Monday, April 22, 2013

Annotations & the Student Brain

Every year my eighth graders read Robert Cormier's superbly-crafted mystery I am the Cheese. And while my students overwhelmingly enjoy the book, I am always surprised by how much they miss when we read as a whole class, and I have grappled with how to get them to notice the tiny details, admire the author's craft, and reflect on the clues that keep appearing without beating the love of reading out of them.

So this year I tried incorporating annotation within the instruction. I was a bit concerned with the idea--I do not like practices that interrupt or interfere with fluency, comprehension, and pleasure. I also know that annotating books is a high school expectation, and while I wanted my students to have some practice, I wasn't sure if it was appropriate to expect eighth graders to take this on. But I am a firm believer in the saying, "You never know if it will work until you try it."

I first gave my students a handout describing what annotations are. "Making notes about your book allow you to remember the important things, find patterns, analyze characters, and bring important observations to our conversations," I told them. They nodded and actually showed a bit of interest. So far, I had not completely repelled them. "Today, let's just practice with what you read last night. I'm not going to give you further direction--I want to see what you do with these guidelines on your own. Here's some really big paper." (Note: big paper makes any activity fun for 14 year olds.)

What happened next was nothing that I expected.  My students dumped their brains onto their papers--and not one of them looked the same:

Their annotations ranged from lists to outlines to scatter plots. Columns, cartoons, and flowcharts filled the pages. Yet, as I sat and met with students individually and asked them to tell me what was happening on their papers, they were all able to articulate the same thing: I am looking at how he describes characters. I am finding patterns. I am writing down any questions I have and drawing connections. I am noticing what the author is doing when he gives hints.

What happened second was even better. Every night students annotated their reading, and when they came to class, conversation naturally occurred. They sat in groups of 3-4, and without any guidance from me, broke out into dialogue. They asked questions, they supported their findings with examples from the text, and they made predictions. They pointed out places where Cormier uses figurative language and the effect it has on the storyline. They recalled parts of the text where something suspicious loomed. They recognized patterns in power struggles and symbolism.  They listened to one another and then added to their annotations based on their peers' contributions. And they didn't need me to do anything  but support, inquire, and stand in awe of their brains.

Because when it comes down to it, it's all about their magnificent brains. When we, as teachers, allow for creativity and flexibility--when we allow them to approach tasks in authentic, individualistic approaches, then we get to the heart of the matter. I think some of us avoid tasks like "annotations" because we don't want to provide scripted, uncreative lessons, and others of us avoid creativity because we want specific results. Really though, there is a balance. We can expect rigorous thinking & encourage students to delve deeper while not sacrificing creativity.

In the end, I was reminded that at the heart of good instruction are activities that meet our goals by respecting each student's individual expression. 

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