Quick Tip Tuesday: Taking notes

May 18th, 2010

In Ladybugs, Tornadoes, and Swirling Galaxies, authors Anne Upczak Garcia and Brad Buhrow show how they move their students through the independent inquiry process. Taking notes that show the children’s own thinking and moves beyond copying text is an important part of that process. In this week’s Quick Tip, Brad and Anne share how they model note taking.

Our next step toward more sophisticated informational writing is to take our knowledge of how to ask and write questions and begin the note-taking process.

It is important to remember that note taking is the process in which the students read or make observations from a text or image and transfer their thinking onto paper. We say this because note taking can look like a lot of different things. It can be writing down questions developed from reading or observing, it can be writing down new information, it can be summarizing a text, and it can even be drawing a pictorial representation of a child’s interpretation of a text or picture. This wide range of ways of thinking about note taking helps guide the children as they learn to determine importance and interpret information.

During a mini-lesson for gathering information or taking notes, we begin with posting objectives, to make it clear to everyone what we are focusing on, and to ensure there is a little ambiguity about what we will be doing. During the note-taking lesson the objective might be “We are writing our thinking down as notes.” We are putting our writing and our thinking down for all to see, learn from, and respond to. Also posted is a language frame: “I noticed you ______ and I also saw you ______.” The kids can use this frame when we ask them to tell us what they saw us doing.

We start simply by holding a large picture of an image of the coral reef and begin to think aloud. “If you listen and watch, you will know what to do, because you’re going to do what we do.” Step by step we pull out observations about the image and use the language frame “I wonder ______.” “I wonder what kinds of fish live in the coral reef.” We quickly draw a picture of the fish in the coral reef. Beginning with a two-column note-taking sheet makes the task less daunting. We post the note-taking sheet beneath the objective for everyone to see. Each column of the note-taking sheet is labeled with the language frames we are practicing, such as “I wonder ______.” and “I learned ______.” As the kids gain more experience, different columns can be added. We have experimented with a column on “Connections,” another titled “My Schema,” one called “Wow!” for really exciting information, another for “My New Schema,” and one for “More Questions” to show that note taking is a ongoing process. We continue the mini-lesson by pointing to our heads. “Ready?” we ask.

The kids are all sitting on the floor close to the easel where we’re doing our thinking. They find it difficult not to say anything, and if people were watching, they might think, “Why not let them chime in?” Having the kids listen and notice while we think aloud means they tend to watch more closely and are later able to share with each other, then with the group as a whole. It gives them time to think and formulate how they want to express themselves. It is a short mini-lesson, taking only a few minutes, but that goes a long way.

We sometimes model note taking by consolidating a long caption into notes. For instance, “Hot lava exploding from Hawaii’s Kilauea reaches high into the night sky and flows quickly down the mountain to the sea, where the cool water hardens the molten lava to rock” might be written as something like “Lava from Kilauea is hot. When it touches water, it hardens,” and then we draw an arrow pointing to the picture. We help the students look for important information and summarize or synthesize it.

Our hope is to show them that they can write down their own thinking and not just copy the text. This takes time. It is a skill that will help them throughout the inquiry process and beyond. We aim for all of this modeling within five to ten minutes. Although it may seem like a lot of modeling in a short period of time, remember that this same activity will be repeated throughout the process of gradually releasing students to do nonfiction inquiry. Thus, they will have multiple opportunities to practice. Additionally, the short segments of focused practice simplify the process and make it more accessible to ELLs. When the kids know that they are going to be able to do this same activity, their anticipation builds. It is important to honor this eagerness quickly and let them work instead of keeping them trapped in group for what to them seems like an eternity.

The kids like to make their thinking big and visible. We can accommodate that easily. Once we’ve modeled what to do and the kids have shared their thinking, they are ready to get to work. We use large sheets of heavier paper and make our same columns on that. The students grab note-taking sheets and at least four sticky notes, clipboards, and pens, and go to work independently on texts of their choice. As the kids work, we walk around the room, conferring with them one-on-one. After about fifteen or twenty minutes the group reconvenes and the students share their new learning.

The sharing of their thinking is similar to the session in which they talked about what they saw the teacher doing in terms of language structure and format. Again we provide a language structure that we post above where we are working and that the ELL students can follow. For example, “I learned ______,” or “I wonder ______.” After the children have shared, we go back and review all the new information they have learned to synthesize the activity and bring it full circle. We like to emphasize the amount of information they were able to find about any given topic. It is a good idea to pull samples from the kids’ work to share as examples. This will happen repeatedly, so it gives us the opportunity to share each and every child’s work eventually. Kids comment on what they know about the subject, and sometimes the allure is so strong they want to work together in pairs or small groups for a while. When this happens, we let them.

Using the giant note taking charts is an extension of the mini-lessons on determining importance from text and of the images on how to take notes. We do all the modeling to show how to write down important words, writing our “I wonders” and showing our thinking with comments and connections. We demonstrate what strategic thinking looks like; they see us doing it and are eager to try it on their own topics. The kids add an image to each piece of text on the note-taking chart. With a highlighter in hand we read the text and talk about what’s important, highlighting some of the important words. We are interacting with the text to pull out important or interesting information. The kids see us highlighting, drawing arrows, and underlining words. For instance, Mabel reads the sentence “Insects crawl in the arctic snow and scamper in the desert.” We simply highlight part of the sentence and she adds it to her new schema.

Next to “I Learned” and “I Wonder” the kids draw small images of what they have written and color them. Sometimes after the kids have written what they’ve learned and wondered about and drawn images to represent their words, they have a masterpiece of thinking made visible. They can easily explain what they explored and discovered.

Entry Filed under: Differentiation & ELLs,Quick Tip Tuesday

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