Staying Productive With Paper


Rebecca Mieliwocki was chosen by the CCSSO as the  2012 National Teacher of the Year to represent America’s 3.2 million public school teachers.

Rebecca loves being in the classroom with kids and so continues to work as a 7th grade English teacher at Luther Burbank Middle School in Burbank, California. She collaborated with several educators on the book, "What Really Works in Secondary Education", published by Corwin Press, and is available as a speaker.

Q: What’s the best strategy for taking notes? Do you recommend this method or is there a more effective alternative?

Students often go wrong trying to copy every word, often with laptops and devices. But, research is clear: Students who try copying everything have a harder time putting information in order afterward. Plus, students who copy lectures verbatim had worse test scores than students who crafted more contextually organized notes (Mueller & Oppenheimer, 2014).

Notes are where we engage with new ideas and information in unique and personal ways that help cement it in our consciousness. It’s important for young students to explore a variety of styles to find what fits best. Once older, learning to listen and organize content while note taking becomes a critical skill. The act of manipulating what’s heard into information that makes sense is key to deeper learning and understanding.

Q: What are some effective ways to review materials for tests and quizzes?

Space out your studying: Instead of cramming or trying to study everything every day, study small bits of information over a long period of time and review prior material before you go on. This “spaced practice” is a tried and true method for retaining information.

Ask another person to quiz you: Even if they have no idea what your notes are about, they can still ask you to tell them about the information found within. Listening to your own answers helps you discover weaknesses in understanding.

Use flash cards: A set of cards, with concepts and definitions on each side, help you learn your material inside and out, are portable and are an easy way to check for understanding. Never underestimate the power of a great set of flash cards.

Q: Do you recommend taking notes while reading? If so, should they be in the text itself or in a separate document/notebook? Do you recommend actual annotations or highlights/underlining? Why or why not?

Annotating texts in school is one of the most valuable activities to helping students build reading skill and comprehension. It’s vital that students are taught how to engage physically with text by highlighting key passages, underlining important points, asking questions in the margins and circling vocabulary that needs remembering. As a teacher, notations show me how deeply my students are engaged with the material.

In every subject area, teachers are expecting students to be able to engage with textbooks, novels, research reports, informational non-fiction and popular media with a critical eye. Knowing how to annotate enters us into that “conversation” with what we consume as readers.

Q: Small pocket notebooks seem to be an enduring trend and seem to thrive next to laptops and smartphones in coffee shops. What do you make of this? Is carrying a notebook for actual notes, sketches and ideas still a thing?

In education, there’s a huge interest in personalizing learning for our students. Small paper notebooks, sketchbooks, and journals are more popular than ever. But, one size does not fit all any longer. It’s why personal notebooks, journals, and mini-books are so popular. I use mine to keep to-do lists, to produce blog drafts, to take notes on lectures or to plan lessons. Students are doing it, too. Notebooks’ popularity endures because they represent all the things we want from life and education: freedom, possibility, creativity and the chance to build meaning.

Q: What role do paper handouts, worksheets, flash cards and bulletin boards have in a digital world? Do these more tactile media provide different kinds of benefits?

Classrooms today are a beautiful blend of the tactile and digital worlds and kids needs to know both to learn best. That means they might maneuver from reading and annotating an article on their device to crafting a poster from that text in the same class period. They may listen to a podcast about a current event and then outline on paper on how to solve it.

Students are using paper handouts and notepaper to learn and interact with information, to create new products and to display their learning visually in the classroom and world. Paper and printed materials have a huge role in the classroom that digital tools can accentuate, but never replace.

Q: What are some of the ways parents can foster a productive learning environment?

Parents, you’re so eager to help your children succeed in school that sometimes we clutter their lives with tools before we know what works or what they need. What I have found works best is to spend some time watching how your child works when they are home doing schoolwork. Do they arrange their space before they start homework? Do they spread out and scatter themselves across several rooms of the house? Do they prefer complete quiet to work or are they okay with noise? Do they work with pen and paper or on a device?

Then, ask your child what they feel they need to be most successful at home and really listen to the answer. Every kid is different, so the best investment from parents is attention so our children know their success is important to us.

Q: In your experience as a teacher, do students respond to feedback better when it’s given in a particular format?

People crave meaningful feedback on their work, students most of all. The best feedback comes quickly and contains both praise for what the student did well AND what to improve. Teachers have a huge responsibility to guide and encourage students. For finished pieces, most teachers write notes on a student’s paper that tell where to go next. Many teachers are experimenting with recorded audio notes or speech to text comments in documents so there is an easier way to get meaningful feedback to kids without exhausting teachers.

Q: School is starting soon. To what degree should paper factor in parents’ and students’ school supply shopping?

While your kids may try to convince you they need every binder, gizmo and gadget, there is a short list of essentials no parent wants to skip. If you have these, your child is off to a great start:

  • A sturdy 3-ring binder with tabbed dividers.
  • Loose lined paper.
  • A spiral notebook.
  • Pens, pencils & a sharpener.
  • White out tape.
  • Colored pencils, mini-scissors and a glue stick.
  • 3x5 and 4x5 index cards.
  • A variety of sticky notes.
  • Poster board.

Check in every two months to assess what’s left. Often your child runs out of something but doesn’t tell you until the night before the big assignment is due.

Q: As a former teacher of the year and now as a teacher of teachers, what advice do you have for new teachers who are very open to ideas for engaging their students? Or, what’s the most common misstep new teachers make?

As a teacher of teachers, I encourage newbies to make sure they are transmitting that passion to students. If you’re not excited about a lesson, chances are the kids aren’t, either. The best way to make sure kids tune in is to put learning in their hands. Let them struggle with hard questions. Let them dissect and analyze stories, frogs, algorithms or dynasties so they understand how the world works. Give them problems to solve and watch how they do. A great teacher remembers that learning is invitational, collaborative and democratic. Kids are learning every minute of every day and it’s up to us to put interesting, challenging activities into their hands.

Q: Why are paper books so important as young children learn to read? What is it about that medium that leads to success?

There’s one question I get every year from parents of my students. “What’s the one thing I can do for my kids to give them a leg up in school?” In 20 years, my answer has never changed: reading. The most powerful habit you can help your child develop is their skill as a reader. Here is a list of ways readers have an advantage over non-readers:

  • They have larger vocabularies and the ability to determine word meanings better than kids who don’t read. This is particularly helpful in high school and college.
  • They are able to identify and work with a variety of text structures and are thus able to effectively work with textbooks and a variety of non-fiction and workplace texts.
  • By reading widely, they are exposed to a variety of writing genres and styles. This helps them imitate in their own writing, which helps develop their own voice, tone and style.
  • Reading widely helps children understand argumentation, logic, and reasoning–essential skills in a democratic society and for the workplace.
  • Children who read are shown to be more in touch with their emotions, less impulsive, and more able to think through situations to determine the best course of action.
  • Finally, when families read together or when parents read to their kids, it not only strengthens a child’s intellect, it solidifies a sense of belonging, safety, wonder and connectedness.

How can you help your child develop this skill? Make sure your child lives in a print-rich environment. That means weekly trips to the library, a bookshelf in your child’s room always stocked with good reads and the chance to see you reading often. It doesn't matter if it’s books or box tops. Any and all reading counts. But, make sure you have plenty of real, paper books for that cuddle-time reading that is so vital to early childhood development.

Make family book talks at the dinner table regular, travel to places featured in your child’s books or join a neighborhood book club. Devote 15 minutes a day to reading and before long, your child won’t just develop skills for reading, but a love of it, too.

Q: For adults looking to go back to school, what tools do you recommend they gather to be properly prepared to head back to the classroom?

First, an organizing tool like a planner to help you keep your tasks straight is crucial. You also need someplace to store information like a notebook, binder with tabs or laptop. You’ll need a box or pouch for pens, white-out tape, your memory stick and cables for tech, and a small notebook to capture ideas, drawings and inspiration. Finally, make sure you have a bag to tote all of this in style. Most importantly, if you’re an adult headed back to school, congratulations! A growth mindset and the capacity to accept change are keys to lifelong learning and life satisfaction.

  • [1]Mueller, P. A., & Oppenheimer, D. M. (2014). The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking. Psychological Science, 25(6), 1159-1168.