Nothing makes me more nervous than when we read a text of any length (novel, play, or poem) and the students’ copies lay inert on their desks.
You don’t need to do any research to know that blank pages give no clear indication of how much they’ve read, or how much they’re taking in, or what their questions are.
A student who’s “conversing” with the text through annotations, on the other hand, is a student who’s much more likely to understand what’s happening, connect it to their own lives, and remember it long after the last page is turned.
So I teach all my Juniors and Seniors to annotate text in two main ways: through motif guides that I give out along with the reading schedule of longer works, or color-marking poetry.
For public domain texts (like Oedipus, Shakespeare, and Frost), I make a slew of copies, one for each kid to keep in their binder after we work with it. When we’ve got novels checked out from the school, the kids annotate on post-it notes until their books are a veritable forest of motifs, questions, insights, and asides.
Here’s a couple of examples from this semester:
The first photo is how I teach the annotation of Oedipus Rex.
- Since the translation I choose is a fairly old-fashioned one, I know that the language is going to be a challenge. So we read the play together out loud, and pause after various speech chunks to talk about what’s happening.
- The students have two jobs: the first is to translate the text into modern English (slang is fine; many of them end up with copies that say things like “WTF?” or “SMH” in the margins when Oedipus gets mad at Creon or when the Chorus reacts to the truth, respectively. As long as the language they use in class discussions and their essays is academically appropriate, their translations are their own).
- The second job is to be on the lookout for the motifs I’ve indicated. I clue them in at first to know what to look for and what to mark, but before long, they’re motif-spotting on their own and flinging their arms in the air to point something out.
- The quizzes, Socratic Seminars, vocabulary illustrations, and other projects we do with the text come directly from the annotations we make. This gives me the perfect answer to the invariable question of: “Why do I have to do this?” A few students usually try to forego the annotations, but when they see that they can’t find the answer to because they didn’t make any marginal notes, they get on board.
The second photo is how I taught “The Road Not Taken” on Thursday (I developed this technique with my mother, an English teacher of 40 years):
- I teach the kids that poetry color-marking is a three step process — read the poem, decide what the “so what” is (as in, why does this poem matter? How might it apply to me or the world? What lesson can be learned here?), and then find the evidence that helped them get the “so what” in the first place. This allows students to know that there isn’t just one answer: if they can justify it with evidence from the text, they’re golden.
- I used “Road Not Taken” this week since it’s a commonly misinterpreted poem. It’s often used at graduation ceremonies and in greeting cards to demonstrate the attractiveness of being a pioneer, a trail-blazer; but it’s really not about that at all. Or at least, I can demonstrate that it’s not.
- I also use it because it’s a poem that all the kids have encountered before and so we can apply new material (color-marking) to something familiar.
- I teach them about Diction (word choice; typically nouns and verbs), Details (specifics and descriptions; typically adjectives and adverbs), Imagery (language that appeals to the senses; the combination of Diction and Details), Syntax (punctuation and sentence structure), and Tone (the emotional atmosphere created by the combination of Diction, Details, Imagery and Syntax).
- For “The Road Not Taken,” I was able to prove my “so what” through the poet’s use of imagery, syntax and tone.
- The “choice” the speaker makes while in the woods that day is not really a choice: both paths are equal since “the passing there had worn them really about the same.”
- Three words give away the tone: “sorry,” “doubted,” and “sigh.” This language, in combination with the image of the speaker fretting over how “[he] could not travel both and be one traveler” establishes early on that there’s an element of regret in the decision that’s made. The “sigh” that happens later, at the end of the poem, cements that sense of regret, and the syntactical choice where Frost uses a double dash as a parallel to that sigh by making the reader sigh while reading the poem also helps to support my “so what.”
Students work in groups to develop a collective “so what” before moving to independent practice. I make lots of copies so that when we practice, there’s very little risk if someone gets it wrong; I just hand them a fresh copy, and they try a different “so what” and look for evidence that works.
Thanks to hithertokt for the question that led to this post