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Matthew Peters

Education 403
Sr. Mary Ann Jacobs
Due: 4/27/18
Note Taking to Promote Literacy and Understanding in a Secondary Social Studies Classroom

In a world that is becoming increasingly focused on technological advancements, the

thought of taking notes using a pen and paper seems to be relatively old-fashioned to many

people. As a matter of fact, in an educational setting, the idea of ensuring that students take

individual, original notes seems to have become an antiquated idea in and of itself. Over the

course of the semester, I have observed several secondary social studies classrooms at DeWitt

Clinton High School in the Bronx, a school that most recently suffers from a lack of materials

and structured instruction. Throughout the semester, I followed several students in an honors

level social studies classroom that appeared to be on different academic levels when they were

required to take notes for class. The goal that I set out to complete over the course of several

weeks was to make sure that these selected students improved upon their writing and note-taking

skills and that an improvement in note-taking would then, in turn, lead to an improvement in

participation and classroom engagement. Overall, when working with the students at DeWitt

Clinton High School, I realized that note-taking is a crucial element of the classroom that, when

not properly included, severely impacts the students’ participation and writing skills.

One problem that many students face throughout their educational careers is the fact that

they do not have sufficient note taking skills, which ultimately leads to various other issues

within the classroom. As technology rapidly becomes a part of the classroom, teachers often

forget to emphasize the importance of written work as well as note taking during lectures and

other important activities. This evident lack of note-taking can be seen very clearly at DeWitt
Clinton High School, where some teachers do not stress taking notes at all during the lecture, and

merely provide students with worksheets to fill out as a guide.

The current state of DeWitt Clinton High School is one that appears troubling to many

observers. One of the most striking problems that exists at DeWitt Clinton today is the fact that

the school has a graduation rate of less than fifty percent (SOURCE). While low grades are most

likely the cause of the high dropout rate, at the beginning of my observation at DeWitt Clinton, I

looked to find one of the main reasons for poor student performance in a social studies

classroom. The main classroom that I observed while at DeWitt Clinton High School was an

honors U.S. History class in the eleventh grade, taught by Mr. Dimitratos. Even though this class

contained students at a higher level than other social studies classes, many of the students

struggled with the same problems throughout the period of observation. One of the problems that

these students face at DeWitt Clinton almost every day is the lack of engagement in the material

as well as lack of participation. In nearly every class that I observed, there were only around

three or four students that actively participated while Mr. Dimitratos attempted to guide the other

students along through the lesson. When studying the behavior of these students in the

classroom, one can tell that their lack of engagement in the material clearly stems from the fact

that virtually none of the students are actively taking notes in their notebooks.

Mr. Dimitratos uses a form of guided worksheets as a means to help students follow

along with the lesson. The worksheets that Mr. Dimitratos typically provides begin with a “Do

Now” exercise, in which students must respond to a question or paragraph that correlates to the

previous day’s assignment. After the “Do Now,” the teacher begins with a very short direct

instruction, and then follows the lecture up with a few short activities in which students follow

along on the worksheet, reading short passages and answering a few questions. The one thing
that I noticed about the lessons that Mr. Dimitratos plans is that he predominantly tries to allow

the lesson to fit on one worksheet for every class, therefore guiding the students through the

lesson. However, while the worksheets are intended to help the students practice for the Regent’s

exams by using brief passages and quotes, the major problem with the worksheets is that it does

not allow students the opportunity to take adequate notes on the direct instruction portion of the

lesson. For example, when looking at Figure 1.1, one can see that the worksheet on President

Herbert Hoover and the Great Depression consists mostly of short documents and provides a

small amount of room for response. The one thing that Mr. Dimitratos fails to mention to the

students is that they should take notes on the lecture portion of the class, which then allows the

students to lose focus and ultimately perform poorly on the written assignments. In order to

improve future lessons for Mr. Dimitratos, I ventured out to see if providing students with a form

of guided notes would allow them to eventually build upon their note-taking skills and better

understand the material being taught.

Review of Literature

Note-taking has been argued as one of the most important ways to allow students to

better understand the material in class and is clearly one of the easiest ways for students to retain

information. One of the many arguments that has been made about why teachers should focus on

teaching note taking skills in the classroom is the fact that note taking helps with not only

learning written language, but also learning the structure of the spoken language of the content

area as well. According to Natalia Romanova in the article, “Linguistic Literacy and ELLs: A

Conceptual Framework,” “They also use the notational system used in the written modality:

learning orthographic conventions helps them learn about the structure of spoken language and

acquire new linguistic concepts” (Romanova, 2009, pp. 3). Essentially, what Romanova is
arguing in her article is that if students practice note-taking skills in and out of the classroom,

they will gain a better idea of how the written discourse of the content area is used. Furthermore,

students will be able to use their notes that they take in class a method of learning specific

content vocabulary which in turn will allow them to become better speakers.

Another argument in favor of note taking comes from Ernest Morrell in his article,

“Teaching English Powerfully: Four Challenges,” in which Morrell argues that note taking and

other skills such as close-reading allow students to analyze a wider variety of texts in the

classroom. According to Morrell, “Students need to enrich their vocabulary, they need to

understand the implicit and sometimes explicit rules of genre, and they need to develop skills

that will allow them to summarize and analyze the texts that they come into contact with”

(Morrell, 2015, pp. 6). This quote is probably one of the most significant quotes from Morrell’s

article regarding how English teachers should help build literacy skills of students. While

Morrell discusses an English classroom, his statement above applies to all content areas in terms

of how note-taking is an important tool to use as a means to allow students to summarize and

analyze various forms of text. In the classroom, Morrell argues that students should be given

access to explore different modes and genres of text, and this comes as a result of proper note-

taking, which will allow students to properly analyze texts and pull out key details and

vocabulary (Morrell, 2015, pp. 7).

Finally, one of the most important arguments that scholars have made for why note-

taking is important in the classroom is that note-taking helps improve student communication

and participation. When observing the participation at DeWitt Clinton High School, one can

clearly see that there is a severe lack of student engagement in the material. However, the

teachers, particularly Mr. Dimitratos, would be wise to incorporate note-taking as a means of

ensuring that students are actively thinking about the material and building upon prior

knowledge that has been learned in previous lessons. In his article, “Bored Out of Their Minds,”

Zachary Jason discusses how boredom in the classroom is mainly due to the shift from tactile

learning at a young age to a more cerebral and regimented style of learning in high school (Jason,

2017). While Jason argues that secondary education has become more structured, thus causing

boredom amongst students, it is important to understand that this does not mean that note-taking

automatically contributes to boredom. As a matter of fact, the main reason why note-taking may

be one of the causes of classroom disengagement is due to the fact that the teacher does not

approach note-taking the correct way. For example, in Deborah DeZure’s research on note-

taking implications for faculty and students, she states that, “Several studies indicate that

students have difficulty organizing lecture material and identifying main points” (DeZure, 2001,

pp. 2). This passage from DeZure’s article on note-taking is strikingly accurate in supporting

Jason’s argument on why students are bored during class. While note-taking may often bore

students due to its perception of being regimented and only used for memorization, DeZure

argues that the teachers may be at fault for not scaffolding the skills needed for students to take

successful notes while still being engaged in class (DeZure, 2001).

Areas of Focus of the Study

Based on the research of other scholars on the importance of note-taking, the

observational research focused on whether or not the students of DeWitt Clinton High School

would benefit from being scaffolded in a social studies classroom setting to learn how to

independently take their own notes. In order to perform this study, I observed an eleventh-grade

Honors social studies classroom under the guidance of Mr. Dimitratos. The whole class was not

the subject of this study, but instead I focused on two particular students, one student who
consistently participated in class discussion, and one student who remained relatively quiet for

the forty-minute period. While each student differed in the amount of contribution toward class

discussion, both students shared the same problem of a lack of note-taking skills during the direct

instruction portion of the lesson.

For the first few weeks, I observed the classroom to determine the two students that I

would work with in order to develop note-taking skills. After observing, I proposed a plan that

would begin by providing students with completed guided notes for that day’s lecture. Since this

organizer was already filled out with the appropriate detail, the students were not required to take

any notes, and instead simply follow along with the direct instruction. The following week, the

two students would receive a similar organizer, but they would be responsible for filling out the

missing information during the lecture. By the end of observation, the students would have been

presented with an organizer that was empty, and therefore the note-taking would be entirely

student-centered. The organizers that I predominantly chose to use for this study were semantic

maps and semantic question maps, as these organizers were the best fit for the lessons that had

already been put together by Mr. Dimitratos. For example, one of the first lessons in his class

using the organizers was on the secession of the South during the Civil War. Mr. Dimitratos

spends the majority of the class focusing on making sure that the students understand the vocab

that will most likely be on the Regent’s exams. Therefore, I believed the use of a semantic map

in the classroom as a means of taking notes was a guarantee that note-taking would improve for

both of these students.

Data Collection

Below are examples of the assignments that were provided to the students, as well as data

that was collected during class participation. After each of the two students, Student 1 and
Student 2, filled out the semantic maps during the direct instruction portion of the lesson, I

tracked to see how many times the students either raised their hands or spoke out loud to answer

a question that was posed during the short activities that followed. Figure 1.2 below is the first

example of the semantic map that was completely filled out for Student 1 and Student 2, in

which they were not required to take notes on this organizer. As one can see, the semantic map

clearly details the main points of the lecture on the Civil War and secession as well as what

students need to know in regards to the “Who, What, When, Where, and Significance.” This

strategy seemed to follow the Romanova approach that was mentioned earlier; using note-taking

skills as a way to enhance vocabulary (Romanova, 2009). By using the word “secession,” as the

main idea, this map allows the two students to get a grasp of a key vocabulary word as well as

the main ideas surrounding just this one word.

After going through the direct instruction, Mr. Dimitratos provided his typical worksheets

for the class and had them read short passages and answer a few questions that students may find

on the Regent’s exam. As the class reviewed the answers out loud, Student 1 and Student 2

clearly showed signs of growth in terms of class participation as is tracked by how many times

they raised their hand/spoke aloud to the class. The table that illustrates these details is below:

Student # of times hands # of times hands # of correct # of correct

raised before the raised using answers before answers using

assignment semantic map the assignment semantic map

1 4 6 3 out of 4 5 out of 6

2 1 4 0 out of 1 3 out of 4
When looking at the table and Figure 1.2 below, one can clearly see that, when provided with a

complete set of main ideas in a semantic map, both Students 1 and 2 not only participated more

in class discussion as opposed to previous lessons, but both of the students answered more

questions correctly than in previous observations without being provided guided notes. These

results seem to be consistent with the research of scholars that were mentioned earlier, such as

DeZure, who states that students will be bored if not presented with the material in an organized

and clear format (DeZure, 2001). Since both students had a clear and organized semantic map

related to the direct instruction for the day, they were more easily able to follow along during the

individual/group activities and therefore were more engaged in the lesson, leading to a greater

class discussion.

One of the final steps in the plan after scaffolding students’ note-taking skills with

semantic maps was to provide students with a blank organizer and have the two students fill out

the organizer based on the strategies used in previous observations. However, I decided to use a

basic Roman numeral organizer as opposed to a semantic map, to analyze how these two

students would fill out the organizer compared to the semantic map, an organizer that they had

gotten accustomed to over a few weeks. The basic organizer is below:

I. Intro- Republican President in the 1920s-1930s

II. The Presidency of Warren Harding

III. The Presidency of Calvin Coolidge

IV. The Presidency of Herbert Hoover

V. Conclusion

As one can see, this organizer is clearly far different from the semantic map in the way that the

ideas are laid out, and this organizer seems to be much more difficult, as there is more material
covered and the students must now write down their own key vocab that they believe to be

important. In a college setting, this organizer would be the most likely choice of some professors

in a history classroom. Since Mr. Dimitratos taught an eleventh grade class, we believed that this

organizer would be a challenge for the students. I tracked the class participation again with the

results below:

Student # of times hands # of times hands # of correct # of correct

raised before the raised using answers before answers using

assignment organizer the assignment organizer

1 4 3 3 out of 4 2 out of 3

2 1 1 0 out of 1 1 out of 1

As one can see by looking at the table, the two students faced a lot more difficulty with the

Roman numeral organizer than with the semantic maps. Both student 1 and student 2 participated

far less in the second activities with the more independent organizer as opposed to the activities

using the semantic maps, in which both of the students thrived and were actively engaged. These

results illustrate that, while these students were possibly used to being given semantic maps over

the course of my observation, they’re note-taking skills still need to improve to a more student-

centered level as opposed to a teacher-centered guide. Since these students are in eleventh grade,

Mr. Dimitratros should most likely begin to teach them to take notes independently as a way to

practice student-centered learning.

In the end, the research proved to be exactly what I had assumed to be the case at the

beginning of my observation at DeWitt Clinton High School. While students in a social studies

setting clearly take little to no notes during the direct instruction portion of the lessons, Mr.
Dimitratos’s students would certainly benefit from more practice using independent organizers

as opposed to teacher-guided notes. While the notes presented to the students greatly benefit

them in terms of increasing class participation, Mr. Dimitratos needs to work on a long term plan

to gradually introduce students to the idea of taking their own notes as opposed to simply being

presented with worksheets at the start of every class. With the research I collected as well as the

research of other scholars, it is clear that note-taking is an essential part of the social studies

classroom, ultimately leading to advanced vocabulary skills and increased class participation.
Figure 1.2 What?

 The act of
formally from a
political state
 The same idea as
 Secession= secede


 The Civil War  Abraham

 The South secedes Lincoln
from the Union Secession  Jefferson Davis
 The Emancipation  Freed Slaves vs.
Proclamation in Slaves in the
1863 South

 Lincoln’s reasoning for the
Emancipation Proclamation
seemed to stem from uniting the
 Did he really want all slaves
 Lincoln used political craft in
order to persuade both sides to
come to an agreement

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