April 16th, 2014
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.
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.
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