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  • Writer's pictureScott Cameron

The Best Engagement Strategy: Scaffolding and Guided Notes

It feels like it’s getting harder and harder to keep the attention of our students. Every teacher knows that if a student doesn’t use their hands to take notes, they will use them to go on their phone. If their hands aren’t busy with a pencil, they’ll be busy on TikTok. In order to stay focused in class, students need something to do and a clear direction to move in so that they can reach the end goal. That end goal might revolve around a single unit of study, a question, a problem to solve, or a time period. In my case, it usually meant the end of a novel or other literature. But notetaking will always be the tried-and-true way that students learn; it’s been proven over and over again.


In my first few years of teaching, I used slides to work my way through a novel, but I quickly became tired of the routine. I felt that students mostly just wrote down the contents of slide word for word and didn’t pay attention to what I was saying. The slide usually contained images that functioned as distractions and prevented them from really thinking. It wasn’t a great way to start a meaningful conversation about the story. I switched to scaffolding the novel in chucks, many, many chunks. Perhaps as many as one hundred. Instead of going chapter by chapter, I teach topic by topic. For my unit on Beloved by Toni Morrison, I break the novel into twelve topics like silencing, religion, and love, and over two hundred passages. Each topic has anywhere from eight to thirty-eight passages. Of course, I never cover all the passages. Sometimes, I skip over some or if students work in groups on a single topic, I ask them to break up the work and pick the five most important passages to interpret for the rest of the class.


It’s easy to differentiate these types of activities, but when another student presents their interpretation of a passage, their handout has a space for everyone to take a note. I establish early in the year that I will collect and grade a single packet that contains a list of all the passages. If a student misses class (or zones out) they always have a bare bones outline of what will ultimately help them perform on the essay. My handouts only contain a simple list of page numbers and a quote from the beginning of the passage, which allows students the room and freedom to draw shapes to connect their ideas and doodle on the paper. Notes are somewhat about writing down the important thing you read or hear, but it’s also about writing down independent thoughts and interpretations.


Scaffolding in this way allows for independent reading or read alouds of short sections of the book, but in a logical and organized way. Even students who don’t do the homework or (in my case) didn’t read the book at home can work with a barebones outline of the plot and understand the passage covered in class, especially since I usually establish the context of the passage before interpreting it. If there’s not a system in place to account for students who don’t have the time or environment at home for quiet, serious study, then it’s inevitable that those students won’t pay attention or distract other students in the class.


Think about a situation where you might show a long video or podcast in class. If you say to students, listen quietly, we’ll talk after it’s over, what will happen? They won’t have a record of the important points and forget what they were thinking. Even if you ask them to simply take notes (and not collect the notes), they might get lost. Without a list or outline of topics to guide them, they might get distracted. My handouts come with one guiding question that functions as the objective of the lesson. It’s something they can come back to in order to build on their knowledge and it gives them something to look out for while listening, reading, or watching.


Teacher's Workshop, professional development for secondary ELA teachers




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