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What leads a teenager to love a book, a passage of prose, a poem? What causes
the synapses to fire in a young brain and make a personal connection with the author?
What prompts an, “aha”, or “wow” - that moment of Jungian plug-in, via literature. To
the rest of the human race? I know there has been a ton of research on the subject, and I
am familiar with the theories and strategies to employ to enhance comprehension, but I
wanted the ultimate key to solve everything. I wanted the educational equivalent to 42¹.
This haunted me, because I work with reluctant readers. I teach American
Literature to juniors at East Side! High School. My classes are comprised of kids with
lower reading and writing skills, and a number of ESL students. There are also a few
students who generally find learning repellant. So you could say I have the reluctant,
resistant, rowdy, randy, roughhousing rogues of the junior class. When reading on their
own, they find comprehension difficult. The words just seem to wash over them.
Well, I am simpatico to this because I am aura,. experiential learner. (I am also
equally concrete/abstract and entirely random, if anyone is interested.) I have difficulty
consciously interpreting, synthesizing, and applying information in a vacuum. I need to
talk things out. So I should get a discussion going, right? An easy answer to my students’
comprehension problems was at hand. Well, let me tell you that the discussions were
tense, awkward sessions of starting contests between the students and myself as I waited
for someone to crack. I realized that these students of shaky abilities and varied
backgrounds did not feel comfortable discussing material – and showing that they didn’t
understand. This was exacerbated by the playful nature of my rowdy, randy rogues,
whose favorite form of entertainment was to verbally assault and physically pester each
other. In their shoes, I wouldn’t say anything even slightly controversial, either.
So I thought, “What if they could communicate with each other without having to
see or hear each other? Would they be more willing to share what they know and what
they don’t know? I thought that perhaps finding a way for students to make notations in
their texts might improve student comprehension.
The end result of all my ruminations was text-journaling. Remember when you
bought your books back in college, how you would always pick out the books that were
already hi-lighted? Okay, okay, so they were cheaper. But, you also knew that they would
be full of marks and notes that would enable you to better understand the subject. And the
other thing that would happen to all of those books after you bought them was that you
would add your own notes, making them even more valuable (at least to you). There may
still be some junior and high schools that make students buy books, but East Side is not
one of them. So that marvelous note-taking medium, the text itself, is lost to high
schoolers. My formal question for Classroom Action Research would eventually become:
How might using a common text-journal enable students to assist each other
anonymously with reading comprehension?
So I embarked on a journey to determine if this method might also be the key to
making kids love to read – an expedition taken by many before me, almost all more
prepared than I was to explore the question. I immediately realized I was in over my head
and began to hyperventilate. I had to sit down and lay out my strategy:

1. Establish a baseline. I know I needed to do this, but what was I measuring? I
began by creating a Reading Survey. I was unsure of what questions to ask and
hoped that I would gain a hint of direction with information the students gave me.
I was looking for overall feelings about reading and found the answers somewhat
reassuring. Below is the survey, and it is followed by pie charts showing how
students answered the questions:


1. How often do you read for pleasure?

A. Once a day
B. Once a week
C. Once a month
D. Once a year

2. When reading for classed do you:

A. Skim for answers to questions?
B. Read in-depth, but only read the parts you think may be important?
C. Read the entire material non-stop, even if you don’t really understand it?
D. Read the entire material and ask questions if you don’t understand?
E. Avoid reading the material and hope there will be a class discussion or movie?

3. When given a reading assignment, do you think:

A. Why do we have to read this boring stuff?
B. Is this going to be interesting to me?
C. What does this author want me to know?

4. When you see a movie, listen to a CD, or watch a TV show, do you:

A. Forget it once it is over, even if you like it?
B. Talk to friends about it, saying get it/see it/listen to it?
C. Pull a Siskel and Ebert with friends or family, discussing it in detail, both good
and bad and why?

5. Do you:
A. Sometimes wish you were a better reader?
B. Feel reading is unnecessary?
C. Think you are missing a lot by not reading very much?
D. Struggle with homework because you don’t like to read?
E. Love to read, but don’t have much time to read?
The answers to the survey fell out as displayed in the following pie charts (courtesy of
Tom The Husband Graphics):

#1”How often do you read for pleasure?” You may all be pleased to note
that the percentage of 11th
graders that read once a day to
once a week exceeds the number
D A that read once a month to once a
Once once year.
A year a day

Once a once a
Month week
2. Next, I would need to decide how I would choose my subjects. I had no Igor to
dig anyone up for me, so I was on my own. I wanted to get a random sample of
students across the five periods of the day, so I had students pull letters out of a
hat. Ten students from each class were chosen to participate in the text-journaling,
and the rest of the classed followed standard operating procedure. As it turned
out, my efforts may have been in vain. Due to the variables in the make-up of the
classes, results of my experiment may have been skewed. I’ll discuss that later.
3. Prepare my supplies and texts. I realized immediately that this would be time-
consuming. I made 10 copies of Frederick Douglass’ Life of a Slave and placed
each other in a folder with a corresponding letter for identification. Each folder
had guidelines for the project taped to the front.

Guidelines for Text-Journaling:

1. You are anonymous! Your official label will be your class hour and a letter of the
2. You may not attack others - not personally, and not their comments and opinions.
You may disagree and state so politely.
3. You must write something everyday, even if it is only a hello to the rest of your
group.. Contribute! Don’t be dead weight. Even others have said what you
intended to say, add and embellish. Tell them you agree and why.

Other things that you should discuss are:

- Vocabulary (especially vocabulary words from weekly lists).
- Passages with important meaning to you, or that strike you for any reason.
- Literary devices such as metaphors, parallelism, analogies, etc.
- Passages that are confusing or difficult to understand. “Hey, what is going
on here?” is perfectly okay to ask while text journaling.

Critiques of the author’s work – what you like, or don’t like, and why.

The Process
In a nutshell, I passed out the folders to students assigned to them in every class.
For example, a student in 1st, 2nd, 5th, 6th and 7th hour shared folder “A”. Each person
would have the opportunity to record notes from lecture and class discussions, while
adding their own observations and opinions to the folder for the perusal of their
teammates throughout the day. The control group got the trade books to use and had to
take notes on their own paper.
In about two to three years, I’ll have all of the kinds out of this system, but this
first time around there were all sorts of pitfalls.
Time was a huge problem. There was so much time involved in making copies
alone, never mind determining what the daily procedures should be for folder vs. non-
folder students. Then throw in teachers response, which I had planned to include on a
regular basis, and I was swamped.
Getting students to remain anonymous. Some students would have moved heaven
and earth to find out their folder mates were. I don’t know if discovered identities were as
much of a problem as students having a hard time dealing with the rule violation of
blabbing who you are. Also, a few kids tried to get dates – unsuccessfully – through the
folder, and students would also forget and leave other work with their names on it inside
the folders.
The problem of more diligent students performing most of the work. Isn’t this
always the case? Something positive, however, was seeing a note from a kid who does
not participate in class asking from help from his teammates. That happened a number of
times in different teams.
Missing folders. Occasionally, a student would scoop up a folder with his or her
papers and walk off with it. This unfortunately happened early in the day, so the folders
would be missing all day.
Folder use outside of the classroom was difficult to manage, so students who
needed more time with the text ended up taking a trade book home. This somewhat
defeated the purpose of the folders. In addition, these students were the very ones who
would have benefited most. That is a kink that will take some thinking to fix.
Organization of folders quickly become a problem as the text in sections because
of time constraints. This led to confusion, and part of the solution was to create a format
for note-taking that was clear and easy to follow.
There were some occasional peculiar problems, also. One student refused to
include his notes, as he felt someone would steal them. Since the folders didn’t go
anywhere and work was done in class, this was an unfounded fear. However, he asserted
that his notes were at risk because if he needed notes, he would steal them. There was no
making him see any differently. At any rate, he wasn’t a big note-taker, regardless of
where the notes were to be kept.
Partway through the project, I visited with Doug Buehl for encouragement and
support. He suggested a few ways to improve student responses, such as modeling note-
taking and including samples for students. He also had some helpful ideas regarding
assessing student opinions on the new process. Below is the final assessment for
Frederick Douglass with student response.

Text-Journaling Assessment, ♥ , Frederick Douglass

1. What do you like most about this method of studying books?

 It allowed me to received other people’s thoughts about the book. You can
compare notes with other people. ♥♥♥♥
 I was able to write in it (the text) and find the notes easily.
 If other people write notes or define words it will help you with things you
missed. ♥
 You can help each other and get more information. ♥♥♥♥
 It is simple.
 It’s easier to read when the words are enlarged. ♥
 It’s really cool, it’s like pen pals that’s helping you with your work.

2. What do you like least about this method of studying books?

 I often felt excluded because I could not react as quick as other people in
the group.
 There was too much pare to have it organized. ♥♥♥
 It’s boring you have to think about taking notes than to read the book and
get into it.
 You cant take it home to review it. ♥♥
 I’d much rather read from the book and take notes, I didn’t like the folder
thing. I got confused.
 You want to read through and not stop to take notes.
 People write sloppy.
 Everyone isn’t involved.
 People draw too much on the folder. ☺
 Someone else could lose the notes you left.
 It takes too long to get through the chapter.

3. Why might it have been difficult to get the hang of taking notes in this way?
 I think it was just different. If I did it again I would have done it better.
 Because each reader is at a different place.
 Maybe if there was a sheet just for C-1 notes (C-2)(C-3) etc, it would be
more organized.
 You have to flip the page over to take the notes.
 Cuz you had the little squares on the sheets of paper and people got
confused by that.
 Didn’t have that much room on the paper to write – it was better at the end
with the boxes on the back. ♥
 Because you were on your own, you don’t have a teacher’s help.

4. What questions do you have about note-taking in these journals?

 Have you tried it with smaller groups?
 How do we know who wants to know something or not?
 What do we get out of it? ♥
 That everyone have to write at least something in there.
 I really don’t have any questions. I just think it’s a great method.

5. What might make someone uncomfortable about writing to others?

 The person who reads it may think you are stupid. ♥♥♥♥♥♥♥
 Thinking that they might spell wrong.
 Because you don’t know who the other person is. ♥♥
 Speaking their mind.
 You don’t know how others might react.
 They might be worried about how other people feel about what they
wrote, so they may not write what they really think.

6. Do you think it is or isn’t helpful if people are anonymous? Why or why not?
 I do not think matters. ♥♥♥♥
 Yes. Therefore you wont have to be afraid they will know who you are
and not make fun of you. ♥♥♥♥♥
 I think it isn’t. if people know who people are they could be more willing
to write. ♥♥
 I think it is helpful, because it is easier to ask questions or write
 I think it is helpful, because then you don’t have to worry about being
discriminated against.
 Well, sometimes they’re able to say what they want without people
singling them out. Maybe that’s why we didn’t use the names, but
everything that people wrote was nothing for them to worry about. Maybe
people would be afraid of what others would think.
 Yes, it helps so that people might not be talking #$*@# to each other.
 I think it is helpful because you are like a mysterious person from some
hour writing to someone else.

7. Do you have any suggestions on how to improve this method?

 Maybe if there were a sheet just for C-1 notes (C-2)(C-3) etc, it would be
more organized.
 Use different colored pens.
 Maybe staple the packets. They get so messed up because each person is at
a different page.
 Have you tried it with similar groups?
 Make directions more clear on exactly what you want people to do and
write in their folders.
 Didn’t have that much room on the paper to write – it was better at the end
with the boxes on the back.
 More room needed to write your thoughts and questions.
 Check folders more, tell other people to write more and not just copy
other’s work.
 Not really. I thought that I like it the way it is.
 Use a shorter book.
 Attach a small candy bar inside of the packet.

The student who suggested to attach a candy bar to the folder was the same
student who refused to take notes for fear of someone stealing them.

The jury is still out on this one for me. Even though I made attempts to ensure a
random selection of students for the experiment, I could not control absences and
transfers. Also, my classes are not average classes in the first place, as many of the more
skilled students are in TAG or ACAMO classes. In my final comparison of test scores
between folder and non-folder users I was looking for successes, but I discovered that I
needed to be comparing degrees of improvement in the folder-using students.
Although there were many positive comments about the system, there were some
negative comments as well. And there were many things that could be improved to make
this even more student-friendly. I have taken many of the student suggestions to heart and
made changes in Phase Two, which is a poetry unit. The smaller units of text are much
more manageable, and there is more opportunity for interesting and varied in-class
discussions, which enhance sharing of opinions and more rigorous note-taking. In
addition, all students are participants. Evaluation of the poetry unit will give me more
information with which to determine if this method works for a majority of students.