By the end of a workshop session, I know I’ve brought my best teaching self to the table when my hand aches from the quantity–and quality–of anecdotal notes I’ve recorded as I’ve sat beside my writers. I’ll be the first to admit that this part of the workshop didn’t come easily during my first few years in the classroom: balancing time, materials, mentor texts, and the needs of a group of young writers took some time to learn.
By the end of my fourth or fifth year of teaching, however, I looked with pride at my binder of notes and records, mentally patting myself on the back with that You’ve got this! feeling. I finally felt like I had reached a point in taking anecdotal notes where I had both a system and the expertise to make my records meaningful. I carried my stack of sticky notes with me. I had a binder with a tab for every child. Some years I even went digital, using tools such as Google Forms or Evernote. I documented areas of strength and areas for future instruction. I pulled them out and showed parents at conferences. My notes were artifacts of student writing, snapshots of their growth and needs.
It was almost a decade later when I found myself sitting on the floor beside a group of coaches and young writers during a coaching institute, that I realized the untapped potential of my nicely categorized and filed notes. I had always recognized anecdotal notes as an important tool for driving my teaching and looking for patterns in student writing. In this classroom, notes were used to drive student learning and to challenge patterns in student writing.
How were these teachers achieving something that had been right in front of me but never crossed my mind before? Simple: they shifted their binders and notepads 90 degrees away from themselves to share their notes with students, they made duplicate copies of the key points to leave with each writer, and–most important–they gave each child an active voice in what was written down and why.
My reflective voice ramped up in my head: Why hadn’t I ever shared my notes with my students? Why did I feel like notes were private to me, something to be hidden from the inquisitive eyes of kids? Why did I think they wouldn’t understand the things I was writing down about them and their work? Were the things I wrote down things I would even want growing writers to read about themselves or was it a laundry list of things I thought they needed to improve?
I had completely missed the fact that part of my job as a teacher of writing was to build their understanding and their capacity to reflect on their own writing, just as I was modeling in the notes I was taking on a regular basis.
This experience not only shifted my thinking about the power of including students in the process of taking anecdotal notes, but also forced me to empathize with my writers in a new way: How nerve-wracking is it when an administrator or a colleague comes into the classroom and takes notes about us as teachers? It’s distracting, uncomfortable, and not productive to our own growth. I was unintentionally doing the same thing to kids and missing a tremendous opportunity.
How, I wondered, could I put this into practice in my own teaching practices? The options are many:
- Sticky notes: This low-tech, tried-and-true tool is the perfect size for copying notes–or putting them into more student-friendly language–and leaving them stuck in a student folder or on the piece of writing itself. (You can even use a fun printable template like this one that can be customized and printed here on Canva.)
- Glows and Grows: A simple two-column notetaking sheet in the writer’s binder or notebook can be used to collect one “Glow” and one “Grow” from each conference. This serves as a simple, actionable tool for writers to refer back to and see their growth over time.
- A One-Column Rubric: Morgan Davis describes the perfect system for helping writers focus on the goals of a unit in a specific, efficient, and manageable way in her post “The Conference, Theirs.” This strategy invites both the writer and teacher to engage in meaningful conversations around specific learning targets.
- Comments on student’s Google Doc: Sharing notes back and forth with students who are drafting on a computer through the comments feature is quick and efficient. It keeps the teacher’s words off to the side (and away from the student’s writing) while allowing the feedback to face the student on the screen while writing.
A word of caution: Resolving comments gives students the power to lose the pattern of feedback. This approach also places more emphasis on a particular piece of writing rather than the growth of the writer. This approach may work best as a scaffold for students who are new to digital writing or may need support in understanding the impact of accessing and using the feedback
they’ve been given.
- Shared Google Doc for notes: For older students who are capable and ready to dive into a more tech-savvy approach, sharing a Google Doc eliminates the task of duplicating handwritten notes. A document is easy to locate, can capture voice-to-text, and will give the student the power to comment back and forth. Keeping all notes–regardless of the writing piece–maintains the focus on the process of writing, not the product.
Here are some easy and effective ways to ease into sharing your notes:
- Do Tomorrow: Talk to students about what you’re writing down (and ask if there’s anything you haven’t written down that they think should be in your notes).
- Then Try: Leaving a duplicate (or simplified) sticky note with each writer and discuss the action step they will take in their writing.
- Next: Set up a system for students to keep the notes and refer back to them during the next conference.
- Challenge Yourself: Work with students to provide these kinds of notes for one another.
In transitioning to a system of opening up your anecdotal notes to share with students, remember this: your notes may not be perfect, but they will always be impactful. Don’t hesitate to take this leap into strengthening the feedback you provide for your learners!
- This giveaway is for a copy of Answers to Your Biggest Questions About Teaching Elementary Writing. Many thanks to Corwin Literacy for donating a copy for one reader.
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