Friday, January 15, 2016

Annotation, too, might change: My reflections on a recent annotation flash mob

This reflection is "cross-posted" here but it originated on my personal blog. Cross-posting is publishing a blog post in multiple places to reach a broader audience. -Joe Dillon

It wasn't until I became a teacher that I began to annotate texts with real purpose. The pressure of being prepared for class after class of energetic 12 year olds drove me to read professional literature and young adult literature with a new focus and purpose. At the same time I was learning about how annotation helped me develop my professional practice, I also learned how annotation could support my students in making meaning in the texts they encountered in my class. In teaching I learned the authentic value of talking back to a text with annotations.

My copy of Peter Johnston's Choice Words. I must've been thinking about lit circles this day.

Still, though we shared our annotations in discussion, the act of annotating was an independent act that we did alone, while we read silently. Even in guided reading settings, we'd annotate segments of text individually before talking through those texts one segment at a time. The Internet, with its interactive opportunities and Web 2.0 applications, suggest a more social approach, and present an opportunity for teachers and students alike to consider the possibilities for annotating together. In pairs, in interest-powered groups and yes, oh yes, in crowds.

My copy of The Literature Workshop, by Sheridan Blau

With those as yet undiscovered possibilities in mind, some colleagues and I convened online for an experimental "annotation flash mob." Using the tool, we marked up the text "Skills and Strategies | Annotating to Engage, Analyze, Connect and Create," by Jeremy Dean and Katherine Schulten.

Of the small mob that convened online, some talked in a Google Hangout (about 7 of us) and shared their screens to show us how they worked. Others (about 7 more), joined from points around the globe to mark up the text but didn't join the webinar. They dove into the article itself, jotting notes and responding to other annotation mobsters.

My favorite annotation from the flash mob

In my favorite "annotation discussion thread" that resulted from our flash mob a teacher- kschmidt39- asked how she might use a group feature to engage her class in some private, class-level collaborative annotation. Another participant, my brother Jason annotating live from Salvador, Brazil, chimed in with a classroom application for collaborative annotation. kschmidt39, rather than sticking on her technical questions, engaged in back-and-forth about pedagogy. At the end of this organically developing thread, Terry Elliott popped in to solve the technical question.

Screenshot from the margins of Dean and Schulten's post

The blend of tech talk and teaching talk suggests the promise of having educator readers mark up text together, mediated by social tools like

But I still don't know what it means

In the hours before the annotation flash mob started, I looked at my bookshelf for the books I had marked up most in order to reflect on the annotation I do for authentic purposes. I found Sheridan Blau's The Literature Workshop and Peter Johnston's Choice Words and tried to get some workable photographs of how I annotated them. Not pictured above are the giant, expensive sticky notes I used to annotate Blau's book at the end of each chapter. They're big and pink and covered with my excited ideas about teaching. In Johnston's case, my aforementioned brother recently borrowed this to take to a conference where he was presenting and wanted to share it as a resource text. He rolled his eyes when I refused to let him clean up my copy by taking out the sticky notes that are now slightly mangled and torn where they stick out of the book. I assured him that his participants would appreciate my personal process when they turned the well-worn pages. 

My crappy photography of these two heavily annotated books revealed something else to me: I prized these texts because they contain thoughtful insights that fed my appetite for professional learning and because they each transcribed the learning interactions that they either created or observed in order to make perfectly concrete what powerful classroom discourse- learning discourse- looks and sounds like. 

Snap of transcript from Blau's Literature Workshop
Snap of a transcript from Johnston's Choice Words

Skimming through these familiar texts I thought about the potential for social annotation. One important possibility I see for collaborative annotation is the opportunity to structure learning conversations about texts that produce transcripts of written discourse that we can see, study and learn from. In the same ways Johnston and Blau think we ought to be able to learn from knowing exactly what discourse sounds like in the classrooms that inhabit their books, I think there is something to learn by engaging in text-centered discourse and then looking back at the digital footprint that results. 

Instead of drawing conclusions at this early juncture in the history of annotation flash mobs, I'll stick to naming and noticing, a practice for which Johnston would advocate. I did a little of this above and I can also do this with screencasts on YouTube. In that way, even in this state of sense-making I can model for others how I'm seeking to identify the potential of what we're doing in the margins when we gather as a mob to annotate together. 

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