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Several years ago, the New York Times introduced one of my favorite writing classroom resources: Their Mentor Texts column, where seasoned writers annotate their work with the motivations, methods, and writing moves behind a piece previously published by the Times. Their first annotation, an article about a tiny T. Rex, was an instant hit in my composition class and helped me to solidify many of the themes we’d been working on, ranging from the importance of crafting compelling leads to how to engage in a real writing process.

Last year, this wonderful resource went to the next level, with the column adding a sub-column where the teenage winners of their student writing contests do the same with their winning submissions (see below).

As I read through these students annotating their work, I began to wonder why having students annotate their own work isn’t regularly done in the classroom. Requiring students to write margin notes or “talk to the text” during reading is pretty common, but having students do the same with their own writing is incredibly rare. And yet so many positives can come when students unpack and explain their own writing. The act of annotation is the very definition of metacognition and reflection, both of which have been shown to significantly improve student learning outcomes. I also like that asking students to explain their writing recognizes them as purposeful writers making meaningful decisions, which is very different from how student writers are often approached.

It is also worth noting that during these incredibly time-crunched times, having students annotate their work can also be a time-saver for teachers because when the students talk first, the teacher can often simply affirm their choices and add minor nudges or course corrections, which usually takes far less time than trying to trying to decipher student choices or chart a course for them.

With all of this in mind, over the last year I have been experimenting with students annotating their own work in different contexts, and the results have been a bright spot in a year that is desperately in need to them. Here are some of the areas where this self-annotation has been the most effective:

Shorter, Targeted Writing Assignments

So far I have used student annotation the most in regards to targeted writes that focus on building one or two skills. One example of this from this fall was when my classes did a short mini-unit on the tools writers can use for emphasis (colons, dashes, appositives, parallel structure, purposeful fragments, etc.). To assess student understanding of these “emphasizers,” I asked them to write a rant on any topic they wanted and then to use the comment feature on Google Docs to annotate and explain what tools they used and why (see example below).

In the past, I have often assessed student understanding of these kinds of grammatical concepts with short, targeted freewrites, but the one persistent issue with this approach was that there were always some students with ambiguous understanding of the concepts. They would use a dash or appositive in a way that was sort-of or mostly correct, and I would have to make a judgment call about whether they actually knew the concept or not.

With annotations though there is far less wiggle room for students to just toss in a colon and hope for the best. Because they have to explain their usage, they really have to know it. Further, because the students identify the areas of emphasis and explain each writing move, providing meaningful, targeted feedback to these assignments is a relative breeze. For example, in the emphasis freewrite assignment above, the students had to highlight each choice they made, meaning I knew exactly where to go in an instant, and in the 95+% of cases where students used the emphasis devices correctly, I simply had to agree with their assessments. Further, when students did have issues in need of attention, building off of what they have already written was far easier and less time-consuming than starting from scratch. In the end, even in my class of 35, evaluating and giving feedback to these took me no longer than 15 minutes.

Peer Response

This semester I also used student annotation as a way to improve peer response. Before we did peer response, students annotated a few of their favorite lines on their papers thus far and made notes about a few areas that they wanted help on. The short notes on their favorite lines acted as a really nice icebreaker, as it established all parties as thoughtful writers, and the notes requesting assistance helped to provide some much-needed structure to the conversations and to reframe the session as peers collaborating to improve their pieces instead of free agents being forced to critique their classmates’ work. The resulting conversations were some of the smoothest and best peer responses I’ve ever had, which is made all the more amazing because they happened over Zoom!

Self-Assessment

The final area I used annotations was when students self-assessed their larger papers. For years, my students have self-assessed their final drafts because it adds an additional layer of reflection and metacognition, acts as a bulwark against students feeling surprised or blindsided by a grade given by a teacher, and saves time because instead of me covering final drafts with comments justifying the grade I assigned, assessment instead becomes a conversation.

I started to use annotation in this process this year (see below), and like with peer response and assessing targeted writes, it has helped my students’ self-assessments go deeper and become more targeted.


Similar to when I first encountered the idea of mentor texts or not marking every error on a paper, coming across the idea of having students annotate their work was one of those How did I not see this earlier? moments. Annotation is such a classic tool for helping students understand the writing of others, so it only makes sense that it would also be a potent tool for helping students to better understand their own writing.

But even more than that, students annotation of their work is a really powerful tool when it comes to reframing their identity as writers. I have written about this before, but by the time young writers come to secondary and postsecondary grades, they have often been thoroughly trained that they are not really writers, a belief that will hamper their writing growth if allowed to persist.

Regularly asking about their choices and concepts and tools used flips that narrative on its head. Far from students being novices who are helpless without the guidance of a wise-sage teacher, it frames the students as experts in their own writing, with the teacher playing the role of a facilitator who helps them move forward towards their best self!

Note from Matt: As usual, I’m sure that some of you have beat me to the idea of student annotation of their own work. A few weeks ago I was delighted to see this post in Moving Writers from Kenneth Bui that mentioned it, and I bet he isn’t the only one. If you are doing wonderful things in this area, leave a comment or contact me, as I’d love to share them with my readers.

Thanks for reading, and yours in teaching,

Matt

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9 thoughts on “Annotated by the Author: Why Having Students Annotate Their Own Writing Is My New Favorite Writing Instruction Tool

  1. This is PHENOMENAL! I love this idea, and I can’t wait to revise my College Composition I course (taught at the high school) with it! I’ve been trying to incorporate more of John Hattie’s self-reflection tools into my courses, and I really like the ease of this method for getting students to reflect. I always enjoy your posts. Thank you so much for sharing your great ideas and strategies!

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    1. Thank you so much for the kind words, and let me know how it goes! If you come up with any great ways to use student annotation, I’d love to share them with my readers.

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