Annotating Texts, the Unrated Version.

IMG_2854One of my favorite activities of the whole year is when we learn how to annotate texts during the introduction unit.  We learned the rules and the format for all of our essays, and then we read Mary Sherry’s “In Praise of the F Word.”  It’s so great to see the looks on the students’ faces like, “we’re going to read something about our favorite word!”  But in reality, the F word in this case is Failure or Flunking.  I’ve blogged about how much I love this article.  I highly recommend that secondary teachers use it in their curriculum.  It, at the very least, gives students AND teachers a starting point for discussing grades earned vs grades given (hint: grades are entirely earned in my class).

As much as I do love this article and annotating, I struggle with teaching annotations.  I should do some more research as to how to approach it, but this is the method I’ve settled on.  Like so many things in my curriculum, it’s almost entirely stolen from other teachers and incorporated with my love of post-it notes.

We will use at least four post-its for this assignment: one for our annotation legend and three for organizing our main-ideas.  We will use the legend throughout the semester and the main ideas we will use for organization as we write our cited, summary essays later this week.


We first talk about annotation and how I love to see them scribble all over their papers.  It proves to me that they’re paying attention and reading.  Plus, there’s always the post-its…  I have them write down the annotation key, fully knowing they will lose it and have to recopy it later.  But for this week, they have it safe and sound in their binder.


For this first time annotating, I don’t make the students read the text first. Instead, we read it together. I ask that they put two ?’s next to words or phrases they don’t know, and I suggest they can find main ideas and details as we go but it’s not necessary.  All we do is read.  Following the reading, we talk about the confusing parts and I ask them what they found to be the main points about the article, including anything interesting they may have discovered during the first reading.  I had several students tell me they were surprised and disappointed that it wasn’t about the F word.  But alas, a few students wanted to talk about the “trump card of failure.”  That led us back to a discussion about responsibility.  Our bellringer was a writing assignment where they were asked to define the word responsibility.  At this point, we share our answers and see how they match up with what Sherry says.  By this point, there are some eye-rolls.  And then I pull out my own trump card: I will fail any student who deserves/earns it.  This, of course, blows their minds.  In my first hour, I have a repeat offender — I mean a student who failed my class last year — and he shouts an “AMEN! She really will.”  He then proceeded to hang his head.  I ain’t playin.

Once we have established one of the big points about the text, we move into the main ideas.  This is difficult because two of them are verbatim in the text.  However, the third one you have to read the rest of the paragraphs to figure out.  We find the first two and write them at the top of two post-its and then I make them find the first one themselves. There are some supporting details that can be underlined as support, but nothing that can be word-for-word starred.  Because of that, I have the kids read the rest of the paragraphs again, by themselves, and figure out what the 3rd main idea is.  The main idea is that responsibility for education rests in the hands of both teachers AND students.  This launches a discussion on how much responsibility the kids have to have.  I get to repeat to them that I will fail them and that by the time they’ve failed, the only person to blame will be them because I will have done my hardest to keep them from that.


We didn’t get into it today, but tomorrow we will put some supporting details by asking the questions “why is this true?” and “how do we know?”  I hope they can see why we need supporting details and how, when we write our own essays, we need them to get our point across.

Again, I love doing this.  It gives us a great foundation for the rest of the semester.  They’ll be taking these main ideas and supporting details and turning them into an essay where they will have to explain what Sherry was saying as well as give their opinion.  The essay will prove to me that they a) know what the article was about, b) they can write well about a given topic and c) they can cite information correctly.  All of these skills will be used ALL semester, so it isn’t like we are wasting time doing some meaningless beginning-of-school activity AND we get to have our responsibility conversation.

Love it.



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