Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Take Note

My students are very surprised by the fact that I expect them to take notes. Not fill in an outline or a web or a set of boxes. Just take notes.

Taking notes is unpopular for a few obvious reasons, the most obvious being that it's difficult, both physically and mentally. Your hand gets tired. You have to listen, decide what to write, and then write it, all in one swift motion. I know that it can be challenging for children, particularly those who don't especially enjoy sitting still and writing, but I refuse to give up on it.

I think that concept mapping, graphic organizers, outlines, and the like can be delightfully useful once you have information to put in them. Without knowing information first, I watch students struggle to fold their paper the right way (Cornell notes) or decide when to start a new heading (the classic outline) or what have you. Then they're not listening or reading at all, but instead just trying to fold paper. And you can't see groupings and connections between information if you don't have, well, the information first.

So I have not taught any notetaking skills yet at all. This is radical for me. I always thought you should teach kids how to take notes before expecting them to do it, but it doesn't seem to work. They give up quickly on whatever method or methods you give them because they can't arrange knowledge they don't have yet. What I plan to do instead is simply get them in the habit of writing down everything all the time. This is not a bad strategy--after all, it has gotten millions of people through high school, college, law school, med school, etc. No, it is not differentiated. No, it does not reach out to multiple intelligences or the recently debunked learning styles. I do not care.

When I conduct a read-aloud; when we're having small-group or whole-group discussions; when they're reading; when they're listening to classmates present; it is all the same. They have to write. They have to write down everything that sounds remotely important. If I start a read-aloud and people don't have pens-in-hands, I stop and remind them, en masse or with a tap on the shoulder and a nod towards their pen. Many students desperately need to read with pens in hands, because they do not mark down questions they have or words they don't understand.

I plan to teach note organization skills instead. So when we have our first test or project, we will stop and spend a lesson or two reviewing things like webs and outlines. Then we can work on looking for connections between facts, analyzing, synthesizing, all that good stuff. But they need to get the basic building blocks first, and they need to acquire the habit of constant, consistent, attentive notetaking. It may not be fun or sexy or trendy but, gosh darn it, it works.
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