Annotation: Marking a Text with Purpose


For a very long time I struggled with how best to teach students to annotate. I had heard all the advice like, “Tell them they’re having a conversation with the text”. Or “Have them use symbols to show what they were thinking”. Seems simple enough, right?

Well, those did NOT work for me or my students. I had to give them a reason to write things down, otherwise I would just get a bunch of “cool”, “wow”, or “?” markings on the text we were working with.

One day, when I was having my students annotate “The Scarlet Ibis” for all of the mentions of red, I realized that, when they are given a topic to find or a question to answer, they do a heck of a job finding things to annotate. This focuses their energy, and it also makes them actually write things down instead of just underlining and highlighting and calling it annotation (because we all know that is NOT annotation!).

This week, I taught my kids my expectations for annotation using three speeches from The Odyssey. I used this close reading assignment that is free on TPT.   I used the I Do-We Do-You Do model for this one, which is perfect because there are three speeches! I bean by showing speech A on the white board, and I actually annotated it right in front of them, and asked them to copy everything I wrote.

Guidelines for Annotating

Here are my guidelines for annotating in my class: (the complete notes, along with 17 other pages of reference notes are available in my English Resource Folder- Notes for Secondary ELA on TPT)

  1. Always use colored pen to annotate.
  2. Focus your annotation to answer a question or address a topic.
  3. Label your annotations if there is more than one question or topic.
  4. Use the annotations, and the accompanying text evidence, when you answer your questions or write your essay.
  5. Do NOT underline or highlight without writing something to go with it. If you don’t, it doesn’t count as annotating.

For my example, I read the first question, then annotated to answer it. Each annotation for the first question is marked with the #1. Then we read the second question, and then we annotated for the answer to that one. And so on. With a short passage like this, it seemed appropriate to teach them to find their evidence one question at a time. Once they understand this, annotating longer pieces for multiple questions may be easier.

After they have annotated for each question, they must answer using the A.P.E. format (Answer, Prove, Explain). This is where their annotations come in handy because they have already marked their text evidence to prove their answer! Tah-dah!

I use this method with The Odyssey, short stories, poetry, nonfiction, and novels. I just make sure they have a direction, a target at which to aim those annotations. We even do this when we close read film!

I’d love for my readers (all 12 of you) to post some comments about how you teach annotation. Also, let me know if you have questions.

Annotation in Action

The other thing I’m doing is introducing real-world applications of annotation. For example:

  • A server at a restaurant must train and shadow another server before starting to wait tables on their own. In most restaurants, they must also pass a menu test. Shadowing and memorizing the menu would both be good times to make notes. In higher end restaurants, they have to memorize specials every night. This may require keeping notes as well.
  • A field manager for construction, who has to inspect jobs at various stages, would take notes at each stage so that they could write the final report.
  • A farmer will take notes about what they planted, where and when they planted it, what they use to fertilize it, and any unusual weather patterns that arise during the growing. They will also make sure to map out their fields so they can rotate their crops.
  • An actor/actress makes notes on a script about line changes, blocking, and any other personal notes they want to be sure to include in their performance.
  • Doctors make notes in patient files. Sometimes, a doctor will have a scribe that writes down everything they say while they are examining a patient.

These are just a few of the examples that you could share with your students to let them know that annotating is very relevant to them, whether they realize it or not!

Keep This for Reference

Keep This for Reference

When I first started teaching 20 years ago, I had not given much thought to how I would have students organize and keep the work they did in my class. When it came time to ask for supplies, I defaulted to what I knew, and I had them bring a binder and dividers. I had a divider for homework, vocabulary, classwork, notes…and inevitably, by the end of the 1st six weeks, I ceased keeping up with their binder.

Fast forward to now. I have a system I have used for over 10 years that really works for me, and my kids end up with a reference folder at the end of the year that they can use in their English classes for the rest of high school. Plus, it shortened my supply list to almost nothing, and the parents seem appreciative of that. All they need for my class is paper, pen, a folder with brads and pockets, colored pens for annotating, and note cards for vocabulary. The great thing is that, if I have a student that doesn’t have the folder when we start putting it together, it’s no big deal to give them one I have stashed in the cupboard. They’re only 10 cents after all.

Setting it up

It’s very easy to set up the folder, and most of the students seem to like that it is no muss, no fuss. They simply write their name, my name, their class period, and English on the front. Then, on the front pocket they write Current Work, and on the back pocket they write Graded Work.


As soon as we have set up their folder, I explain that the brads will only be used for things that I copy on colored paper that have holes punched in them. That is their signal to put that paper in their brads. The first thing is always my syllabus, and that is followed by notes I give them throughout the year as we move through the units.

Examples of items for reference:

  • Syllabus
  • Parts of Speech notes
  • Literary Devices notes
  • Notice and Note Signposts
  • Poetry notes
  • SAT Vocabulary lists
  • Hero’s Journey notes
  • List of Character Traits/Static vs Dynamic notes
  • Tone Words (grouped by positive/negative/neutral connotation
  • Theme notes
  • Sentence Types notes
  • Genre Notes
  • Dramatic Elements
  • Elements of Mysteries

I have a Resource Folder bundle of almost all of these notes listed on TPT. It is 12 products with 16 pages of notes.

At the end of the year, all of these notes are neatly in their brads, and they can keep them for future use. Not all of them do, but when I have a former student come and tell them how useful they are (or would have been if they’d kept them), most of them end up keeping them. At least they don’t throw them away in front of me. 🙂


Folder Pockets

In the front pocket, they keep things they are currently working on but haven’t turned in yet. The back pocket is for all the work I have graded and handed back. I explain that I am human, I have 150 students, and I make mistakes. Keeping their graded work until their report card comes out is their insurance policy should I key in a grade wrong or skip their paper in a stack.

During class, they are only to have their folder, a pen, and their novel (if we are reading one) on their desk. Everything else is put away. I find this minimizes distractions (like trying to finish math homework for the next period).

And that’s it

That’s all there is to it. This is great for me when we revisit a topic, like literary elements, because I can say, “Use the aqua literary devices notes from earlier this year”, and they already have them in their folder. The colors help them to find things quickly as well.

Please let me know if you have questions about this folder system, and I’ll be more than happy to answer them.

Leaving Her There

Leaving Her There

Yesterday was such a weird day. I didn’t expect to feel proud, terrified, excited, tearful, broken-hearted, and hopeful in the space of less than 8 hours. But I did.

We dropped our oldest off at college yesterday. She is only a few miles from where I work. But her room is empty. I closed the door so that I didn’t have to look at how clean and bare it is. When I called out a good bye to her sister on my way out this morning, I couldn’t call out to her.

When I woke up in the middle of the night, I wondered if she had accidentally locked herself out if she went to the bathroom in the night because her door locks automatically unless you undo it. Then I wondered how she would get help if she did. My mind only gave me an image of her stuck in the hallway.

We moved her in a day early so that I didn’t have to take off work. Her roommate won’t move in until today, so she spent her first night there alone. I think another girl in her suite was there, but I’m not sure if she stayed last night.

I ran out of my anxiety medication a day before the move, so we drove straight to the pharmacy on our way home. Her dad and sister and I were quiet all the way there. We didn’t even listen to the radio. It was like some sorrowful pact that we made without even talking about it.  My mother once told me that, after she dropped me off at school, she didn’t cry until she was driving home, and then she had to pull over. Luckily my husband was driving. I think he wanted to so that he had something else to concentrate on.

We raised her to be where she is. We know that she can do it. It’s the what ifs that creep into your head and camp out there.

I have struggled with depression for a very long time, and more recently added anxiety into the mix. Unfortunately, these are things I have passed on to her. She has worked hard to be where she is, and I am so very proud of her willingness to carry on in the face of her fear. She is so strong, and beautiful, and funny, and awesome. I hope she lets others in so they can see her.

I am still struggling with when to call or text because I don’t want to send her the message that I don’t think she can handle it. But I don’t want her to think I’m not thinking about her. Basically, I’m over-thinking everything at this point.

I hope that she would laugh at me for being so silly if she knew where my mind has been in the last 14 hours since we left her. I hope she would tell me stories of how she went down to the lounge and met some other kids who moved in early, and how she got her side of the room just the way she wanted it. I hope she calls me today and tells me that her bed is so comfy, and she slept like a baby.

To all of the families leaving their babies at school this fall, I am with you. I can only pass on the wise, comforting words that others have given me- You raised them to be successful young people who will conquer and lead this world into the future. Have confidence in the job you’ve done, and trust that they can do it.



First Week Observations from the Middle Grades

First Week Ponderings.png

It’s the third day back, and I’ve finally met all of my students (we are on an A/B schedule). As we begin a new year at my school, which has 6th-9th graders, there are a few things that I’ve observed that I thought I’d share. Some are just things I should already know but forgot over the summer. Others are just things that make me chuckle.

  1. 6th graders like to run. Everywhere.
  2. 8th graders still like recess.
  3. The copy machine can sense weakness, anxiety, and crucial deadlines.
  4. You should never plan on cooking dinner for your family during the first week of school. It’s too hard.
  5. Teenagers smell funny. Not bad, per se, just funny.
  6. Standing for long periods should be an Olympic sport. Teachers would win every standing event.
  7. Eating in 30 minutes stinks. I feel like I’m shoveling my food in just so I can have time to use the restroom. And I shouldn’t bring things that have to be microwaved because it uses up precious minutes.
  8. Teenagers are hilarious.
  9. Laminating is a necessary evil. So much so that, if your laminator at school breaks down, you will actually take it somewhere else and pay for it.
  10. Going to bed at 8 o’clock is nothing to be ashamed of.
  11. Doing dismissal in the Texas heat isn’t much fun.
  12. I am lucky that I have the best job in the world. I love coming to work (almost) everyday.

I hope everyone has a fabulous school year!

Dear First Year Me-

Dear First Year Me-

Dear First Year Me,

It’s the day before school starts on the 20th year of your career. Looking back on all that time, there are some things I wish you would have known as you embark on the very first year.

Get ready for a bumpy ride. Finding out that you were pregnant two days before back to school PD was a shock, I know. And I know you have pretty bad morning sickness. I know that you throw up every morning before school, and you can only eat ice chips until lunch time. No one notices the broken blood vessels in your eyelids.

It’s going to be okay.

After all the jobs over the years, you have finally find your career. Your calling. All of the sacrifice, all of the worrying, and all of the hard work is going to be worth it. I’m not saying it’s going to be easy. There are going to be some awesome highs- becoming team leader, getting to have an elective you created, piloting the GT program, winning teacher of the year for the district, and having some of the most amazing students that go on to do incredible things- those are just some of the wonderful things that will come your way in the next 20 years.

But you need to know that there will be difficult times as well- getting transferred from your dream job, being put on a growth plan because of personality conflicts, getting non-renewed because you don’t want to coach cheer, finding it hard to get an interview with 15 years experience because they can hire a first year for so much less, having to pay $1500 a month for health insurance for your family- and you will get through them.

It all comes down to the fact that you have found your place. You are a teacher. No matter what else is happening around you, find comfort in the fact that you will impact and change students’ lives for the better. You will continue to learn and grow in your knowledge of your subject, and you will never rest on what you did last year. You will find inspiration in the most unlikely of places, and it will drive creativity and engagement into your lesson planning. You will end up at a school that values you as a teacher, and not as a person who just prepares kids for a test. You will work with some awesome people, and you will rise above those that don’t lift others up. You will learn that gratitude is a much more powerful motivator than negativity. And you will find a renewed sense of purpose just when you think you’ve lost it for good.

Teaching is not just your job, it’s your gift. As you go through this first year, trying to understand how it can ever get better, rest easy in the knowledge that it will. You will fall, but you will always get up, dust yourself off, and rise to the challenge.

Stay Strong,

20th Year Me