OneNote—the ONE tool I can’t do without (and neither can my school)

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Today’s post was written by Kelli Etheredge, teacher and Microsoft Innovative Educator at the St. Paul’s Episcopal School in Mobile, Alabama.

We all have our “go to” tools when we want to work efficiently. For me, when I really need to accomplish a task, I clear my desk, close my door, turn on Vivaldi, and open OneNote. Regardless of the project—lesson redesign with a teacher, research on learning spaces, creating professional development sessions—all of my notes, ideas, questions… everything is in OneNote. OneNote has been my go to tool ever since I discovered its power eight years ago.

Two years ago, my administration asked me to help the 5th and 6th-grade teachers transition to a 1:1 learning environment with teacher created/curated content rather than textbooks. In my design of the program, the unquestionable tool at the center of this learning initiative was (and is) OneNote. Because I had been using a collaborative OneNote notebook with my own students since 2008, I knew it would meet the needs of every teacher—regardless of discipline. And so the process of building our own textbooks for our 5th and 6th graders began.

Fast forward eighteen months. At the start of this school year, every 5th and 6th grader received a Lenovo Tablet 2 with their teacher-created textbooks loaded on it. Unlike the traditional hardback textbook, our teacher curated textbooks are interactive; they include text, images, videos and links to quizzes. The possibilities are limitless—whatever the teachers want to share with the students they can—simply by adding a page, inserting a file, or adding a hyperlink. Unlike the newer digitized eTextbooks, our teacher curated textbooks allow for personalization. The tablet has a digitized stylus so students are not only able to type, but they are able to handwrite, draw diagrams and graph within OneNote. Each student is, therefore, able to personalize their OneNote textbooks by annotating, tagging and adding materials in any way they would like and in the ways that best suit their learning styles. Mrs. Sara Holt, the 5th-grade reading teacher, sees the personalization OneNote allows as one of the more powerful aspects of the learning initiative. “OneNote has encouraged student creativity and helped them discover their learning preferences,” Mrs. Holt shares. “When I gave the students their OneNote notebook, I had it organized by reading strategies. A student asked if she could organize it differently so that all of her vocabulary was together, etc., and I said, ‘of course!’ Because of the flexibility of the program, she was empowered to organize the material in a way that made sense to her.” Mrs. Holt also loves the creativity that the program has allowed the students. “When I ask them to create a timeline (or anything visual), they can use the drawing tools to use different colors, shapes, whatever works for them. They achieve the same learning goal as in years past—or really BETTER than in years past—because they have more ownership in their work.”

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Students utilize the highlighting tools to organize their notes for studying.

The 5th-grade team utilizes OneNote for content delivery and have seen a tremendous difference between what they and their students could do before our learning initiative and what they are able to do now. In math, for example, before this year, students did not take notes on the day’s lesson. However, this year, Mrs. Lori Harris built her OneNote notebook with her daily interactive lessons she uses on her Promethean Board. Now, while she demonstrates a skill at the front of the room, every student sees the same content in their OneNote. They can write to the side of the slide or on the picture of the slide and takes notes as they listen. Additionally, the practice exercises—that used to be done by one student at the front of the room—are now done by everyone at their desk in their OneNote notebook. Mrs. Harris notes how invaluable this access is, “When they go home to study, they have the exact lesson I taught with their practice questions. Everything is right there for them as they prepare for their assessments.”

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Students take notes on their math concepts right in their OneNote notebook on the printouts of their teacher’s Promethean Board slides that she uses in class.

The accessibility of content is a common plus among all of the teachers. No more heavy backpacks, lost papers, or missed notes. Everything the students need is in one place—OneNote. The 5th-grade history teacher, Mrs. Jodi Ivey, loves that her students can access content she shared in class when they are at home. “OneNote has given me the opportunity to reteach and reinforce concepts with my students when they are at home,” Mrs. Ivey explains, “A student was struggling with a concept, and I encouraged him to go back to the section in OneNote and not only review the text but watch the videos I shared in class again. He watched the videos twice! The next day he was able to discuss the concept with the class and demonstrate that he understood the concepts. Thanks to OneNote, we were able to collaborate even without me being there.”

Additionally, because we are an Office 365 school, our students sync their notebooks to their personal OneDrive account and can access their notebooks anytime, anywhere. Whether they are on their tablet, phone, or grandmother’s computer, they are able to access their teacher curated textbooks and their work within the notebook.

As the year has progressed, some of our teachers transitioned from the packaged notebooks to the shared notebooks teachers can create using the Class Notebook app. When we launched the program, we did not have access to the Class Notebook app, but once the teachers learned about its functionality, they were certainly interested. The 5th/6th-grade writing teacher, Mrs. Heather Robinson, as well as the 5th-grade English teacher, Mrs. Donna Frederick, set up OneNote Class Notebooks for their students. They quickly discovered the instant feedback they could provide their students within the notebook is invaluable. Mrs. Frederick finds that, “The ability to proof, provide feedback, and edit all within OneNote has cut down on our process time dramatically.” Mrs. Robinson reiterates her point:

“The OneNote Class Notebook cut down on the amount of class time I needed to coach the papers. I was able to record all of my comments and explanations for my revision marks and then allow students to listen to the comments and revise during class. In the past, I have been able to coach 4-5 students per class, which translated to at least a week of revision work. While students at the beginning of the revision list were able to get coached and spend several days revising in class, those at the end of the revision list spent many days working on other classwork and had very little in-class revision time. This time, because I inserted an audio recording of my feedback for each student, I coached an entire class in one day.

The other benefit to using OneNote to record my comments was that students were able to listen to my comments as many times as they needed. In the past, I have met with students one-on-one and had them take notes as we discussed their paper. While this was a fantastic way to revise in terms of individual attention, students often returned to their desks with a head full of ideas that quickly faded as they slugged through their revisions. Note taking, however diligent, left gaps in their recall, and often students forgot what their own comments meant. The result was a paper only partially revised. With OneNote, students could review my comments on each section and revise as they listened. Also, if students had questions about my comments or notes, I recorded our discussions about them, and students were able to go back and listen to their own interpretations as they worked through the revision process.

I polled students for feedback, and every single student said that they like the recorded sessions much better. When I asked why, they said that they often forgot what we discussed in our coaching sessions, and being able to listen to the session over and over again made revision much easier.

One final note: grades on these papers were far higher than on previous papers!”

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Teachers provide written and audio feedback to help students improve their writing or math skills.

The success of the learning initiative is certainly spreading. Many of our 7th and 8th-grade teachers are preparing to transition to teacher curated textbooks using OneNote. When her textbook went on back order at the start of the year, 7th-grade history teacher, Mrs. Kathy Walker, began using OneNote to share materials with her students. Mid-year, she transitioned to a OneNote Class Notebook with her students and loves the conveniences of seeing students notes from class and their homework all in one place. As a result, she is able to check in and see who is paying attention and who needs further help on their note taking skills or homework.

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Students in 7th-grade with hybrid laptops are able to handwrite their notes in class, and their teachers can see their notes within the OneNote Class notebook.

Additionally, Mrs. Margaret Cadden, 7th-grade math teacher, decided to pilot a class notebook with the students in her class who have hybrid laptops. Even though Mrs. Cadden does not have a hybrid laptop with a digitized stylus, she is able to use her Promethean Board and OneNote to write within the notebook as she teaches class. Additionally, her students are able to take notes and complete their homework right in the class notebook. She loves the instantaneous nature of the notebook and the ability to see the student’s work. As a result, she is planning on implementing OneNote Class Notebooks with all her classes next year.

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Student notes from 7th-grade math, using colors to help differentiate concepts within the discussion.

Favorite features within the OneNote Class Notebook varies among teachers, but for 8th-grade science teacher Mr. Brian Thomas, the collaborative features are what sold him on its use in his class. Mr. Thomas recently used the OneNote Class Notebook feature so students could easily collaborate on a project to solve a real-world problem of their choosing. Students were able to work on the project both inside and outside of class. A collaborative project of this nature in the past would have taken months because students, who cannot drive, had a hard time meeting outside of class to complete the tasks. With OneNote, however, students, regardless of their after school activities, could access their collaborative space at times that worked for them and add ideas and plans to their section. Because the assignment was somewhat competitive, students utilized the password protection function so none of the other teams could see their ideas. Students, of course, shared their passwords with Mr. Thomas, so that the project progressed, Mr. Thomas could see everyone’s contributions and check-in with groups who seemed to be imbalanced in their efforts.

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Within the collaborative space, students can add their information to the same page, and teachers can see who has contributed to the project.

As if the transformation OneNote is having in our classrooms is not enough, thanks to the Staff Creator Notebook app, the functionality and efficiency of OneNote is moving from our work with students to our administrative work as well. Recently, the school decided to revitalize an advisee program from years past. A team of teachers are working together to create the topics and resources that will be used within the program. With busy schedules and different planning periods, finding time to collaborate is challenging. With the OneNote Staff Notebook, the team has been able to work on the project whenever they are open. We are able to have conversations within the notebook and keep moving on the project. Utilizing OneNote for this process ensures that when we do meet our time is more efficient and productive.

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Educators are able to accomplish committee work more efficiently with OneNote’s Staff Notebook, saving teachers from unnecessary and unproductive meetings.

For the last eight years, I have used OneNote professionally and personally almost every day. (The only days I don’t open OneNote are the days when I am completely unplugged.) Out of all the resources I have at my disposable in my professional “tool box,” hands down OneNote is my most powerful tool. My school is also discovering the power of OneNote. Regardless of discipline and grade level, every teacher who introduces OneNote into his or her classroom reaches the same conclusion—OneNote is the ONE tool we cannot do without.