On Teaching: Cornell Notes

Ay. It’s been a week.  I experienced the Breonna Taylor “verdict” while reading Caste by the illustrious Isabel Wilkerson. It explained everything to me (not that I felt better and, in fact, it made me feel worse).  While Warmth of Other Suns better showcases Wilkerson’s beautiful writing, Caste showcases the depth of her thinking. I am glad I read both. Clearly in her research there were ideas that would not rest, and she found a way to give them a home.  It is admirable to try to explain what she does to the masses.  That might turn out to be a futile effort, but is having a great impact on me nonetheless.  Additionally, I began listening to the New York Times/Serial produced podcast Nice White Parents.  It’s a trip.  Some thoughts are forming, but I am not ready to share them yet.  

Hence I am turning back to a topic I have been meaning to tackle more on this blog – actual teaching ideas! I don’t just ruminate, I promise.  

This week I launched Cornell Notes in my grade 6 math class. I was introduced to Cornell Notes by my learning specialist friend, Jane, who has lots of great strategies for supporting all learners.  I had been resistant to notetaking because I associate it with it lecturing and I never really gave tests for which students needed to study.  For the longest time,  I couldn’t find a way to reconcile getting off the stage and still teaching kids to take notes.  Cornell notes offered a solution.  I was really drawn to the simple, reliable structure that could be easily formatted onto any kind of paper.  They can be used for any subject at any level of education so I feel like I am teaching something really useful.  Because learning the Cornell structure is a skill in itself, I feel less self conscious about the content of the notes or their future use in my class. 

There are many templates available to download online, but they all pretty much look like this.

I initially experimented with Cornell notes in a 6th grade humanities class, but I really saw their effectiveness last year when I was teaching about the Civil War in 7th grade humanities and wanted students to prepare to write an essay based on a series of primary and secondary resources.  The consistent note format helped to organize the various sources in a coherent way.  

I then tried them during a 7th grade math camp after I found really cool templates with graph and dot paper.  These templates came from the AVID program, which has great materials on teaching and using Cornell notes.  I looked at a lot of their examples and that is where I realized they could be very useful in the math classroom.  There are a few friends from high school who are AVID teachers and I look forward to connecting with them to learn more about how they use them with their students.  

Below is a video of a screencast that summarizes how I taught my 6th graders to take Cornell notes.  I currently give them the essential question, the concept questions that go in the left hand column, and a closing summary to paraphrase.  Over time I hope to release those pieces to them as they become more meta cognitive about their math learning. 

Cornell notes are helping me reconcile important pedagogical and philosophical beliefs.  I look forward to experimenting with them more and am definitely open to advice and tips.

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