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100 Sticky Notes, or The Simple Way to Move from Observations to Composing

posted: 9.30.09 by Traci Gardner

I have a new challenge for the next class of students I teach:

Buy one package of sticky notes. Any brand will do, but be sure that they are about 3″ square. There should be about 100 notes in the pad. They don’t need to be a name brand. Check the dollar store for cheap ones.

As you read texts for class this term, write your comments or questions on the sticky notes, along with the related page number, and add them to the book. During the term, I want you to use the entire pad of sticky notes.

Sound like busy work? It’s anything but. Take a look at “Added Bonus—Writing a Reader’s Response Journal Entry” from the Scholastic Classroom Solutions blog. I know. It’s an entry from a 3–5 teacher. Stay with me. Take a look at what she’s having students do.

Students write their reader response reflections and analysis on sticky notes and then adhere them to the page that the comment applies to. The journal questions that Victoria Jasztal, the teacher-blogger, uses could work with students at any level, with some slight changes to make the task age-appropriate, or you could use your own journal questions with this technique. Later, Jasztal shares a journal entry that a student might write after writing their sticky notes.

My hunch is that you’re asking why go through all this trouble. If students bought their own books, couldn’t they just underline and make comments in the margin? Sure, they could. But there are some real benefits that I’d like to point out for using sticky notes.

Perhaps the most obvious argument for the technique is that there are times when students can’t or don’t want to write in the books that they are using. The student might have a book from the library for a research project. Perhaps the student has borrowed a book from a roommate. Maybe the student just doesn’t like the idea of writing in books. Sticky notes seem like the perfect solution for all these situations. That’s only the beginning of why this is a great technique for the writing classroom, though.

The size of the sticky notes encourages students to focus on concise, concentrated comments. I suggest either the 3″ square notes or, at most, the 3″ by 5″ rectangular notes. Anything other than the little flags will probably work though. On a 3″ square note, most students can write at least one full sentence. The notes are for their own use, so abbreviations and shortcuts are fine. As long as they can read their notes later, spelling and mechanics don’t really matter. Compare the short comments to the kind of concentrated comments people post on Twitter and in Facebook status updates. The kind of commentary should be familiar to most students. The goal is to ask them to apply that kind of writing to the texts that they are reading in class.

Once students begin using the technique, the sticky notes can improve class discussion. Ask students to point to a passage that stood out in a reading and you often get blank stares. Who remembers that the third paragraph on page 345 was confusing? Underlined text and margin notes might help, but sticky notes poking from the edges of the book make this task easy. The same things works in reverse, of course. If you point the class to a specific passage, you can ask who has a note on the page. Depending upon your classroom set-up, you may even be able to see whose books have notes on the page.

When it comes time for students to compose, the sticky notes can help writers point to supporting details. First, have students make sure that their sticky notes include the page number they relate to, so that they can return to the passages later. You might even urge them to be more specific by pointing to a paragraph number or sentence (e.g., sentence 2 in the second paragraph). Next, have students pull all notes out of the book and arrange them based on similarities. Depending upon the project, there could be piles based on different kinds of imagery, different characters in a story, different rhetorical techniques, and so forth. After notes are sorted, students can choose a topic based on the pile that is most interesting and that gives them enough support for their argument. Students can then place the notes on notebook paper and use them as a jot outline for the evidence to include in their paper. Remind students that they don’t need to use every sticky note, only those that relate to the paper topics they choose.

After writing a paper, students can use the sticky-note technique for peer review comments. Have students write their questions and comments on sticky notes and adhere them to the peer drafts. Since they are writing for other readers, remind them to avoid any unfamiliar abbreviations or shorthand. The sticky notes will give reviewers plenty of space to make their comments without marking up the original document. They can also be removed so that a second reader can comment on the same draft without seeing what other readers have said. Perhaps most importantly, the process applies the same critical thinking process to peer drafts that students apply to the every other text in class.

The technique can take students from first observations all the way to composing the final draft. It’s definitely not busy work. It encourages students to make critical connections to their readings, and, by nature of sticking their comments down, students are literally forced to connect their thoughts to specific passages in the texts. Once they understand this technique, students can easily use it in any class or subject area (as well as in the workplace). And my hunch is that when they use up that first pad of 100 sticky notes, they’ll get another pad.

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Categories: Assignment Idea, Citing Sources, Discussion, Drafting, Peer Review, Planning
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2 Responses to “100 Sticky Notes, or The Simple Way to Move from Observations to Composing”

  1. Jared Anthony, Spokane Falls Community College Says:

    This is an awesome idea, Traci. Thanks for tracking it down and repurposing it for us. And thanks for taking the time to step us through the application. I’m going to do this–today!

  2. Ann Ballard, BHS Says:

    As a literacy teacher in a high school resource classroom, I welcome this idea as a wonderful way to also accommodate students who struggle to remember what they have read. By writing notes on these sticky notes, they are able to participate in class along side their non handicapped peers. Your article substantiated the fact that this activity is acceptable at all grade levels thus removing the stigma associated with many modifications. Thank you. Ann