How My AP Literature Teacher Crushed My Post It Note Dreams (And Taught Me How to Annotate)

What makes a good reader?

I’ve spent the last two years of teaching juniors trying to answer this very question and each year I arrive at some same things and some different.  This year I taught a class of freshman for the first time.  While I learned many things while teaching freshmen, the course itself demanded that both student and teacher have a clear understanding of what exactly is a good reader.  In fact, one could argue that freshman year objectives are centered around habits of a good reader.  So how do teachers answer that question?

If taking 9th grade “Coming of Age” Module, it means reflective interaction with the text.  Don’t be fooled; this is just a fancy way of saying good annotations.  I was somewhat suprised that most freshmen do not know how to annotate.  Only somewhat surprised because I did not know how to annotate well until college.  But what exactly are good annotations?  And do annotations make strong readers? The short answer is yes and no.

Stick noteGrowing up, I was never allowed to mark in my books.  Books were assigned and the classroom copy recieved was kept in near pristine condition despite years of use.  My teachers threatened us with hefty fines if a book dare have a stray pencil mark.  This was problematic; I am a visual learner who needs a tactile experience to remember things.  I need to write in books.  I need to ask my questions in the moments I read them.  (And believe me, sticky notes and the book are not the same thing. ) My senior year in high school, my mother decided she was through buying massive amounts of sticky notes.  She bought my books for the AP Literature and AP Language classes.  The struggle then was not “could I write in a book and get away with it” but “what do I write in the book now that I own it?”  My current color coded system seemed out of place.  The pink sticky notes that indicated a vocabulary word or the blue sticky notes that indicated a good quote lacked the immediate silent scream they once had when they hung over the page edge. “This page, right here, this page” became very irrelevant when I could write in the book.  But what would I write?

I started the AP course and the first thing the teacher told me was that I did not know how to annotate, that it didn’t matter if I used sticky notes or if I wrote them in myself: it was not annotating.  (I’ll spare you the grief-striken two days I spent moping over sticky notes.)  I’ll never forget that moment, the teacher looking at my highlighted, color coded inked notes while we read Hamlet, Act I, Scene 5.  Lady Macbeth musing over a letter from Macbeth, newly Thane of Cawdor:

Yet do I fear thy nature;
It is too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness
To catch the nearest way.”  (Shakespeare I.V)

“That’s not annotating.  Where are your questions for Lady Macbeth? Your own reactions? Why is that word important?  How do know that quote means more than a series of phrases?”

When I teach good annotations, I start with this story.  I think my students feel the same I did all those years ago; they know to define words that are new to them.  They know how to identify strong passages.  But like me, they don’t know why they are important or how to use annotations to breathe into a text, to let the story completely overtake your thoughts (or corrupt your thoughts in the case of Macbeth). They don’t know how to interact with both story and their own curiosity.  I knew enough to highlight Lady Macbeth’s famous lines, but I didn’t know to engage them.  I had to learn, to be pushed into what I’m calling annotation justification.  I had to ask myself why that word, that phrase, that moment was important to both me the reader and me the audience.  One digests information; the other reacts.  I had to learn how to change my annotations from “this is Lady Macbeth commenting on Macbeth’s inability to act on his ambitions” to “fascinating that Shakespeare makes a woman the villian, and that she is labeled such because she chooses to aggressively pursue power through her husband.”

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Annotating for intent, Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

 

It didn’t happen overnight.  It did happen though.  My teacher spent the first ten minutes of every class sharing her annotations, quite literally, under a document camera.  She justified each notation.  And when she couldn’t, she asked questions about why that seemed important; she predicted why it might become crucial to a character.  She did this every day of the six months I spent in her class senior year.  Did I still define words for clarity? Yes.  But I hunted down better words, words that pushed on the text (“the milk of

human kindess” instantly feminizes Macbeth).  And it changed the way I read.

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Annotating The Alchemist by Paul Coelho

 

I provided the same courtesy to the freshman.  Under a document camera (even old technology can be the best for a particular purpose), I justified every annotation of mine for Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and for Paul Coelho’s The Alchemist.  And I let them ask questions, interrogate my selections or sometimes dialogue about the questions we shared as a class.  Will it make them better readers? Maybe. Do I worry they will create systems of organizations so complex it will overwhelm more than help? A bit.  But at the end of the day if the only lesson learned is that becoming a good reader is hard work, I’ll take it.  If at the end of the day, they find value in their own questioning and engage words that push through meaning, then I know I’ve created readers who will keep reading.

And I’m wondering what that might look like when I see them again as juniors.