Teaching Annotation

The skill of annotation isn’t specific to the American literature classroom, so this post actually reaches to any college-level instructor who would like to help students read more deeply. No matter the field, modeling the skill and practicing it in any class can yield better reading retention and engagement with course material. This post is about how I learned the value of teaching annotation in my classes, and how annotation practice in class has resulted in better class discussion and student comprehension.

I am notorious for giving reading quizzes in my lower-level (and sometime upper-level) classes. These are very brief 3 question quizzes that ask students basic comprehension and key term/vocabulary questions about the reading for the day. The purpose of these quizzes is simple: I want to make sure students keep up with the reading throughout the semester, especially during those busy weeks when, say, football is on TV or our basketball team makes it to the Sweet 16. These quizzes aren’t meant to trick; they’re meant to provide positive reinforcement for those who are vigilant about their class preparation, and are meant as a wake-up call for those who aren’t. I’ve been doing these quizzes for years, but eventually I noticed a trend happening. I had students come up to me after class and say, “I did the reading but I failed the quiz. What can I do?” My answer to them was to read more closely, but even as I said it, I knew it was an empty solution because reading closely is actually a multifaceted skill set. Below I’ve listed a few of my assumptions about what I mean when I tell my students to read more closely, and ways I have encouraged these practices in the classroom so students understand reading expectations.

Assumption #1: Reading is understanding

My first assumption was that when a student said s/he had read something s/he had read it and understood it. This is not always the case, and as I reached back into my college memories I remember having no idea what the Krebs cycle was even though I had read all about it in the assigned chapter of my biology book. Reading words on a page doesn’t necessarily equate understanding the meaning of the reading, and highlighting 70% of a page doesn’t mean I’ve learned anything, so when I ask students to read for class, what I’m really asking them is to read, reread, question, dialogue with, and understand the text. I’ve learned to make those expectations much more explicit in classes early in the semester. I have a good rule of thumb: if you read a page and can’t explain to your roommate or mail carrier what you read, it’s probably a good idea to spend more time with the text. I always offer up myself as a resource for those student who have spent time with the text but can’t get a handle on it, and below are some fundamentals I teach to get students into the practice of reading to understand.

Assumption #2: Books were made to be written in
Ever had to put your pen down when you’re reading People or US Weekly on vacation? It’s a problem many academics have. We’re so used to reading with a pen or pencil in hand so we can make notes in margins that it feels strange to read something empty-handed. Reading with a writing utensil at the ready is good practice, but it’s an expectation that needs to be made explicit to young scholars. Highlighters don’t work as well as pens or pencils, because they’re not focused enough. I can highlight a page and return to it the next week with no greater insight into why I highlighted it or thought it was important. Pen/pencil is the way to go for engaging in a dialogue with a text.

Many times students have expressed fear of writing in their books. Image result for do not write in booksThis hesitation may be habit — after all, how many library signs have we read that tell us we should not writing in books? Students may also steer clear of writing in books because they have rented them and want to get their money back at the end of the semester. For students whose resources are on the forefront of their minds, I offer the solution of sticky notes with annotations that can be pulled out after finals. The second fear of writing in books is tougher to crack: students feel that they don’t have the authority to write their own words next to/over/beneath a published author’s words. There’s a fundamental belief that the author’s words are sacred, and undoing this key falsehood is necessary to get students in dialogue with texts. I often tell students that the author has control over their work until they send it to be published, then their words are ours to write on as we please. On the first day of class I often show one page of a book with my annotations on the document camera. The example on the left also a good one to show to lighten the mood — it’s David Foster Wallace’s copy of Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree. Here’s a link to more of Wallace’s book annotations. Granted, they can be overwhelming for beginning (or even advanced) annotators, but they sure are interesting.


There can also be confusion amongst students about WHAT to write in the margins. David Stuart Jr. has a good article about Purposeful Annotation that gives an in-depth look at how to encourage students to be curious annotators.

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Assumption #3: Read for questions, not answers

I’ve found that one of the most productive ways of reading texts is to raise interpretive questions about it. After all, this is where good class discussion comes from, and I’ve found that when students read deeply and question the text, we have much more interesting conversations. For young scholars, asking questions of the text may not be intuitive. For example, they may be used to having the answers to fact-based plot questions, such as “What happened?” but they may not feel secure enough in their roles as critics to ask questions of the text about why or how an author put his/her text together. One of the ways I’ve incorporated this practice into my intro level literature courses is to require students to write a 100-200 word interpretive questions before each class. I snagged this assignment from Chris Baratta’s “Put the Question” exercise included in The Pocket Instructor: Literature: 101 Exercises for the College Classroom. Due to the word limit, these questions can’t be simple and need to be open-ended and textually based. This exercise asks students to find patterns in the text through close engagement and note taking that then leads to a sustained question. At times we start class discussion with one or two questions posed by class members. I find that this boosts the students’ confidence in question-asking and makes for provocative discussion.

Assumption #4: Words matter

Image result for words matterThis is one assumption that is tricky to translate as it does require some time, but the work is well worth the payoff. I let my classes know that we are in the business of words, and as such, words matter very much to us and what we do. Therefore, every time a student comes across a word s/he doesn’t know, s/he is expected to look it up and write the definition in the text next to that word. This seems tedious at first and it’s helpful to begin this practice with poetry since there are fewer words per page. I test students on unfamiliar words as part of their reading quizzes, and after initial groans they learn that this is an expectation of their reading and annotation work. They often find that knowing what particular words mean alter their understandings of the poem. For example, knowing what the word “Cornice” means in Emily Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for Death” is a key moment to understanding that the speaker may not be alive when speaking the poem.

Annotation Exercise

I’ve started each course this semester by using this annotation exercise. I’ve done this in previous semesters when all my students had smartphones where I told them to take a “before” and “after” picture of one page of their text. The side-by-side images help them differentiate between the kinds of thinking that happen in the first and second readings of the text, but they’re not essential if students do not have access to smartphones as resources…they can rely on nature’s first photograph (their memories) in this short exercise.

  1. A student reads the text aloud to the entire class. After that student has read, I give the class a few minutes to jot down their takeaways from the text (what they remember, what is most important, etc). This is the BEFORE portion of the exercise. If you like, you can have students photograph their papers. As a class we discuss the text and students share what stuck out to them. These ideas typically circle around what happened and big, obvious symbols present in the text.
  2. The student rereads the text or students read the text silently to themselves, this time with a pen or pencil in hand. They make marginal notes, underline, and question the text. Afterwards, they jot down the new information they learned while annotating. This is the AFTER portion of the exercise. Students can photograph this scribbled on page and do a side-by-side comparison. As a class, we discuss the text again. I ask the students what was different about their non-annotated and annotated readings. This semester many students said they were able to notice things — subtle use of words and phrasing — that they hadn’t paid attention to the first time around. This is a short lesson, but it shows the improvement in comprehension when annotation comes into play.


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I begin my courses this way to set up the student expectations about what kind of effort I look for when I assign a reading. This also shows that reading is a slow, involved process, and that’s ok — what we do takes time. This may intimidate students at first, but the more they are held accountable for deep reading, the more I find them adapting this as regular practice.

Food for Thought: Electronic or Hard Copy Annotations?

Perhaps I’m a luddite, but I require lower-level students to have hard copies of the text in hand so they learn hand-written annotation. In upper-level classes I offer them the option of having the text electronically with the understanding that they are already employing skills of close reading and annotation. I know there are highlighter and note taking possibilities in certain e-readers, but I’m not yet convinced that these are as effective as hard copy note taking for those who are able to do so. Am I a dinosaur? Probably. I’m open to anyone who can convince me of effective electronic annotation tools for young scholars. Please chime in!



Teaching Film and Film Adaptations in Literature Courses

This past spring, we had a few posts on different elements of teaching film, Jacinta Yanders on documentary films and composition and Phil Smith on teaching Disney adaptations in a two part post. This week I am discussing another aspect of teaching film: when, why, and how we use them in the literature classroom. And, heads up, my southern literature background steals the show in this post.

I have taught film studies in the past, so I am an avid supporter of teaching film. I have served as a pre-screener for an independent film festival, and I also love a blockbuster. I can generally find something or many things to appreciate regardless of how “good” or “bad” a film has been deemed. All that said, I am very careful of when I incorporate films into the literature classroom.

For me, the crux of the issue of teaching film adaptation in literature classrooms is that movies create definitive images of characters, settings, importance of themes, etc.

For instance, who is your Anne Shirley? Megan Follows from the 1985 Anne of Green Gables mini-series and its sequels or Amybeth McNulty from the 2017 Anne with an E? There were many strong reactions, both positive and negative to the newest version, that are centered on adaptation and which of the Annes held up in individuals’ imaginations. But what about Anne Shirley from 1908-1985? What did she look like when coming to life in her readers’ minds? My Canadian grandmother grew up on Prince Edward Island, so the novel held a solid presence in my childhood.

I have heard the argument in passing and face-to-face discussions that film clips can give students a sense of setting and show them different time periods regardless of how bad the adaptation might be. I am not sold on that being a good enough reason to bring film adaptations into the classroom. Are the writers we teach in our classrooms capable of successfully setting a scene and helping readers envision the world and characters of their literature? I hope so. If not, then why is it vague or cryptic? (I’m thinking of some Modernists here.) In other words, how important is what gets lost or forced in adaptation? How important is what the literature creates in our students’ minds on its own?

Teaching Film Adaptation or Just the Film

Despite my appreciation for “bad” movies, most of the literature I teach does not do well in the adaptation department. Maybe it’s an issue of under funding or maybe it is a disconnect between the original writer and screenwriter that loses the essence of the original text. I do think that discussions of adaptation, and especially entire courses devoted to film adaptation, are productive. It is accurate to note that if I were to teach a film adaptation course, I would largely be teaching texts I haven’t taught before.

I’m going to be very upfront about the fact that the films I teach in my literature courses are nearly all adaptations from plays (note: below I discuss not overdoing the use of film when teaching plays). In an introduction to American literature course, I spent a chunk of time on Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof–the 1958 adaptation staring Paul Newman and Liz Taylor–due to the rewriting of the main plot conflict between play and the film.

Williams refused to be a part of the film’s production, and its Broadway director Elia Kazan, who also directed many other films, refused to direct it based on the changes. My students follow along in their books, assessing how the movie reflects the play. It goes along rather smoothly throughout the first act, but by act two, they are flipping pages and trying to figure out how the movie derailed so far from the play. “Why is this whole scene taking place in a basement?” or “I don’t understand why this scene is here or what Big Daddy is doing” or “Wait, I thought he was in love with his friend” kick off our discussion. This is the point that Williams and Kazan would not take part in. By 1984, a year after Williams’ death, a new version by Jack Hofsiss takes back important pieces of the plot. Having students follow along in their books while noting elements of the text that are well produced or missing makes them more active readers and challenges their assumptions.

 Film as Film

I have also ditched the written version a time or two and taught just the film. Normally my decision to leave the written version out of the course has to do with the original writer also serving as the screenwriter. For instance, I have taught Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes, starring Betty Davis, without the play. There is a significant change between the ending of the play and the ending of the film that I find more interesting than my students generally do, but without knowledge of the play, some of those elements would lead to an adaptation discussion disappear. When I validate the screenwriter’s work as worth study, something else happens instead. Students’ change the way they think about both literature and film.

When Teaching Plays, Respect Performance

One of the great things about teaching plays is that performance is a key component of the form. Additionally, the structure of most plays–acts and scenes–make it easier to show clips as opposed to the film in its entirety. Perhaps even more importantly, there are so many options, not just one (or maybe two) film adaptations, but theater productions from high schools, colleges, community theater troupes, and professional shows on youtube!

I often don’t bring in film adaptations when teaching plays because sometimes things happen in adaptations that make the rough around the edges high school stage production 100 times better that its cinema counterpart. Does anyone remember John Malkovich as Tom Wingfield in the 1987 film adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie? No. Well, I don’t recommend watching it. After a two minute clip, my students were dumbfounded. Their responses ranged from “That was awful” to “That’s not how I read the tone of the play” to “They made that from this?” Looks of disgust filled the classroom as students tried to understand how the dark comedy they thought they were working with turned into just a depressing drama that took itself way too seriously.

Now, Enter the same two minute clip from the Booth Theater’s 2013 production of The Glass Menegerie with Zachary Quinto as Tom and Cherry Jones as Amanda Wingfield–well not exactly the same two minutes because pacing delivered us more in that same amount of time. The energy of the stage and from the actors created the characters and tone my students expected to see. We discussed the differences between the written version of the play in their hands, the film version, and the stage version. The written version varied the most because they each brought their own nuanced reading of it, while there was a clear consensus on the film and stage versions.

Last semester in my British Literature: Romantics to Present course, the first performance of Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days they saw was an impromptu production by their classmates with props I brought to class that day. As a class, they had a similar feel for Winnie and Willy–perhaps because it came at the end of the semester and they were used to the way their classmates read the literature at that point–even without me framing it for them. After discussing the performance, we watched a few clips from theater productions and they were annoyed with the character decisions made in the adaptations. Even though they found Winnie annoying generally, they felt the adaptations over exaggerated her and undermined the moments of sympathy they felt for her. I guess my use of adaptation in the classroom tends to fall on the side of the adaptations’ shortcomings, not successes. In this case, they were so invested in their creation of the characters refused to let the multiple visual representation change what existed in their imaginations.

Ultimately, I worry about doing a potential disservice to students. We should constantly ask what the film is going to add to our students’ understanding and our curriculum, and why it is important.

What are your thoughts on teaching film in the lit classroom?