Tackling the Dry Stuff aka Footnotes made Fun

what to do when you feel stuck

Early in the school year, my Runner’s World magazine showed up in my mailbox with a new column.  It’s called “How to Be a Runner” and I think it’s incredibly clever. The bulk of the column is a two-column list where the writer highlights a choice. Treadmill or Outside? Group or Solo? Some choices are just highlighted, but others have a footnoted annotation. At the bottom of the page is listed “Let me explain” with the writer’s justification for the choice. It’s cute, it’s fast, and I knew that it would be a great way to introduce footnotes to my students.

Runner’s World, Sept/Oct 2018

My AP Lang students need an explanation of them because they show up in our nonfiction readings quite often.  Years of experience have taught me that the average 11th grader blows right by footnotes with nary a pause. In AP Sem they’re  probably even more important because footnotes show up in almost all of the academic research they encounter and without those footnotes, my students would be lost.

Still, talking about footnotes can be incredibly dry. Here’s a few ways to leverage a fun mentor text like this one to intro footnotes.


Getting to know you


I discovered this text too late in September to use this as a getting to know you activity, but next year I’m doing it on day one.  What a fun way to do some learning about one another while also starting to dip our toes into the academic work of the year!

My plan is to have the students do a gallery walk of a few examples (this is a monthly column so I have been saving them) and then generate a list of noticings on the board to begin a discussion of the connection between the tiny number they often ignore and the very important explanation at the bottom. When is the footnote adding information? When is it clarifying something? When is it revealing something about the writer’s personality? All of those things happen in footnotes, so they can’t be skipped!  

Once we’ve finished examining the mentor text, we’ll create our own lists. In AP Seminar, it will be “How to Be a Researcher” (Google or Database? All-nighter or Day by Day?).  In AP Lang, it will be “How to Be a Writer” (Notebook or Computer? Fiction or Nonfiction?). I’m hoping the kids will realize that so many of these choices require more explanation….which they can give in their own footnotes.



Use as a reading response strategy


This is how I used the text this year since we were already underway. Though many of the things my students read already have footnotes, we still read many things without them. Research reading is often dense and dry, and many of my students struggle with reading actively when a text is not engaging them.  We used this text as a model for how we might read with more focus and think while we are reading.


We were reading “Gospel of Wealth” by Andrew Carnegie (dense, old, dare I say a tad boring?). As a pre-reading activity, we generated a list of choices based on what we knew about the text already (Charity or Work? Spend or Save?).  We didn’t have nearly as many as the sample, but it got us focused before reading. As students read, they kept those choices in mind, added a few more, and looked for places that might provide evidence for one choice over another. When they finished, they worked in pairs to make their choices and write the footnotes explaining those choices. Imagining themselves as Andrew Carnegie explaining their choices was just silly enough to keep them engaged in a pretty challenging text.  Since our unit was a thematic one looking at different understandings of wealth, it was easy to apply this strategy to other readings as well.


DIY in your own writing


Finally, what about writing your own footnotes in your research writing? This has always been a tricky one for me. Once my students get the purpose of footnotes, they want to use them, but they usually quickly slip into mis-using them.  They include information that should be in the text of the paper or their footnotes don’t match their purpose. 

While this text is a great intro for footnotes, before students start employing them in their own writing, they need to look at a few more samples. I like to use these three to show some differences.  First,  there’s the David Foster Wallace footnotes in “Consider the Lobster.” They’re fun, they’re silly, they’re primarily narrative. Then we look at an excerpt from Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed called “Serving in Florida.”  It’s similar to the other in that some of the information is solely intended to add color to the piece, but it also has some factual or clarifying information.  Finally, we look at Elizabeth Warren’s essay “The Vanishing Middle Class.” This one is all facts or clarifying info.  

Comparing the three leads to a great conversation about the role of footnotes in an author’s purpose and the intended impact of that footnote on the audience. What am I trying to accomplish by adding this footnote? Why am I including this here and not in the text of my paper? After doing the comparison of these different uses of footnotes, students are ready to begin thinking through those questions themselves.

Too often, when it comes to things specific to research that are a little dry —like footnotes— I resort to equally dry teaching methods. Prior to stumbling onto this text, I’ve always just introduced footnotes matter-of-factly:

There they are, kids. Read them. They’re useful.  

Shockingly, that wasn’t wildly successful. I love that Runner’s World helped me think outside the box a little and re-imagine how to help my students see the relevance and usefulness of footnotes. They made the why of footnotes crystal clear in a fun, accessible way. If we can do that, our students will be much more successful when they tackle their own research writing projects.


What do you do to teach the less flashy elements of research writing? I’d love to hear what works with your students! Comment below or connect with me on Twitter @TeacherHattie or on the Moving Writers Facebook page.


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