Over the years, students have taught me many vital lessons. Najla was no exception. Here is the story…. Not long after we began to implement data-driven instruction at North Star Academy (a high-performing school in Newark, NJ, where I worked with Paul Bambrick-Santoyo, who later wrote Driven by Data), my colleagues and I in the Humanities Department sat down to analyze the results of the second Critical Reading Assessment. The results weren’t pretty. The assessment was designed to target the critical reading portion of the PSAT and SAT, and the questions were not easy. A few students did well, though, so we knew it wasn’t impossible. Figuring that the ubiquitous robust vocabulary had tripped students up, we decided to teach them 50-60 SAT-type words that would appear on the next test, then we’d be able to see if the problem was the vocabulary or something else. We also decided to teach them how to annotate: to underline the thesis/topic sentences, star supporting details, circle unfamiliar vocabulary words, note questions in the margin, and summarize the passage.
A quick sidebar: I was very proud of the posters I made and distributed with directions on “How to Annotate” until a few days later, when a history colleague came to me and said that when annotating for homework, her students had circled lots of words… but then hadn’t bothered to guess the meanings or look them up! She solved that problem by instituting open-homework quizzes; students instantly realized they would do much better if they noted synonyms/definitions.
After the third assessment, we looked at the results and were again disappointed. Overall, scores had not improved very much. But when we looked more closely at the data, we noticed that several students had improved DRAMATICALLY. In particular, a 10th-grader named Najla had jumped from 35% on the previous assessment to 67% on this one. To put this in perspective, given the difficulty of the test, 67% was considered an A. Only two other students had out-scored Najla. What made this even more striking was that Najla was not an A student. At the time, she was not even a B student. But she worked incredibly hard and would do anything you asked her to. A classic example of what Carol Dweck would call someone with a “growth mindset,” she was determined to succeed.
So, burning with curiosity, we dug through the pile of tests and pulled out Najla’s.
It didn’t take us long to figure out what Najla had done: she’d annotated the HECK out of the test! She had written all over it, underlining main ideas, starring supporting details, noting questions that occurred to her….
We were convinced. In true North Star fashion, we vowed to teach annotation more aggressively in every subject, assigned annotation for homework every night, and REQUIRED students to annotate on the next assessment (if they didn’t, they’d have to stay after school for three hours and re-take the test).
Annotation works. And although it might take a little extra time, it’s time well spent, and it’s a study skill our students will need if they are going to be successful in college. Check out the TLC “Nonfiction Reading Strategies” page for annotation rubrics and other needed resources.
*This entry is adapted from The Literacy Cookbook, which is available for pre-order HERE.
 Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY: Random House.