Notebooks, people. Notebooks.
That is the tried and true system that has worked itself into my teaching. Oh, I've tried other ways, but those ways are not my ways.
The notebook is the only way. But, then, the science of which notebook kicks in, like, now that I know I love using a notebook to plan, sketch, doodle, create, plan, rehash, reflect and plan, the next question is: what kind of notebook?
As a writer of sorts, friends and family are always buying me notebooks. They think a person who journals, notebooks (yes, that's a verb now) and writes wants notebooks as gifts. And although some of these notebooks are very nice, and in full color and are from Italy and have my name on them, I would much rather just choose the notebook I'm going to write in.
I didn't learn to use this tool from a college course, but during student teaching. I did not learn to use a notebook from my supervisor or mentor teacher while student teaching, it just made sense.
Like, "I'm going to put everything and anything about teaching in this one notebook to keep me organized. Ideas, plans, quotes, you name it."
And I carried that half-sized, black, three-subject spiral notebook around with me everywhere.
It was my bible containing a litany of ideas.
I still have it. It's kept with all of my other notebooks.
(If you saw that this was Part One about notebooks, please realize that Part Two deals with what to do with all the old notebooks.)
After that, I continued to find my groove as a teacher. Although I liked the three-subject, spiral bound notebook, I had always wondered about those interesting-looking, but weird, composition notebooks.
I tried using one once before in high school, but gave up. They never made any sense, nor felt right to me. The lines were always wide-ruled. There were only 100 pages. It wasn't very comfortable to write in, since I couldn't just flip the cover open and place it behind while I wrote.
So alien, they were.
I unburied the one I started in high school, tore out any used pages, and decided that I would use it as my teaching notebook.
That's where the magic started. Sure there were lines, but I didn't pay any attention to them.
And I didn't just use black pen and write. I doodled. I used markers. I created calendars. My lesson planning became visual. Funny, even, as I made small notes on the side where stick figures did some talking (those were created usually during staff meetings).
The notebook was my groove, and became synonymous with me. Fellow teachers and principals have teased me about it.
"Put that in your notebook," they've said.
They must believe it's the note-taking reporter in me.
In reality, it's the writer.
In high school and through college, a notebook was always with me. No one to eat with? Just write in the notebook. A weird 15-minute break between classes? Just write in the notebook. In class? Take notes in the notebook. On the phone with someone? Doodle in the notebook. Just feel like writing in a notebook? Write in the notebook.
My creative notebook of choice is the Large Moleskine with no lines. I like the creative freedom it allows.
My teaching notebook of choice is a Mead Composition notebook. Sure, it could be another brand of composition notebook, but let's be serious folks. Mead knows notebooks like Crayola knows crayons.
I know my teaching notebook has to be a composition notebook because I have ventured out and tried new things.
Those large teacher planners with dark green covers?
I look at those pages with boxes on them and can't understand how they work. This is because I have never taught just one or two classes.
As the sole journalism teacher in my building, I can teach up to four completely different classes in one quarter. Four preps needs a heck of a lot more space than those teacher planners allow.
A binder, using those cutesy printouts from Teachers Pay Teachers?
For some reason, only ladies make those for other ladies, and with design skills of my own, I would just create my own.
(Wait. Here's an idea! Do any of you out there need lesson planning sheets designed? Something sleek that doesn't use Comic Sans? I could whip those up -- do you have a font of choice? I'll use it!)
In between composition notebooks, I decided to use one of my notebooks that was a gift. I knew that I wasn't going to use it for creative purposes, so I thought, "Eh, I'll just use it for teaching."
This was before I realized that the composition notebook was the Tesseract of notebooks. Deep inside was an Infinity Stone of planning.
Although it allowed me to still be creative, the notebook my friends got me fell apart. The cover, these super-thick sheets of cardboard, were tearing away from the rest of the book because they had no give. Eventually, I had to turn to my moustache washi tape to salvage it.
My current notebook, the notebook that has helped me realize that Mead Composition notebooks are the only way to go, is -- and you'll laugh -- a Moleskine.
Since I fell in love with my creative Moleskine notebook, I figured that would also be the perfect notebook for teaching. But it needed to be a tad bit larger that the Large Moleskine, so I opted for the Extra Large Moleskine model that's also a planner.
With days of the week on the left side and lined pages on the right.
This is so adult, I thought. How professional. And it even has a strap to keep it closed. And the calendar will totally help me stay organized, I thought. I can plan out what I want to do and write it next to the day I do it.
You should see it.
I'm using it like I use my composition notebooks, by paying no mind to the calendar. I tried. I really did.
But, as an adult needing a calendar, I didn't start using one until Outlook was a part of my professional life -- and now Google Calendar.
I work better with digital calendars -- and if the Internet goes and dies on all of us, that's fine because when that happens, we probably won't need calendars anymore, anyway.
We'll need to learn how to hunt, forage and farm in our backyards.
So, my Extra Large Moleskine simply became an expensive composition notebook. I rue the day when it is finished.
It is simply trying to be something it isn't.
I even helped design and create a planner for our teaching staff this past summer. We're able to get them printed and bound within the district.
We switched from the more traditional seven-period schedule to a block schedule this year. My fellow teacher was dissatisfied with any planners out there and wanted to create her own.
This was a dream. I was helping to create a teacher planner. If I helped design it, I would totally use it, right?
Like the yucky giant green-covered one, it was also limiting to someone who teaches up to four completely different subjects and not the same subject six times. I would need to have at least three of those planners.
This made me sad because it held so much promise. A place for important notes (that I can already place in my composition notebook). A place for important dates (that I already keep in both my Outlook and Google Calendar, with reminders). A place for planning out my week (that I can create with markers and fun colors in my composition notebook).
Trying to use that customized-planner made me realize why I like having a composition notebook as my end-all-be-all: complete and utter customization. On a whim.
If I want to create a chart, calendar, schedule, lesson, drawing, sketch, etc., I have the freedom to create that in my notebook. The notebook becomes whatever it is I need it to become at that moment.
As a teacher, I have so many plates in the fire -- or, wait. I'm spinning so many irons in the air. That's not right either.
The notebook is a transformer.
It's more than meets the eye.
And that's what I need as a teacher because I need to keep all the newspaper stories, yearbook designs, broadcast plans straight, and the composition notebook helps me be the teacher that's more than meets the eye.
It allows me to be Optimus Prime.
It goes like this: an application is presented during professional development, and since it's new and shiny, and all the teachers ooh and ahh at it, all the teachers feel the pressure to try and use it in their teaching somehow.
But later that week or month, the teacher can't figure out where to use the app, get's frustrated, and it's all very square-peg, round-hole, isn't it?
I also feel this pressure when talking with fellow teachers about technology in the classroom and how we use it, either for ourselves or with our students. One time, the pressure was on when I was involved in a discussion about keeping notes, saving websites, keeping lists, etc.
The app of choice for a few people was Evernote -- that green app with the elephant on it, because, you know, an elephant never forgets...and neither will your Evernote account.
It syncs across devices. Moleskine notebooks use the Evernote ecosystem. With it, it keeps notes, photos, links, and allows for users to curate all that information with a single log-in.
It all sounded magical, and just as I reached for my phone to download the app, I stopped myself.
I didn't want another login for another application. And like most apps, there's a free version and a paid version, and of course, the paid version has more bells and whistles. Per month.
I already subscribe to so much, like Netflix and Hulu.
So, I paused at becoming an Evernote user.
Something else I hear from teachers about technology is how "it's always changing! When you get used to one thing, something new shows up!"
And they may not be talking about using a laptop, Chromebook or mobile device in the classroom, but they are talking about all the different applications that are out there.
Like, if you go to the App Store or Google Play, there are lists and lists of apps you can use in the classroom, but which ones are best?
Maybe that's the wrong question.
Choosing the right app shouldn't be about what's best, but what's best...for you.
I approach technology the way I approach television shows. Just because everyone else is watching it, Rotten Tomatoes gave it 100% and Entertainment Weekly can't shut up about it, doesn't mean I'm going to sit down and watch it.
I didn't watch "The Office" because everyone else did, nor am I going to get an iPhone because everyone swears by it.
Just because it's the best doesn't mean that I want it.
Instead of asking what's best, I figure out what's best for me. Is the app a part of an ecosystem I'm already using? Can I do something similar in another app that I'm already a fan of? Do I think that way, and would I really use the app? Will it allow me to login using Google or Facebook?
Applications are made to make life easier, and sometimes the multitude of options are more suffocating than freeing.
I am already a part of the Google Ecosystem with Google Apps for Education, I realized that Google Keep can be my Evernote. I can tag my notes, create reminders, lists, create voice notes and photo notes. I can also send those notes to people and color-code the notes.
Since I'm already using so many tools within the GAFE realm, I check there first before I look elsewhere.
Do the same.
All these tools should allow us to work smarter, not harder.
I tell my students that people, other than their fellow classmates and teachers, will be reading their homework. We print about 1,400 copies of our newspaper twice a quarter (that's approximately 11,200 copies for an entire year), and 1,050 yearbooks each year. I want them to be aware that what they do isn't just for our eyes in the classroom; it's for everyone. I let them know that people have the chance to go online and read our Twitter updates (which include photos and posts written by them) and read the newspaper.
That families pay for the yearbook, which is essentially their classwork.
I also mention that it's up to them to gather the history of Clay and to publish it. Local news agencies aren't going to cover what's happening inside the walls of our school. It's up to us to do our best to tell Clay's stories.
While they benefit the overall culture of Clay, as well as inform the public of what's happening in the different classrooms, journalism students are also upping the ante when it comes to testing, grades and their success in other classes.
Back in 2008, the Newspaper Association of America performed a study about the positive link between journalism education and academic achievement. The research/study used 31,000 students from all 50 states, as well as some foreign countries. The study showed that a non-journalism student's GPA was an average of 3.28, while a student that was involved with a journalism program had an average GPA of 3.38. Not only were GPA's stronger for the average journalism student, they scored better on the ACT and got better grades as freshmen in college.
Granted, the study was aimed at high school students, but who says that starting in middle school can't help?
We're lucky to have an entire program at the middle school/junior high level that allows for students to write stories for an authentic audience, to refine their communication skills with writing and speaking, as well as note-taking. They also get to have some fun gaining experience behind the camera, taking photos and video of all that's happening in the classroom, as well as extra-curricular activities. Oh, and they dabble in basic design.
I'm also a little biased, but I think it's a lot of fun -- to the point where students forget they're learning.
Who is The Vade Mecum
Evan Williams is a middle school journalism teacher in Indiana. He advises the student publications: yearbook, magazine, video announcements, broadcast and online news. To find success in the classroom, he uses blended learning with the help of Canvas and Google Apps for Education.