Thursday, August 7, 2014

Notetaking Warrior Learning Style!

"Read pages 1-25 from the text and take notes and turn in tomorrow at the start of class."

This type of "instruction" has been increasingly mocked in the last decade for good reason.  However, many have taken this mocking to mean that we should not read textbooks or take notes anymore.  No, that's not my take on the mocking.  My take is that we need to choose good texts and make sure to give the ourselves a structure to build our own individual understanding of what the text presents.  That's what we will deal with here, the structure that allows our students to build their own understanding of the content presented by a text.
Let's start with a couple of metaphors.  First, the warriors.  We need to become Warrior Learners and practice Warrior Learning.  I like this romanticized version of Uncas from James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans.
Or for the girls in our class, we could go with this:
Either way, we need to transform ourselves into Learning Warriors as we need to approach our learning from an active and ferocious perspective.  We need to think of ourselves as the guardians of our own villages of knowledge.  We need to protect ourselves from ignorance and we need to be the hunters of greater understanding.  We need to change ourselves from passive receptors of facts and figures, (the people of the village who simply exist, the students who merely take notes and turn them in) into those who seek greater mastery and better clarity like the warriors of the village.  If we actively and ferociously learn, we won't ever just, "Read pages 1-25 from the text and take notes and turn in tomorrow at the start of class."
Now that we've remade ourselves as Learning Warriors (and this is an ongoing process that takes some much longer than others), on to the next metaphor.  It's time to eat.  We're going to treat our reading assignment as if we're going to eat a baked potato.  When served, the potato can look something like this:
However, depending on one's tastes, after adding some fixings it can end up looking like this:
Or, it can look like this:
Regardless of one's taste, nobody eats a baked potato as it was served, just plain.  We make it into something really tasty and enjoyable and happily eaten.  That's got to be our attitude toward notetaking, we eat it when we make it ours, we don't just eat what the textbook served us, we eat the information the way it tastes good to us.  We need to transform the information into something that's more palatable and something we can digest better so we can remember it and use it better.  If we can read and take notes in this manner, we will have not only transformed ourselves, but we will have transformed the information.  We will have a deep, individual, and meaningful understanding.  We will have moved up or down a number of intelligences and begun to truly understand for ourselves what it is we are supposed to know.
This won't be easy or simple or always fun, but we will know how we know what we know and we will know why. 
It won't be anywhere near the drama of the opening scene of 300, where the young Spartan boy is cast into a world of violence and made into a killer and is able to fend for himself against the wolves, both metaphorical and literal.
But we will be stronger and more powerful when we have mastered the art of Notetaking Warrior Learning Style!
How do we do this?
We start with a Google Presentation Template like this:

And we take the metaphorical plain baked potato and we make it to our own tastes.  We do this by breaking the chapter into the seven AP US History themes, Identity, America in the World, Work Exchange Technology, Ideas Beliefs Culture, Politics and Power, Environment and Geography, and Peopling.  We need to define and regularly redefine the themes as they evolve in US history.  Just that ability to redefine and track how the themes change throughout the course is a great lesson in historiography, but this will allow us to be able to understand what we are looking for in each chapter. 
We are required to write down the chapter number, title and dates of the chapter in order to make them stop and think why the chapter is titled as it is and to get them into the mode of using the different cues and clues that the texts use to make the words more accessible.
Their first run through the chapter is designed to get the us to understand the breadth (but not the depth) of the chapter and the different ideas that the authors thought were important enough to mention in the title or the section subtitles or to include as a visual as a map a diagram or a photo, painting, or cartoon as this example from Kennedy's The American Pageant shows.  
We don't want to waste our time taking notes that won't matter when the chapter is over, so if we understand the bigger picture, we won't be taking notes on the first sentence or page of the chapter unless they're going to matter when the chapter is finished.
Now that the bigger picture seems clear, the notes can be taken as we take our second pass through the chapter and "read" it as opposed to skimming as we did in the first go through.  With that said we enter the second stage of Notetaking Warrior Learning Style.  Now we need to get into the actual words and see if the information we think is important has any kind of backing in the form of examples and details.  We need to understand the hierarchy of information.  We need to know that ideas are at the broadest and most general level and that examples are more specific and that details are at the most specific level of information.  We are going to take this ladder of information straight into our essays as we introduce ideas and back them with examples and explain the examples with details in the body paragraphs.  Thus, the second slide in the template looks like this:
How do we differentiate between the three different levels?  However it happens is immaterial but we need to KNOW how it happens.  We could start with the ideas like Jacksonian Democracy in 1832 or Colonial Disunity in 1754 or Women's Rights in 1848 and find Andrew Jackson, "Join or Die, or The Seneca Falls Convention as the examples of these big ideas.  Another way is to locate examples and push to find proper nouns.  You know, the words that start with capital letters!  What ideas do these proper nouns illustrate and how do they illustrate them?  How did Andrew Jackson personify Jacksonian Democracy?  How did Franklin's "Join or Die" illustration exemplify colonial disunity in 1754?  How did the Seneca Falls Convention represent the level of women's rights in 1848?

From here we need to find the important details we will use to explain why these ideas were important and how our examples illustrated our big ideas.  Regarding Jackson, we could use the details of his upbringing in backwoods North and South Carolina and his hardscrabble existence and then his movement west to get started as a lawyer and speculator.  For many white men of his time, his life was their inspiration to set out and make a living the west for themselves.  What were the details?  The Wraxhaws, his movement to Nashville, who he worked for and how he earned his living.  The more specific the better.  For "Join or Die" we could use the lack of delegates at Franklin's Albany Congress and their inability to assert themselves against their British "superiors" to explain how disunited the colonists were in 1754 and how Franklin's illustration showed it.  In other words, only seven of the thirteen colonies were present, Franklin published the image in his own newspaper , the Pennsylvania Gazette,  and was used to urge unity against the French and their native allies, NOT against the British.  For Seneca Falls we could use excerpts of the Declaration of Sentiments to show how women had been excluded from many of the rights listed in the Declaration of Independence and how many men were able to take those rights for granted.  For instance, we could use the opening lines, "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal."  We could explain that Lucretia Mott had been refused the opportunity to speak at the Wold Slavery Convention in London in 1840 because she was a woman even though she was a full delegate at the convention.This would clarify how many women began to look at their rights and realize that they had a way to go before they were the political equal of men.
This is what one student's notes looked like in the chapters that covered Jackson, "Join or Die," and the Seneca Falls Convention.
Now that we've taken our notes, it's time to put the books away and focus on our notes.  We need to build questions for the information we have gathered.  What question would these notes answer?  With that type of interrogative perspective, we will understand whether we have gathered good information or whether we need to go back redo our notes.  We'll also build an understanding as to what is a good "how and why" question.  We're asked to build three quiz questions that our notes would cover.  In essence we're asked to anticipate what would be a good question that our notes would be able to answer.  From there through the notetaking and quiztaking process, we quickly learn what are good questions, but more importantly, what are good notes.
Let's fast forward to the six weeks leading up to the APUSH test.  Now we've finished the textbook and we're done with the overall historical timeline.  We need to review and solidify what we've learned.  Now we go back and "redo" our notes.
We are asked to pull the themes out of the chapters and put them into thematic Google Presentations.  For The American Pageant, instead of 42 different chapter presentations with about seven slides per chapter, we have seven thematic presentations with about 42 different slides.  Now that we've gone through overall history, we can look at it differently though a distinctly thematic perspective.  We're also asked to make any modifications or adjustments to each slide, add a visual that will illustrate the main point of that slide and create a question that the information on that slide would answer.  Here's how the corresponding slides looked after the review process.

Now as we're preparing for the most rigorous AP test going, we've gone over our notes a number of times and transformed our learning and understanding each time.  If we've fully followed this process, we've not only given ourselves a chance to pass the APUSH test, we've also gained a three dimensional understanding of US history and begun to understand how to view history from our own perspective and how to develop that perspective.
In the end, we have truly taken a somewhat unpalatable offering and made it digestible.  We've transformed the baked potato from dry and bland to exciting and tasty according to our own tastes.  We've also changed ourselves from passive note takers into ferocious, engaged Warrior Learners, who have primed ourselves for success.  We can take massive amounts of information that is completely new and over the course of less than a year make it familiar and useful.
That's our Notetaking Warrior Learning Style!  What do you think?  Let me know.  Learning is my business.