Annotating for Active Reading: Post-It Notes and File Folders

This fall my 8th graders have practiced Notice and Note annotation strategies as well as those from Cris Tovani.  I have not required my 8th graders to annotate their independent reading, but earlier this month, I felt annotating their reading for an in-class reading day would be beneficial for my students.  I also felt this might be a gentle way of starting to scaffold their annotating for TQE discussions that we’ll do in January 2020.   I created mini-versions of notes/handouts I had already given the students and condensed them to “marry” them to a TQE framework, integrating our existing annotation strategies as well as Beers and Probst’s “3 Big Questions.”  Here is the result:

You can make a copy of these handouts I created here:

Because I had lost my voice due to an upper respiratory infection, I had students engage in a quick partner reading of the instructions.  Pairs then summarized the instructions and what they needed to do during their independent reading time.  I then shared a completed model I did over Ordinary Hazards by Nikki Grimes.

Students were asked to complete 6 annotations:  two “thoughts”, two “questions”, and two “epiphanies”.   I provided a basket of Post-It notes in varying colors, sizes, and styles at every table area for students to use.  In addition, I gave every student a file folder with his/her name on it to place their sticky notes.  When students finished annotating at the end of the period, they organized and placed their notes in the folder to turn in to me.  The folder system is something I am trying so that I can grade annotation work with Post-Its but not have to collect a zillion bulky composition books.  When the folders are returned to students, they get a scored rubric of their work and can transfer the Post-It notes to their course binder.

I found this to be an easy way to nudge students to read a little more actively but not overwhelm them with the act of annotating.  We’ll use this system of collecting and sharing annotations when we begin our literary nonfiction and memoir book clubs in January as well as with our independent reading next semester.  I feel like the folders (which I keep once the students remove their work) are a simple but easy to use vehicle for collecting and checking the annotation as a formative assessment.  You can make a copy of the rubric I created by clicking here.

How do you encourage active reading and annotating in a meaningful and manageable way?

Supporting Writers in Progress: Paired Texts Study, Comparing/Contrasting, and Literary Argument Paragraphs

Earlier this month, we composed our first literary argument paragraph, a stepping stone to an extended piece of writing we’ll do in early November as part of our work from the writing unit, The Literary Essay:  Analyzing Craft and Theme.

Part 1:  Introducing and Immersing Ourselves in a Paired Text

Let me start by backing up into late September.  We had just finished our study of “Thank You Ma’m” and took a day to read/listen to “Kindness” by Naomi Shihab Nye, a great paired text companion to this short story.  We began by reading the poem together and took a second pass at reading it by listening to Nye read it herself.  For the first reading, I simply asked students to listen; on the second reading, I asked students to complete these tasks as we listened and read:

  • Read along as we listen.
  • Circle any words that get your attention as being descriptive or vivid or unusual.
  • Continue to think about the mood of the poem and the words that create that mood or feeling.

We then reviewed our annotation strategies notes from Cris Tovani and Beers/Probst.

Next, we listened to Nye tell us a little of the backstory about the poem.  I then asked students to complete three high quality annotations of the poem, showing them an annotated model I had completed for another poem to help them.  Once students had time to re-read and complete three annotations, I asked them to choose his/her best annotation.  We then used the whole group share structure “Everyone Up!“; students were asked to share his/her best annotation and the passage he/she annotated.  Finally, we completed our thinking with a reflection Ticket Out the Door (see last photo below).

Part 2:  Comparing/Contrasting the Paired Texts

Our next step was to compare and contrast “Thank You Ma’m” and “Kindness” using this marvelous graphic organizer from Stacy Lloyd.  I actually modified it a bit to help my students cover all the bases with their thinking points and included some scaffolding at their table to help them remember the terminology.  It took most students two days to complete this thinking task.

Part 3: Drafting the Literary Argument Paragraph

Our culminating activity that is a stepping stone to an essay we’ll do in about two weeks was composing a literary argument paragraph.  After students completed the compare/contrast activity, we reviewed the writing task 1:1, and I asked students to choose the claim statement he/she felt he/she could best argue.

Students received plenty of scaffolding to help them draft their paragraph; I provided highlighters to help them color code each piece of their draft.

I placed plenty of these at every table in my neon sheet protectors to help students as they drafted.

For those who needed even more scaffolding, I put together a graphic organizer to help them see each piece of the paragraph as they composed and highlighted.

The result was some of the best writing my students have completed so far this year.  As they completed their drafts, we conferenced, and it was so heartwarming to see their confidence in themselves and pride in their work!


These learning activities pushed my students’ thinking, and the culminating paragraph was a big step forward for my 8th grade writers.  How do you support higher level thinking and writing tasks?

Scaffolding Student Prep Work for Birds of Feather Reading Club Meetings

In my last post, I outlined how I organized a topic tasting, how birds of feather interest groups were formed, and the planning that student groups did collaboratively to divide and assign readings within their topic area from the text set.  In today’s post, I’ll share the prep work we did over four days to get ready for our reading club meetings we held today.

Prep Work by The Teacher

I began by crafting a reflection/noticing handout for each article.  The first two reflection/noticings handouts for Articles 1 and 2 were similar though there were some differences in the final reflection pieces.  You can view the handouts in this folder in Google Drive.  It took me awhile to get my groove, but I wound up organizing the prep packets with these materials:  the three article prep sheets, the roster of reading assignments I copied from the groups (green sheet 1), and a copy of the original planning work by each group.   You can also watch this short video explaining how I organized their work (my ultimate goal was to have a neat and consistent order to the packet  because it will eventually go in the students’ literacy portfolios (note:  I thought I had the phone in landscape view when I filmed, so I apologize for the vertical format).

Handing the Keys to the Students:  Steps to Success

We began by reviewing our reading assignments (in the packet) and our timeline:

This timeline was ambitious, but with only 10 “pure” instructional days from the time we returned from Thanksgiving break to our next holiday break, I had to push students a little to make these deadlines.  Thankfully, most students met the work plan for each day; some students came to the “War Time” academic makeup time last Thursday to catch up.  I collected student work–finished or not–each day so that students would not lose their work.  In addition, collecting their work made it easier to have their materials laid out at the beginning of class the following day and maximize class time.


I also incorporated some warm-ups into the activities for Days 2 and 3, including a think and write as well as a sharing of HOTS (higher order thinking skills) questions to create a gallery inquiry.

Yesterday students had the first half of the period to finish any incomplete work.  We then used the last half of the class to:

  • Highlight three questions/statements from each prep sheet (total of nine highlights) that we wanted to bring up for conversation today.
  • 1st and 4th periods used tiny sticky notes to mark a passage in each article that we might want to bring up for discussion.
  • 5th and 6th periods used tiny sticky notes to mark three passages in the third article only (the common read) for discussion.
  • Reviewed our reading club manners and etiquette as well as expectations for interacting and participating.  The list students brainstormed became the basis of their self-assessment they will complete tomorrow.
  • Reviewed their “emoji discussion cards” they could use if they got stuck on what to say or sentence starters for responding to peers.  As I will share in my next post, these worked like a charm!
  • We also reviewed the discussion structure to expect for the meeting.



At the end of the period, I collected all their work so that I could easily distribute it today for our reading club meetings.  In my next post, I’ll go into more detail about how I structured the reading club discussions and tips for helping students new to book or article discussions be confident and successful as well as our self-assessments we’ll complete and final products we’ll create.

When Students Are Struggling: Thoughtful Punting with Gallery Walks and Academic Speed Dating Conversations

My school is in our first year adoption of the Lucy Calkins Units of Study for Middle Grades Reading.   Because some units are not published for 8th grade and because we are all bravely piloting the adoption together, all three grades have started with A Deep Study of Character for the first nine weeks.

The first session with a read aloud and guided discussion and practice with noticing character traits was this past Monday.  Though the lesson did not call for students to have a copy of the text, I realized after my first class my kids needed a hard copy of the mentor text.  During my planning that followed 1st period, I made copies of a marked up version so they could see the different sections or parts we would navigate in our read aloud.  In addition, I put together some slides to scaffold our conversations.  At the end of the day, I also typed up all the character traits we brainstormed across four classes and incorporated them into a set of mini-notes (these reviewed our big takeaways and the first part of our anchor chart on character traits) the students received to glue into their literacy notebooks the following day in class.

On Tuesday, students had the class period to practice our strategy for noticing character traits with their own independent reading novel.  I crafted a template to help students capture their character trait, their textual evidence, the page number, and the “what makes you say that” explanation to explain how the passage they selected exemplified the character trait.  Though I had even done some frontloading of this skill the previous week using the “Says, Thinks, Acts” strategy from Gravity Goldberg and felt I had followed all the elements of the Calkins read aloud lesson, I could see by looking at student work in progress many students were struggling with the concept of character traits and explaining how their textual evidence represented the trait.

On Wednesday, I used my phone and ProScanner app to snap some of the better pieces of student work.  I quickly printed and numbered these to create a gallery walk around the room using my always useful neon shop ticket pouches.  As students visited the stations, they used their literacy notebooks to record what the “exemplar” readers did in their work.

Once students visited as many of the 11 stations as they could in about 12-15 minutes, we came together as a group and talked about our noticings of moves the readers made with their work with character traits and how we might apply it to our own work moving forward.  The students then had the rest of the period to resume their character work with their independent reading novels.

On Thursday, students were asked to choose one of the character traits they had identified and a more in-depth reflection on how and where they were seeing that work in their books.  In addition, students made predictions about whether or not they felt the character trait would stay true deeper into the novel and why/why not.  Once students had completed these reflections (roughly a paragraph of 8-12 sentences), we did a speed dating activity to share our reflections.  I incorporated this into my instructional design to:

  1.  Give students an opportunity to engage in academic talk and their work with character traits.
  2.  Give students an opportunity to hear from each other about their books and characters.


In reading their final character trait work and their reflections, I feel these learning structures helped move students forward in their understanding of character traits.  Though I have not yet graded the assessment from this past Friday students took, I am hopeful the assessment will show gains in understanding as well as students were asked to read a short story and apply the character trait skills we practiced all week.  How do you go about “punting” and making adjustments when you see students are struggling with a particular reading or writing skill?

Supporting Student Book Clubs with Scaffolding Structures: Senior Book Club Meetings 2 and 3

Earlier this month, I shared the “glows” and “grows” of our first 12th ELA student book club meeting.   Building on the glows and grows of that meeting, I wanted to share some learning tools and structures I incorporated into the second book club meeting to help support student talk.

Support/Scaffold Structure 1:  Kickoff Quotes

To give students a tangible starting point for conversation, each student was asked to prepare a passage for discussion along with questions or talking points they wanted to share with the group.

For students who came prepared, this was an easy task to complete to get ready for the meeting of the day.   Those who did not hastily selected passages that did not provide the richness or depth of text to discuss as did the passages that had been selected with forethought.

Support/Scaffold Structure 2:  A Working Conversation Structure

I provided a loose conversation frame for all groups, but it was especially designed for two of my four groups that were struggling to sustain a meaningful conversation during the first meeting.  When I reviewed the conversation structure with the students, I told them they had flexibility with the framework, but it was there to help them make sure they were hitting all the conversation elements we were aiming for in our talk.  This tool, along with some better preparation by more students from week 1, was very successful as nearly every group had sustained and rich conversation in meeting 2 for nearly 40 minutes.   I didn’t see it being quite as successful for our third meeting this past Friday, March 16 as at least two groups (one that has struggled each week and one that had previously been very strong) simply read their passages and didn’t have much of any discussion about the how/why they chose the passage or why it was meaningful; fellow members didn’t speak up to ask questions or respond.  Right now I don’t know if the fact prom was 24 hours away was a factor, or if perhaps these two groups had just hit a little bit of a rough patch in their efforts.

Scaffold /Scaffold Structure 3:  Hard Copies of Conversation Stems and Conversation Ideas on Neon Paper

Though students had received a copy of the conversation stems and ideas for discussion on Monday, March 5, I printed up new copies on neon paper for the third meeting this past Friday (March 16).   Everyone received a copy to use for reference as needed during the meeting.

Scaffold /Scaffold Structure 4:  Modifying the Visual  Notetaking Medium

Though the visual notes were richer in meeting 2 compared to meeting 1 (see the exemplars below) I still found that there was uneven participation and contributions to the visual notetaking on butcher paper from group to another.  As you can see below, some groups had rich contributions from nearly every group member.

I wondered if perhaps modifying the visual notetaking medium might invite more active participation on this front from every student.  For the third meeting, I provided personalized “notetaking placemats” with the student name and his/her role for the week.  I included a placeholder for their “kickoff quote” and then plenty of space on the front and back for notetaking and drawing.  Like previous  weeks, each group received a supply caddy full of various Sharpies and markers.


Ironically, though some students did show more active participation with the visual notetaking and mindmapping of the group discussion, the majority of the student work fell flat with very few visual or written notes.  Again, I don’t know whether to attribute this unexpected outcome to the fact prom was less than 24 hours away, the fact that the same one who have come unprepared to every minute and not fully participated were the very same ones who struggled again in meeting 3, a combination of both factors, or perhaps some other variable I’m not aware of at this time.  I’m deciding right now if we should take a second pass with this medium or return to the butcher paper for the final meeting.  I wanted to use the visual notes as a visual record of meeting ideas for each group and put them on display, but this learning task is an area of struggle for most of my seniors even after showing them models prior to the first meeting and models from their classmates after the first meeting.  This aspect of book club meeting will be something for me to consider with more thought over the summer as to how to get more student engagement on this front and to help them better understand the purpose of the visual notes.  I’ve seen other students of a younger age do amazing work with visual notes of book club meetings in the moment, so I know what is possible, but I also must consider that this kind of learning task is new for most of these students.

One immediate intervention I WILL do this week prior to our last meeting:  I’m going to ask my exemplar group to talk to the class about how they go about their work and talk the class through their work—I think it will be powerful for students to hear tips from their peers in their own words, and I’m interested to see if this student led modeling/mini-lesson makes a difference whether we are doing visual notes and mindmapping the meeting ideas on butcher paper or individually.

Modified Self-Assessment

One final thing I did differently for the third book club meeting was to change up the format of the self-assessment.  Instead of a series of numbered questions, I presented the self-reflections in this format:


Interestingly enough, some students shared they found this format less “intimidating”, and some had more concrete talking points with this format.

Final Reflections and Next Steps

I felt most students really stepped up in terms of preparation and participation for the second book club meeting. As I mentioned earlier, the energy levels were up across the board and I could see more engagement from a larger number of students in the second meetings.

I was a little disappointed that some students seemed to take a step backward, though, for our third meeting this past Friday.  While students were participating, many were not as prepared as the previous week or two, and the energy level seemed lower compared to the last meeting.  I honestly think the impending prom was a factor, so I am hoping we will make our final and fourth book club meeting this Friday, March 23, our best yet.  I’m going to give students some extra prep time in class on Wednesday and forego our day of work with argumentative writing.  I also have some library time scheduled for students to do a little research on their book author and their social media presence to see if that adds to their understanding of the writer’s purpose with the book and any material to add to the conversation since one student had explored this angle and shared it with her group this past Friday.

What kinds of scaffolding or supports do you provide students to help them grow their student book club conversations?   What strategies do you like to help students grow their conversation and interaction skills with each other?