Student: Can’t I just use a parachute when we drop our egg off the roof of the high school?
Teacher: No you may not. I want you to think outside of the box on this project.
Another student: What about styrofoam? Can I put my egg in a box full of styrofoam?
This is when I realized we had a problem. The prohibitions on parachutes and Styrofoam were specifically mentioned in class and in the project description, and now these were the kinds of questions I was getting. There could be two explanations. The first might be expected of my eighth graders: they were not listening during class. The second explanation was a little more shocking: they were not even reading the project description! So why, then, was I spending so much time on project descriptions in the first place?
Realizing the latter was the problem was one thing, but I was stumped on how to solve it. Then I remembered a lesson offered by a veteran teacher in my credentialing program, about annotating text while reading. At first, I wasn’t sure how I could incorporate this idea in my math/science classroom, but now the answer was clear. I decided to have my students annotate the project description handouts while they read them for the first time.
Some students were not crazy about the idea of taking notes on a project since they felt like they were always taking notes in their classes. However, once I explained that they could simply jot down key information in the margins, write questions to the author regarding the material, or highlight important words, sentences, or sections, they seemed relieved and willing to participate.
After giving a brief overview of our upcoming project, I passed out the project description and gave the students about seven minutes to read it over and annotate. The simple activity worked wonders. During our question and answer session, students asked me great questions in front of the class, which meant that everyone could hear the answer and make additional notes on their handout. If, to quote my credentialing colleague, “annotating is like having a conversation with the author,” in this case I was the author, and I was right there! Although there is value in annotating material when the author is not present, in this case my students had the opportunity to question the author (me) directly.
Given time in class to read the handout and write down questions, my students seemed to be absorbing the information more effectively. Listening to each other’s questions and hearing the answers, they developed a clear idea of what the project entailed, and what the expectations were for the deliverables. In addition, as they took time to read, highlight, and write on the project description, I believe my students felt more of a connection with the handout and greater familiarity with the information therein. As a result, they now knew where to find answers to future questions about the project.
One of the biggest challenges I experience as a teacher is to find and use effective tools for teaching and learning in a full inclusion classroom. The annotation exercise was a huge step in the right direction because it allowed my students to learn together. For example, all of my students were given a chance to highlight any vocabulary words that were unclear. Although I try to use words that everyone understands, some project descriptions may include an unfamiliar word, phrase, or technical term. This unfamiliar vocabulary may prove to be a challenge for any of my students, whether they are advanced, have an Individualized Education Program (IEP), or are considered to be an English Language Learner (ELL).
In many classroom situations students sit back silently, confused by the text, not wanting to bring attention to the fact that they don’t understand. As a way for everyone to seek clarification, annotation creates a comfortable atmosphere where the students are willing to share their questions. I noticed a substantial increase in the number of questions I received as compared to previous projects where I just went over the handout and asked if there were any questions.
I think I can encourage even more questions and requests for clarification if I phrase my questions so as to let students know their feedback is helping, not only their classmates, but also their teacher and future students who will work on this project. Examples of such questions are, “What could I, as the author, add to the project description to improve it or make it easier to understand? Have I left any important details out of the project description? Did you come across any words in the project description that you wish I had provided a definition of?”
Annotation has proven to be just as much of a learning experience for me as it was for my students. After my students annotated the project description for our science project, I realized that there was room for improvement on my part. For example, I could have added a section to the handout that described the tools they would use during their project. I could also have attached the list of astronomy topics that they would eventually select from. I could have provided definitions for some of the technical terms in the description.
Another lesson for me was to take note of the words that the students highlighted as difficult to understand. For those words that I consider to be important vocabulary, my plan is to eventually display them on a word wall in the classroom, to provide a visual reminder of important and challenging words. I may also create a glossary in my project descriptions to include the definitions for any new terminology.
I owe a “thank you” to the students in my class who asked me if they could use parachutes or styrofoam for their egg drop project. Without these questions, it may have taken me a lot longer to figure out that my students were not reading my project descriptions. Their questions gave me the perfect opportunity to introduce the strategy of annotation. All I hoped for was some assurance that my preparation of the project descriptions was not in vain. Little did I know that the activity would lead to such substantial learning for me.