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I Switched to Interactive Binders

In my last post I talked about why I ditched interactive notebooks. Today I’d like to talk about why I switched to interactive binders and how I used them.

As I said in the last post, I loved the idea of interactive notebooks. So even though the actual notebooks didn’t work for me and my students, I wasn’t ready to give up on the idea.

I have always had my students keep an organized 3-ring binder. I’d give them colorful sticky tabs to divide all the new units (they loved it when I handed these out!) and they were able to utilize them effectively for the most part. It occurred to me that maybe I could combine my binders with the idea of an interactive notebook.

So Interactive Binders were born!

How I Use Interactive Binders in Class

I incorporated many of the same interactive notebook ideas into my binders. We had a Table of Contents (ToC), we numbered all of the ITEMS (not pages) and there were lots of opportunities for interactivity. The difference was that we weren’t spending time cutting and taping our materials. The students would simply pick up their hole-punched materials when they walked in.

Interactive BInder Table of Contents

Our Table of Contents … BIN stands for BInder Item Number

As a class warm-up, I put a Powerpoint slide on my Smartboard with instructions for the students to place the work in their binders with the ToC title, date, and BIN, or Binder Item Number. Kids would come in, pick up their materials, sit down and start filling out their Table of Contents with the information on the board. Since we were inserting pages as we went along I had few to no issues of students numbering items incorrectly. That in itself was a major improvement over the notebooks!

Switching to interactive binders solved all of the problems I had encountered with the notebooks. We were still able to do all of the interactive types of activities that we had done with notebooks. For example, if I wanted students to do some kind of ouput work I just made sure there was a blank page facing them on the left. If we did a foldable, they just glued it to piece of paper and inserted it that way.

I also kept a Master Binder. This was great for students who were absent and also helped some others keep their binders more organized.  When it was getting close to the time that I would grade their binders, many kids used mine to make sure theirs were up to date and labeled correctly.

I graded the binders once per marking period. I had a separate grading category for them in our school grading system … they counted for 15% of their grade. It wasn’t as hard to grade them as you might think … I have an excellent rubric for them and I would only collect one class at a time so that I wasn’t overwhelmed. Since I couldn’t take all of those binders home with me, it meant spending some time after school, but I found that once I got into the flow of the rubric the grading went pretty quickly.

I’ve added a product in my (growing) Teachers Pay Teachers store about how to get started with Interactive Binders. It’s quickly becoming one of my best sellers! Just click the image below to check it out in my store.

Interactive BInders - Alternative to Interactive Notebooks

The product contains a Powerpoint that you can use with students to help them set up their binders, the grading rubric, and the Table of Contents form. I’ve also included detailed teacher suggestions to help you get started.

Do you have an alternative to interactive notebooks? Share with us!


Why I Ditched Interactive Notebooks

Consider today’s post a confession of why I ditched interactive notebooks.

Unless you’ve been teaching under a rock, you’ve probably heard of interactive notebooks, or INBs. They’re a pretty hot educational trend right now, and I don’t see that ending any time soon.

I LOVE the idea of INBs … the coloring, the foldables, the input and output pages designed to help students think and internalize more. It makes sense to me that teaching and learning this way would be effective and engaging.

I tried INBs in my classroom about 5 years ago. They weren’t quite all the rage then as they are now, and I was the only teacher in my small district to attempt them. I spent the summer researching, planning and prepping. I got lots of materials ready for my first unit, Scientific Method, and started making my own notebook as a master copy.

I bought plastic baskets at Dollar Tree for each of the tables in my room and filled them with colored pencils, glue sticks, scissors, tape and highlighters. I bought 5 red plastic milk crates (one for each of my classes) and set them up. I wanted my kids to leave their INBs in the classroom most of the time, unless they needed them at home for a specific reason such as studying for a test. My students are Freshmen, and in my experience most of them are totally unorganized and I envisioned them losing their notebooks during the first month of school.

I was so excited to get started with these!

We spent the first few days of class getting the notebooks set up. I talked about how this was going to be their “textbook” for the year and how helpful it was going to be to them. I showed them the baskets on their tables and hoped that they’d take ownership of the supplies and use them well.

why i ditched interactive notebooks

Problems Start to Arise

Within a few days, issues were arising. Some of the kids were way faster than others at cutting and pasting. They saw the cutting at the beginning of class as more social time than class time and I had difficulty enforcing a time limit. Moving on after 5 minutes like I said I would wasn’t really conducive to effective teaching when a third of the class wasn’t done gluing their sheets in. All that meant was that I’d then spend the rest of class helping them play catch up.

Some of my girls really bought into the INBs. They loved the artsy aspect of it and spent time keeping their notebooks neat and up-to-date. Most of the boys, on the other hand … well, lets just say that they were NOT invested in their INBs at all. I started finding broken colored pencils on my floor after certain classes left. Some students were using the scotch tape to tape the pencils together in bunches! I’d been teaching for about 25 years at that point and didn’t really have discipline issues in class, but this sort of thing was bothersome and was becoming expensive.

I wasn’t ready to give up though. By now we were into the second marking period and I was looking for ways to modify. I realized that I was behind in my lessons compared to the previous year, and I attributed that to the lost time spent cutting and taping. So I purchased a paper cutter for my classroom. I spent my own time after school trimming all of the inserts for the notebooks so that all the kids would have to do is tape them to the appropriate page. It added to my prep time and did seem to save us a little bit of time each day.

There were other issues as well. I did not foresee the problem that some kids would have in numbering their pages correctly. If their pages weren’t numbered right, then when they were instructed to tape something to a specific page, hands went up with “I already have something on that page!” It made it difficult for me to do spot-checks of notebooks since I couldn’t just pick a certain page to check and expect to see the same thing on all of the notebooks.

Even with all of the issues, though, I would have stuck with it if I truly saw an increase in learning. Unfortunately, I saw the opposite effect. The scores on my unit tests were lower than the previous year and more students were failing the tests. I did some soul-searching and decided to stop the INBs in the middle of the third marking period. I simply told the kids that the notebooks weren’t really working out as well as I’d hoped and that I wanted to go back to regular binders and notes, along with our usual class activities. The relief in the room was palpable!

So we finished out the year in a more “traditional” way. I’m happy to say that my Regents test scores at the end of the year were on par with previous years. I was happy that my students hadn’t shown any decline in learning after all was said and done.

Now with all of that being said, I’m not trying to discourage anyone from using INBs in their classroom! I wanted to share this so that other teachers may also realize that they’re not for every teacher in every classroom. A lot depends on the kinds of students you have and what you’re teaching.

So … that’s why I ditched interactive notebooks. Kind of! If you’d like to know what I use instead, click here to find out!

Have you tried INBs in your classroom? We’d love to hear your experiences!


How to Use the 5E Model With Blended Learning

In this post we’ll talk about how to use the 5E Model with Blended Learning. In case you’re not familiar with the 5E Model of teaching, it’s an inquiry-based constructivist model where students work to generate their own understanding of the science concepts.

The Es stand for Engage, Explore, Explain, Extend (Elaborate) and Evaluate. The great thing about this teaching methodology is that it can work with all science topics. And, if you’re struggling to start incorporating the Next Generation Science Standards into your curriculum, the 5E Model is tailor-made for the NGSS!5E Model with Blended Learning

It’s also easy (as if ANYTHING in teaching is easy anymore!) to use blended learning with the 5E Model. It really is so flexible that you can adapt it to use just about any teaching strategy you can think of.

Let’s do a quick review of blended learning. There are probably a zillion definitions of it, but what it boils down to is that a blended learning lesson incorporates an online segment with face-to-face teaching. Here’s a previous post about it if you’d like a bit more information.

How 5E and Blended Learning Fit Together

Let’s look at the Es and see how we can address them with a blended learning model.

First, the “Engage.” This is basically a “hook” of some sort to capture students’ interests and get them starting to question it. It doesn’t have to be a full period long, though it can be. I like to use a discrepant event, a short video clip, a controversy or even a storybook for this part. If you’re looking for something longer, you could use an inquiry lab or a POGIL-type activity.

Next, the “Explore.” This part is where students are gathering information about the Engagement to start to try to make their own understandings. You can use flipped lessons, in-class flipped lessons, science stations … all of which can be part of blended learning.

It’s at this point where the lesson can be differentiated. Readings can be modified, practice problems can be different, and the “teacher time” can be tailored to meet the needs of slower learners or those who need a bit more practice.

Hands-on activities can be performed where students are predicting and forming hypotheses, either as a full lab or as one of the stations.

Now, the “Explain.” Now students are starting to understand the concepts. Teachers answer questions, define vocabulary and explain concepts. It’s important to connect prior knowledge to the new, current concepts.

I’d like to make a side note here … in my opinion, we (teachers) have been led to believe that lecturing means we’re terrible teachers with no imaginations and that our students can’t possibly learn that way.

I have a problem with this notion. First of all, part of our job is to get our students college and career ready. I haven’t been in college in many years, but I’m willing to bet that most professors still teach via lecture, at least part of the time.

Secondly, sometimes a concept just needs to be EXPLAINED by the teacher! So I honestly don’t see anything wrong with an occasional lecture. A Powerpoint presentation can certainly be made interactive. You can add TPS activities, review questions, ask great open-ended questions, have a short discussion … all while explaining concepts to students!

So the Explain phase CAN include a lecture or two. A CER (Claim, Evidence, Reasoning) activity or writing is a great formative assessment to see where students are at this point.

Students will need time to internalize what they’ve learned, which leads us to the next 2 phases.

The “Extend.” Some people call this Elaborate, but basically they are the same phase. Up until now, the knowledge that students have gained has been specific to the situations you’ve used in your lessons. But they need to be able to generalize the concepts and apply them to new situations.

For this phase, teachers have several options. You can have students conduct a new. more in-depth lab activity where they come up with their own experimental design. You could have them classify or sort objects into groups.

New scenarios can be shown to students, either by reading or by video, and have them explain it based on their new knowledge. You can also look back at some previous labs and have them take them a step further, or explain the results based on the new concepts. They can also do a project to show their understanding.

The “Evaluate.” There are many ways to evaluate students’ learning during a unit. Formative assessments have been taking place all throughout, as you observe students working.

Self-reflection is an important piece of this phase. Students should be able to look back and see how far they’ve come, as well as filling in any missing pieces that may exist in their understanding. Rubrics or checklists work very well for self-reflection as do journals.

Models, choice boards, mind maps, performance assessments … all work very well in this phase.

As a Living Environment teacher in New York State, I still have to prepare my kids for the Regents exam. They must pass this test and my course at the end of the school year in order to graduate. So I would be doing them a huge disservice if I did not provide them with unit assessments. We still have to give them a number grade! So as part of my Evaluate phase I always include a unit test composed of questions from past exams. You may have something similar that you are responsible for.

Where’s the Blended Learning Part?

Here’s the cool thing … blended learning can be added ANYWHERE in the 5E Model! If you’re incorporating online work with face-to-face teaching, that’s blended learning.

Perhaps you want to use an online lab activity for the Explore. Students could do the activity online, then meet with you in small groups to discuss the results.  Or you can use Edpuzzle or Educannon with an explanatory video during the Explain phase, then have them work in collaborative groups to discuss their notes and do an activity.

The possibilities are really endless with these teaching strategies. I hope you’ve come away with some ideas on how to use the 5E model with blended learning!

If you’ve had a great lesson, please comment below and let us know. Or, if  you’ve tried and run into difficulties, we’d love to know that too! We could brainstorm some solutions!

Happy Teaching!


Try These Second Day Biology Activities!

Have you noticed there are tons of ideas for first day biology activities, but not so many for second day biology activities?

I think its because the first day of school is so stressful … we teachers know how important it is to set the right tone! But I personally think that the next few days are even more important. Let’s face it, there aren’t usually behavioral issues on Day 1!

So here’s what I typically do for my SECOND day biology activities.

Second day biology activities

Check and go over the Biology Pre-Test from Day 1.

I’ve always enjoyed this … it’s the one day of the year when pretty much everyone will have their homework done :)! And I find that going over the answers to the pre-test questions generates some really good discussion, not to mention giving you a peek into how much background your kids are coming in with.

I plan ahead and have some Google images ready to show on my Smartboard. It’s especially cool to show the Honey Mushroom, which is the largest organism on earth. Hardly anyone ever gets this question right! I love bringing up pics of other large organisms too for comparison.

When we get to Question #16 about genetic engineering, this gets almost everyone talking! I have pics to show them of glow-in-the-dark cats and other organisms. We have a short discussion on where we are in the field of genetic engineering and what the possibilities are.

Going over the answers this way can take as much or as little time as you like.

I’m also using this time to learn names and start to model procedures such as raising hands to speak and not interrupting others.

Start discussing classroom procedures.

How this happens will depend on how much time was spent discussing the pre-test answers.

I usually start out by asking them why they think we have certain procedures for doing things. What do they think would happen if there were no clear-cut way for doing everyday things?

The idea here is to get the kids to realize that procedures are put in place for everyone’s benefit, not simply to keep them from doing what they want to! (Sometimes I think they honestly believe that!)

Again, depending on your timing, this may bring you to the end of the period. I usually had about 10 -15 minutes left at this point. So I typically would now get them started on my Classroom Procedures Scavenger Hunt. This is a fun activity that gets them up and out of their seats for a bit while they hunt around the room to find out what my class procedures are. Here’s a link to this activity in my Teachers Pay Teachers store if you’d like to check it out!

I have a recording sheet to go with it so they will have a record of the procedures. This is something that I would have them keep in their Interactive Binders to refer to throughout the year.

They usually don’t finish the Scavenger Hunt during their second day biology activities. I give them time on Day 3 to finish it up. Then I check them for completion and we quickly go over the answers.

I like covering my procedures this way … it’s more active for the students and gets them actually finding the places in the classroom where they’ll be sharpening pencils, grabbing highlighters, etc.

How do you cover your classroom procedures for your biology classroom? Let us know in the comments!

Happy teaching!

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First Day Biology Activities

Looking For Some First Day Biology Activities?

first day biology activities

I taught for 31 years but I don’t think my first day biology activities were ever the same from one year to the next!

I’ve tried just about everything … reading the syllabus out loud to the kids, ice breakers, demos, videos … I changed my first day plans just about every year.

My problem was that for awhile I felt like I had to get ALL of the important information out to them on THE FIRST DAY and if I didn’t, I was going to have terrible problems for the whole rest of the year! Of course, it doesn’t really work that way and I did eventually realize that it was so much better to spend several days on all of that procedural stuff.

And really, from the kids’ point of view the first day is pretty stressful for them too, no matter how much they try to act all cool! So I relaxed about some things. I did learn what really helped the most. With that being said, all teachers have their own philosophies and strengths. But I hope that this list of ideas will help you lower your stress level on the first day of school, whether this is your first year or your twentieth!

1. Have students’ names at their seats before they come into class.

As a secondary teacher, you may or may not prefer to use seating charts. Personally, there was never a time when I didn’t use them. So I like to have my seating charts ready before the first day.

At the high school level we have multiple classes per day. I found the easiest way to set this up was to write each of my students’ names on a 3 x 5 index card prior to the start of school. I would also have my seating chart form (made in Powerpoint) made ahead, usually just alphabetically to start.

So then it was a simple thing to walk around the room with my chart and place each student’s name card at their seat.  It only took a few minutes, so I was able to do it in between any back to back classes. Sometimes I’d do it even with the current class still sitting there and would just tell them what I was doing and why. They seldom paid any attention!

The other payoff to writing each name on a card was that now I had my cards ready for random questioning or quick grouping activities for the rest of the year.

2. Greet students at the door with a smile and a hello!

They’re nervous and unsure what you’re going to be like. It’s great to smile and welcome them to class as they’re walking in the door.

This is also a good time to tell them to find their name at their seat. And just a sidenote here … have your seating charts out for yourself to check. I’ve had several instances of a student moving his/her index card to a different seat while I was still in the hall!

If you’re hesitant to use a seating chart with older students, you can always tell them that it helps you to learn their names much faster and that you’ll be changing seats in a couple of weeks.

3. Take attendance out loud!

Once everyone is in their seat introduce yourself and the course. Just about every year I hear an “oops” from someone who is in the wrong place at the wrong time!

At this point I always like to take attendance out loud … some names are hard to pronounce and I like to hear the kids say their names. It’s also a great time to ask if they prefer to be called Daniel or Dan or Danny, for example.

As I’m calling out names I’m consciously looking at the student so that I can immediately start placing a face with a name. The kids are always impressed when I can use their names right away!

4. Spend just a FEW minutes talking about the course.

This probably isn’t the best time to cover your course syllabus. They will be overwhelmed because most teachers will be doing that on the first day.

I spend between 5 – 10 minutes just talking a little bit about what they can expect this year. Don’t get me wrong – we’ll definitely be covering expectations and behaviors. We just won’t be doing it on the first day.

It’s just a quick intro about myself … how many years I’ve taught here, some of the fun labs and activities we’ll be doing, etc.

5. Give them a Biology Pre-Test!

This may sound like a strange first day biology activity, but this is the one thing that I’ve hardly ever changed in my first day agenda over the years.

This isn’t a test that I grade. It’s just a series of no-pressure questions that cover very basic background knowledge of the course units.

I’ve used this for years and have passed it along to other teachers. If you’d like a copy yourself, click here to get one for FREE! I even tell the kids up front that I won’t be grading it like a test … I will, however, be checking it for completion tomorrow so they DO still have to do it!

I ask them to work on it quietly and to just guess at an answer if they don’t know it. I encourage them not to leave any blanks, but I also don’t want them looking up answers either. This is just for me to get to see where they are in their background knowledge.

As an aside … I’m pretty old school in the sense that I don’t like a lot of background noise from my kids when they’re supposed to be working. And this is the perfect opportunity for me to start setting that expectation right away while they’re working on this test. I walk around, making eye contact, leaning down to answer a question, or even  asking for quiet if need be.

6. Have students pack up in an orderly way and remind them to bring their finished pre-tests tomorrow.

The class has been low-key and relatively non-stressful. I like to set the tone here as well by letting them know when it’s ok to start packing up … one of my pet peeves is when kids start packing up 5 minutes before the bell rings!

Remind them to bring their completed pre-tests back with them tomorrow.

Wish everyone a great day!

You can now spend a few minutes setting up your index cards for your next class or take a well-deserved 3-minute break!

What are some of your favorite “first-day activities” for your biology class? Comment below and let us know your ideas!


5 Tips to Set Up a Blended Learning Classroom

5 Tips to Set Up Your Blended Learning Classroom

blended learning classroom

One of the biggest changes that I made in my teaching was to set up a blended learning classroom. Perhaps you’ve heard the term but aren’t really sure what it is.  Blended learning is the incorporation of some sort of online learning into a lesson, where the student has some sort of control over the time or pace of their learning. There’s usually some form of traditional instruction included in a blended learning classroom.

Here are 5 quick tips you can implement if you’re interested in trying a blended learning lesson

Tip #1 :  Start out with one or two lessons in a unit that lend themselves well to the addition of an online component. 

By starting slowly, you have an opportunity to find relevant online components that will complement your lesson.

For example, I love to use a short video (no more than 15 minutes) as a way to explain one or two of the I Can statements that my students must complete. This may be a video that I’ve made myself or one that I have found online. Or I might attach one of my Powerpoint lessons to our Google Classroom for students to access. There will always be some form of notes for them to take along with the Powerpoint or a set of Cornell notes for students to answer questions with during the video for accountability.

Students will then rotate through this station in small groups. This can be ideal if you don’t have devices for all of the students in your classroom. You can have other groups doing other relevant activities at the same time, such as a demo, small group work, or a close reading activity.

Tip #2 :   Make sure to set clear expectations for students if this is a new type of classroom setting for them.

Students may be getting up and moving around the room, or working in small groups. They must be able to stay on task and work fairly quietly, since you’ll be conducting the face-to-face teaching component during the same time as the other groups are working.

Tip #3: Try a Station Rotation Model as your blended learning model.

This is a fun, easy way to get started in blended learning. It’s exactly what it sounds like … students rotate through different stations completing different parts of the lesson. At one station you might have a few chrome books or computers set up for students to watch a video, run a simulation or do an online lab. At another station there might be a sorting activity, small group work, a hands-on lab, or some other manipulative activity. At the third station, students might meet with you for a face-to-face lesson or activity or you could work with them on some practice problems.

It’s helpful to have more than one of each station set up if you can … this prohibits any “traffic jams” at one particular station and makes it easier for students to work at their own pace without feeling pressured by another group, which is a key part of a blended learning classroom.

Tip #4: Use an Exit Ticket as a formative assessment.

This can simply be a short one or two question form or maybe a 5-question quiz covering the day’s lesson. Pick one or two especially important points from the lesson that you want to make sure students are getting. These formative assessments are designed so that you can get an idea of what students are understanding and where they’re confused. These can help drive instruction as you can plan to reteach the areas where students are foggy.

Tip #5: Enjoy the process!

I can honestly say that using blended learning in my classroom re-invigorated my teaching! Lecturing was never my favorite part of teaching, but for years I didn’t know how else to “cover” the mountain of material in my state curriculum. When I started turning more of the learning over to my students, I truly started to enjoy teaching again. I loved looking around my classroom and seeing the kids engaged and on task. It just did my heart good as a teacher! And to hear students say “Wow, this class went by fast!” was just music to my ears.

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Have  you tried using blended learning in your classroom? How did it go? We’d love to hear about it!


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