! I’ve tried fancy hardcover notebooks with lines, formatted templates with space for drawing, and lined paper. But do you know what works best? The simplest option: blank papers stapled inside of a file folder. Why? Blank pages allow for flexibility and freedom.
Science notebooks evolve throughout the year along with students, becoming more complex as students gain a better understanding of how data is collected and recorded. For example, a kindergarten class starts off with a general notebook for gathering and recording information, then gradually to specific-topic notebooks. A second grade class starts with general observations, then moves towards formal data recording.
Here are four ways to use science notebooks:
1. Help students create their own reference sheets.
I use a direct approach sometimes, asking students to write down definitions or copy a specific diagram. These entries serve as references for students.
2. Guide students in recording their discoveries.
I use a guided approach and model how to record data and experiences, but leave it up to students to create their own entry.
Open-ended notebook entries are my favorite and the most authentic. Students have total freedom over what they record in their notebooks and how. These entries provide a window to students’ thinking and understanding of concepts — they tell me where and how I can contextualize our experiments.
3. Capture evidence of student learning and understanding.
I often use notebooks to check for students’ understanding of concepts and new content vocabulary.
4. Document student growth over time.
Science notebooks provide a permanent record of students’ activities and learning and can be included in their portfolios. Notebooks can be used to document student growth and development in science (and literacy) from the beginning of the year.
As a teacher who works with many English language learners and students with disabilities, I appreciate how well all students respond to the opportunities to share their own illustrations, graphs, charts, and words. This improves their ability to organize and explain their ideas and learning. Illustrating a concept in their notebooks can provide a boost of confidence for students who might not otherwise speak up in an oral discussion.
Science notebooks are a powerful way for students to demonstrate understanding of science experiences, and provide teachers with evidence for assessing students’ written language development and science learning.
Jane Fung is a National Board Certified Teacher in urban Los Angeles, where she currently teaches 1st grade. She serves on the board of the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, and she is an active member of Accomplished California Teachers, Milken Educator Network, and the Center for Teaching Quality’s Collaboratory. Jane has a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction and 25 years of teaching experience.
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