Notes with top hats and tails are still notes

With about eight minutes left in class today, I asked my 9th graders to reopen their literary terms notes.

Student A: [Groan] “I hate notes.” 

Student B: [Sits there without moving while neighbors open binders and take out notebooks.]

Those are typical responses, and I don’t take them personally, but part of me revolts. It’s really not that big of a deal, part of me thinks. “Come on, we’re going to take notes for like 6 minutes, we can handle that,” part of me says out loud.

And the thing is I am trying so hard to make those six minutes of notes visually engaging and fresh. I’m not having them copy notes off of the board or off of a Word document. I’m not opening up a tired PowerPoint slide, terribly overstuffed with too many bullet points. I’m reopening a Prezi I made last week on plot, where I lovingly recreated this old, boring plot diagram

and placed it inside this giant “o” in plot for them.

Prezi zooms attractively into that “o” to reveal that diagram. In my prep period before today’s class, I added some notes on characterization to this same prezi.

I even took the time to use Prezi’s drawing tools to visually represent the terms I was introducing.


And all of this was after an activity in which I used Popplet to show the class the best examples from the previous night’s homework, as nominated by the students themselves and then immediately revised and refined by their teacher for their benefit.

And still, after all that helpful and fresh visualization, they’re going to whine and tell me they hate notes?

Of course they are. It’s still notes, at the end of the day. I can dress it up all I want and I’m still asking students to copy information down from the board, just as if I were lecturing with my back to them as I scribbled on a blackboard or on an overhead projector, as I might have done were I teaching ten years ago.

And here I am, pretending that I never lecture and using that as an argument against the Khan Academy model. My classroom isn’t flipped at all. I’m using these web 2.0 tools to disguise my lectures as something interactive, and I’m keeping them short to account for what I perceive to be the less-than-ten-minute-long attention span that all my students share.

So I lament my students’ lack of enthusiasm for these tasks after I work to make them more palatable, but I can’t really blame them. Or can I? Do these tools spoil them? Or is there any good reason they should be able to take notes in a more traditional format? Or is this all moot because kids will complain about whatever I ask them to do no matter what? That may be it. If, tomorrow, I ask them to hold out their hands for another delivery of freshly baked cookies to each and every one of them, will I hear:

Student A: [Groan] I hate cookies.

While that may be true, it’s not the point. Teachers rely on the “kids are so lazy these days” line a lot, and I’m certainly guilty of it, though I try to catch myself. And I do think that dressing up notes and lectures with snazzy visual tools is helpful, but if that’s all I ever do, I can’t blame my students for whining. And not having to hear teenagers whine is  pretty great motivation to craft good lesson plans.

On the other hand, I may just be catering to their wishes too much if I never present notes in any “traditional” format. Then they’ll tire of Prezi and Popplet and we teachers will be scrambling to find the next snazzy web tool. While that’s daunting, and while I suppose I am complaining about that, that also gives me an ongoing job that I like. I’m glad that (at this moment in time, anyway) there seems to be no shortage of startups developing interesting web tools for just this purpose.

Then again, I may have lost sight here of a pretty important goal for any high school teacher: to prepare kids for college. Maybe I should focus my energies on getting them used to what they’ll have to do there without whining so much so as to drive all good professors into early retirement.

  1. #1 by Shawna Martin on September 20, 2011 - 2:38 pm

    Gosh, I like your blog more with every posting.

    I DO think that teaching students to take notes is a pretty important skill to impart in a college prep framework. I also think that the snazzy tools can help to the extent that they model different ways to engage the information when you are taking notes. God knows that outline form does not work for everyone or every situation and it really helps to have different ways to get the notes on the paper so that I can reinforce what I am hearing/reading/learning/talking about.

    Personally, I favor notes as a process tool much more than as a study tool. As an adult who spends lots of time in meetings, the notes that I take are not used for reference nearly as often as they are used as a tool to help me focus. And that’s exactly the sort of thing that Prezi and Popplet help with.

    Meanwhile, can I get one of those cookies?

  2. #2 by yoni on September 20, 2011 - 9:26 pm

    Gosh, thanks Shawna!

    Yes, I think I agree with you on all that. The part I’m still wondering about is whether or not making note-taking more engaging is setting them up for disappointment (and failure) in college. I don’t think so, though. I think it’s got to be a high school teacher’s job to engage them in the content first and foremost. By the time they’re in college, hopefully they’ll be willing to take notes – whether to merely focus or to study (although I’m with you, my notes were always useless later in the semester) – simply because they are interested in the subject matter. Still, it sometimes feels like the more engaging I am, the more I become stuck doing the song-and-dance in order to get any engagement at all.
    I’d love a cookie too right about now.

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