Annotation: Day One

After years of trying to teach annotating skills to students I’ve come to a fairly straightforward conclusion: they don’t get it.  While I revere marking up books, I suspect that there is a reason for this:  I’m an adult.  An adult who has spent most of my time dog-earing, post-it noting, highlighting, double underlining and all around obsessing over marking text.  I also suspect that images like the one below (my “annotated” copy of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close) “freak” students out.  To be honest, the expectation that they will love marking up a text during adolescence is unrealistic.  More importantly, the idea that they will even know what to mark expects that they are capable of making choices and evaluating a professional’s choices.  Come on.

The "dark" side of annotation.

I find at the beginning of the year student annotations fall primarily into two categories:

The “underliner”

You all know this student.  The “underliner” most often thinks that something in the text is good so they “mark” it in their words by underlining ONLY.  They have an inkling it’s good but they don’t know what to write in the margin.  So they don’t.  Sometimes this happens because students run out of time and don’t actually do their homework.  They don’t get my sympathy.  More than likely, though, at the beginning of the year, the “underliner” is just stumped about what to write.  The author already said in the best possible way, right?  But how do we fix this problem?   How do we get them to actually write something down?  Good question.  Excellent question.  (Insert maniacal but well meaning laughter here).   Just wait.

The “over annotater”

It seems that in light of only underlining, copious annotations would be preferable but the “over annotater” is not really the answer either.  Sure.  They mark diligently. They color code.  The marginalia is vigorous and detailed and frightening in its length. They are committed.  They are serious.  They are going to learn if it is the end of them.  Except, it’s not really helping them, either.   They don’t make any choices.  Instead they choose everything.  Annotations are meant to streamline critical thinking.  Annotations of this kind bog all of that down.   See my copy of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close above to understand where I fit within this two-category system.

No, the goal of this week’s area of focus is to figure out how to engage students in meaningful marking.  To get them started.  To let them know that writing down margin notes is an important part of becoming competent critical thinkers.   To not freak them out by fast talking, or waving around enormous packs of post-it notes or verbally “shaking” them by invoking the phrase “Seriously?” when all they do is underline.   This week we’re going to look at three different ways to work on annotation in the classroom.  Some low tech, some high tech.   The real key is getting them to do marking exercises in class.  Constant classroom practice translates into less unwieldy annotations on their own.


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