Thursday, February 19, 2015

Annotating Text in Middle School English

In the past two weeks, annotating texts has come up a couple of times.  It all started when I got an email from one of my past students.  This particular student has been very thoughtful, as he not only visits his old stomping grounds, but he actually tries to improve what's going on here.  I find it refreshing that as he is sitting in his high school English class, he is thinking, "Wow, Mrs. Smith could give the kids a jump on this concept."  In a nutshell, the email said they were doing a lot of annotating, and maybe I should introduce it to the seventh and eighth graders.  This got my wheels turning.  Of course, "close reading" and "annotation" are words that are thrown around, but was I doing anything specific to prepare my students in these areas?

Then today, it came up again in a very real way.  My seventh graders are reading A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park.  They are around chapter 8, and they have gotten a lot of information about how Tree-ear and Crane-man live their lives.  After reading the first two chapters of the book, I prepped the students for a paragraph which was "coming down the line."  Today, I revisited that initial discussion and expected the kids to write the paragraph.  For you to really get a picture, here is a little bit more information.

The paragraph was to be a response to the following question: Explain what the quote means and how it relates to the situation of Tree-ear and Crane-man.  Use numerous text details to support your answer.  Pgs 44-45 might be a good reference.  

“Scholars read the great words of the world. But you and I must learn to read the world itself.”  Pg 7

And our initial discussion after chapters 1-2 contained this note: Scholars study books and learn from what they read.  Tree-ear and Crane-man must learn to read the world- meaning cultures.  They learn things by reading behaviors.  Not book smart, but smart with experiences.  

With a little help, the kids came up with those notes, so I was feeling very confident that they would have no problem writing this paragraph, even if it was coming two weeks later.  To my surprise, I heard, "I don't get it," and I saw confusion on faces all across the room.  It was one of those teacher moments when you think...what?  How do they not understand this.  What I realized (with a little self-reflection) is that the students were not making a connection between everything they had read in chapters 1-8 and this paragraph prompt.  It took them a long time to realize that Tree-ear "reads the world" in almost everything that he does (scavenging for food and getting a job being just two examples).  What would have made my students' lives much easier is if they were annotating the text.  If, after introducing the quote, I had said, "as you read, purposefully annotate the text with this prompt in mind," I would have gotten much better results.  

So, it is with great excitement that I embark on the annotation journey with my middle school students.  I read a very helpful blog post by Dave at Teaching the Core.  He both makes a distinction between annotation and the buzz word "close reading" and give step-by-step tips on introducing it in your classroom.  Here is his post (read will not be sorry).  With Dave's assistance, I am going to introduce purposeful annotation with a folktale about foxes.    I have determined that the purpose in reading this article is to get a visual of a "clever fox" to connect to A Single Shard (so reading for understanding) and our end result will be a class discussion about the ways the author uses "cleverness" to make the story interesting.  In the story,"The Too-Clever Fox" by Leigh Bardugo, there are numerous examples of the fox being sly, but it becomes really interesting when there is a twist at the end which causes the fox to almost lose his life.  Hopefully this will also lead to a discussion about the fox being cocky.  Ultimately we will connect this back to Crane-man's experience with the fox.  I want the students to see the flaw in the idea that foxes are clever and magical.  In A Single Shard it says, "Foxes were dreaded animals.  They were not large or fierce, like the bears and tigers that roamed the mountains, but they were known to be fiendishly clever.  Some people even believed that foxes possessed evil magic" (Park 82).  I think this activity allows the students to see the fox in a different light and then they will be able to imagine what would have happened if Crane-man had continued on his journey instead of turning back when he saw the dreaded fox.  

Annotation is not really different from engaging with the text through, say, a dialectical journal, which is something I do with my 8th graders quite often, but there is something about having the writing directly on the text that is really appealing to me.  As students enter higher level English classes, it may be the case that they own their books and can write in them freely.  However, for middle school English, this is one area that will be a struggle.  The 8th graders are about to start To Kill a Mockingbird, which for some students is a difficult book.  I am going to need to think of a way to have them meaningfully annotate their borrowed books.  Perhaps it will be with sticky notes, although I personally feel that is just not the same.  

If you have any ways you use annotation, especially with books that the students cannot write in, let me know.  I am all ears!

As always, thanks for sticking with me in this journey. 


  1. Hi there, I have been reading Dave Stuart's material (love it), and I decided to click on your link to read what you had to say as well. I am wondering if you have a grading rubric you would be willing to share? Thanks! Trying to come up with a "Purposefully Annotating" unit on my own, and I am now trying to assemble my grading rubric . . . .

    1. Thank you for your comment, and I'm sorry that I am just now seeing it. I haven't used a rubric for this purpose, so I don't have much to offer on that end. What did you come up with? I would love to see any of your resources as we continue on this journey together.


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