Sometimes I learn the most when I am uncomfortable, unsure, and attempting new things. As you use new tools to observe and note events in your classroom, you may gain new learning and insights. But your first days and hours of taking notes may cause moments of discomfort and uncertainty. In fact, if your notes are to improve, chances are you have to seek out that discomfort by pushing yourself to reconsider what you write about.
This insight came to me the first time I took classroom notes that were completely random and unfocused. Previously, I had never tried to take notes without doing some mental sorting and censoring of myself. But on this day many years ago, I sat in a first-grade classroom, taking notes as a group of girls participated in writing workshop. In this class, students were allowed to talk about whatever they wanted to talk about during workshop time, to write about whatever they wanted to write about. Here are some of my notes:
Tammy is starting to write. She says, "I need a pink crayon. Sarah's got all the pink crayons." Sarah replies, "I do not. I brought my own crayons from home, see?" She pulls out a set of markers, throws a pink crayon at Tammy.
For ten minutes, all I did was write as fast as I could, detailing this insipid little scene of kids arguing over the crayons and who had a right to possess them. Most previous mornings, I would have quickly moved to another table. But on this morning, I was determined to stay put in one spot and write as much as I could about whatever I saw, not censuring my writing.
When I looked over my notes that afternoon, I could actually feel my face getting red. "Tammy then grabbed a pink crayon from Lisa." These were the scribblings of a moron! There wasn't a shred of insight into the writing processes of these kids. Here I was, a teacher with a graduate degree, and this was the best I could muster in my notetaking?
But the more I looked at these notes, the more I realized the kids spent a lot of time arguing over material goods in the writer's workshop. This led me eventually to see some of the underlying tensions in the workshop between the egalitarian values of the teacher and the more materialistic values of the kids. Some genuine breakthroughs in understanding those children and literacy began the day I stopped censuring my notes and really concentrated on just writing down what I saw.
The Power of Raw Notes
In order to improve my notetaking skills, I had to give myself permission to write freely. Words, phrases, random and seemingly trivial details needed to land on the page. These notes didn't have a polished feel to them. They lacked insight. I think teachers do a whole lot of editing of what they are seeing and writing when they take notes because they don't want to be in the position I was, seeing what I had written as simplistic, rough, uninsightful. But that is exactly what you're going to need if you want to get a new perspectives on some of the intractable issues in your classroom, or those of teachers you are visiting.
Too often, we write our observations within a firmly established context of what we think our classroom is, or what we'd like it to be. We want to believe we've created a democratic place, where reading and writing are valued, where students treat each other fairly. This may be true much of the time. But the times when it is not true are the times when both teachers and students are ripe for learning. Raw notes — just writing what you see, as fast as you can, without editorial comment or deletions — can get you to that clear picture of what your classroom is.
These raw notes are the raw materials from which your new teaching strategies or assessments can grow. They will contain gems, nuggets of truth that will shape the rest of your notetaking agenda. But these nuggets will have to be mined in the future.
The notes you take quickly each day won't be the whole narrative, the complete story. And they shouldn't have the smooth feel of telling the whole story of any child or day in the classroom. But they will have the ingredients you need to tell the story of one student, one class, or one curricular idea.
Taking raw notes is the process of gathering raw ingredients. You will need time later to measure, weigh, mix, and cook what you've gathered into some kind of final product. But remember that this does come later. You're on a shopping expedition now, getting the freshest, most useful materials out of your classroom.
From Raw to Cooked
Cooking notes is the process of going through what you've captured without censuring yourself, and then making sense of what all that might mean. If you learn to cook your notes a bit as you collect them, you will see your notetaking skills develop rapidly. Learning to take notes is the process of training your eye to look for incidents that delight, jar, confound, or confuse you during the day. The process of cooking teaches you how to categorize reactions, weigh what they mean, and then adjust your notetaking, teaching or coaching accordingly.
One way to begin the cooking process is to leave a wide margin on the paper. After you write your initial raw notes, take some time to reflect upon what you are seeing and just write question after question in the margin. If you're not sure how to begin, just write "I wonder why" as a stem over and over again, and trust your "wonderings" to bubble up onto the page.
The cooking method I found most helpful when I was first honing my notetaking skills was William Corsaro's field-note coding system (based on the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss in Structural Anthropology). This scheme enables teachers or literacy specialists to explore a range of functions for notes as they record class interactions, and the simple codes can be enormously helpful in moving from scripting to thoughtful analysis.
Corsaro (1983) identified four categories for his notes from the field–field notes, methodological notes, theoretical notes, and personal notes. These four categories can help you find new directions for your work as you cook your notes.
Field Notes [FN] are direct observations of what you are seeing in your classroom or the classroom you are observing. Field notes include who is being observed and the context of the observation. Most direct observations of anything warrant the "FN" code — it's the default code for what you're seeing or hearing.
Methodological Notes [MN] are observations involving the methods you are using to take notes. You may note that you are having trouble writing down conversation as children work in small groups and decide that you need to place a tape recorder at a work station. You may not understand the interactions between two children and decide that you need to interview one of the children later. Any notes that involve changing your method or observing or taking notes (from where you sit, to when you take notes, to which students are observed) can be labeled "MN."
Theoretical Notes [TN] are notations involving theories about what is happening in the field. These theories can be personal hunches about what is happening, or they can include references from research literature that support what you are seeing. Don't get tripped up with the "theoretical" piece of a "TN" note, thinking you need a wordy research reference to go with the note. Something as simple as "I wonder if this is a gender issue?" Or "Seems like children always struggle in here to focus right after lunch" qualifies as a theory. You're observing a pattern, noting the pattern, and wondering if what you're seeing is support by other data beyond the classroom about how people learn and work together.
Personal Notes [PN] are references involving events in your life or in the lives of your students or colleagues that may affect what you are seeing. It is helpful to note if you are suffering from a raging headache or from your latest argument with your teenage daughter the night before you started these notes. If something happened at your school or in the life of a student that may alter what you are seeing, it should be noted. You may not look at this particular set of field notes for days, weeks, or months. When a set of notes doesn't make sense or the mood seems off, there are often personal reasons for the discrepancies or problems. A brief personal note can help you remember those influences well after the events.
The following chart gives you a sense of the kinds of questions to ask yourself as you try to cook your raw notes using Corsaro's scheme.
Methodological Notes [MN]
Are there places in my notes that call for changes in the way I am taking notes?
- where I am taking notes
- how I am taking notes (shorthand, jargon, set-up of page)
- the technology I am using (tape recorder, video camera)
- how I am working with co-researchers (colleagues, classroom aides, students)
Field Notes [FN]
Am I describing the classroom fully?
- who is being observed
- the context of the observation:
- what is being done (curricular or social)
- why it is being done (curricular or social)
Theoretical Notes [TN]
What theories am I developing or supporting through what I am seeing?
- personal theories (hunches about why students are engaged in specific acts)
- theories in research literature (citations I make of other researchers' work or sources that can be linked to mine)
Personal Notes [PN]
What in my life or the lives of the students is affecting what I am seeing?
- my moods, events in and out of the classroom, my mental and physical health
- the moods, health, and personal events in the lives of colleagues or students in the field
One point needs to be made about personal notes: these notes must never appear in the records of students. Administrators are leery, with good legal reason, of hunches about connections between school performance and home lives appearing in permanent files.
The beauty of the Corsaro codes for cooking is that just knowing the "MN" code exists will nudge you into thinking about how you are taking notes, and if your methods are getting at the information you need. Likewise, "TN" pushes any notetaker to look for patterns, the forest beyond the individual trees in any thicket of words on the page. Once you're comfortable with the Corsaro codes, you can begin to personalize your notes with codes linked to the specific goals you have for your students, teaching, and support of colleagues.