Making Notecards Exciting (Really!)

Teacher and author Sarah Cooper returned to teaching U.S. history this year after teaching English for four years and she will be joining us here on the Stenhouse blog regularly to share some stories and strategies from her classroom. Her first post is about notecards and how she and her students made the transition from the low-tech pieces of paper to high-tech electronic versions. (Technophobes need not be afraid!) Sarah is the author of Making History Mine and teaches at Flintridge Preparatory School in La Canada, California.

MakiCooper author photo bigger resolutionng Notecards Exciting (Really!)

I loved doing research notecards as a child.

A family legend from third grade has me standing in the living room, cards in hand, smocked dress ironed, hair pixie-cut, ready to rehearse a three-minute talk.

“Bats,” I enunciated in my sharpest, most Hermione Granger voice.

I could organize my world, and the World Book Encyclopedia entry, in the space of three-by-five inches.

Needless to say, research notecards have never been quite as popular for most of the eighth graders I teach.

They understand why our history department requires the cards in grades 7 through 9 as a foundation, before students choose their own organizational method in grades 10 through 12. The cards help them avoid plagiarism, weave together facts, and create arguments based on other people’s research.

But that doesn’t mean they like doing them. The process is seriously detail-oriented.

So this year, when I returned to teaching history after four years of English, I wanted to find a way to make notecards fun, or at least a little snazzy.

At first I was reluctant to try electronic notecards because I didn’t want to lose the tangible moment of spreading and stacking cards to create an outline. But after realizing that students could still sort cards printed on half-sheets of paper—and after learning that our ninth-grade history team was switching over to electronic cards this year–I was convinced.

Our library has introduced the history department to NoodleTools, and I love the program for its power and one-stop shopping for research skills. (It does require an annual fee for your school or district. Some teachers also like free programs, such as Evernote or NoteStar, or set up a template in Microsoft Word or Google Docs.)

The brilliance of the notecard structure is just how much it includes—and that it forces students to think.

This spring, for each of fifteen notecards for a project on an American reformer’s successful tactics or strategies, I asked students to fill in the following fields on the program’s template:

1)     Title (Main Idea). Giving each card a heading helps with organization.

2)     Source. Students select a source from a dropdown menu based on their Works Cited list, and the information instantly links to the card.

3)     Direct Quotation. Students copy and paste—or type in, from a book—a sentence or two.

4)     Paraphrase. The direct quotation is paraphrased.

Steps 3 and 4 are what I like to call the “anti-plagiarism cocktail.” In the past, I’ve flipped through copies of sources at the back of a research paper to find the sentences that students had paraphrased. This time, as I was grading, I could instantly check quotations and paraphrases together.

5)     My Ideas. For each card, students wrote a sentence about how the fact showed the reformer’s tactics, methods, strategies, or personality.

By the time students completed the cards, especially the “My Ideas” sections, they had little trouble brainstorming a topic sentence for a 300-word paragraph on their reformer. In contrast, with handwritten cards in the past, students rarely understood they were heading toward an argument.

As with any new project, there were stumbling blocks from my lack of direction:

  • Students copied too much into the direct quotation box, making it difficult to paraphrase effectively.
  • Students sometimes paraphrased so generally as to make the information meaningless. For example, a few said that their reformer attended a lot of schools, instead of noting which schools were important to the person’s education and why.
  • Some of the “My Ideas” comments were too similar from notecard to notecard. Next time I will suggest commenting on that specific fact on that particular notecard.
  • The notecards consumed a lot of class and homework time. To complete them, students had one forty-three-minute period and one seventy-seven-minute period, plus three nights of homework, and some still had to push to finish.
  • Some students were annoyed that they didn’t use all the notecards for their analytical paragraph. This was by design, and I told them beforehand that they should use about half. Next time, however, I will require ten or twelve cards instead of fifteen, as many suggested, and also talk with students more about why they shouldn’t use everything they find.

James M. McPherson’s “iceberg principle,” from the preface to his excellent For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War (Oxford University Press, 1997), is a good rule of thumb: “Only one-seventh of an iceberg is visible above the water’s surface. Likewise the evidence for soldiers’ motivations and opinions and actions . . . represents only the iceberg tip of the evidence accumulated in my research. For every statement by a soldier quoted herein, at least six more lie below the surface in my notecards.”

At the end of the project, anonymous student feedback tilted toward the cards’ being worthwhile. Although about ten percent said that “the notecards didn’t help very much,” “took a long time,” and “seemed too formal,” about twice that many said, “I liked having the notecards to write the essay” and “Although the notecards seemed hard at first, they made writing the paper a lot easier.”

For me, the depth of students’ thinking means that doing notecards this way in the future will be a no-brainer. Research will still be painstaking work, but the appeal of the electronic means that more of my students may find their own Zen-like three-by-five-inch-card moments, just as I did in third grade the old-fashioned way.

1 comment April 16th, 2014

Book chat with Aimee Buckner

In case you missed our live book chat with Aimee Buckner recently, here is your chance to watch it at your own convenience. We just posted the full webinar on our website, along with some additional responses to audience questions that we didn’t have time for during the event.

Follow this link to the Stenhouse site to watch the book chat.

Add comment April 9th, 2014

The Daily 5 and brain research

We just posted a new video with Gail Boushey and Joan Moser, authors of The Daily 5. In this new installment the authors discuss the brain research that influenced their thinking as they revised their book. Watch the video and then pop over to the Stenhouse website where you can catch the archived version of our book chat with Gail and Joan.

Add comment April 8th, 2014

The Twitter Fiasco

We leave you with some lighter fare on this Friday by Stenhouse editor Maureen Barbieri. Maureen has been learning about and experimenting with Twitter and she often shares her excitement and her Twitter encounters during our staff meetings. She also shared this story that you are about to read and while we all laughed at first, I think we could also all appreciate the painful learning curve of some of these social media tools. I am sure you’ve all been there too. Share your own Twitter fiasco in the comments section by Tuesday, April 9, and Maureen will pick someone to win a free Stenhouse book!

The Twitter Fiasco

One of the things I like best about living in New England is the change of seasons. We’ve had a long, cold winter this year, but now spring is upon us, and this is reassuring. The year has a certain rhythm to it, and we know what we can count on. Still, the older I get, the more I realize that everything changes, that our days here are numbered. I face this the only way I know. I keep busy. I cherish my family, I read, I write, I stay in touch with friends. But most of all, I work.

In my sixties now, against all odds, I have a brand new job. Instead of being the one putting manuscripts in the mail and praying for a lucky response, these days I’m at the other end of the envelope or e-mail attachment—an editor who solicits work from eager young teachers who are passionate about what they are doing in classrooms. It is both a privilege and a big learning curve for me, not because I’m unfamiliar with what they write about—after thirty years as a teacher, I do know their world—but because writing, editing, and communicating have taken great leaps forward, and a person needs to know lots of new technology just to keep up. First I had to learn Track Changes, then Dropbox, Google Docs, and Concur. My NYU students compelled me to join Facebook, which I love mostly because it lets me see photos of their gorgeous new babies and keep up with how their teaching is going.

Lately though, I’ve become aware, again thanks to my former students, of the world of Twitter. At first I signed on just to follow people I admired, to see what they were reading and recommending. I follow educators, news agencies, arts organizations, even political groups, and I discover articles and video clips I certainly would have missed otherwise. Literacy specialist Shawna Coppola calls Twitter the best professional development available to teachers free of charge, and I tend to agree.

But I’ve begun to wonder if there might be more to it than just perusing what other people are saying or suggesting. Maybe I need to be more than what Chris Lehman calls “a lurker.” So the other evening, as I settled in to read my Penelope Lively book and watch television with my husband, I decided to check Twitter. Sure enough, there was a “chat” happening that I found intriguing. At something called #Engchat, teachers were talking about a new book that had just been published. I read interesting comments from people obviously committed to their work in classrooms. One person spoke of her love of poetry and how that helped her thrive. Others mentioned supportive colleagues. One said that yoga and meditation were important to her. Then, all of a sudden, I read this: “You know that if Donald Murray were alive today, he’d be on Twitter.” Well, that got my attention. Like so many writers, I adored Don. Teacher, mentor, friend: he was a hero to me, a huge influence on my life both in and out of the classroom. I perked up when I saw his name. I got brave. I decided to move beyond lurking and actually “tweet.”

“I agree,” I typed into my iPad. “I miss Don Murray every single day.”

Within seconds, there was my message, clear and bold on the screen. Except that it was a little different: “I agree. I is Don Murray every single day.”

Whoa!!!! Mortified, I choked back tears. I tore at my hair. I typed a furious correction—“I MISS”—and slammed the iPad shut. Then, as my husband realized what had happened, we both began to laugh uncontrollably. We didn’t stop laughing all week. My silly typo made me seem like a crazy person, thumping my chest on top of a mountain, claiming Don’s spirit. Since this happened, every time I express doubt about whether I can do something—drive in snow, cold-call a new author, plan a difficult meeting with a student—Richie says, “You can do anything. You IS Don Murray.” I married a comedian.

When I finally get over my embarrassment, there are a few things I will need to admit. First, I do try to channel my old friend as I navigate these rocky waters of being a grown-up—an “elder of the tribe,” as he used to call it. When I feel overwhelmed, inadequate, or fearful, I think of him and remember his insistence that the show must go on. Life moves forward. We have to stay in the game: striving, contributing, and, most of all, learning. It’s been said that there are no accidents.

Second, I must acknowledge that it’s not complex technology that caused this faux pas. It was instead the simple failure to proofread. This can happen when using any device—even paper and pen—at any time, and there really is no excuse for it. My fingers may be too fat or too fast for the iPad, but I should not have let my words go out into cyberspace so easily. A good lesson.

Finally, I am grateful to all the people at Stenhouse, at UNH, and all the other places where I’ve been lucky enough to teach, whose patience and support carry me forward. Lisa Delpit says that the only two things we need as educators are humility and inquiry. Thank goodness these are two things I have in abundance. I want to learn to navigate Twitter because, in the words of Tony Sinanis, “Twitter is about the human connections you establish . . . about the people you get to know, respect, and value, much like what happens in a well-functioning classroom or school.”*

So, I am committed to trying. With the help of good friends, I will learn to use this and other social media to be better at my job, to find out more about the world, and to engage in meaningful ways with other people. I believe that, if Murray were here with us today, he would indeed be tweeting. And, of course, I will always miss him.


*Tony Sinanis, quoted in “Social Media Is Better Than You Think” by Peter DeWitt, Education Week, March 11, 2014.

4 comments April 4th, 2014

Book chat with The Sisters — now in our archives

If you missed our live book chat with Gail Boushey and Joan Moser (The 2 Sisters) last week, here is your chance to catch up! The Sisters answered questions about the new edition of their landmark book, The Daily Five, from implementation to assessment. Here is what some participants said about the hour-long webinar:

LOVED, LOVED, LOVED this webinar! Thank you so much! This is so what I needed to get through the last nine weeks of school! I feel rejuvenated and excited to go back to school next week (I’m on Spring Break now)! Thanks so much!!!!! – Melissa (Alabama)

Wow! This was GREAT… This webinar answered all of my questions! –Tammy (New York)

The archived version of the webinar is now available on the Stenhouse website for free.

Add comment April 1st, 2014

In the Classroom with Jen: Engaging Our Youngest Readers

We continue our series with author and first-grade teacher Jen McDonough. This week she is sharing her classroom strategies for partner reading to make sure kids stay on task and on topic.

Engaging Our Youngest Readers Through Partner Work

jennifermcdonoughThere is nothing kids love more than hearing themselves talk. Any teacher will tell you that one of the hardest parts of the job is to get children to stop talking long enough for us to teach them something. So, why not capitalize on what is already a strength to help kids engage in reading?  All right, you are thinking at this point. We know kids like to talk a lot, but what they are talking about does not generally have anything to do with what is happening at school. Point taken. The true teaching magic happens when we can find ways to actually get kids to talk about the books they are reading and not about what they are currently creating on Minecraft. Here are a few “teacher tricks” I use to encourage my students to talk about the books they are reading during partner reading time.

1.     Find books with talkability.

By “talkability” I mean that we need to find books that give the kids something to talk about—books that engage and connect with readers, making them want to share what they have read. This can be especially hard in the lower grades, where decodable text is still front and center as the kids are learning how to read the words on the page. There is not much to discuss about a book that reads, “I see a yellow lemon. I see a purple grape. I see a red apple.”

Kindergarten and first grade are where read-alouds really need to come into play. I search far and wide for text that is easy to read but still carries a theme or message that might be pertinent to the children’s lives. I read the text aloud once—maybe twice—before I turn over the books so that the text is familiar and easier for them to decode.

Another way to help kids access books with bigger themes and more “talkability” is to have them listen to books on tape or an electronic device. By having the book read to them, the text can be more challenging than their independent levels and carry more depth and meaning. Partners can then meet and talk about the book they listened to. By late first grade and beyond, the children are able to start independently reading books that have more depth.

Finding the books can be another full-time job in itself. To lessen the load, the teachers at my school decided to work together to create an ongoing list of book titles that work well. The list can be accessed through Google Docs by all of the teachers and is constantly updated as we find new books to share with each other. Look for books that carry themes that children can identify with: friendship, feelings, or learning from mistakes, for example. I will share some of our favorites at the end of this post to get you started. Putting books in the kids’ hands that they connect with is one way to get them talking during partner reading.

2.     Record videos and make partner observations.

Another way I get kids talking about books during partner reading time is by videotaping them. I use the video function on my iPad with a Bluetooth microphone (so you can actually hear the kids over the classroom buzz of talking—hopefully about books). I record the students’ conversation and then play it for the class. Just like a coach sits down with the team after a game to critique what went well and what needs to be worked on, we do the same thing for reading partnerships. The kids discuss what they thought was going well and make a suggestion about what the partners might do to enhance their reading talk even more.

Young kids will typically say things like, “You did a good job sitting next to each other both holding the book” or “You were talking about the book you were reading the whole time.”  They might suggest strategies for getting the readers to think and talk about their books more deeply by saying, “You could talk about parts you really like and why” or “You can talk about any connections you made to the book.” Sometimes I give the students (even the kids in the partnership being watched) a two-column worksheet with a smiley face on one side and a worried face on the other so they can write down what they notice as they watch. This leads to a more focused discussion and not only helps the partnership being discussed but reminds all the students of ways they can learn more about what they are reading by talking and sharing. Knowing they need to be on task or risk being the focus of video where everyone can see them fooling around helps create an expectation about what should happen during partner reading time.

3.     Use successful partnerships as models for the class.

Finally, there are times when I come upon partners engaged in talk that is helping them delve deeper into their reading, and I jump on the opportunity to have them share their thinking with the class. I learned this “fishbowl” strategy from my work with the Reading and Writing Project at the Teacher’s College of Columbia University. The idea is to call the class over to watch the successful partners model what they are doing so the rest of the students can learn from them. Or I may wait until share time and have the partners model the work they did that day. This is another way to hold the kids accountable while showing them strategies for engaging more with their reading by talking about books with others. We know young children will grow as readers and thinkers if they are given time to talk with others about what they have read. Our job is to make sure the time is spent wisely.

Some of the books we love to give the kids are as follows. I would love to have people post book suggestions to add to the list as well!


Pete the Cat:  I Love My White Shoes by Eric Litwin
One and Zero by Kathryn Otoshi
The Dot by Peter J. Reynolds
Ish by Peter J. Reynolds


Frog and Toad series by Arnold Lobel
Fly Guy series by Tedd Arnold
Poppleton series by Cynthia Rylant
Mr. Putter & Tabby series by Cythia Rylant
Elephant and Piggie series by Mo Willems

Learning from Mistakes

Lulu and the Brontosaurus by Judith Viorst
Lulu Walks the Dog by Judith Viorst
Katio Woo series by Fran Manushkin
David series by David Shannon
Brand New Readers series published by Candlewick Press


Add comment March 26th, 2014

Now Online: Common Core Standards in Diverse Classrooms

Do you have students who need extra support and practice in comprehending complex texts, communicating complex ideas, or engaging in authentic conversations about content?

Common Core Standards in Diverse Classrooms presents a research-based framework for teaching academic language and disciplinary literacy. Authors Jeff Zwiers (Academic Conversations), Susan O’Hara, and Robert Pritchard show you how to design lessons for comprehending complex texts, fortifying complex output, and fostering academic interactions—three key practices that have the most impact on developing skills needed to meet the Common Core and other standards.

With particular attention to academic English learners, the authors identify three components of strategic lesson design as the foundation of language teaching across grade levels and disciplines. They give you practical ways to clarify, model, and guide students in the use of complex language. Four sets of annotated lessons spanning grades 2-11 support each of the key practices.

Common Core Standards in Diverse Classrooms shows you how to teach students to use complex forms of academic language, synthesize ideas, and communicate them in purposeful ways. You can preview the entire book online now!

Add comment March 24th, 2014

Register now to chat live with The Sisters

There’s still time to register for our live online chat with The 2 Sisters, Gail Boushey & Joan Moser, Tuesday, March 25 at 3:30pm ET. Submit your questions in advance or during the chat. All registrants will be able to access the recorded event afterward:

What is Daily 5? Is it easy to get started? Are any special materials or resources needed? How do Daily 5 and CAFE fit together? In this new video, Gail & Joan answer some frequently asked questions:

Add comment March 21st, 2014

Now Online: Readers Front and Center

Even with the best of intentions, standards can pressure schools and teachers to narrow the curriculum and lose sight of what matters most: the voice of each student. In Readers Front & Center, Dorothy Barnhouse inspires you to listen carefully to students and plan instruction that raises the complexity of both student thinking and the books they read.

Building on her previous book, What Readers Really Do (coauthored with Vicki Vinton), Dorothy uses rich examples to provide insights into why reading conferences are essential to understanding students’ skills and needs, and how to ask the right questions to elicit key information about readers.

Focusing on process rather than product, Readers Front & Center gives you thoughtful ways to encourage complex thinking during independent reading, small-group time, and shared reading. Each chapter features a “Toolbox” section with practical suggestions for trying out ideas in the classroom.

Readers Front & Center will affirm your beliefs about what’s at the heart of good teaching and give you specific instructional steps that lead students to fully enter, absorb, and experience texts. You can now browse the entire book online.

Add comment March 20th, 2014

The Editor’s Shelf: Of Primary Importance

This week we kick off a new occasional series on the Stenhouse blog called The Editor’s Shelf. Written by Stenhouse editor extraordinaire Bill Varner, the series will reveal the history and background of some of our books and give you a chance to revisit some oldie but goodie Stenhouse titles from the past few years. We kick off the series with a look at how Ann Marie Corgill’s book Of Primary Importance came to life.

I’m a bibliophile. Or, you could say, I’m a book geek. I love everything about them—from authors and their lives, to cover designs, to publishing lore. I can still smell the ink, paper, and glue from my first job in a book bindery. For most people outside the book business, how an idea becomes a book is a mystery. With “The Editor’s Bookshelf,” I thought we’d give you a snapshot of some of our books—the stories behind them, and why we love them.

When I first joined Stenhouse, I was told by our friends and distributors in Alabama, Toni Shay and William Hagood, about a fantastic teacher named Ann Marie Corgill—or, as I’ve come to call her, AMC. She’d taught Ralph Fletcher and JoAnn Portalupi’s son in Alabama, and also at the renowned Manhattan New School. I first met AMC at the Mid-South Literacy Conference in Birmingham, Alabama. Her presentation was terrific, and she wanted to write a book. “Great,” I said. “Let’s get started.” We started and stopped. We started and stopped. Most authors can’t churn them out like Patricia Cornwell. Since a lot of Stenhouse authors are full-time teachers, everything has to align just “write.” Or, to paraphrase John Lennon, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making plans to write.” But thanks to AMC’s dogged determination to make the book a reality, several years after I first met her Of Primary Importance arrived from the printer, fresh with the smells of the bindery.

Ever since writing workshop burst onto the scene in the early to mid-eighties, it has fought a constant battle against prepackaged curriculum. Like fast food, prepackaged writing programs are quick and easy. But fifteen minutes after eating an easy meal, I always feel the weight of saturated fat and chemical additives weighing down my mind and body. Students feel the learning equivalent after working a program. Though it may take more time and effort, a healthy, handmade meal leaves one alert, energized, and sustained. Of Primary Importance is the writing curriculum equivalent.

AMC’s book gives you everything you need to create your own writing workshop for primary writers. From establishing the learning environment and developing units on poetry, nonfiction, and narrative writing, to publishing and assessment—it has it all. It’s written in an inspiring voice that says, “Yes, you can do this.” If you haven’t heard of it, or haven’t yet discovered its classroom-tested ideas, you really should. In the world of professional books on teaching writing, it’s a precious gem.

Don Graves used to say about administrators (and anyone who told others what to teach), “Just shut the door and teach.” That’s often easier said than done, but so is everything else worth doing.

3 comments March 12th, 2014

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