cheesemonkey wonders

cheesemonkey wonders

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Why INBs are a tool for equity and social justice

Childhood trauma is real and it affects students in the math classroom. As David Bornstein said recently in the New York Times, “over the past 15 years, researchers have learned that highly stressful — and potentially traumatic — childhood experiences are more prevalent that previously understood. Now scientists are shedding light on the mechanisms by which they change the brain and body. These insights have far-reaching implications for schools.”

Recent studies have shown that as many of 50% of children in high-poverty schools may have experienced incidents of significant childhood trauma that researchers have named ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences).

The Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative (TLPI), a joint venture of the Massachusetts Advocates for Children and the Harvard Law School, has published a number of findings and guidebooks that offer invaluable insight into ways we can help traumatized kids to learn and succeed in schools. Their two books, Helping Traumatized Children Learn and Creating and Advocating for Trauma-Sensitive Schools, are both available free for PDF download on their web site. I highly recommend both of these books.

In this post, I want to explore how Interactive Notebooks (or INBs) seem to help students to repair deficits in sequential memory by scaffolding the process of organizing the narrative of their experience in math class.

The greatest gift of neuroplasticity is that our human minds have an apparently limitless capacity to grow and heal. This is good news because it means we can also help our students to leverage it as well.

Traumatized people have a different relationship with time than non-traumatized people do. Their relationship with time has become fragmented and episodic. Francine Shapiro, the developer of EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), a leading psychological treatment modality for sufferers of PTSD, has posited that traumatic experiences create a kind of stuckness in one hemisphere of the brain. Almost all of us have had some experience of “freezing” into that fight-flight-freeze state — that deer-in-the-headlights moment. The difference with a  deeply traumatic experience, according to Shapiro, is that the person cannot simply shake it off or let it go. A person gets literally “stuck” in it in one part of the brain. A flashback for a PTSD sufferer is their being catapulted back into the moment of the trauma. The person cannot move through it. They reexperience that traumatic moment every single time it gets triggered. They get stuck and they cannot pry themselves out. This reduces their availability for experience in the present moment.

What EMDR and other forms of bilateral hemispheric processing do, the research suggests, is to help the traumatized person to REprocess their experience through both hemispheres of the brain and body, allowing the mind’s own inherently intelligent functioning to process the traumatic event in a safe and contained way so that the traumatized person can safely and securely release it and be more fully available for experience in the present moment.

In one sense, this is nothing new. St. Augustine said, “Solvitur ambulando — Things are solved by walking around.” How many times have I dissolved a thorny problem by clipping the leash to the dog and going on a long and vigorous walk? Many in the therapeutic community believe this is the mind and body’s natural way of restoring balance after a threat. Some say that everything we do that uses both sides of the body gives us this same natural effect. The process of physical movement connects us and grounds us, keeping us anchored in our bodies so that we can become available to present-moment experience.

Understanding this disrupted relationship to time and to its disruption of the development of sequential memory gives us compelling insights into the benefits of an Interactive Notebook for a student whose trauma has created cognitive deficits in organizing their own narrative thread. Students discover that their note-taking and note-keeping gives them a tangible record and artifact of what they have done — and of what they have learned. Taking notes over time — and experiencing the process of referring back to them — is one way we can help traumatized children to connect their brains and their bodies to their learning across time.

A spiral notebook or composition book is a good teacher. The pages don’t move. If the notebook stays in the classroom, then IT doesn’t move either. This is a new phase in object permanence. Even when it seems that students are “merely copying notes,” they are actually creating a record of their processing that sequential memory can use later to anchor their confidence, their growth mindset, and ultimately, their deep digestion of mathematics.

When a student blurts out, “What do we do with the negative exponent? You never taught us that! We never learned it!” they are having one of those fight-flight-or-freeze moments. Sequential memory has failed them them. They feel tricked, sabotaged, ambushed.

I do not panic. I calmly tell them to flip to page 5 in their INB. “What does it say halfway down the page on the right?”

There is much silent shuffling and flipping. Twenty-five index fingers trace down the right-hand side of the page. Finally there is a squeal of discovery. “Five to the negative one equals one over five!”

Now, I know this is there because I remember that we did an entire CPM discovery activity to develop the concept of negative exponents. I remember that it happened early in this INB and found it right away on page 5, in a little cloud we drew next to our summary statements and notes. I told them at the time that we would refer back to this later. They may not remember that fact now, but that is OK. They are burning a new memory into their individual and collective consciousness right now.

I feel a little shot of adrenaline to my heart. “Good. You used your notes to find it. What is five to the negative two power?”

They search again. “One over 25.”

Students are creating a new memory of retrieving an older memory. This practice at connection is something that, for whatever reason, they did not receive earlier in their childhood. That is OK. They are getting it now. They are having a lightbulb moment that is anchoring their thoughts and ideas so that they can retrieve them later.

“Take a little yellow Post-It,” I tell them. Write “how to use negative exponents” on it.”

Everyone writes.

“Now stick it on the side of the page next to your notes.” I hear the smoothing of sticky notes onto paper. “Where are you going to look the next time you forget how to work with negative exponents?”

Students nod their heads and answer. The lesson moves on.

The psychologist Nate Kornell has said, “Forgetting is the friend of learning.” INBs teach students that forgetting is a natural process, just like learning. Getting comfortable with forgetting and learning means that you can relax and trust your tools to help your memory. This is a powerful lesson for any adolescent, much less a traumatized one. It empowers students to surface and repair their own developmental deficits in ways that also protect and extend their dignity. Over time and through repeated practice, students learn that they in fact do know how to organize their learning into a larger, coherent narrative. In supporting this process, INBs become an active and therapeutic intervention.


  1. I don't know who you are but I will be reading as many your posts as possible!

    I loved reading this post and having used interactive notebooks like this in the past, love it. Have you seen/heard of how students in 1:1 programs are using Evernote etc for this too, or do you feel the physical response part is almost more important?

    1. Hi Brandon, Thanks for sharing your insights. I have indeed seen how students in 1:1 schools are using Evernote and other similar programs (one of which I co-authored), but the research is emphatic about the triumph of handwritten notes. You can read more about it here:

      Thanks for commenting!

      Elizabeth (@cheesemonkeysf)

  2. I wonder if I can use any of this insight with my college students? I don't think we can all have the same notebook (so turn to page 5 wouldn't work for us). I do highly recommend to them that they get a graph paper notebook. I wonder if asking them to read this entry of yours might get some of them to work on taking better notes.

    1. Hi Sue, I think it could definitely help your college students to understand WHY you are asking them to take and keep notes. Most students really have no idea how to really *use* their notes. In a not-too-distant future post, I'm going to show some of the ways I teach students to annotate their notes. Teaching annotation skills is of enormous benefit to college students who are really taking notes on their own for the first time.

      Thanks for stopping by!

      Elizabeth (@cheesemonkeysf)

  3. I have never taken good notes myself. My handwriting being bad is part of it. But I don't expect to be able to use my notes later. Mainly I write to remember. (Nowadays I take notes during meetings on my computer. I may get less kinesthetic help, but at least I can read them.)

    I'll look forward to your annotation post.