Annotations – The Digital Turn-and-Talk That Includes The Whole Classroom

Samantha Reichard/ August 28, 2020/ Back to School, Classroom Tips, COVID-19/ 0 comments

Teaching students to annotate text is fundamental in an ELA classroom.  As teachers, we equip our students with cognitive skills to break down difficult pieces of literature into understandable parts.  When we teach students to annotate, it is usually in the realm of independent reading work, with annotations taken on post-it notes, in the margin of the text, on graphic organizers, or through highlighting using neon markers.  As we move en masse into remote learning environments, however, teachers have new, exciting opportunities to develop annotation skills in new, exciting ways.  

Simply stated, an annotation is “a note added by way of comment or explanation”.  I like to push the definition a little further, though, to mean ‘the written interaction a reader has with a text’.  In my school, the most common types of annotations taught to students were highlighting important phrases, circling unknown words, underlining areas that produce questions, and writing the summary or gist by each section, with annotations being consistent across subject and content areas.  It was not uncommon to see a student using the same annotation strategy with Math word problems that they would use in ELA research articles. That students use this skill in other subjects speaks to the benefit of teaching annotations.

Teachers discovered how to use the Glose for Education social media platform to focus learning through purposeful annotations in our blog, Embedded Writing Prompts Deepen Reading Comprehension”.  We looked at ways to encourage student annotations to have accompanying peer reactions, responses, and deeper connections.  This strategy is especially helpful in our remote learning settings, as teachers begin to build up collaborative classroom cultures.  Through digital annotations, students have opportunities to experience collective learning, which increases comprehension of learning targets all while fulfilling the social-emotional interactions and connections our remote learners need. 

To begin the work of embedding this virtual form of turn-and-talk, or turn-to-text, if you will, I’ve outlined five keys to consider that can lead to a strong and effective student-based learning experience:

#1- Naming the Norms

Whenever I roll out any new procedures, I begin with developing a set of norms for students to follow.  By doing so, I provide my learners with clear expectations of what I am looking for.  When beginning digital class-wide annotations, it is imperative to list out and teach these norms so that you build up safe and strong collaborative classroom culture.  Take a look at the example set of norms below:  

  1. Read through every comment/annotation when you see them in the margin
  2. Respect annotator by responding with affirmations, even when you are commenting that you disagree with opinions, connections, or inferences
  3. React to annotations before you provide your comments
  4. Provide responses to annotations by embedding evidence from the text.
  5. When reviewing comments to your annotations, believe peers responded with positive intent

In this set of norms, students are given explicit expectations of what to do when they come across an annotation, how students should and should not interact with each other’s input, and how to believe positive intent about each other.  Norming is extremely important in cultivating a positive and collaborative learning environment because you want to ensure your learners feel safe and validated (even if their annotation is being challenged) so that they continue to share their thinking with the class.  As teachers begin to develop norms, it’s expected that they will change based on student and class needs.  If students are consistently responding to annotations they find, then change that norm for a new one.  Look for a new area of growth your students are ready to work on and put it as a new norm!

#2- Incentivize Until Procedure Becomes Routine

As students begin this new process, you may find several areas of growth, the most common being centered around participation.  You may find only a few students consistently provide annotations or respond to others’.  To encourage full participation of a particular area, set up a class-wide incentive system.  Provide points to the class when 100% of students meet a predetermined goal, such as: 

  • 100% of class shared at least three annotations between pages 55-57
  • 100% respond to at least three others’ annotations in Chapter 4
  • 100% of class reacted to an annotation before commenting
  • 100% of commenters provided evidence from the text to support their responses

When the class earns the predetermined amount of incentive points, teachers must follow through with providing the incentive immediately!  When students know that they will earn an incentive, they are more likely to meet the expectations the first time, which in this case will result in deeper classroom communication and learning.  When students are consistently meeting your pre-determined goals, adapt your goals to new areas that need improvement!  t is important that these goals develop and change as your learners master new expectations and procedures become routine.

#3- Model Exemplar Responses To Build Exemplar Responses

As students begin to work through this collaborative strategy, teachers will notice basic one-word annotations and responses.  Aside from incentivizing deeper meaning-making comments, teachers can model appropriate responses within the reply section.  Teach students to notice that when you respond it is because the annotations and comments aren’t quite at the appropriate level of thinking yet.  When providing a model response, over exaggerate the points that were missing.  Show students what should be included to make an exemplary comment or annotation, then, with the class, help unpack what made your comment exemplary.  Soon, students will notice missing parts in their communication and will begin to provide highly engaging feedback which results in more rigorous brainwork when interacting with text and peers. 

#4- Lean In to Student Facilitation

If the purpose of turning annotations into whole-group turn-and-talks, then the teacher can’t be the only one pushing critical thinking.  Utilize a mini-lesson to teach students what to do when they notice one-word comments or simple responses.  Incentivize students when they push the conversation further through their probes and connections to the initial annotations.  Try having student leaders of the week take charge of reviewing annotations, assessing the quality (based on a provided rubric), and replying back with exemplar responses.  When teachers turn the facilitation into the hands of learners, students take responsibility for not only their learning and understanding, but also for the class.

#5- Harness the Power of Media 

Traditionally, annotations in the print world were limited to text. This is an essential skill because of the intertwined nature of reading and writing. That said, however, our students live in a media-based, image-driven world and there is no reason we cannot harness the power of media to add depth, context, and fun to annotations. What might be a silly meme in the form of an animated Gif can also be used to interpret meaning and allow a student to give a contemporary take on the text they are reading. From a teacher’s point of view, I’ll do whatever it takes to drive engagement. And I can also use this as an opportunity to challenge the use of media to convey meaning. Social media, texting, and direct-messaging tools inside of applications make it all-to-easy to drop images into a conversation, often without much meaning. In the context of annotations however, teachers can use these images to challenge the viewpoints, motivations, and level of understanding by centering conversations on the media they selected. If a student is going to drop a Jim Carrey image in response to Shakespeare, they better have a valid argument for doing so. And, in doing so, we are able to draw deeper connections between the text we are reading and the world we are living in. What an incredible time to be a teacher. 

If annotations are interactions with a text, then the purpose of annotating is so that the reader can fully comprehend the text, regardless of the topic.  The strategies we teach provide a guide for students to think critically about the information presented, and to provide skills for what to do when one encounters parts of text that just don’t make sense.  In the study, “Promoting Different Reading Comprehension Levels Through Online Annotations”, researchers Sheng-Shiang Tseng, Hui-Chin Yeh, and Shih-hsien Yang found that “marking text information and in particular, the adding of summary notes to each paragraph were the core annotations that helped students comprehend the online text in text-based and situation-based levels.”  Therefore, to best help our readers work through online reading, we need to turn to virtual annotation opportunities.

Teaching and expecting annotation strategies while reading is vital in supporting students to be equipped with collaborative and complex reading skills.  Students will encounter many types of texts as adults in which they will need to know how to break down for understanding (don’t get me started on my annotations for my mortgage).  We need to embrace digital tools to turn personal annotations into classroom conversations.  When we do, we are providing necessary support for all forms of learners in a way that best benefits learners.

About the Author
Samantha Reichard serves as Lead Real Time Teacher Coach for Center City 1 Learning Community in Charlotte, NC, serving as a mission-critical resource for 29 inner-city and Title I schools in the Charlotte Mecklenburg School District. After graduating from the State University of New York at Fredonia, Samantha began her teaching career at East Union Middle School in Union County, NC as an eighth-grade English language arts teacher. After two years, she moved to Charlotte, NC and served as a sixth- and seventh-grade language arts teacher for five years before becoming a multi-classroom leader and real-time teacher coach. Following that, she worked on expanding the model of Multi-Classroom Leader and Real-Time Teacher Coaching (RTTC) for four years at Ranson IB Middle School.

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