Annotations Part Two: A Story of the Story

Each year after we finish a book I recollect them.  Each time I collect the books the students have to remove their annotations.

Usually when I collect The Odyssey from my 9th grade English class,  I can see all their various vibrant sticky notes.

Student Book

 Last year as the class began removing their ‘reading work’ notes I knew then I wanted to do something more with the process. I took a few photos.



I was dissatisfied. So, I played around with the table, the light, the annotations, and asked the students for help: a collective visual of their reading experience. I liked the photo, but…


Still, I was sorry they were losing all this work.  When we own and mark texts we also have a range of visual reminders. I have had students annotating texts for years, using a variety of methods, styles, structures, and designs.  Marking a text, making a visual mark. Getting rid of the annotations seemed problematic. If reading is an ongoing experience where we never know how long a word, a phrase, a dialogue, a description will linger with us, could we find a way to have fuller reminders in class, for individual readers?

As the time approached this year to collect their books I kept wondering,  Is there a way to re-view, to-regain, to create? Then, I thought:  Why not use their journals? Why not make a visual of the visual? A story of the story? I then wrote the following assignment:

Homework for the Weekend

I will collect your book on Monday.  Over the weekend I would like for you to create a work of art using your sticky notes from your reading work.  The work should be in your journal. The art should tell the story of your journey reading The Odyssey.  You will need to use all your sticky notes. You may additionally draw, glue, and/or design. I will need to see specific details about your annotations in your work of art (the type, the book references, the purpose, etc).  When I collect your books on Monday  all sticky notes should be removed.

 I wondered over the weekend how the assignment would be realized. I was very confident in them, but less confident in my idea. Was this too much?

On that Monday a few students shared their work and I quickly realized they had gone beyond anything I had imagined. On their own, without any additional instruction each student had continued the story of their reading. By shaping a visual mark of their reasoning and experience on the page they ‘made’ an argument about their reading experience. Sound familiar?  Here’s a sampling:










Students provided explantations of their argument, of their design methods and their aims.  As seen above, many found ways to weave together the story of The Odyssey with the story of their reading process.

Reading as a boat, a maze, a tree, a change, a journey.

And like Odysseus their annotations found a place to rest, to live. They took the opportunity to abstract their reading work even further in remarkable ways. This story of the story teaches and delights– not only their audiences and themselves, but now also the world, our world.

–James Shivers






5 thoughts on “Annotations Part Two: A Story of the Story

  1. James, this is amazing! I have often thought about all those wonderful annotations that are simply recycled. I see great potential for this at the elementary level as well! Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thanks Jen. I can only imagine what a younger set of students would do with the opportunity. Would love to see anything you try. Cheers, James

  2. James, this is simply brilliant! I’m thinking of ways that “annotations” could translate into my 5’s class. I adore the variety of projects that your students created. I love when “students go beyond” what we can imagine!

  3. James – I want to go back to HS English to be in your class. Not only do I love the possible implications of trying annotations with primary learners but owning those notes – and as a English major in college I annotated like crazy, but to own them, enjoy them, reflect on them and not just rip them out to pass the book on to the next unsuspecting reader is incredible!
    Thank you for your creativity and willingness to try unconventional things in your room!

    1. Thanks Daron for your kind note! Yes, I too remember all those annotations. After I read your comment I began reflecting on where I saw my first annotations. I think probably it was the ubiquitous yellow highlighter in a friend’s book. I was amazed at how much was highlighted! I always (and only) underlined or wrote in the margins. In a culture history course I remember seeing illuminated manuscripts for the first time and thinking, ‘wow, I would love to do something like that…’ Now, years later, I thought why not encourage creative and critical ‘marks’ in the classroom as a reading act. In my next post, I’ll show some work we have done with Shakespeare inspired by Tom Phillips. Thanks again for your comments!

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