Yep, it’s true! My middle school students really don’t take notes anymore. Well, at least not in the traditional sense of “notes.”
When I first started teaching, I strictly adhered to the concept of notes, and notetaking, and the understanding that it was a necessary skill for students. I still think that notetaking is important, but not the type of notetaking I was traditionally modeling each day of class.
In the Beginning…
I’ve been teaching for 19 years. For my first 10 years of teaching, I spent the majority of class time lecturing and presenting guided notes to my students. I had typed up and outlined most of the information that my students were required to know. Throughout the class period, I would explain the information with stories and the students will fill in the blanks on their guided notes. At the end of each unit, students would be presented with a list of terms. They would take the guided notes, write a definition, and draw a picture for the definition. I refined those guided notes throughout the ten years and I gradually shifted from an overhead projector to an actual SmartBoard with slides.
Over my first 10 years of teaching, I became better and better at telling a good story. I learned more details about the historical topics I was teaching, and my jokes became more refined. Still, I found this process exhausting, and despite my enthusiasm, I could tell that my students were bored. Heck, I was bored with myself! Telling the same story year after year made me lose interest in my profession. I also felt like I was trivializing history. The students merely memorized the major facts presented in the notes and then regurgitated those on tests. This was not what I wanted to be as a teacher, and this was not how I wanted my students to see History.
About 9 years ago, I decided that something needed to change. At first, I really wasn’t sure how I wanted to change my classroom. I tried some new lessons and teaching techniques that simply didn’t work. My daily class was more hectic and random for a while as I figured out a new system for myself. My lovely, compliant students went along with whatever I tried and gave me feedback when they were confused by an idea. Meanwhile, my state (NY) decided to change the teaching standards, the C3 framework came about, and so did Common Core. I also switched to standards-based grading. Although the past 9 years were tumultuous at times, I came out of the process feeling like a revived and much more innovative teacher. The classroom experience for my students was much better as a result.
Gradually, I developed a set of principles that guided my new style of teaching. The biggest change involved how my students gained access to new content knowledge. As a Social Studies teacher, I’m obsessed with having my students think critically about the topic of History. That’s what I strive for as the primary focus of my classroom. I certainly didn’t take on the task of teaching just to have my students memorize lists of battles or dates of particular events. Still, it is difficult to have students think critically without some background knowledge. Somehow, students had to have a basic understanding of historical events if I ever wanted them to think critically about those events. Therefore, once I decided that I could no longer push my students through guided notes, I created a variety of activities to engage my students with new content.
The Big Change
The guided notes were thrown out (well, they were moved to an old folder for safekeeping), and fill-in-the-blank is not something my students see. I do lecture occasionally, but I went through the year and picked out my most interesting lectures or the ones that I felt were the most conceptually difficult for my students. I only lecture for about 10 to 15 days of the school year. When I do so, I give my students the full page of notes and as I go through the topic, they annotate in the margins (yes, this is a process I also teach). This way, they are listening more closely to the lecture. They aren’t waiting for the new fill-in-the-blank words to appear on the screen.
Since I no longer lecture 3 times a week, a bunch of space has appeared in my teaching schedule. I still have a ton of information to convey to students, but I’ve had to figure out ways to have them learn that information without presenting it to them directly. Here are some of the techniques I’ve devised.
This is probably the easiest way I present information. I’ve written short reading passages about various topics. By writing my own, I’ve been able to hone in on exactly what I want my students to know. I divided the text into sections, and then I had the students read the text with a partner. There is a question for each section that the students answer, or I have them write a summarizing sentence. If my students read in class, I’ll have them read a section, answer a question, and then rotate partners. I like using historical backgrounds if I’m going to have students complete an activity that requires some baseline knowledge.
Videos with Questions
Yes, this can also be a pretty basic process. Still, there are some great videos out there for U.S. History. I’m personally attached to “docu-dramas.” These videos have some acting and some discussion from historians. As the students watch the video, I’ll hand out a page of questions for students to answer. I try to make sure that my questions aren’t just factual. For instance, we watch a documentary discussing Andrew Jackson and his actions as a president. I’ll have the students watch a particular section, and then pause the video. They’ll describe the action, and then I have them come up with adjectives to describe Jackson in that moment. What did Jackson’s duel tell us about his character? The students will brainstorm adjectives like impulsive, angry, or passionate.
These I love! For my skits, I usually focus on information that the students might find dry. I then research what was actually said, and what actually happened at the event. I have a seventh-grade sense of humor, so I lay out a simple plot, and then add some seventh grader style jokes. The skits are never not fun.
Primary Source Stations
I’ve previously written about how I encourage students to analyze primary sources. Sometimes information is easily conveyed through primary sources. I shouldn’t be the person explaining to students what an enslaved person’s life was like. The voices of actually enslaved people can do that for me. I curate a bunch of primary sources and then set up stations around the classroom. This always proves to be much more compelling to students than my voice. I also have a post that discusses how I use stations more specifically. (You can find a bunch of my premade station activities here if you’re curious.)
My last major activity to help students gain background knowledge is a simulation. Simulations can take on a variety of forms. I love immersing students within history by having students write about a historical character. Events may be relayed to them, and then the focus is on their character’s reaction. Instead of telling students about the cold winters of the Revolutionary War – their character might lose a toe to frostbite! (Here’s a link to my simulations.)
Podcasts have just multiplied in recent years and there are more and more out there that have been written specifically for middle schoolers. I have a post I wrote here specifically about how I use podcasts to teach.
Obviously, content knowledge is only the first step. As stated previously, my true goal is to have my students think critically about History, and then ultimately write about History.
How do you help your students to gain content knowledge? Join the discussion in the comments below.