Earlier in the school year, I signed up for the Educator Collaborative Study Series as a way to choose my own professional development and participate in professional development while on maternity leave. This week was the latest offering that focused on “Writing Thoughtfully From Sources”. Note-taking and varied writing were two immediate take-aways from this webinar. Both of these skills can help our students when encountering their high stakes testing, but more importantly, these skills can be used in any learning environment.
Lehman, who led the webinar, pointed out that controlled notes (i.e. worksheets and prescribed information) have several drawbacks. For me, the biggest drawback is that controlled notes tend to place the teacher’s learning as the answer to “what is valuable in the text”. If we ignore the learner as the most important thinker, then we really aren’t setting students up for success. Our standards call for independent thinkers who can use a text to develop meaning. They do not call for a student who can hunt and peck their way to memorized information.
Instead of controlled notes, consider how you can value student thinking in their notes. Lehman offered up that students should try taking notes or sketching notes without the text in front of them. I’ve heard, and used, this method with students before. Though when I used it, it was as a way to help students avoid plagiarism in their research.
What’s the benefit to not looking at the text while taking notes?
- You avoid small facts ending up on the paper like people, dates, etc. Students seemed to have been trained to think that notes usually means dates and people, which isn’t usually the important piece to a reading.
- Students can monitor their comprehension and reading strategies. If it’s hard to write much down when they set the text to the side, why is that? Help students investigate or with older students, get them used to figuring out why they didn’t remember much information.
- Reveals what’s important or what stuck with students. Yes, they may not have chosen the text. But, they have just revealed their interests in the topics by what they remembered. They also possibly revealed attention to author craft because it’s possible they remember details due to the author’s writing.
Lest you think we end up with notes that might lack substance, the last step is to go back to re-read the section. This time with a purpose to find vocabulary, especially Tier 3 vocabulary, to stick to their understanding. For example, my notes might just say “spider” after reading about spiders. After re-reading, I find that we were really talking about “golden orb weaver” in the passage. So, I revise my notes, just like I can revise my thinking.
One note, not from the webinar, about taking notes from a visual source or lecture. I have often found it very helpful to let students write down what they think is important or they catch while viewing a clip or listening to a lecture. Depending on the text, it’s not always possible to re-watch a clip, and I wouldn’t advise giving the same lecture again. Often these texts don’t present information in clearly defined sub-heading sections like a text-book. Post viewing/listening, I ask students to work with other students to compare their “captures” and create categories for their notes to re-organize the information. Now they have synthesized and grouped information that exists in random spots throughout their notes.
Practice Varied Writing
At the end of the webinar, Lehman provided examples of students learning from their mentor non-fiction text as writers. Playing with language and writing can help our students better understand how to write for a specific audience and for a specific purpose. In the example that was read, the author had used a story, provided a picture, named specific people to humanize, and defined terms within the writing. All these things are good techniques for students to internalize and use in their own writing. In order to do that, students must be given the opportunity to experiment with the craft.
Next time when assigning writing, consider only assigning one piece of the writing like the introduction. But, have students write several different versions of introductions that change depending on the audience or purpose of the writing. The discussion between students about why and when a story is most appropriate will help them become a better writer. At a minimum, I liked the idea of having students write multiple versions of a section of writing because it helps students learn that writing is experimentation, a craft that must be practiced, and not a one size fits all work. This could easily be a day’s lesson as students launch into writing a full essay.