Disorganized notes, while sometimes the hallmark of creative genius, are usually correlated to disorganized thinking. When I first meet my students in August, I often see notebooks that look like Kurt Cobain’s journal.
Of course, a few select prodigies can thrive academically with note-taking habits like these, but they are the rare minority.
Contemporary teachers are trained to try to help the majority and then experiment to help the minority. I like to think that teaching students “my way” of Cornell Notes addresses both; once students are comfortable with the process, I encourage them to experiment with tweaks that make sense to them.
Compliance vs. Ownership: Like Teacher, Like Student
Most secondary students in public schools have six or seven teachers in a school year, and most of these teachers have amassed a “toolkit” of strategies to help their students comprehend their subject matter.
The result of these numerous strategies can be that students employ them only to appease their teachers or to earn a grade, and therefore they fail to internalize them.
Back in 2010, about 115 teachers of various academic disciplines in Collier County, FL got together to reduce the strategies they were using in their classrooms, so that students could become experts at using just a few strategies that could work across content areas. Out of the eighty strategies they studied that were currently in use, they collectively decided that a darn good way to preview a text is to use T.H.I.E.V.E.S.; a darn good way to organize one’s thoughts while reading a text is to use Cornell Notes; and a darn good way to deepen one’s thinking after encountering a text is to generate (higher order) questions. Thus began a district initiative to consistently employ these three strategies in all academic disciplines when students were encountering texts.
It was a huge success. It went O.K. It was a disastrous flop.
Depending on which students, teachers, or administrators you ask, you’ll find that any of these conclusions may be valid. Some schools embraced the strategies with trainings, PLC discussions, and department-wide policies. Others grudgingly complied . . . for a while. Others barely noticed “this year’s fad.”
For me, they’re not just a fad. Now that I’ve decided to return to the classroom (8th grade Language Arts and Intensive Reading) from a district administration position, I’m committed to teaching my students a handful of strategies they can use in any academic setting to ensure comprehension of newly introduced texts.
While wrestling with the vocabulary, structure, and ideas of complex texts, my students use Cornell Notes to organize their thoughts.
At first, I give them a few sheets of blank templates for guided practice.
Note: I reserve the left side of the template for questions only, and the “summary of my thinking” language at the bottom is designed to encourage recapitulation of the student’s notes written above, not of the text itself.
Download a PDF of the Cornell Notes Template for use in your classroom.
As we explore a text, we learn to tease out what’s important to note, how to generate questions that matter, and how to summarize our thinking. Students initially think of it as “work.” The goal of internalized use of this note-taking process is a lofty one, but it’s an important one that will benefit them their whole lives.
We always start by numbering the paragraphs for easy referencing during discussions. We’re catching two birds with one net by doing so because it gives us a chance to practice parenthetical citations. If we cite paragraphs now, we can cite page numbers later, rather seamlessly.
My students and I are studying the Holocaust right now. The Teengagement® unit of study Taking a Stand is a great metaphorical connection, as the Nazis can easily be understood as bullies. Here’s a sample of a Cornell Notes page I completed while reading the Technical Article “Repercussions of Bullying”:
A wonderful bonus of completing this process myself is that I deepen my own understanding of the text that I’m teaching my students. As one student recently put it to me, “You actually understand the stories you teach us, Mr. Holimon.” I like to think of it as a shared investigation. And I really like using Cornell Notes to frame our thinking. I hope they secretly like it, too.
Paul Holimon taught high school English, Writing 1 & 2, Creative Writing, Latin 1 & 2, Intensive Reading, AP Language & Composition, and Advanced Communications Methodology for about a decade, first in Louisiana, then in Lee County, Florida, and finally in Collier County, Florida. After four years supporting teachers and shaping policy as a district coordinator of secondary literacy and world languages, he has returned to the classroom at the middle school level, where he is passionately encouraging his students to use curiosity as a catalyst to explore our world from new perspectives. An ardent fan of poetry, baseball, and punk rock, his wife and son laugh at most of his jokes and tolerate the rest of them with extraordinary patience and good will.