13 June 2012

Annotating - diving in at the deep end (Part 3)

The study of English at school is about discerning meaning.

The NSW Board of Studies sees it this way: Language shapes our understanding of ourselves and our world, and is the primary means by which we relate to others. The Australian Curriculum emphasises literacy: … students become literate as they develop the knowledge, skills and dispositions to interpret and use language confidently for learning and communicating in and out of school and for participating effectively in society.

Now I don’t think I am drawing too long a bow when I talk about engagement with texts fulfilling these lofty aims.  If you’ve been reading my blog you’ll know that I consider the process of annotating to be one way of deeply engaging with texts. It enables students to ‘study the use of language in its various textual forms’ and to develop the ability to ‘interpret and use language confidently’ (see above websites).

So here’s a list of ten ways to annotate texts that will encourage students to ‘think deeply and logically, and obtain and evaluate evidence in a disciplined way’, and ‘play an active role in their own learning’. (The Melbourne Declaration on the Educational Goals for Young Australians)
  1. Clarifying: this is one of the basic processes of Reciprocal Teaching and essential for comprehension. Which words or phrases have not been understood? Where is the answer – in the student’s head, on the page or elsewhere?
  2. Focus on language choices at the word level. Find and annotate the verbs, nouns, adjectives, adverbs, pronouns, etc. Consider how the author’s diction shapes meaning.
  3. Sentence structure. What do students notice about the length and composition of the sentences? Consider how the author’s choices shape meaning.
  4. Further questions. Which parts of the narrative are unclear? Are there elements operating which require the student to draw on knowledge from outside the text? What has the student forgotten from earlier reading?
  5. Interpretation: what is the text really about? What is the student’s own interpretation? Does the text move the reader? What other interpretations are gleaned from class discussion? Colour coding of notes can be useful here.
  6. Other sources. What do the academics and theorists say about this text? This can develop into a palimpsest on the page with each layer of interpretation creating new meaning.
  7. Language and/or poetic devices. Obviously the list here is endless. Frequently, students can identify these with ease on the page so the annotation activity might be to explore patterns in the usage.
  8. Images, symbols, motifs, allusions, intertextuality - IDEAS. Whilst this can be dealt with in the previous point, some students are not adept at this level of recognition thus it may need specific targeting.
  9. Text structure. How does the structure of the text affect your reading of this section? Annotation in this are can be about the physical layout of the text and/or the internal structure of the form – e.g., plot points in a narrative, coda in song lyrics.
  10. Summary - what’s happened so far?

I haven’t even touched on audience or context or the variations of those over time. Readers will have to work on those concepts themselves.

All of these activities can be used individually, in pairs or groups, and can be used simultaneously for different group formations. Highlighting and writing/typing is a good start, whether the text is online or offline. Post-it notes or tape flags can be utilized where students cannot write on the text itself. This can lead to fun activities such as swapping post-it note questions, or using a document camera to photograph their notes, much like I did in the previous two posts.

Actively teaching students how to annotate can only deepen their reading experience.

07 June 2012

E-Annotating (Part 2)

E-books offer many ways for us to increase student engagement with texts. I highly recommend Adam Renfro's article on Getting Smart (sourced from Deliciouswhich rang all sorts of educational bells with me and inspired some of this post. 

Following on from Annotating Part 1, I'd like to offer a brief share of some of the practices which I have found come with e-reading. Late last year I read my first full book using Kindle e-book software on an iPad (I read it but I don't get it, which I have blogged about before) and immediately explored the options for annotating.

This image shows how you can leave notes or questions on the text. I found this practice had a similar effect to those I discussed in my earlier post about paper/pen annotations. This annotation could be used to record students' personal connections to the text, as Cris Tovani suggests in her book. I would also use this aspect for student questions about a text, as the note allows them to specify the type of question which they had. 

Highlighting is invaluable, but I found myself only selecting individual words as it was difficult to select a chunk of text. However, this is still so useful in the classroom. Students could be asked to highlight something specific, such as the verbs in a passage or the figurative language, or some other relevant textual feature. I envisage students then sharing their selections with other individuals/pairs/groups, followed by using the note-making application to show their interpretation of the textual features.

Once I was finished the text, I found that the notes were not as easy to find in the text as the highlighted sections, which stand out on the electronic pages. That was until I discovered that I could search for all 'Notes and Marks'. When I wanted to peruse this text again, I used the Notes and Marks as a guide to what I had deemed salient on first reading. It allowed me to quickly find the section on connections to the text which I wrote about in a subsequent post on Cris Tovani's work.

As I said earlier on, e-books offer many ways to increase student engagement with texts, and I would have to devote a month of blog posts to all of them if I were to do them justice. I hope that as e-books become more available, I can develop further e-annotation strategies.

04 June 2012

Annotating Part 1

This is a photo of my copy of Heart of Darkness which I still have from high school in the mid 1980s.

A somewhat impenetrable book to me on first reading (excuse the Heart of Darkness pun), I have notes like this on most pages of the second half, accompanied by copious underlining. I was a serious note-taker, making footnotes with numbers and filling the top and bottom margins of the page. 

As I read the notes now, many of them seem to be my teacher's explication of literary devices, themes or contextual events. (Themes were big in  the '80s.) As this was a text for my final year of schooling, I was keen to get down everything my teacher said, knowing at the time that he knew more about this HSC game than I did.

Some of the notes were made later, particularly in the first half of the text as I went back to marry up the pre- and post-Kurtz sections. The highlighting came some time after the notes, as I was revising for the final exams. Both of my HSC novels have selected pink bits, which obviously represent what I deemed significant once I had negotiated the text sufficiently.

No one taught me to annotate, or gave me directions for the types of annotations I could make.  This artifact of my education shows my initial annotations as comprehension devices and memory aids, in the case of Heart of Darkness, helping me to understand the text. As my understanding develops, so do the annotations until they represent my interpretation of the text, arranged in layers on the page.

I know now that I am the type of learner who likes to write. Annotation came naturally to me because I find writing about texts and ideas part of my process of learning. But annotation does not come naturally to all students. In an earlier post titled Thinking and Reading, I wrote about the importance of teaching students one specific way of using annotation, making personal connections with a text. Over the next few posts I would like to expand on how annotation - both pen/paper and online - can become an essential learning tool for literary and non-literary texts.