My Introduction to Annotation
Several years ago, I was attending AP conference at TCU and heard the term annotate for the first time. I say several years, it was probably more like a decade ago. Of course, as an English student, I knew what interacting with a text was, but I don’t remember hearing the term before that day.
The problem was that they talked about how important it was, but they didn’t explain how to teach it. As an AP teacher, I knew it was important to interact with texts of all kinds in different classes, but I couldn’t figure out how to convey that to my kids. I saw teachers telling kids to annotate their novels, and actually grading those annotations, but the kids, for the most part, had no clue what to write.
That’s when I realized that you have to give kids a purpose. When I’m annotating, I’m doing it for a particular reason. Whether it’s because I’m going to write a quiz so I’m looking for good quiz question material, or I’m breaking down a piece of text to learn it well enough to teach it, I have a distinct purpose for taking notes. Once I started giving them direction for their annotations, things began to improve. For a couple of years I only had them annotate novels. This makes things difficult because you’re trying to keep them annotating with a long piece of reading over a period of weeks. I started using short stories and had them annotate for setting, character, tone, etc. Things improved even more, but I still wasn’t getting the results I wanted because they weren’t doing it consistently if I didn’t remind them.
Last year, I used speeches from The Odyssey to teach annotating at the beginning of the school year. The first speech I annotated on the document camera, and I had them write down every single thing I did so they had a model. Then they annotated the next speech with a partner. The last speech was an individual assignment. Even though they did a pretty good job, they didn’t understand the text well enough to really internalize the annotation skills.
About 3 weeks ago, I started thinking about how I was going to change my annotation lessons to benefit the students more and make it stick with them for the rest of the year. I decided that, since I’d never found a book or resource that worked for me, I had to create one myself.
I looked up short stories in the public domain and started reading. I took excerpts, one or two pages at most, from these stories, put them in handout form with wide margins and double-spacing so the kids would have room to write, and added a directive for annotating and text-dependent questions for them to answer. I also added the prince’s speech from Romeo and Juliet, two poems, and the “out damned spot” scene from Macbeth so that they had a variety of text types with a range of difficulty.
This Annotation Academy is how we are going to start our first semester next year. I’m hoping that concentrating on these skills and outlining my expectations right at the beginning will benefit them for the rest of the year. The first thing will be to go over the annotation notes and give them instructions on the correct way to answer text-dependent questions (both these note pages are included in the academy). then we will begin working through the excerpts. the first two will be modeled by me, then they will work in groups or with a partner, and the last few will be individual assignments. I always make sure they understand that the annotations themselves are at least 50% of the grade, so if they don’t do it, they can’t pass.
I’m excited to see how this impacts their learning and if it carries through to the rest of their assignments during the course of the year.