Introducing a new blog feature: Teach It Tuesday. Wherein I write about some of the things I do when I teach English.
Teach It Tuesday: Clean Notes, Dirty Notes
This first one's a general strategy, really. I taught high school for three years. If you've ever taught high school, you're probably familiar with these three refrains:
- Are we doing anything today????
- Do we have to do anything today??? (A variation on #1)
- Will this be on the test???
I heard each of these questions...multiple times a week. It didn't matter how many times I answered the question (Yes! Yes...the answer is always, always yes. You don't have to ask.)
I never figured out a great solution for the first two questions, and I never quite got over the demoralizing, wind-out-of-the-sails feeling of getting to work...and having the people who you work for beg you to not do your job.
But I did come up with a workaround for Question #3, which I stole wholesale from my dad's law firm. Clean Notes, Dirty Notes.
I'm not sure if this is true at all law firms, but at my dad's firm, every deal had two files. Every house closing deal. Every business deal. There was the clean file, and there was the dirty file.
The dirty file is an organic thing, full of microfiche copies, and Post-it Notes, and handwritten reminders on the backs of receipts, and rumpled papers stapled together slightly askew. The dirty file grows in the weeks between the offer and the closing. The dirty file is fat and messy and dog-eared, and gross. The client never sees the dirty file. The dirty file is the backstage tour, the behind the scenes interview...the research.
The clean file is sleek, about 1/3 the size of the dirty file. Pristine. The clean file contains nothing but freshly-minted legal documents of uniform length, bound together evenly with a single black clip. The clean file is the face of the organization, the file that makes it to the closing table. The clean file is only what's required to get the deal done.
When I first imported this idea into my high school English class, I wasn't sure how the students would take to it. I was trying to figure out a way to be less free-form than I had been as a college English teacher. These students aren't in college yet; they do still need some help determining what's important. But I also didn't want to tie myself down to a projected outline, day in, day out. Forever and ever, amen.
Beginning of the semester, I introduced the concept. I had the students divide their notebooks. The front 1/3 for clean notes. The back 2/3 for dirty notes.
"A classroom is mostly an organic thing," I told them, "growing day by day. I add to it, but so does every one in the classroom. I can't predict what any of you will say or will bring to the discussion, so I can't outline the experience and feed it to you. That's where your dirty notes come in. I want the back 2/3 of your notebooks to be messy and dirty and full of strange quotes and classroom jokes and doodles. In this class, we'll spend most of our time working on those dirty notes, because that's where the real discovery happens."
If an announcement interrupts class, will that go in the dirty notes?!
If someone sneezes really loudly and makes someone in the front of the room jump will that go in the dirty notes?!
If someone falls asleep and starts snoring and everyone else is trying so hard not to laugh will that go in the dirty notes?!
"Yes. All of it. It can all go in the dirty notes."
"But there's also this thing called a test," I reminded them. "It's like a deal between you and the school. And sometimes you just have to sign the paperwork, shake some hands, and move on. So, once a week, on Fridays, we will take clean notes. Just one page, just once a week. If you know these notes cold...that's what you need to close the deal. You will pass the test."
It worked like magic. The students scribbled away, filling up their dirty notes like it was some kind of game. They never asked me what was going to be on the test. And, on Fridays, they paid attention.
Try it, if you want. Will your students become more diligent about note-taking, even when you don't have an outline, allowing you more spontaneity? In my experience, yes. Will your students pay attention when you do have an outline, allowing you to move through required material quickly? In my experience, yes. Will your students quit asking you what's going to be on the test? In my experience...again, yes.
Will your students ever tire of wagging their eyebrows at you and asking in their best mock-lascivious voices: Will we be taking dirty notes today?
Probably not. But in my experience it's a small price to pay.