Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God

Notebook Invitations, Annotation Statements, and Sketchnoting for Introducing and Navigating Challenging Nonfiction

Like many of you, I have found Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” to be a challenging text for students in terms of both content and vocabulary.  Most 11th grade teachers find this be an especially tedious text to teach; several of you on Twitter shared it has been a struggle to engage students with this text.  As I worked on my lesson plans for the selection, I wondered how on earth I could help students navigate the text in a meaningful way.  I decided in both my Honors level, team taught, and college-prep level junior classes (5 total sections) that we would work through the text over two days with these activities during our block instructional time:

  • A Writer’s Notebook Invitation (#6) to get students thinking about the words in the selection and what predictions they could make about the text based on a word cloud of the sermon without knowing the title of the work or that it was a sermon.
  • A Reader’s Theatre performance to introduce Puritan values and the Great Awakening to students.
  • “Chunked” reading together of the selection with “pause and reflect” time after each time to annotate, sketchnote, and identify unfamiliar and/or strong vocabulary from that specific section.

We first began with our Writer’s Notebook Invitation in which students were presented the following visual prompt and questions for thinking:

Students had a copies of the prompt and image at their table group areas in the neon ticket pouches I use to share information with students so that they could examine the word cloud  more closely.  Students could then volunteer to share all or part of their entry with the class during our share time; as part of our notebook process work, students who volunteer to share get a neon orange sticker on their notebook page that reminds both of us the student has shared and will get bonus points on their self-selected notebook assessment we do monthly.  This sharing time is important because students get to hear each other’s thinking aloud, and the ideas shared in this session helped us think about strategies for making predictions based on word choice and making inferences based on the word cloud. Some students even made connections to other texts they read last year in 10th grade like Greek myths or Dante’s Inferno.  This activity took roughly 30 minutes or a third of our ninety minute block time.

We then got up and moving around with the Reader’s Theatre performance.  Before jumping into the text, I provided students the first page of a two page graphic organizer we’d need for our annotating and sketchnoting activity.  We numbered each section or chunk 1-4; I then explained to students this graphic organizer would provide us a way of reading and thinking actively about the text and help us navigate this most complex text of our unit of study.  I explained that we do three things with the active reading graphic organizer during our “pause and reflect” time:

  1.  We would compose two annotation statements as part of our noticings and reflection on that section.  I provided students annotation codes and sentence starters to help them compose their reflections; these codes are based on Cris Tovani’s work in Chapter 5 of So What Do They Really Know? and annotations as formative assessment.
  2. Sketchnoting:  we created a graphic or visual representation of what we “saw” in our minds as we read that section.
  3. Vocabulary: we recorded unfamiliar vocabulary; we also captured words that were strong or vivid word choices that appealed to our emotions.

In each class on this first day of the activity, we were able to finish anywhere from 2-4 sections in class (4B lost time due to an unexpected fire drill).   Students had copies of the annotation codes and sentence starters in their neon pouches, and I repeated the instructions during each “pause and reflect” session after we read a chunk or section of text.

Students could read ahead if they finished early, and students could take their work home if they needed to finish their work that evening.  I was truly astonished by the thinking I saw in their written AND in their visual representations across all classes.




Many students shared they liked this process, especially the sketchnotes; several made it a point to use their colored pencils or to put extra time and effort into their written and visual work.

We repeated this process for the remaining sections that we read and reflected upon on Day 2 (Thursday, August 31 and Friday, September 1).  Students received the second page of the graphic organizer upon arrival, and we finished up our reading and reflection work.  They then had the remainder of the period to finish their graphic organizer work if needed before completing a self-assessment of their self-selected best “section” or chunk.

Students completed this self-assessment ticket and stapled it to their work; I’ll collect these next week because students need their graphic organizer work for a creative mini-lit circle poster activity they’ll do in self-selected groups next week as we bring closure to this text before our unit test at the end of the week.  I plan to collect the hard copies of their work, but I plan to introduce Seesaw this month and use this tool for student portfolios and all of their self-assessment work.  In closing, we ended class time with some review questions; those who need extra time for either learning task could finish up at home over our long weekend.

One observation of note:  many students needed me to re-explain the instructions for self-assessment even after we reviewed them together.  I get the sense that this is not because they didn’t understand the instructions, but because many of them have had few opportunities to reflect on their work and explain what they did well in their work.  Some of them would even ask me to read what they wrote and ask me, “Is this good?”; I would read aloud what they had written and then ask them, “What do you think? How do you know?”  As I have blogged earlier this semester, I think it is really important for kids to engage in metacognition about their work and be intentional in evaluating their work and learning how to articulate when they have done something well instead of always looking to me the teacher as the final validation of “good.”

Based on my observations and what I read of the self-assessment as students showed me their work during class, I think this was a successful and meaningful learning activity for all my classes.  I definitely want to do more sketchnoting with students and was inspired by work I read from Shawna Coppola this summer as well as the pleathora of tweets from Tanny McGregor’s session at ILA this past July.    This was honestly my first attempt to introduce it to students, and I intentionally kept it simple for our initial efforts, but I hope to do some more intentional mini-lessons in the future.  These resources are my starting points, and I think you’ll find them helpful as well!

Last but not least, the video recording of Shawna and Tanny’s presentation:

Are you annotating and sketchnoting with students?  What are your best practices and tips?  I hope you’ll share here in the comment space below!

Reader’s Theatre for Introducing Informational Content: It’s Not Just for K-5!

Way back in the day of my graduate school days at the University of Georgia, I took a Folk Literature class with Dr. Linda DeGroff as part of my coursework (sadly, Dr. DeGroff passed away last year).   It was in this course I was introduced to the joys of Reader’s Theatre.  You can find all kinds of resources about Reader’s Theatre and best practices for writing a script, but basically RT is a brief script designed to get students actively reading and performing a text.  That text is often an adaptation of a literary work or excerpt of a literary work that either a teacher composes or that can be student created (they LOVE doing this at any age!); however, I have found over the last 10 years it is a great alternative to lecture when you need to introduce information to students.  I have used them with students from everything to Arthurian legend to library orientation to advisement group topics of study.

This past week, we were preparing to read some Puritan literature as well as an excerpt of “Sinners in the Hands of Angry God” as part of our final push to wrap up our first unit of study of early American literature.  While some students find this time period interesting, many find the texts difficult and the time period values extreme or difficult to comprehend in modern times.  Because my classes meet in 90 minute blocks Tuesday-Friday, I knew that lecture was not a viable option for us, and frankly, I dislike lecturing these days and try to keep it to a minimum and do it strategically when necessary.

I thought it would be fun to write a Reader’s Theatre script to introduce the time period; I created seven “student” parts as well as the characters of Jonathan Edwards (who wrote the sermon) and for fun, threw in a part for our principal, Dr. Reuben Gresham!  Needless to say, the kids were not expecting to  perform a play in class, some of the modern lingo, or to discover their principal in our performance.  I did this activity with my Honors classes as well as my team taught and college-prep level classes.  Each seemed to enjoy it; my two honors classes and my 4B CP course seemed to get into the activity the most of my five sections.  It was great fun to see them “get into” their roles as well as their surprise at some of the humor I wove into the script (you can copy this to your Google Drive). 

It took me roughly two hours at home to write the script simply because I needed to review and think about what content I wanted to emphasize; I then printed them the next morning, made folders for each script (one per role in the play), and highlighted the part for each folder/script so that it would be easy for the students to read it “cold” in front of their peers.  Prior to the performance, we reviewed our expectations for our Puritan Players performers as well as audience members to reinforce a culture of love, respect, and support for each other as active listeners and those brave enough to perform with no rehearsal!  I posted the script on our course blog so that students could review after class if they so desired.

Please note that sometimes you can craft these scripts more quickly, but the amount of time invested will vary by topic.  You can also give students the job of jigsawing material by having them write the scripts themselves and then sharing with the class to perform—this was an enrichment option with my middle schoolers last year for their inquiry unit work, and many found this activity to be one of their favorite forms of informational writing!

Interestingly enough, several of the students in my 3B Honors course told me on Friday that they had a quiz over the same material in their AP U.S. History class.   One student in particular came up to me and said, “Ms. Hamilton–thank you for having us perform the play because it helped me remember so much information I saw on my quiz on the same material in APUSH today!”  The feedback from the students reinforced my belief that active performance and presenting information in a creative way will certainly resonate with many students.

This activity prepared us to read the excerpt of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” and our annotating/sketchnoting activity that I’ll share with you in an upcoming post.