A Lesson for Tomorrow: Layering Annotations for Richer Writing

As my IB seniors approach their exams — not to mention college life — I want to take these last months of teachable moments to take what they are already doing well and build on it. Push them deeper. Expel the idea that there is ever an “enough” point in their thinking and writing.

In their writing, my students often quit after presenting the first smart thing they have to say about a particular piece of textual evidence. And they do write smart, persuasive ideas. But then they stop. I want them to probe more deeply, searching for multiple layers of nuance, contradiction, and sophistication in the text.

To visually demonstrate the “more” that I keep asking for, I had my students bring a passage of significance from In Pharaoh’s Army, the text we are currently studying.  Students studied the passage and crafted a commentary on it. Rather than spending my time underlining anemic explanations in their papers, I asked them to return to class the next day with another, blank copy of the same passage on which they had just written.

I began class by having students form groups of three. If I had a longer class period, I might have done groups of four or five to drive my point home even further. Each group received highlighters and lots of different-colored and different-sized Post-It notes.  Here is how our little game progressed:

  • Each student annotated his or her original passage using highlighters and pen/pencil — they marked things that they had highlighted in their commentary, but many noticed new things with a fresh reading.
  • When each student had annotated his or her own passage, they passed it to Group Member 2. Group Member 2 could add fresh annotations directly on the paper OR add to/deepen/complicate an original annotation by writing their addition on a Post-It and placing it directly on top of the original annotation.
  • When Group Member 2 was done, they passed the passage to Group Member 3. Group Member three could still add brand new annotations directly on the paper, or she could deepen an existing annotation by putting a new Post-It on top of another Post-it.

This is much easier when seen (and I did a demo for the students before they began). Here’s what a couple of them looked like when we were finished:


When we had finished our rounds of annotating, students received their original. What they really got was a visual representation of the different — and multiple — layers of interpretation of textual evidence.  Students were surprised by what they received by the end:

“Oh, I hadn’t thought of that!”

“Wow! That was a good point that I totally missed.”

“You know, I had that in my head, but I just didn’t write it down.”

Students saw that when they think they have written all they need to, they can still go deeper. And then go deeper again! Students left class with the charge to revise their commentaries based on what they learned about their passage today.

I know that their papers will return richer for the revision. My hope is that this demonstration sticks in their heads, too, when they think they have found everything there is to find and said everything they have to say.

How will I assess this writing? Can I assess it in a way that actually impacts their future writing? 

Join us this Thursday at 7:30pm EST on Twitter to chat about assessing writers. Use the hashtag #movingwriters. 

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