Beyond Outlines: Launching a Note-Taking Curriculum in the Content Areas

Note-taking has many connotations. When you think of note-taking, you might imagine this:

Or even this:


As with instruction in other areas, we often bring to note-taking instruction our own experiences, however grand (or limited) they might be. I admit, I am not the best note-taker. It’s not that I don’t take notes. Quite the opposite. I take copious notes, when I’m reading, when I’m taking a class, sometimes even when I’m watching a documentary. Recently, I took two-day intensive childbirth course with my husband. I ended up with pages and pages of notes, many of them nearly verbatim transcriptions of what my instructor said. My problem is not capturing information in my notes. My problem is using my notes as a way to sort through what really matters and what doesn’t. Take, for example, this page from my notes:

childbirth notes

You can see I scribbled down essentially everything the instructor said, with a minimal amount of organization or hierarchical categorization.

My husband, James Cockerille, inspires me in many things, including note-taking. He uses a variety of note-taking techniques and strategies. He plans each part of the page wisely. Many of his notebook entries look like little works of art. What’s perhaps most important about his note-taking is that he takes in information, digests it, synthesizes it, and presents it in such a way that it becomes his own, and not just a restatement of what he has heard or read.

Here is a sample from his notes. He took notes digitally at our class, so I snapped these from one of his notebooks, but they provide a sense of the way he thinks:

James Notes

Establishing a note-taking curriculum can be a powerful way to encourage deeper understanding about a topic, synthesizing across one text and/or several texts, and growing ideas about information. Here are some considerations for getting started.

Establishing a Baseline: Note-Taking Assessment

The best instruction starts with meeting kids where they are, and instruction in note-taking is no exception. As a way to determine what your students already know about note-taking, it is helpful to give them an informal assessment toward the start of the year. First, choose a passage – even a couple of paragraphs will do. You might want to choose a passage on a topic you plan to study, but this is not necessary, though of course it makes sense to choose a passage in the genre kids will mostly be reading across the year in your class (expository nonfiction, i.e.). What is most important is that you choose a passage that kids can read with a high level of accuracy, because, of course, it will be difficult to assess what kids know about note-taking if they can’t read the text you give them. You may want to say something like, “Read the following excerpt. Take notes in the best way you know how so that you understand the information and ideas in the text.”

If your class is anything like mine, you might notice some common note-taker archetypes:

  • Minimalist note-takers: Kids who jot down only a few phrases and facts
  • Partial note-takers: Kids who take thorough notes on some portions of the texts but not others
  • Kitchen-sink note-takers: Kids who jot down anything and everything
  • Personal reflection note-takers: Kids whose notes are only loosely based on the text and veer widely into the realm of their own thoughts about the topic (Note: some reacting to the text is wonderful, but note-takers should also be sure to capture the big ideas from the text itself.)

In addition to paying attention to the content of your students’ notes, it is helpful to also pay attention to the structure. Most students without a great deal of experience with kinds of note-taking will default to making lists or writing in paragraphs, often copying from the text, sometimes word for word. While these forms of note-taking certainly have their place, there are a myriad of ways to teach students to take notes that can support synthesis, analysis, and finally, true ownership of the content.

Sharing a Vision: Setting Goals and Defining Progress

As a way to set a vision right from the start for what good note-taking looks like, study some examples of notes that exemplify the kind you hope your students will be able to create by the end of the year. Many wonderful examples can be found online, done by famous note-takers, such as Leonardo Da Vinci and Ben Franklin. It is great fun to study these examples as a way to launch note-taking work.  However, to set a vision and goals, it makes sense to stick with note-taking samples that are within reach of those your students can create. The below excerpt from Alexander Graham Bell’s notes is an example that may be somewhat more attainable.

agb sketch


Of course, you can also use samples from previous years, or your own note-taking samples. In fact, the latter work very well because you can write and show the exact kinds of notes you hope your students will create.

My students and I studied some sample notes I had collected from previous years, as well as some that I had created for the occasion. Together, we identified four note-taking lenses that would use to set goals:

  • Understanding
  • Choosing Kinds
  • Ideas
  • Neatness and Organization

Of course, I did plenty of heavy-handed guiding to nudge students towards these categories. (Credit note: I leaned heavily on thinking that came out of a group on note-taking I was in with the brilliant Kate Roberts, Chris Lehman, Audra Robb, and Brooke Geller. For great note-taking tips, see Chris’s inspiring book Energize Research Reading and Writing.)

Next, we made a rubric that students could use to assess their own note-taking. This is a first-draft of the rubric, and I expect that it will continue to evolve as the year progresses.

note taking rubric

Launching: Starting with a Strategy with a Powerful Impact

In note-taking, as in many things, it is highly motivating for kids to feel they are making tangible progress right away. There are a few note-taking methods that have a huge impact on the quality of kids’ notes (and thinking!). One such method, encouraged by Kathleen Tolan and TCRWP colleagues as a way to launch content area note-taking, is sketching. In Unit One, Grade 4 of TCRWP’s content area curriculum, currently available to affiliated schools, they write: “When students translate words into images, they are forced to monitor their own understanding and actively process the information they are learning, versus copying down words verbatim without processing them.”

One of the very first teaching points in your note-taking curriculum can be that note-takers use sketch notes as a way to hold on to ideas or images. Demonstrate with a read aloud or shared text how you use sketches to envision descriptions, to understand a process, or to remember lists of information. Then, send students off to try this work as they read. You might want to consider having them revise the notes they took in the earlier assessment, translating these notes into sketches. Then, have them compare the two versions of notes to consider ways in which sketching helped them to understand the text or grow ideas.

As a way to begin thinking about your own note-taking curriculum, you may want to study yourself as a note-taker. Do you typically default to one way of taking notes? How do you use your notes after a learning experience as a way to make meaning?

Watch this space for more on note-taking. I would love to hear your realizations about note-taking as the year progresses.

The Content Area Read Aloud: Cross-Genre Skill Integration

shadbush         The iroquois englar cover

This year, I am teaching social studies for the first time in quite a while. That isn’t to say I haven’t been thinking about social studies. I have been studying it, talking about it, writing about it, in short, obsessing over it, for several years now. This obsession has taken the form of instructing at several Content Area Literacy Institutes for the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, helping to author the Project’s new content area curriculum, presenting workshops on Writing in the Content Areas, and co-authoring Bringing History to Life with Lucy Calkins, part of the new Units of Study for Writing series. But all that aside, I had to wonder what would happen when I was charged with actually teaching social studies three times per week. Could I put all of my lofty ideas into practice?

These were some of the questions plaguing me as I sat in front of a blank google doc the other week, attempting to plan my first day. Where should I start? Should I be thinking about content (what my students need to know in order to start learning about Native Americans of New York State), or should I be thinking about constructs (what methods will best reach them one day one)? Then I remembered one of the most important principles of workshop teaching: begin by studying yourself as a reader and writer. Where would I begin a new study as a historian? Personally, I would start by reading about the big picture. But of course, workshop teaching is so much more than just asking students to do what we would do. We have to break down huge tasks into small, surmountable steps. I couldn’t just hand my students a book and say, “have at it”.  Further, I couldn’t just model what kinds of books historians read, I had to model how historians read when they are just beginning a study. Often, historians read several texts on a broad topic in order to get a lay of the land. I decided there would be no better way to model this kind of reading than with a cross-text read-aloud.

Richard Allington reminds us in What Really Matters for Struggling Readers that one of the top reasons readers abandon books is that they are not able to envision what is happening in the text. This is just as true for content area reading (the bulk of which is nonfiction) as it is for reading literature. So I decided to begin with a goal of bolstering students’ skill in envisioning, with a secondary goal of building background knowledge. I chose When the Shadbush Blooms by Carla Messinger with Susan Katz, a lovely picture book about a young present-day Lenape girl who connects with her past through the seasons, and The Iroquois: The Six Nations Confederacy by Mary Englar.

My teaching point:

read aloud envisionment chart

I began with When the Shadbush Blooms, and modeled how I used the text to envision the actions and surroundings that the little girl was describing, then how I used what I was imagining to spur some thinking about what I was learning. Then, I guided students to try the same work, telling a partner what they were envisioning and what they were learning. At the end of the read aloud, I modeled for students how I put together some of the details we had learned – such as: the Lenape often ate what they grew or caught – to come up with larger ideas about what I was learning – such as: the Lenape have an important relationship with nature. I invited the students to talk in partnerships to try the same – putting together some of the details they had learned into larger concepts. Finally, I invited students to join each other in a whole-class conversation, sharing some of these ideas into the group. While students talked, I captured some of what I heard them saying in an idea web. (Side note: I decided to model this kind of note-taking as a way to plant the seeds for future note-taking experiences to come, more on that topic soon.)

Lenape idea web

Though I kept the conversation brief, as I found students’ stamina for whole-class conversation to be at about five minutes (for more on talk stamina, see my previous post), from this charting, the students and I were able to see how much real information they had gleaned from a picture book and a brief amount of discussion.

Next up: trying the same work with an informational text. I read few passages from The Iroquois by Englar, modeling and then inviting students to try the same strategy process as before. Of course, envisioning the text can be more difficult in an informational text. To support students in transferring this skill, I chose passages that were similar in content to some of the concepts that are explored in the picture book – for example, passages that described jobs of men and women, and ones that described ways in which the tribe gathered food.

We added some of the students’ new thinking to the web.

iroquois lenape idea web

Finally, we compared the ideas we had come up with after reading the two texts, annotating similar categories and starring ideas that seemed particularly important.

iroquois lenape web annotated

A thoughtful (albiet brief) discussion ensued, about gender roles and how these might translate in the students’ own culture, and about the similarities between the two tribes’ approaches to living from the land. Students tried to imagine present-day New York as the place where Native American tribes such as the Lenape and Iroquois depended on the nature around them in order to survive, laying the groundwork for a concept that is central to the Unit of Study.

Some big ideas about cross-text read alouds:

  • It is not necessary to read whole texts, or huge sections of texts. In fact, carefully chosen snippets of texts often work best. Researchers often read short excerpts of texts in conjunction with one another to corroborate what they are learning. It is perfectly acceptable to model how to do this with a read aloud.
  • You can model several skills at once with a read aloud. Note-taking is a perfect skill to model in a cross-text content area read aloud. Keep in mind that a major purpose of read aloud is to model skills and strategies that are just beyond what students can do on their own.
  • It’s not too early in the year to start with skills and strategies that feel lofty, such as reading across texts or taking notes in a web format. By modeling skills such as these early in the year, you are showing students that they are attainable, and you are also setting the groundwork for skill development along higher trajectories of learning.