Going far together: social annotation

I recently read a tweet from one of my favorite social media gurus: Alice Keeler. She is adamant that annotating a pdf document is not a worthwhile assignment.

I beg to differ.

Even for the students I teach, high school juniors who take my class for college credit, can struggle with how to interpret complex texts. Take “Young Goodman Brown,” by Nathaniel Hawthorne, for example. Written in the 1850s, it is full of archaic language and culture alien to my suburban population. But the conflict central to the text, the struggle to decide between following an evil path or a righteous one, suspicion that those around us are not as they seem, the ambiguity and potential misinterpretation of first person witnesses, all these are interesting questions for a modern audience. It’s a college level discussion, and how do we scaffold our students to be prepared to tackle it, using text dependent evidence? The same way we teach any other skill: modeling. And it’s so much easier to model deeper thinking with digital annotations.

This year, I have stressed Kylene Beers and Robert Probst’s techniques  covered in Notice and Note: Strategies for Close Reading. (Interested in hearing more? See this link to the book.) Although my sophomores have worked with these techniques all year, my juniors have just started, and due to a variety of snow days, two hour delays, and days off of school so far this semester, I needed something to jump start the conversation on close reading techniques. Luckily for me, I found this awesome site called Kami.

Kami allows you to annotate pdf files online. Since I knew we wouldn’t have class time for me to model annotation, I created a series of videos that modeled how to read and understand “Young Goodman Brown.” Below is an example:

Now whereas I could have used an old fashioned overhead to accomplish a similar task, it would have taken much more than the class time a two hour delay schedule provides. And here’s where things get interesting and more 21st century: when you have students share the task of annotating a story together.

The first time we tried this, all 61 of my students read the same story and shared the task of annotating. Here’s a sample of their thoughts about one part of “Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin:


Note that the students commenting all come from different class periods. Together, they ask intriguing questions, notice how the time it was written affects the language, and come up with a plausible explanation, all without me, the teacher, having to explain. We agreed that all 61 students at the same time was awfully confusing, so for our next go around, we decided that it would be less confusing if they chose small groups and read a story of their choice. Then students shared their annotations with me in Google Classroom. The below students are discussing Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain.” Note that the students are discussing the very end of the story.


As these students think through what happened in the story, they are beginning to see the complexity of language, to wonder WHY authors choose to write as they do. This is beyond merely recalling what happened in a story. I would argue we reached DOK 3 for reading standards with this task. And as we practice how to interpret and read complex tasks by sharing the task of annotating a pdf, we are traveling far, together.


When I tweeted this blog link to Alice Keeler, this was her response:

Since 140 characters just won’t do this question justice, here is a more precise explanation:

The simplest answer is that quite often, converting a pdf changes the text. Sometimes it’s characters within the story that change (when letters are misinterpreted as other letters,) sometimes it’s the white space on the page that’s converted. Since a writer uses space and character deliberately, these changes can alter the very meaning of the text. Until pdf to doc becomes more accurate, I persist in saying that annotating a pdf is not a worthless exercise.

#OneWord Focus

To be focused, to converge a wave of light into heat, to have a center of heat or intensity, these would be a major change in how I live my life. I have always been diffuse, spread out like a thin film of water vapor, like a planner with its first commitment in that five year plan somewhere in year 3.

You see, in a typical year, I am planning about tomorrow. No, the day after tomorrow. No, two months from now. There is nothing wrong with planning ahead, nor is there anything wrong with having many avenues to pursue joy. There is a problem, however, in rushing through life, unable to see the delicate bluebell before smashing it under heel on the way to the future. I need to be able to stop, to focus, to feel the earth holding me up, the air filling my lungs. To be in the  moment, this moment, with a purring cat heavy on my lap and my family asleep.

As 2017 moves forward, I will use this focus to remind me to be mindful of the now, to know that it’s okay to say no to that which does not further my purpose. Even as I plan for November’s NCTE conference, so much must I realize that today is a gift, and I cannot waste it.

Focus” by Mark Hunter is free to share or adapt under a CC 2.0 license.