By Janelle Henderson
What would happen if you took notes for five minutes as your students were working? What would you see? What would you hear? What would you notice about your classroom climate that you might not otherwise notice about how students used the space to work? What would surprise you?
That was a challenge given to me by Dr. Kathryn Whitmore and Dr. Tasha Tropp Laman in an early literacy class I took as I started my teaching career four years ago. Within this graduate class, classroom teachers were paired with doctoral candidates to examine how to conduct action research and implement inquiries within our literacy instruction. The instructors’ class asked us to rethink and redefine data—beyond district mandates, yearly state assessments, and exit slips—and see it as a tool to inform us about our students, holistically. Drs. Whitmore and Tropp Laman invited us to explore different methodologies, from audio/video recordings and taking anecdotal notes to collecting and analyzing work samples from an asset perspective.
I agreed, very resistantly, not wanting to add a new task to my already-full plate as a first-year teacher. But what stuck the most from that class? Taking field notes.
Field notes include collecting anecdotal notes about what happens within my classroom. I always start by asking myself a series of questions, including “How did the week go with the students? How did you feel as an educator this week? What challenges were there? What successes were there? Were there any standout moments? Any changes in the students academically and/or behaviorally? If there are major problems, what next steps do you have?” I record these responses in a Google Doc weekly, as seen below:
This week, I had to think about what systems I’m putting in place to ensure their success. Thinking “How am I truly honoring what I believe in my actions as an educator? How am I creating safety and joy through structure ad routines?
I made the following changes:
Continued using Matthew Kay’s steps for creating a safe space, setting aside ten minutes after lunch for high-quality compliments and again at the end of the day and having share time during our morning meeting be a two-minute share with whoever they choose to talk to about whatever they want.
Having some time to reflect on the week, I am able to retain information about my processes and those of my students better. For example, in late November, after looking at my field notes over a few weeks, I started to see that my students were less engaged toward the end of the day during math instruction, even though they loved math and had a strong perception of themselves as mathematicians. Initially, I assumed it was the content or the delivery of instruction but used my field notes to actually discuss the issue with our class during our morning meeting. I asked students if they recognized any issues, then asked the cause of our issues. Resoundingly, they answered they preferred to have math in the morning because it was their favorite and wanted to do reading later in the day. I admit that I would have come around to asking the class about the issue eventually, but by being able to take a step back and eliminate other possible issues first, I was able to remedy the problem sooner.
Additionally, taking field notes gives me a space and the time to solve my own problems, listing possible next steps for concerns or incidents to look at closer. I’ve always prided myself for students leaving my classroom having a strong reading identity, knowing authors by name and photograph, loving reading books, and understanding both decoding and comprehension strategies. This year that is not the case. My students didn’t resonate with my reading lessons and dreaded reading independently. After taking a district-mandated test and analyzing its results over the three times they’ve taken it this school year, as well as reviewing my field notes, I noticed a remarkable difference in our math and reading scores, a difference that gave credence to what I already suspected: my students don’t understand what reading is.
The next day, I asked students, “What is reading to you? What areas of reading do you want to get better in?” They were able to articulate what reading is to them but confessed they needed more support decoding new words, more time to work on individual inquiry projects on their Chromebooks, and to start book clubs within class, separate from my twice-monthly Black Boy Joy Book Club (BBJBC) and Black Girl Magic Book Club. Armed with their feedback, I restructured our literacy block to include more inquiry time and small-group decoding instruction. I also plan to have book clubs on Fridays in lieu of a shared-reading lesson and to revisit book passes as a way to introduce students to more of the books within our classroom library.
Better yet, field notes help me see my students as people, analyzing their behavior, academics, and our relationships to find responsive resolutions. During independent reading while I was taking notes in October, I watched as D’Vaughn (all student names are pseudonyms) did everything but read his books. He even exclaimed, “I hate this!” in regard to reading a book he chose. I leaned into the knowledge I had on D’Vaughn from an interest inventory and conference I had given and recorded in my field notes a month prior: He loved animals and humorous books; he didn’t perceive himself as a reader; and he wanted to read chapter books but wasn’t ready for a longer text. Armed with that knowledge, we discussed what reading should feel like, and I shared emergent chapter books and books in our humor and animal book baskets that he felt comfortable with and enjoyed reading. After that conference, I watched him reengage with his books, sneaking to talk to a student nearby about what he read (which is a true example of reading engagement!). Later he came up to me, sharing, “I like reading books every day, Ms. Henderson.”
We as teachers can’t always see our impact on our students, both academically and behaviorally. My field notes provide me with tangible, cumulative progress data on my students. For example, second grader Ry’an and third grader Jayshawn are students who both consistently attend BBJBC, a book club for black boys focused on reading books authored by black males and/or featuring black male protagonists and the focus of my research as a Heinemann Fellow. Initially, their relationship was tense, with Ry’an constantly interrupting students to make a connection or ask questions and Jayshawn getting frustrated by the constant interruptions and seemingly unending line of questions. They couldn’t see how vital both their contributions were to BBJBC, with both students asking thoughtful questions that pushed our conversations forward.
Reflecting on my field notes, I decided to revisit our norms at our next meeting. I shared that I was talking too much and wanted them to answer one another’s questions, while still honoring our time together. After that conversation, Ry’an felt more heard and better understood his unofficial role as a questioner, and as a result, he stopped interrupting others as much. Jayshawn, on the other hand, showed more empathy toward Ry’an by giving Ry’an wait time. Jayshawn also used his knowledge of specific topics to answer Ry’an’s questions instead of being frustrated by them. Without my field notes, I wouldn’t have seen the evolution of their relationship and contributions to BBJBC. Better yet, I would not have seen how BBJBC dramatically and immediately changed by me silencing myself to allow my students to answer one another’s questions and take on a new identity of a teacher.
So, what do I wish I’d known about field notes when I first started?
Make a realistic commitment and hold yourself to it. You may decide to watch your classroom for five minutes a day every day during their independent reading time or reflect for ten minutes every day during planning. Whatever works for you, your students, and your time, do that. And when life happens, which it inevitably will, reschedule or make an outline to come back to at a later date.
Include your students in the process. If you’re working on something that affects all your students, such as a unit of study or a critical inquiry, use time within your day through opening or closing meetings to get their opinions on what’s going on within your classroom. Then, record it either in a notebook or Google Doc. Not only will it help your students understand you more as a teacher, it will open up tons of conversation about inquiry and students using their own resources to answer their burning questions.
Once you have this data about your students and your instruction, take action. Your field notes may show you that your actions, albeit unintentionally, may be triggering students or that your learning and teaching style might not be a match in some situations for your current class. Seeing those same types of comments over time should trigger you to find resources (other teachers, Twitter chats, administrators, manuscripts) and to create a more democratic classroom, one where both you and your students are better meeting one another’s needs.
My field notes bring me joy. They’ve shown me both my triumphs and missteps as an educator and how I’ve navigated them. They’ve supported me in being a responsive, reflective educator who is aware of my own processes. Above all, they’ve made the brilliance of my students abundantly clear. I challenge you to try them for yourself and observe how they can contribute to you better serving your students as people and reflecting on your practice.
Janelle W. Henderson is an activist who uses her curriculum to expand students’ thoughts on identity and blackness through culturally sustaining critical inquiry. She cares about her students as learners, community members, and as people. She has a robust background in several professional cohorts, including the Professional Dyads and Culturally Relevant Teaching and the Kentucky Reading Project. Janelle is currently a 3rd grade teacher at Mill Creek Leadership Academy in Louisville, KY, where she launched a Black Boy Joy Book Club and Black Girl Magic Book Club for second and third graders.
Follow Janelle on Twitter @freeyourheart