Monday, April 17, 2017

Experiments with Digital Annotation

I wanted to help students comprehend assigned readings. So I felt excited to give, an online shared annotating/note taking program, a try. I’m still getting acquainted with the program and all its functions. But I can already attest to the value of digital annotating. Students can highlight as they would on actual paper, and they can jot down notes, or add links and images. Since everyone in class can see and comment upon everyone else's digital notes, students can start discussion threads anchored to readings.

The big goal here isn't to learn to highlight for the sake of highlighting nor to use digital tools out of a commitment to technology. Instead, I wanted to provide students a way to engage in meaningful reading and dialogue to develop content for their essays.

So I uploaded readings them onto, “seeding” them with highlighted notes about content and structure. I introduced the texts to students. And I demonstrated in class, devoting laboratory time for students to sign up and practice.

Because I wanted to encourage lots of participation, I faithfully responded to student’s annotations, posing questions, affirming ideas, and urging students to think more deeply. During class, I pointed out where students began annotating and started their own discussion threads.

But after three weeks, only a handful of students took to Yet their comments, for the most part, were “meaty,” thoughtful considerations of the text. I wondered what I could do to increase this level of participation.

Reviewing the annotations, I noted how one student’s notes consisted of thoughtful questions, some rhetorical and others directed to me and her peers. In articles about racial identity and power, she wrote, “I want to hear comments on this quote.” She highlighted passages and wondered, “Is this [idea] taught, an instinct, or just picked up from environment?” and “[Can] you relate to how another race feels, or is the experience totally different?”

What wonderful conversation starters! Even better, these questions came from her cognitive engagement, her focused psychological activity. Not mine. Woo hoo!

I decided to reserve class time for students to share their annotations. I invited a few to read their annotations, directing them to discuss how and why they chose their passages. I didn’t give presenters much advance. I wanted the discussion to be natural, extemporaneous - not a formal presentation but a conversation about their ideas.
In one class, a student shared and paraphrased her conversation thread. She spoke about how she might use the quotes in her paper. Students paid rapt attention. I pointed out how her commentary, (a paraphrase and her opinion about the passage) might be revised into a paragraph or two for her paper. Presto! Her sharing illustrated how annotation and threaded discussions serve as a prewriting strategy.

In another class, a student shared his annotations. Classmates noticed his comments matched several quotes from past lessons. Discussing his work, we came up with a central idea (claim!) that held together his chosen quote, his notes, and the other evidence. His reading and our discussion produced an idea worth using in our research project. I explained how what we discussed could, with elaboration, could be developed into a solid paragraph. This was a revelation for some as many students had trouble seeing how the readings might inform their writing. This “organic discovery” came from students’ thinking, with minimal direct instruction from me.

Screen shot of reading. Right column shows threaded convo anchored to highlighted text. 
The student with smart questions took the podium the next day. She began by reading her passage and threaded comments. She also posed her question. I planned to spend 15 - 20 minutes on her demonstration. But her question sparked one of the most productive conversations we’ve had, so we spent about an hour on her single annotation.

Her question prompted students to tell personal stories regarding her observation. With minimal facilitation, students saw connections between their stories, readings, and concepts we've studied. Our conversation showed how our academic reading pertained not only to our project but to their own lives (#Relevance).

I hoped student demos of their process would encourage others to use it, too. But what happened was better than I imagined. Students saw how ideas generated by reading and discussion (virtual or face-to-face) might find their way into their writing. As their semester progresses, we’ll see how well helps students translate the fruits of reading, annotating, and discussing into their writing. But for now, we are the right track.

Notes For Next Year/Learning Curve Lessons

(1) Start off with easier texts - something accessible, not a full-on academic journal article.

(2) Don’t overwhelm students with too many signposts. I over did it, setting off cognitive overload!

(3) Provide more time in lab, more than to sign-up and get acquainted with the tool. We need enough time to ensure everyone has one decent chunk of focus time using this digital tool - with me in the room for guidance.

Sample Group Home Page
(4) Build in time for students to share their annotation process in front of each other. Why? To make their thinking public. And we can use their demonstrations to spark discussion.

Ask students to show where annotations influenced their writing choices. I can ask how and why they decided to use generated ideas in their papers. I can definitely do that this semester, too.

(6) Scaffold several annotating assignments on a single text. For a “first-draft reading,” students can annotate passages they find personally meaningful. On a "second reading draft,” they can annotate sections that speak to the writing assignment. Later, students might mark structural moves they observe: description, definition, illustration, compare/contrast, or cause/effect. I could also assign students to work in teams to take part in discussion threads.

Why so many passes at the same text? I want students to see the value of reading a text more than once, or even twice. Just as writers complete several written drafts, writers should also do multiple "reading drafts." Having students read a single text several times serves at least two reasons: content (to generate ideas) and text structure (to emulate writers' moves).

*Shout out to scholars Danae, Kenetta, Darrell, Anne, Ayzha, Kyrstin & Sergio for their help with the activity and blog post. Many thanks!