In My Brain // 11

Today was the last day of classes. Ten years of teaching down!
(Buh? How did that happen?!)

Let's celebrate with some Internet:

A Revolutionary Idea: Taking Notes During Class

I've been revisiting my “Do This Differently Next Year” document (currently at twelve single-spaced, glorious pages) more frequently as the school year wraps up. I want to write about my favorite success of this year, one that I will replicate and expand in full force next year: the notebook.

You know, that stack of bound pieces of paper where people can write stuff.

Disclaimer: This is the least innovative thing in the universe. Students taking notes while learning is like the most obvious and not-interesting thing that has been in classrooms since the dawn of time. I realize this.

But still! Hear me out! I never actually required note-taking before. Or really taught kids how to do it effectively (jury’s still out on that part). I’ve always just kind of assumed that good students take notes. That everyone surely learned this before high school. It’s always on the syllabus that they need a notebook for our class, and I’ll regularly say things like “Be sure to write this down” or “Put this in your notes, please.” But that’s about as far as I ever took it. I never followed up.

This past spring (in my tenth year of teaching, mind you -- I knowwww) was the first time I decided to approach student notebooks with seriousness.

I did this with 12th graders in Reel Reading, a film studies English elective.

On the first day of class, I established fresh expectations. Students needed a dedicated notebook for our class, so I encouraged them to obtain one that they love. I told them what kinds of things they could expect to write down, how often I would be checking it, and how it’s being graded.

Why, yes, I do have a rubric.

We talked about making notes, not taking notes. Notes are made when your brain is processing information and reframing it in your own words. Even if you never look at your notes again, your brain has already worked more effectively in simply writing them.

I also shared with them a Pinterest board I made called “Class Notes” so they could gather inspiration. I talked about how different people’s notes look different, and organization and creativity take many forms. The larger goal was for students to feel comfortable with note-taking in all sorts of endeavors beyond our class, so it would be important for them to personalize the process and take ownership of what works for them.

From the outset, different students approached the notebook in different ways (like I hoped they would). Some students went out and purchased a fancy new notebook. Some students dug up an old composition book or recycled a previously-used one. One student grabbed a bunch of copy paper and a staple gun from the engineering classroom.

And throughout the semester, students evolved their own note-taking styles.

Some furiously scribbled everything, and others struggled to figure out what to write.
Some brought pouches full of pens and art supplies and went to town, and others whittled the same pencil down to a nub.
Some organized information linearly, and others not so much.
Some were asked to put their notebooks away in other people's classes, and others used them as minimally as I required of them.

The outcome runs whole gamut, really, as seen in this photo dump of notebook pages:

(In case you're wondering, some of the films we've watched and analyzed are: Edward Scissorhands // The Graduate // Psycho // Rear Window // Jaws // The Grand Budapest Hotel // Do The Right Thing // The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly // Double Indemnity // American Beauty // Beasts of the Southern Wild)

One layer is seeing how different brains process the same texts. These pages pack a hilarious array of emotions that a person might go through in reading/viewing or in a class discussion.

Another layer is the participation/sharing element. Raising a hand and saying something out loud is not for everyone, every day. I've found that the notebook contains so much more than what a student is able to share in discussions. It helps lay the groundwork.

The notebook has changed the whole vibe of my class. It’s like every student has an ongoing micro-project at all times. A space for their brain to make things and process things. A space to document the most important ideas and doodle in the margins.

No matter how strong their notebook game, every student could benefit from actively engaging in processing information onto paper.

If you’re teacher-nerdy and want more specifics, shoot me a note and I’ll pass along some stuff I’ve used.