Giving Students Choice in Note Taking

Tomorrow marks the last of our research days in writing workshop.  When we return to school next week, my sixth graders will begin the process of sifting through their research and drafting their feature articles.  As I helped my students gather their notes together and put them away in their writing folders, I could not help but notice all the varieties of note taking strategies they had employed in this process – the contents of each folder was as different as the students in my class. It was not always this way.

For a while, I thought that a big part of teaching my kids how to research their feature article topics meant devising lovely graphic organizers to help them “organize their thinking”.  Inevitably, no matter how creative these organizers were, and how hard  my kids worked to dutifully fill out the various boxes and columns, we would begin the drafting process and it would become clear that the information they had collected was often inadequate, or redundant, or…useless.  So, it would be back to the drawing board – back to (new) graphic organizers.

Luckily for my students, this practice came to an end after a Summer Institute at TC  in which we examined various note taking strategies and their use in the classroom.  We practiced different strategies with different texts, and I began to see a pattern in the notes I was assembling – I was making very deliberate choices about which form of note taking would best suit the particular type of text I was reading, and the particular purpose I was reading it for.  Here was the “menu” we were offered:

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My notes were combinations of all of the above – with arrows looping from one sub topic to another, as I connected and grouped ideas.  When it came time to practice writing using these notes, I found that this varied note taking had organized my thinking in advance of my writing: I had a good idea where to begin, how to chunk my information, and how to actually use my notes to guide my writing.  And there was not a graphic organizer in sight!  Lesson learned.

These days, I walk my students through “Ways To Take Notes”  at the beginning of the school year.  We read short passages of nonfiction texts, practice figuring out what type of strategy would work best for note taking, and then how to do this.  By the time we arrive at our nonfiction unit, my students are used to having a note taking menu to choose from.  The only handout in their writing folder is one with a visual reminder of all the choices they have.  Their notepads have been divided into sections of three or so pages – each with a sub topic heading to collect pertinent research.  Each of them creates  a Googledoc to save photographs, maps, statistics, quotes, and a bibliography of sources used.  And then we are ready to launch into the research process.

In the two weeks that I set aside for research, my students find relevant books and websites to scour for information that will help build their expertise in their chosen topic.  For this process, I lean heavily on what I learned reading (and re-reading) Chris Lehman’s brilliant book:

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Chris’ thoughtful approach to building habits of research and research-based writing has transformed nonfiction writing  in our sixth grade classroom.  From teaching students how to narrow topics, to teaching students how to “write to teach ideas, not just regurgitate the facts” – this is an indispensable writing guide every middle school teacher ought to have (and read, and re-read!).

Next week, there will be those mini lessons about putting it all together:  mini lessons, strategy sessions, and conferences. Our two weeks of reading through sources, gleaning new and fascinating information, and jotting down ideas, numbers, and facts, will all begin to come together in what we hope will be  interesting feature articles: our much anticipated class magazine.