Last year, in my first year as a Challenge B tutor with Classical Conversations, I kept weekly records of completed homework for each of my students. Prior to the beginning of the school year, during my teacher equipping/orientation session with the parents, I made sure that they understood that they needed to initial all homework for their students so that I not only could mark it as having been completed but also that the student would earn points toward an incentive prize. I dutifully got out the form at the beginning of each strand and checked off all homework that had been reviewed by the parent.

It was an OK system, but one that I didn’t find particularly satisfying. As I began to think about how I might improve the process this year, I ran across an article from Lifehacker that gave me two great ideas, both of which I hope will improve communication and recordkeeping in my class. The first is what I’m calling a “B Notebook” and the second is a commonplace journal.

The B Notebook is a simple composition book designed to be used exclusively for ALL of that student’s class notes on seminar day. Although each student will have their own system of composition books/ binders for all of their subjects organized in the way that best works for them at home, I want their seminar day notes to be taken in the notebook that I will give them and this is why:

  1. Record. Their teachers will be able to see at a glance how much they did or didn’t get out of any strand that week just by looking in this one book rather than six. Although it’s true that some students are more skilled in note taking than others, this is something that they definitely need to be practicing in preparation for the upper Challenge levels and college. As they practice each week, they are likely to have improved dramatically by the end of the year! No notes probably means that they need to follow up with me or another teacher/student.
  2. Reinforce. The student’s learning will be reinforced as they transfer any notes they took for each strand into their own personal notebooks/binders for that subject. I don’t want my B Notebook to take the place of their regular subject notebooks, so I will be encouraging parents to have their student go through the work of transferring their notes. This adds another layer of exposure to the material and will reinforce the concepts covered.
  3. Communicate. Teachers will use the week’s page(s) as a place to jot down questions they want to remember to ask me or comments about anything related to the class work or homework (e.g., Johnny was excused from doing Latin this week).
  4. Contemplate. Because all of their notes will be in once place for the week, students can use these notebooks to analyze any common threads among our strands: for example, drawing a topic wheel each week would be a great visual to show how our subjects were connected in a certain way (my goal is for us to do these as a class every week).
  5. Keep. If teachers use the notebook as a place to jot down their own thoughts about how their student’s work went in each of their subjects that week, it could also be a really effective tool to keep as part of their portfolio for the year and to hold them accountable as their child’s primary and best teacher.

Each week, I’ll flip through the books to see if there is anything I need to address from a teacher and will encourage the students to take notes as we proceed through each strand–especially when we cover material that will be on their blue book exam. At the end of the semester, I’ll take up the books, review them, give them back, and then award a Sonic gift card to those students who used it consistently.

I’m not quite sure how I’m going to make this qualitative determination (especially because this is a brand new idea I’m trying out), but the reason I want to look at them each week and especially at the end is to make sure that they are participating in class and to give them an incentive to continue to do so consistently. I’m hoping that the notes will progressively get better as they become accustomed to the process and its potential.

In addition to their B Notebook, I will also be giving each student a Moleskine journal to be used as a commonplace book, a very classical tool. A commonplace book is a small, blank journal where you can write down anything that strikes you as memorable from the books you are currently reading. I started keeping these as a young college graduate when I had lots of time to read and was no longer being forced to. 🙂  At the time, I had no idea that there was a name for that type of book–I simply wanted to capture in one place all the great ideas, words, sentences, phrases that I was encountering in my reading and I’ve always been a sucker for a beautiful blank book. If I came across a word I didn’t know, I would jot it down in my commonplace book (along with the page number where it could be found) and later look it up and write the definition.  These may very well become treasures to these students as they get older, especially if they enjoy reading and thinking about great books. I want my teachers to encourage them to use them and keep them close by when they’re reading (along with a nice pen or pencil!).

I’m hoping that this more thoughtful approach to record-keeping will be a blessing to student, teacher, and tutor in the coming year. It won’t be long before I find out!