Annotating in the Vernacular

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Spring break has come and gone and with it some really amazing experiences around Atlanta with my wife, including favorites like Fernbank, the zoo, the aquarium, The Shakespeare Tavern for a production of Macbeth, and even The Fox Theater to see The Lion King. I also really nerded-out by spending the second weekend of the break at the state Latin convention with my former Latin teacher and our school’s JCL (Junior Classical League) chapter. Today’s post, however, has really nothing to do with these great experiences; rather, it centers on a subject I broached recently in annotation. My original post centered around deciphering the purpose of annotation and what it means for my high school students and what it means for me now as a teaching professional. I’m coming back to this today because of what I found in a student copy of Lord of the Flies left in my room that I discovered just before the break.

Check out the images below first and then I’ll discuss–or I guess monologue since you can’t quite speak back to me in real time! Anyway, take a look:

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Notice anything? I didn’t much at first either. (I should preface by mentioning that this is indeed a passage I requested my students to annotate, but what they wrote and how they organized their annotation was entirely up to them.)

When I first found this book in the class, I carelessly flipped through the pages wondering to which student it belonged. (At this point, we were finished with the novel.) I landed squarely on these two pages naturally and glossed over my students interaction with the text. Upon first glance, it simply looked to me as if they’d completed the task, but when I took a bit of time to really read the student’s ‘dialog’ with the text, the word ‘ratchet’ on the second page struck me! I believe I smiled broadly and even chuckled in that moment alone in my classroom. “Ralph realizes he looks ratchet.” Wow. Now don’t misinterpret that wow; I genuinely am impressed at this point–to me the language used in the margins of the book demonstrates a genuine reaction and dialog with the text. There’s no pretense here, no ‘school’ vocabulary, no “let’s write how the teacher expects me to write” syndrome. I love it. The epiphany that this student was using his or her vernacular to connect readily to the text is heartwarming.

Look again at the top of the second page. “The jelly-like fruit shows how alien the island to [sic] them–they don’t know what they’re eating.” What a freaking cool connection! This certainly isn’t anything that came out of my mouth when conversing about the book. Here again, the student is genuinely conversing with the text and giving meaning to the mention of the fruit that’s being eaten on the island. (For anyone unfamiliar, the fruit is consumed mainly by the young boys on the island, causing them to get sick frequently.) The connection here to the unknown fruit to the alien nature of the island is exactly what we look for in our students, right?! To have them make the connection, to dig deeper, to see past the first layer of an author’s rhetoric!

This may be me overreacting, but this gave me renewed faith in why annotation can be powerful for any student. In this case, it allowed him or her to freely connect the passage as he or she saw fit, unafraid of any consequence of not using the ‘right’ vocabulary, and freely making assumptions with the provided evidence in the text. As you glance through the annotation, you’ll also notice some novice assumptions and explanations given, but what a win in my book when you see just that glimpse of a real interaction with a fictional text take place with a 15 year old student.

I’m not sure you’ll find this as inspiring as I did, but I found it worth sharing. I encourage you to allow students that authority to dialog honestly with text; that doesn’t mean avoid the academic vocabulary or language, but just to allow for genuine, vernacular reactions to the text where they can learn to be their own authority when they see something hiding between the words and syntax of a text.

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