non-narrative writing · nonfiction · writing

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:


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:


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.

9 thoughts on “Giving Students Choice in Note Taking

  1. Another teacher and I used to both take notes during the same video in order to demonstrate that there is no one/correct way to take notes. It opened up the topic for the rest of the year. I like your chart of the different options as a reminder.


  2. I am always dismayed when after our research and notetaking, as we sit down to start drafting, the notes are tucked away and my students are writing off the cuff! A loud reminder from me usually gets most of them to take out their notes, but this is hardly the independence I am working to foster. Your work is a great bridge between my notetaking menu and getting kids to use it- thoughtfully and effectively- and with purpose to inform their writing. Yes! Too bad we are in the middle of lit essays…


  3. I appreciate how you built the note taking skills of your researchers with read aloud long before the unit begins. Also how they have a very organized yet still personalized way to curate their information. Lehman’s book has tremendous note taking strategies to teach all so important. I have to go back and re read – closely. Love your chart, it really POPS!


  4. Tara, I love learning from you and your students. I hope you’ll share some photos of those writing folders. I can’t wait to introduce Ways to Take Notes on Monday. This is perfect timing for me as I approach a mini inquiry unit and prepare for a more involved research project after mid-winter break. Now it’s time to dig out Chris Lehman’s book from my WTR (want to read) pile and start reading.


  5. A class magazine sounds like a fun project that relies heavily on students doing their work. How wonderful that you’ve allowed them find meaningful ways to do that work by offering them choice in the note-taking process!


  6. Oh – I so wish I had learned to research in your classroom. I am old and was taught through note cards only (which did not make sense to me). I always ended up with piles of disconnected thoughts, facts and ideas. The ability of choice is wonderful. I am excited to see how your students do on this next step. Chris’s book is new to me so it is now on my list to check out.


  7. As I started to read your post, I immediately thought of Chris Lehman’s book. I wasn’t disappointed as I continued to read! Once again, we say the power in giving kids authentic choices. I am getting ready to begin our research unit. I used Chris’s book last year, and am anxious to do so again this year. The chart you show is beautiful. I need to work on my chart making skills. 🙂 Now, I can’t wait to see what your students create. I hope you’ll share the classroom magazine. (And once again, I am dreaming of attending a summer institute at TC some day).


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