In which our hero uses colored pencils to save the world (of note-taking).

Here’s the thing: We have plenty of models of what it means to take great and powerful notes. We have the old-school note-takers:

Da Vinci, Notes, Notebook

Leo Da Vinci knew that note taking meant experimenting, trying, and striving for understanding.

We have the more modern guys:

Darwin, Notes, Notebook

Check out the phrase Darwin uses in the upper left corner. I can’t help but notice that it doesn’t say “I copy…”

 We even have contemporary examples:

Ipad, Notes, Notebooks

Double points for combining Post-its and notebooks.

So we have to ask ourselves – if we know what people actually do when they take notes in life (or college, which is sort of like life) then why do so many of us ask our kids to do a version of this:

Powerpoint, Notes, Notebook

No comment.

I know it is because we are afraid that if we let kids loose with a bunch of time and a notebook, all they will produce is this:


Technically, this is an example of a “write around…”

But we can do better. Our kids need us to teach them how to take powerful and useful notes – when they read, when they listen, or when they have an experience from which they want to learn.  More so, they need these skills to carry them across their classes and across the years. They need to get better at the tough stuff of note-taking, instead of us doing all of the work for them, like giving them the form in which to take notes, or actually giving them the notes to copy.

The tough stuff is real. It’s no joke. Kids struggle to take notes because:

1. The have a hard time determining what is important.

2. They are not sure how to take notes, what form to use.

3. They do not know what their notes are useful for.

4. They find it boring.

But like any great fantasy quest, our young, note-taking heroes will have to overcome these obstacles using weapons to attack the beasts, magic to make things easier (and more enjoyable), and companions to help them when they stumble. Here are a few ideas:

Weapons: Different Forms of Notes.

Ok, we all know there are different kinds of notes, and we know that the best notebooks have a flexibility to them – that it helps to choose the form of note you need for the text or thinking you are trying to capture. But we also know that teaching one form of note-taking is slightly soul-crushing, and giving kids a list of many note-taking forms is kind of like trying to find the one slot machine in Vegas that’s going to win big (shout out to NCTE12 folks:).

Instead, try giving kids a limited list of note-taking forms to try, and let them choose. You can say, “Hey, there are a couple things that notetakers use to take awesome notes. Sometimes they list the important facts. Other times, they use a Web. Lets read this (insert text) today and as we do, you choose which one you think works best.

Next round of note-taking, add another form to their list. Like annotated drawings, where kids sketch, label, and caption:

Annotated drawing, Notes, NotebookYou can keep adding to their note-taking weapons kit until they have all they need, and can begin deciding which ones work for them, and which ones do not. These might include timelines, outlines, T-charts and the like.

Magic: Colored Pencils.

Don’t know why, but this seems to make or break our notebooks. If only all problems were so simple. (Mortgage issues? Just add colored pencils! Marriage problems? Use colored pencils!) Take two to five minutes at the end of class and have kids “color” their notes. May seem simple. And it is. Coloring their notes makes kids feel like the notebook is theirs and all that good stuff. But it’s also not simple at all. Check out what it looks like when we use colored pencils to not just make our notes magical and sparkly, but also use them to sort and organize and think about our notes:

Web, Notes, Notebooks

We can “color” to group our notes together, to show how we are thinking about our notes, and to show what our notes are revealing to us about our research.

Companions: Partners to Help Revise and Reflect.

In any good story, the hero cannot complete the quest on her own. This story is no different. Partner your note-takers. Some ways you can use partners when studying note-taking:

1. There is a reason why people say, “Let’s compare notes.” Partners who show off their notes learn from each other and are more engaged.

2. Just like you did in college, have partners help each other revise their notes once a week. They can compare their notes, and rewrite them. This helps students to internalize the info, and also gives them another vision of how their notes could go. Also, it’s fun (if you bring the colored pencils).

3. (Especially for our Content Area teachers) At the end of a rousing round of note-taking, you might tell your class the core facts or ideas that you were expecting them to get into their notebooks. Partners can then help each other to see if they have those core things in their notes, and if not…why not!

It may seem like a lot of work for something you could just hand the kids and be done with. But note-taking is one of those skills that will stick with your students for a lifetime. Collaborate with your colleagues, begin small, expect struggle. Have fun and show off the great pages.

Let’s get this story started.

Big Idea: Using Notebooks Across All Subject Areas  Tiny Detail: Colored Pencils and Staggered Choice Around Note-Taking

– Kate and Maggie

3 thoughts on “In which our hero uses colored pencils to save the world (of note-taking).

  1. i LOVE how this reflects the work in the content calendar, I dipped into this work a little bit last year, but have been doing a lot more with it in the specialty course on Transference and Thinking Across UoS in Reading, Writing and SS with E. Smith. You are “revving” me up and getting me thinking as a prepare to begin our unit on Navigating Non-Fiction (a little late, but worth the wait!) and lovin’ the analogies – weapons (forms), magic (colored pencils) and companions (partners). I love the “there’s a reason that we use the phrase “Let’s compare notes . . . ” It’s amazing how it can be easy to forget some of the “not-so-little” things. Here’s to strengthening our note-taking and non-fiction reading in November/December, and from then on out, can’t wait!

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