Annotation Smnotation!

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Why do we annotate?

Bet you paused for a moment to collect your thoughts. Why’d you do that? I’m willing to assume (whether it makes me an ass or not) that it’s because there is an inch of uncertainty. I’ve been teaching for seven years and when I ask my English classes to annotate, I struggle to articulate why this is such a valuable skill. I have the rote answers: college preparation, develop analytic skills, seeing ‘beneath the surface’ of a text, connecting ideas, etc. Not that any of those reasons are wrong, but is annotation truly purposeful?

The traditionalist in me what’s to say that annotation is certainly purposeful and necessary for youth to know and learn, but is that because I’ve been socialized to agree with that point of view or because I see its value intrinsically? I worry that its because I’ve been told its what students have to know. This is a genuine struggle for me as I try to get my students to understand its purpose when I ‘make’ them complete an annotation on something we’re reading. I feel like I fumble over the words because they feel disingenuous or forced from my own mouth. Do I really believe in annotation? Sometimes I don’t know. I honestly didn’t do much of it in college, and I don’t do a ton now. I chalk some of this up to experience as a reader and novice scholar. I carry this hubris with me that I see the text at a different level from the moment I start reading.

For my students though, I think my hang up is that not all my students need annotation as a skill. I think many do, but I find it hard to justify having many of them annotate while others get a ‘pass’. Education in our country seeks to be inherently fair and equal even if it falls short of such ideas in many ways. I am no different–to be fair I feel I cannot create two different expectations.

I see light at the end of this this windy tunnel, though. Annotation, if nothing else, is that equalizer for students across groups and divisions. It helps my students see some connective tissue in a piece of writing that is obvious to some but elusive to others. That’s where I find comfort in asking all my students to pursue annotation as a skill in my classroom. Not because they’ll use it their whole lives or even that much in college, but rather that some day they’ll read text and not have to write a single annotation because they see the text in well-designed, pealed back layers already!

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