Where do I put all this stuff?

by Mr. Sheehy

I just completed a day and a half of in-service training with Cris Tovani, and I continue to hold up her insights as valuable and practical for teachers of any content, especially literature. One of the areas Tovani has emboldened me is in how I ask students to question. I always thought it was a little useless for me to bring up great discussion questions every time we read a story, because it seemed like it didn’t help students get to where they would ever be able to generate interesting discussion if I weren’t there. Today, Tovani said it this way: “School is the only place I can think of where the experts get to ask the majority of the questions.” I’ve never said it better.

Now I’m a little scattered after such a stretch, with valuable notes everywhere and no definite way of compiling them so I might find them useful later. When I read her books, I notate the margins, and when I need to consider an idea, I go to the book. Hearing her, I have two packets of handouts and a few notebook pages, and I wrote tidbits of insight on whatever white space was before me when I heard it. The information is good, and I’d like not to hear it three years from now and respond, “That’s right – I knew that and wanted to implement such a strategy in my classes. But I forgot about it.”

I’d guess that my students feel this way a lot. In one day I might give them a few notes for their notebooks, have them write a warm-up or reflection in the notebook, then have them read something from a textbook or novel and jot their thinking in the notebook, afterwards responding by writing on a blog and then finishing class by handing out a worksheet of vocabulary exercises they can do for homework (for which they’ll need their vocabulary list to complete). I’m supposed to be teaching them study skills and how to keep organized, but I have to remain sympathetic to how difficult the task is.

How can my students and I compile our scattered experiences of learning into a sensible and usable package?

Technology is a good place to look for answers to this organizational challenge, but today, I wasn’t jealous of the folks I saw with laptops, because typing the notes wouldn’t have tied the remembrance to the handouts (thus rooting them in a relevant context). To take notes, I used a pencil, and while I might not need to do that in 10 years, I did today, and I am not a copy-those-notes-again kind of guy. Neither are my students (even the good ones).

In a sense, the wiki/web 2.0 possibilities seem to hold the most potential for sorting and storing my notes. I figure I could scan the most helpful handouts and store them as a pdf file, then post them on a wiki and lift and retype some of the most important and impressive statements (though here there may be copyright issues). Then, someday, if someone else who had gone to the conference with me wanted to add some insight, they could. It’s not a perfect idea. I could also take the notes and put them in a file folder – presto, done. Plus, I do not have a scanner right in front of me. For most of my students, even the manila folder is too much to ask if it’s not right there in the room, at the point of instruction. That’s not a knock on my students – they can recognize redundancy easily and they’re right not to want to add steps. They would rather be engaged where Tovani encourages us to engage them: with the things that are important. But more than any time I can recall the technology seems close to helping us pull this variety of materials into one useful location. The idea has potential.