Monday, January 8, 2018

The Power of Visual Note-taking

Photo by Neven Krcmarek on Unsplash

Notes are a necessary part of science instruction in middle school. Maybe you have students fill in note-taking sheets that you have typed up, or maybe they add their thoughts to print-outs of PowerPoint slides. Some teachers teach outlining so that students can gather and sort content as they read, using textbook headings as their guides.
You know it’s important to prepare them for notetaking they might need to do in high school. But, it’s time to ask yourself: are the note-taking strategies I’m teaching useful for my students?
For some teachers, the answer could be yes. Some students will do well with fill-in-the-blanks or outlines or print-outs of slides. But don’t confuse students being able to accurately complete notes with their true internalization of class material, and just because students can DO notes in these more traditional formats doesn’t mean there isn’t a more effective note-taking strategy for them.
If you’ve started to question note-taking in your middle school classroom, either because you’re wondering if they really “get it” or because you think there might be a better way, then consider trying visual note-taking with your students.
What Is Visual Note-taking?
Let’s start with what visual note-taking is NOT. It’s not students writing down bullet points while they read. It’s not students waiting for “answers” for filling-in-the-blanks with important terms while you lecture or go through a presentation. It’s not even students writing a sentence or two to reflect on what they’ve learned.

Visual note-taking IS a note-taking strategy that involves no words, or a few words arranged visually instead of in the narrative formats we’re used to.
Essentially, students draw pictures to build understanding. This could be illustrations, concept maps, graphics, or maybe even doodles and abstract representations of concepts.
Doodling as a thinking tool gained recognition in a 2014 article by the Wall Street Journal. The study cited in the article explains that doodling can help people maintain focus and retain information. The same could be said of drawing pictures of concepts instead of taking notes in written form.

The idea behind visual note-taking is that students are representing important ideas instead of simply writing them down. This requires making connections between concepts, an important skill for middle school students to practice.
For example:
If students are learning about photosynthesis, drawing the process can take the place of writing a chronological explanation of how photosynthesis works. Through pictures of the sun, plants, soil, water, oxygen, and carbon dioxide, students reinforce that these terms are the most important to the photosynthesis process.
Here students created visual notes in teams for photosynthesis, before writing about recording their notes on paper.

There are other forms visual note-taking could take.
Here are some examples:
Narrated Art
After students have drawn a picture of a concept or process, they can record narrative to go along with it. While there is audio narration, students still don’t need to use words in the notes themselves. They can look at and listen to their notes later, instead of just re-reading them.  You've probably had students create short movies in your classroom, but what if they used movie-making to craft their notes? Can students use iPads to create paper-less visual notes? 
Concept Maps
Concept maps might be closest to what we might consider traditional note-taking, in that it involves some words. However, unlike outlines or other forms of written notes, concept maps stress the relationships between concepts. Words and pictures are arranged on the page based on how they relate to each other. Note-takers use arrows, images, and colors to reinforce ideas and show connections.

Visual Interpretations of Abstract Concepts
Drawing a volcano or galaxy or cell is easy. But what about concepts like “gravity” or “scientific method” or “climate”? The way students draw these terms can shed a lot of light on their understandings and challenge them to think critically about what might before have just been a written definition to a vocabulary word.
To Sum Up Visual Note-taking
Anytime we can engage students in critical thinking, we’ve done something right as teachers. Traditional note-taking doesn’t do this for students, because usually it just involves copying definitions or summarizing events.
If we can extend higher level thinking to note-taking, we help our students learn how to effectively process important information.
In middle school, students are at just the right age to learn a note-taking technique that can benefit them for years. They’re creative, invested, and eager to try new things.
Photo by William Iven on Unsplash

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

3 Back to School Rules that will Change the Way You Start Your Year

I can almost smell the optimism when I set-up my classroom each year.  There is something magical about a room that is completely free of missing homework assignments, looming test dates and cold and flu germs.  None of those things are going to happen this year. Not in this room.

This room will be filled with cooperative, highly-motivated students, three-dimensional science experiences and innovative teaching strategies.  How do I know?  Well, for starters my plan book is a color-coded masterpiece and I have an amazing Growth Mindset bulletin board.  Oh, and my book shelves look  A-MAZ-ING!

This is how I feel.  Every. Single. Year.

I'm pretty sure my 6th graders would be just fine with last year's bulletin boards, but somehow I think that by reorganizing and redecorating I'm sending a message to myself and my students that this year is going to be EVEN better than last.

Before kids I would to spend countless (unpaid) hours in my classroom before school started.  I still put my fair share in these days, but things have changed a bit since my boys were born.  As a parent, I realize that saying yes to one thing means saying no to another.  Being an excellent teacher is right up there on the list with being an excellent mom, so in order to do both I've had to adapt! Being a teacher-mom means being insanely efficient from the moment I step foot in my classroom. really, REALLY hard.  Have you seen the adorable lime green plastic bins in the Dollar Spot at Target? Stay...Focused!

Here are 3 Rules I have for Back to School:

1) PLAN first PLAY later
Bulletin boards and room organization are fun, but you will feel a lot better about your first month back if your lesson plans are well-designed.  Flexible seating looks great, but it won't fix behavior issues as well as a lesson plan that has EVERY student engaged.  Your school district didn't hire you because of your decorating skills....right? 

2) Build Relationships
Teachers work in isolation much of the time.  Bring coffee to the new teacher across the hall.  Offer to pick up another teacher's copies.  Ask the cleaning staff about their kids and the secretary about her mom's surgery.  Stop and talk to parents and kids who wander the halls.  Networking and collaborating with teachers and support staff can have long-lasting benefits. (Or you could lock yourself in your room and label all those new markers...your choice.)  No! Get out of your classroom.  Radiate positive vibes and they will come right back at you....All Year Long.

3) Let it Go

Ask yourself "Will this REALLY help my students learn?" If the answer is NO, then don't feel bad about heading home at the end of the day and not getting it done.  So, maybe the tattered bin labels from last year will have ONE more GO.  Nobody ever said on their death bed "I wish my classroom was more stylish." Go to your son's baseball game, last summer swim lesson or just get home before dark so that you can be there for bedtime stories.  You'll be glad you did.

After a tough week last school year, a dear friend said this to me:  "You know what makes good mom? A good teacher.  You know what makes a good teacher? A good mom."

Balancing this teacher-mom life is not easy.  I'm pretty sure I'll be going a little crazy by October, but looking at my empty classroom today...well...I'm pretty optimistic.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

30-Minute File Cabinet Makeover with Free Template

File cabinet makeover in 30 minutes for classroom organization

I'm really working on classroom organization.  It improves my productivity with students, so I know it is time well-invested. However, I have to admit that for the longest time I have been avoiding my paper file cabinet!  Until recently, it was in need of a major makeover.  I tried filling out those little plastic tabs that come with hanging files, but they never lined up neatly when I moved files around and they were just a pain to pinch into the little slots at the top of each folder! So, then I switched to manila folders, but they slump down and make it impossible to flip from folder to folder.  Lesson learned.   

Messy file cabinet before organization

I did a few things to prep for this project.  

1) Get hanging files and make sure they fit in your cabinet. With a little adjustment, most file cabinets can accommodate the hanging-style folder.  

2) Buy a 50 pack of bright, sturdy card-weight paper.  

Here is how I beautified my file cabinet in 30 minutes.  It worked really well for me, so I'm sharing my template below for you to use in your classroom.   Hopefully you already have most of the items you need in your classroom.  If not, now you have a good reason to go to Target for bright colored classroom you really need a reason to go to Target right?

I decided that I needed two categories of tabs for my classroom (science topic tabs and a set of tabs for general classroom management).  I printed the science tabs to match the topics for middle school listed in the Next Generation Science Standards.  This really helped me weed through papers because if they didn't relate to an NGSS topic,  I didn't feel guilty about tossing them!  For classroom management tabs, I made a list of items that I regularly find on my desk and made tabs that match those topics (exams, sub plans, meetings etc.).  You can alternate paper colors or group them by topic.  (EX: All science files green)

The tabs each teacher needs will vary so you will notice that the free download has a few pages that you can edit for your needs.  You will need to have Adobe on your computer to edit this.  So be sure to open the file in Adobe on your desktop before editing!  Warning: If you only open it in Google Drive and start editing it will Not work or Save!  Be sure to download and open it on your desktop so that your changes save.

bring colored file dividers for classroom organization

Stay focused! Don't stress over or read EVERY paper in your file cabinet.  If you only have 30 minutes, skim and scan papers to determine whether they fit a topic or not.  You might want to create a "Review Later Box" where you toss any item you find that doesn't fit your new labels/tabs and you are not ready to throw away until you take a closer look.  This will allow you to focus your time on the task of adding the bright file tabs and tidying up your existing files without getting sidetracked by worksheet nostalgia!   You can always block off additional time later to sort those papers more carefully.  (Chances are you will find out that stuff wasn't as important as you thought!)

attaching your printable file tabs to your file folders for a more organized file cabinet

Staple each piece of colored card-weight paper to the front (or back if you prefer) of each hanging file folder.  Be sure to measure how much room you have above the folder in your cabinet so that your pretty new tabs don't get squished when you close the door! 

Free template for bright file folder tabs to organize your classroom file cabinet.

Ready to have a colorful, clean and organized classroom?  Click the image above to download a pdf of my (editable) template!  Remember, if you want to make custom tabs you will need to download the pdf to your desktop and change it using Adobe. 

Thanks for visiting Kate's Classroom Cafe!  Happy Organizing... 

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Three Holiday Hustle and Bustle Busters for the Classroom!

The weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas break are tough for teachers everywhere.  Students are distracted.  Let's face it...teachers are distracted too!  Here are three tips for busting the holiday hustle and bustle during the next few weeks!

1) Don't be afraid to make (a little) time for FUN!

Upper-grades teachers are often pressured to teach through the holiday season without the "fun and games" but big kids like to have fun too!  There are many ways to build in a little holiday fun without taking too much time away from instruction.  These FREE printable coupons are an easy way to spread some holiday cheer and can be used as cost-free prizes OR gifts for your students.  Click to download them below:

2) Go for a WALK!

This Science Winter Walkabout makes natural connections between general science concepts and the holiday season!  Kids love traveling from question to question and there are "fun" questions built in to allow time for kids to share their holiday traditions and interests!  Spread the questions out so kids can stretch their legs and if weather permits, laminate them and go outside for some fresh air.

3) Switch it UP! 

This is a great time of year to TRY A NEW TEACHING STRATEGY! Try using an interactive notebook foldable, task card review, posters or doodle notes to spice up your normal instructional routines.  It just might be the breath of fresh air you and your students need to keep motivated!

Doodle notes are great for this time of year because they help with concentration and memory while providing a natural brain break with doodling and coloring!

Today and Tomorrow November 28 and 29th all print and go resources are 28% off with code:  CYBER2016

SO...Grab a cup of coffee and check out some time-saving resources to use in your classroom!

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Writing in Science

Why do we have to learn this? I just love when my students ask this.  No seriously!  It shows that they are making valid connections between their learning and how they might apply it.  Adults ask this all the time, but it is often a frustrating question for teachers address when they are working to cover content under time constraints. On more than one occasion this has come up when I work on writing skills in science, probably because we do A LOT of writing in science. So here is how I answer it...

Communication is inherent in the science process.  Here are some reasons that scientists need strong writing skills.  Share them with your students! 

There are just a few ways that writing skills relate to careers in science!
Would you like to display these signs in your classroom? 

Explicit writing instruction has a valuable place in every science classroom.  
Do you teach these writing skills in science class?

If you are looking for materials for teaching writing in science class, check out:

Writing is a core skill that relates to all subject areas! Collaborate with your team of teachers to incorporate writing skills work in every class.  Check out these other writing skills resources for ELA, MATH and SOCIAL STUDIES.

Writing Skills in ELA - Writing Responses with Text-Based Evidence 
Math Writing Skills - How to Write in Math 
Social Studies Writing Skills - How to Avoid Plagiarism 

Monday, September 19, 2016

Active Study Strategies

Your first major unit test is approaching. They already know HOW to study for a test right? Teachers assume that kids come equipped with subject area study skills, but do they?

Students Need Explicit Instruction on HOW To Study in Each Subject Area

A vast majority of Tweens have two strategies for studying.  They include looking at their notes or  making flashcards, but for so many kids these are not enough.  Have you ever seen the look on a child's face when they get a poor test grade back that they genuinely THINK they studied for?

The problem is, many students spend time "studying" but they are not activating and connecting their knowledge which can lead to poor recall and application come test time.  Parents have contacted me numerous times with the same story "My child studied for 3 hours! How could they have failed the test?" So what gives?

We Assume They Know How to Study

I'm guilty of this.  "They should know how to study by now." "I don't have time to teach this too." "They should ask for help if they need it." We can't assume that other teachers and/or parents are providing study skills instruction.  As subject area teachers, we owe our students explicit instruction on how to study our content.  Effective studying for a math test should look very different than studying for a history test and so on.  After years in the classroom, countless hours of private tutoring and working in our school's learning assistance center I can tell you that many students lack these skills!


When we study, we work to move information from our short term to our long term memory.  Sometimes it stays there and other times it dissolves because it is ignored and left unused for too long a period of time.  (If you don't use lose it.)  The key to moving information to our long term files is rehearsal.  Rehearsal is the act or process of PRACTICE.  So, when our students stare at their notes for hours then haphazardly make a few flash cards they often fail to do meaningful and memorable PRACTICE!


Great students have an arsenal of active study strategies that allow their minds to PRACTICE content.  Some of these strategies are universal (such as the vocabulary one described below) while others are content specific.  Here is an active strategy that is a different spin on traditional flashcards:

How this easy to make tool helps to ACTIVATE memory:

Chunking:  Students ask themselves "Which vocabulary words relate to the concept of _______?"

Writing:  Students copy information for the key concepts from their notes, books and other resources.

Drawing:  There is plenty of room inside each tab for students to draw and label pictures relating to each concept.

Quizzing:  The foldable tabs allow for self-testing of the material.

And...NO lost or missing flash cards!

For middle school students, explicitly learning how to study in each content area is important.  If you are looking to try some study skills instruction in your class, check out this study skills pack for science that outlines ways to study SMARTER not HARDER!

Looking for study skills to support other content areas?  Check these out:

ELA Study Skills - Doodle Notes and Learning Stations

Math Study Skills - Doodle Notes and Learning Stations

Social Studies Study Skills - Doodle Notes and Learning Stations

Happy Studying!

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Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Visual Learning, Doodle Notes and Memory

Doodle Notes Science

Engaging students with science models has long been at the cornerstone of quality science instruction, but could we be doing even more to improve visual literacy in our science classes?

Visual Learning 
Visual literacy is no doubt a 21st Century Skill that should be emphasized in every classroom.  When students “interpret, recognize, appreciate, and understand information presented through visible actions, objects and symbols” there is bound to be improved learning in all content areas.  So are we doing enough to teach this skill?

Science teachers know the importance of practice, imagery and patterns when helping our students grasp concepts.  So it's no surprise that our daily instruction involves interactive notebook templates, card sorts, task cards, video clips and visual games that target these memory tools and work to keep students engaged along the way.  But what about using another visual approach to make meaning and promote memory of science content?

Doodle Notes, Science, Visual Literacy, Middle School Science Notebooks

Many people rely heavily on visuals while learning new content. How many times have you skimmed an online article or textbook chapter reading only the headings and scanning the pictures, all along obtaining most of the content without ACTUALLY reading it?  All the time! This “less is more” study  showed that pictures and short descriptions proved more effective in reaching students than a full-text approach to teaching science.  

You are probably aware of the recent trend in coloring for improved memory, learning and even for stress relief.  So it likely comes as no surprise that recent research is backing the idea that doodling can help our students better connect with the content we are teaching.  

Consider this study, where a test group was asked to doodle while listening to a prerecorded message about a party.  The experimental group was asked to doodle while listening and were then tested on their ability to recall the names mentioned. The “doodlers” recalled 29% more information than the control group.  

Sunni Brown, author of Doodle Revolution strives to redefine doodling as "spontaneous marks to help you think." Her TED Talk is well worth a watch and will really get you thinking about how our negative perceptions of doodling could be hindering student learning. 

Ok, so most of what I've read about doodling supports academic doodling, mindless doodling and everything in between.  Sorry doodle fanatics, but I'm not willing to open the doors of my classroom to a bunch of unstructured scribbling while I'm teaching.  

Setting Expectations: academic doodling vs. everyday doodling

Academic doodling, everyday doodling or a little of both? For my own sanity in managing a class of 27 teenage doodlers I think it makes sense to encourage the former.  Doodling has long been associated with inattention, and let's face it- despite all the latest research, in a middle school classroom sometimes doodling is just that!  So it got me to thinking...Can I teach my students HOW to doodle to support their learning?

I suggest talking with your students about doodling.  Share the benefits and discuss how setting some goals and guidelines will ensure that it will be a productive learning tool.  This chart might help with your discussion, OR your students might be able to come up with their own anchor chart to post in the classroom! 

Doodling to improve learning in middle school

Ready to Get Started?
Here are some ways to get started with academic doodling:
  • Activate prior knowledge with a flash doodle.
Have students doodle a picture on a post-it note that represents their background knowledge on a topic (for example phase change).  Remind them that it will not be collected for a grade!  Keep in mind that drawing can be intimidating for some kids so it is important to not take grades for these types of doodle tasks. 

  • Incorporate doodling and coloring into traditional note-taking.
A small picture and a little color can enhance science notes and make them more memorable for students.  Try keeping text concise by adding more visuals when modeling notes for the class. Think out loud about your drawing or how you use color to emphasize key ideas.  Here are some everyday examples of how this looks:
Visual Doodle Notes Strategies

  • Use whiteboard doodle breaks.
This strategy works great for reluctant doodlers!  There is something about being able to erase a doodle that gets students more willing to take risks.  Build in a DOODLE BREAK into any lesson! Simply ask all students to do a 60-second quick draw of a concept being taught.  This is a non-threatening and valuable formative assessment!

Earth's Spheres Doodle Notes

  • Use Printable Visual Notes. (AKA DOODLE NOTES, SKETCH NOTES)
These are becoming increasingly popular with teachers, and for good reason.  Students interact with the content by doodling, shading, coloring and answering questions to improve understanding.   A well-organized visual can have a lasting impression on a learner, and this style of note-taking does just that.

Printable doodle notes emphasize CONCISE and very VISUAL notes over a lengthy text.  The material is grouped together in meaningful ways so as to improve student associations between concepts.  
Example:  This Earth's Spheres Doodle has a ton of information, but it is concisely organized to articulate the main ideas and details about how each sphere is connected with others.

The style, structure and graphics vary a lot for each concept.  A great deal of time is spent adjusting text and graphics so that they are JUST RIGHT to teach a topic and so that each doodle note page is unique.   Every page should be its own academic doodle work of art! 

Whether you create your own or download premade doodle notes, here are some things to consider:

5 Fantastic things about DOODLE NOTES

Doodle Notes Provide MEMORY TRIGGERS

Bending the word "REFLECT" at a right angle at the letter L is an example of providing a "memory trigger" that can help students recall how light behaves.  Clever placement of images and descriptions takes time, but it provides students with a memorable and topic-specific visual for improving understanding that can't be found on traditional graphic organizers.  

This Layers of the Earth Doodle creates layers for organizing information, chunking essential science ideas together.

Doodle Notes use carefully-chosen GRAPHICS to improve ASSOCIATION between CONCEPTS

This food chain doodle uses a simple, yet carefully arranged chain of circles that shows how energy moves UP the food chain.   This visual structure provides room for descriptions and examples to support understanding of this essential ecology concept.  Using shapes that relate to concepts (like the sun, carbon dioxide and water) can also prove helpful when students are studying.

Doodle Notes sometimes provide room for STUDENT PRACTICE.  (Q and A)

This Newton's Laws 1st Law Doodle is designed with a Q and A format.  This format lends itself well to some topics better than others. Many students can remember the law of inertia, but they lack the practice needed to correctly apply the concept to everyday examples.  This doodle reviews the law and then gives room to tackle some very visual questions!  

Doodle Notes SORT and SEQUENCE information with intention.   (Simple to complex, smallest to largest etc.)

For example, this Earth, Sun, Moon doodle  doodle note lists the topics from left to right by size.  Since many students struggle with the size and distance relationships in space, presenting them in this order may improve student recall.

Doodle Notes have MANY CLASSROOM APPLICATIONS.  They can enhance your existing pre-teaching, initial instruction, practice or assessment.  They also are a "print and go" differentiation and remediation tool.

Note: It is important to select (or create) a doodle note page that is good match for YOUR students and their needs.  Be sure to look at previews and descriptions carefully when looking for pre-made versions.  The best, most beautiful doodle notes page is only a valuable learning tool if it is selected for the right group of students at the right time!

Some example doodle notes pages:

This weathering doodle note summarizes the topic with lots of examples of both physical and chemical forms, so it makes a great test review sheet.  The file includes a version with less info and more blank space so you can pick the one that best matches your students.  (Some teachers are using the different versions for differentiated review.)

This Study SKILLS doodle note page is ideal for teaching students HOW to study a few days before a major science test! (It comes with some study skills stations too, so that kids can doodle and DO some studying to show they understand.)

This pH scale doodle is packed with information and makes a great introduction to acids and bases.  Like many doodle notes files, there are a few versions (of the same page) to pick and choose from.  Some with more blank space, others with more text and graphics already filled in.  

Doodle Notes/Visual notes are a tool that teachers can use to improve visual literacy and science content understanding.  Are they a good fit for your classroom?

Doodle Notes for Teaching Science

Some doodle notes from Kate's Classroom Cafe...

Clipart and Font Credits to:

Can't find a pre-made doodle note sheet for a topic you teach?  I take requests! Email me at for more information.

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