In high school, when I first learned the skill of annotating, I was hooked. I couldn’t stop; my books were decorated with a rainbow of different highlighters and my pages were weighed down by insurmountable notes. It became an addiction – I would test myself with how I could “out-annotate” my last literature book. As much as I loved to do it, I wouldn’t really utilize my annotations to deepen my understanding of the materials I was reading. I was more enamored with the number of my annotations, and I valued the amount of underlining I would do over the actual quality of my notes. Furthermore, I never used annotating as a means of exploring the nuances of the text I was reading. This is because as a high school student, I didn’t think of annotations as a vehicle for “conversation” with books (I didn’t really think this was possible at that age) and ultimately, I didn’t fully understand the power of annotating.

This is because as a high school student, I didn’t think of annotations as a vehicle for “conversation” with books (I didn’t really think this was possible at that age) and ultimately, I didn’t fully understand the power of annotating. Click To Tweet

Fast forward a couple of years later and as a college student, I actually learned the meaning of annotating and how to be selective with them.  I learned that annotations could take different forms. It could be highlighting pieces of reading that were important but it could also be questions I had about the text, making connections between multiple texts, and of course, underlining important things I wanted to remember. I was grateful that some of my professors took the time to teach us the how and why of annotations, and for the first time as a young adult, the power of annotations became clearer to me.

I was grateful that some of my professors took the time to teach us the how and why of annotations, and for the first time as a young adult, the power of annotations became clearer to me. Click To Tweet

Annotations were more about having a conversation with a piece of writing – the ultimate process by which I understand a text – and less about making my textbooks colorful (although this was a nice plus). I learned that when I wrote a question in the margins of a text, it was inviting a deeper exploration of the writing, as I would now intentionally attempt to find the answers to my questions, as I read further. Some of my college classes allowed me to practice the skill of narrowing down the thousands of pages of my textbooks into key selections that would be helpful to my further personal understanding of the text, the intentions of the writer, my own connections (or lack of thereof) to the text, and my critiques of the writing. These classes revealed to me, the reader, the power to immerse myself in even the most complex pieces of writing. Annotating eventually became second-nature to me, especially in academic settings. I couldn’t imagine myself reading something without a pencil in my hand, ready to create my markings. So, it’s natural that as an English teacher, I wanted to incorporate this skill in my pedagogy, not simply because I liked doing it but because I understood the value of such a skill.

Just as learning how to annotate was a personal journey, so was teaching others how to annotate. As a student-teacher, I was teaching The Kite Runner and this was the first text that I used to try and teach my students about annotating. However, I wasn’t able to frame it as an intentional practice nor did I explore the purposes of annotating with them – I just told them it’s something they needed to do. As such, it felt like I was forcing the students to just underline parts of the story. So, students would highlight phrases like “The man walked to the river” simply to please me as their teacher. Although “significance” is subjective and those phrases could’ve very well held meaning to my students, they weren’t able to justify their selections and typically said they were only highlighting parts of their books because I asked them to. Therefore, there was little meaning behind the act.

I needed to foster a genuine appreciation or understanding of the act of annotating and I realized I could use modeling to help me do this. At the start of the semester/school year, as we read a text as a class, I would model the act of annotating. I would show my students the parts of a story that I would annotate and describe aloud why I chose that as something to be highlighted. As I did this, my students became more used to the act of rationalizing as they read and engage with the material. In fact, as time went by, students began to stop the class themselves and point out places in the text that we should highlight as a class and they would explain their thinking to the whole class. This was the foundation of my conversations about the importance of annotating. As they moved from annotating as a class to annotating for themselves, they were able to appreciate the act of annotating their texts based on their personal experiences with the stories and I was making some progress with achieving my overall objective with the practice.

Throughout my time teaching, I’ve tried different formats of helping my students to annotate: by creating keys with different symbols for students to denote emotions, ask questions, make connections, etc. I’ve created color-coded keys to help students annotate for symbolism, characterization, diction, etc. These strategies have both worked for kids as it gives that a starting point to think about their annotations but as we go through the year, I encourage them to loosen those guidelines and have their own rationales drive their annotations and it typically works. They start to really interact deeply with the text by asking questions in the margins, underlining sections that they feel are important, making comments, or simply reacting. When I look at their annotations, it feels like a conversation between the book and my students. It’s really great to see them engage with their confusion, and points of clarity as they read our novels. It’s really a powerful experience to see my kids engage in the same processes that I went through as a young adult.

In my last 2 years of teaching (I’m still a newbie), many of my students would start the year/semester complaining about having this “extra” work that they had to do as they read. They would see annotating their texts as unnatural and as a negative experience at first. I won’t say that they have miraculous turn-arounds by the end of the year and have a deep appreciation for annotations. However, as we work on their perception of annotations – it is work but it shouldn’t feel like a chore and through practice and understanding of its purpose, most of them become accustomed to it and their annotations become more directed and thought-out. It’s a beautiful process to witness and I will continue to foster the development of this skill so my students can continue to experience the importance of annotations.

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