Annotation and close reading

pexels-photo-632470.jpegWhen I was a sophomore in high school I was assigned selections from Hamlet to read in my English class. I read it, understood it, and took notes in the margins as I was asked to do. But the following day I was told I didn’t have “enough” annotations and was assigned a detention (a Friday Evening Inconvenience – it was boarding school).

But what is “enough” when it comes to annotation? As a college student I think I finally learned to annotate so that my thinking – at the time I took the note – was clear to me when it came time to use the note.

I think that, as teachers, we need to help students connect to the text through annotation. This starts with how we select the text and how we select the assign the annotation. We have to give them clear guidelines and support. Annotation is a skill that needs to be developed

Chunk – How can you break up longer texts?

Purpose – What’s the learning objective? Make this explicit to the students so you can all begin with the end in mind

Quantify – How many comments do you expect per paragraph, per page?

Notations – What do you want to see in the margins? Symbols, questions, definitions, specific connections? Symbols or color coding should include a key each time.

Rereads – When you need them to reread for fluency or in a coaching group, give them a different purpose or lens for the next read

We can use technology or low tech tools to support students through universal design.

  • Color coded sticky notes with questions or comments written on them
  • Hypertext annotation to definitions, expansion of ideas, etc.
  • Kami – potential shared annotation
  • Google Docs – comments in the margins
  • A document camera will allow you to model the annotation, with out-loud metacognitive thinking about why and how you are annotating, for students. Some document cameras will allow you to record the whole thing for playback later.

Screen Shot 2018-02-18 at 12.45.10 PM


9/11 – addressing difficult things

Last year South Anchorage High School teachers began the tradition of teaching a common text on the same day. This year they will do it again with texts about 9/11, starting with this old blog post of mine that I shared.

September 11th was a current event and now it’s a moment in history; most high school students weren’t even alive in 2001. This is also a very personal event for most of us. We have a personal connection to what happened because it changed the world around us and changed how we view the world.

I taught the events of 9/11 through my personal story (my dad worked in the South tower and, at the time the building collapsed we still had not heard from him) and through poetry.

And then we went to stories that have been written down. I read “The Names” by Billy Collins and I told them it makes me think of everyone I’ve lost, that echoes of people are everywhere. Next came “Prayer for the Dead,” by Stuart Kestenbaum. His line, “…if you discover some piece of your own writing, or an old photograph, you may remember that it was you and even if it was once you, it’s not you now…”  because that’s the reason I have them write an autobiography over the course of the year, so they can look back and see themselves as freshmen in high school. And the last poem, “Five Years Later,” by Tony Gloegger, addresses survivor’s remorse and the pain all of us go through when forced to tell about or relive something traumatic.

I love how new-to-South teacher Ken Hemenway added to the ideas and discussion.

I was attending graduate school in Boston on September 11 and went to New York to visit a girl I was dating in Hoboken, NJ, Friday through Sunday of that week. I have very vivid memories of the smoke, smell, and utter bewilderment of the whole situation from a personal perspective. Needless to say it was surreal and I’ll never forget the numerous places where people had put up papers, pleading for information regarding their lost, loved ones.

I attended Boston College with a young man by the name of Welles Crowther. He played lacrosse and our paths crossed being I was also playing hockey at the time and the student athlete population was a close knit community.
He lost his life on September 11th and I put a link for a short ESPN video presentation entitled “9/11 The Man in the Red Bandanna.” I’m not sure if anyone would like to use this, but I think it may compliment some of the great material shared above.
I’m eager to see how this looks in classes on Monday and will be visiting a teacher to see it in action.
How do you teach 9/11 as an English/language arts teacher? How do you teach other difficult topics and current events like Ferguson, Charlottesville, Syrian refugees, etc. so your students build empathy and cultural literacy?

This is my seven year-old’s drawing of September 11th, some sort of pirate airplane attack – that is how he created context. I don’t know what prompted him to draw it for me but I have it hanging in my office as a reminder of the importance of teaching kids about difficult topics.

Flash Mob research

In 2010 my social studies teaching partner, Lisa Healow, and I created a research project for our 9th graders in honors and regular world history and English. The research was to answer the question, “What happens when cultures spread?”

Students were assigned a topic and a question relating to that topic with a small group of classmates.  Their task was to find 2 articles about the specific aspect of of their assigned topic (religion, geography, economy/trade, humanities/art, government, society, or science/technology) and create a summary using a specific form.

From there, students worked with group members to develop an answer to the topic question, as well as another question to expand on the topic.  They peer edited the summaries to they were submitted to the class database. Students read and took notes on all of the database entries (submitted through a Google Docs form), making connections and asking recognizing patterns, in preparation for a class seminar.

Lisa and I presented our project, along with student work samples, snippets of the final seminar, and interviews with students about the process, at the 2011 Alaska Society of Technology in Education conference.

Our presentation document, with links to additional material, is available through this link.

Creating Multimedia Timelines

Screen Shot 2013-01-11 at 5.42.22 PM

The other day I stumbled across Timeline JS, a site that assists you in creating multimedia timelines. I found the site while searching for visual autobiography tools for my seniors but after assigning a short, paper, biographical timeline of John Steinbeck, I realized it would be a good project for my Honors American Literature 10th graders.

I suppose it is a bit similar to Prezi but it looks more like a traditional timeline running at the bottom and you control it in a more linear fashion. The website gives you a couple of different ways of compiling the data sets; we used the provided Google spreadsheet with our school district Google Apps accounts. Students were divided into two teams of about 15 students each with one group creating a timeline of the author and the other a timeline of the Great Depression; after appointing a team leader they began populating the spreadsheet with evidence from the web. I appreciate that it has places for students to credit the creators of the material rather than just copying and pasting links.

note the name of the YouTube poster at the bottom right of the video

note the name of the YouTube poster at the bottom right of the video

Here are the timelines : Before the timelines were officially “done” I  viewed each while running Screenr to give feedback to the students and have them make the necessary corrections. I posted the links to those videos here in case anyone is interested in how to give verbal/video/screencast recorded feedback.

I like the end result and the variety of media that the students chose to tell the story of their subject. I think this would also work well as a way of proving a thesis for a problem-based learning project or another multi-media assignment that benefits from being more linear in nature. Comparing and contrasting timelines of The Great Depression and The Great Recession perhaps? Students were a little thrown by how finicky editing a spreadsheet can be, but I thought they did a good job of finding evidence.

Africa – project based learning

This Africa Project is designed as a project/problem based learning unit.

Project Details

Title: Africa
Collaborators: Larissa Elson & Lisa Healow
Grade level: high school (9-12)
Recommended Time Frame: 2 – 3 weeks (10-20 contact hours)
Content areas:

  • ethics
  • geography
  • history
  • humanities
  • language arts
  • literature
  • reading


african africa uganda army kony

Web Resources
Invisible Children – background on conflict
Issues with the organization, Invisible Children
Invisible Children responds to criticism
Invisible Children responds to criticism about ‘Stop Kony’ campaign
Charles Taylor in Liberia
World news about the Central African Republic, including breaking news and archival articles published in The New York Times.
A list of resources from around the Web about Uganda as selected by researchers and editors of The New York Times.
Congo article collection – New York Times Topics
War Crimes, Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity
BBC Profile: Joseph Kony
Guest post: Joseph Kony is not in Uganda (and other complicated things)
KONY 2012

A Long Way Gone
African Literature section of textbook

Begin with the End in Mind:

Students will:
Communicate Effectively and Persuasively, Manage Projects Effectively, Think Critically

Craft the Driving Question:

How can the examination of the past inform us about our present lives and what our responsibility is toward one another?
Are you your brothers’/sisters’ keeper?
How can we effect change in the world without giving money?

Research Question:

here is a site that may be of help as you write your research question
(After viewing and reading some background information, determine what you want to learn more about. Like in past projects, let your product answer your research question and the two driving questions above.)

STUDENTS create question here

Plan the Assessment:

Infographic, Prezi, or other choice with corresponding narrative paper and annotated bibliography
that shows students can do the following:

  • Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas, concepts, and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.
    • Introduce a topic; organize complex ideas, concepts, and information to make important connections and distinctions; include formatting (e.g., headings), graphics (e.g., figures, tables), and multimedia when useful to aiding comprehension.
    • Develop the topic with well-chosen, relevant, and sufficient facts, extended definitions, concrete details, quotations, or other information and examples appropriate to the audience’s knowledge of the topic.
    • Use appropriate and varied transitions to link the major sections of the text, create cohesion, and clarify the relationships among complex ideas and concepts.
    • Use precise language and domain-specific vocabulary to manage the complexity of the topic.
    • Establish and maintain a formal style and objective tone while attending to the norms and conventions of the discipline in which they are writing.
    • Provide a concluding statement or section that follows from and supports the information or explanation presented (e.g., articulating implications or the significance of the topic).


  • Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences.
    • Engage and orient the reader by setting out a problem, situation, or observation, establishing one or multiple point(s) of view, and introducing a narrator and/or characters; create a smooth progression of experiences or events.
  • Use technology, including the Internet, to produce, publish, and update individual or shared writing products, taking advantage of technology’s capacity to link to other information and to display information flexibly and dynamically.
  • Gather relevant information from multiple authoritative print and digital sources, using advanced searches effectively; assess the usefulness of each source in answering the research question; integrate information into the text selectively to maintain the flow of ideas, avoiding plagiarism and following a standard format for citation.
  • Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.

Map the Project:

Major product: infographic or Prezi (or something similar as suggested by students) with corresponding narrative paper and annotated bibliography

  • watch – Invisible Children viral video
  • read – articles about Kony, crimes of humanity, and others listed above
  • read – A Long Way Gone
  • read – African Lit section of the textbook
  • research – submit analysis or each article and image to create an annotated bibliography
  • create – infographic or Prezi
  • present – the answers to your questions and the choices you made when creating your product


Manage the Process:

Write and submit your research question
Learning contract filled out
Daily work form completed
How to: annotated bibliography (due with project)