Thursday, March 17, 2011

Marginalia, what?

           Years spent reading in high school and college, my own comprehension always felt less than my classmates.  I always read, but I'd walk away feeling like I hadn't read any thing at all.  When you leave a text without any new information, you start wondering why you even tried in the first place.  Later in college I would take notes and highlight minimally so I could resell my books easily.  In my first few years of teaching, I purchased books that I knew would be my own books forever.  I wouldn't resell these books, and I began to write with more than a highlighter and post-it notes.  I began to write with a pencil in hand.  I'd draw lines and write snippets of thoughts right next to the text that I read.  I'd circle the parts that I had questions about, and then write those questions right next to those parts.  My thinking seeped onto the pages, and suddenly I was able to finish a text with new information.   My writing on those pages became marks of pride.  I found myself revisiting the texts just to pour over my thoughts more.  The funny part of this whole discovery was that I actually believed I had originated this way to read.  I believed that because no one in my academic career had taught me to do this as I read. 
              With that being said, I have now read two sources that explain writing as you read as marginalia.  A post on the Stenhouse Blog with Cris Tovani shared about several New York Times articles explaining the "history, value, and future of marginalia".  Hold it-stop the clock...the history?  I thought I created this great way to read on my own, but now I'm reading that this form of reading was more "common in the 1800s", but "in the 20th century it mostly came to be regarded like graffiti: something polite and respectful people did not do."  So, maybe I was naive to think that I invented writing in books to understand my reading.  Now that I know it is common, and was especially common in the 1800s, I am thrilled to read more about the books we know have the thinking marks of great minds such as Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, or Mark Twain.  What would it be like to read a book that had Thomas Jefferson's thinking throughout?
              This leads me to more thinking.  Why didn't any of my teachers take time to show me how I could learn so much more if I had a conversation with the text?  When will my own children and students begin to value the art of putting their own thinking down on the page next to the writer's words?  To use the writer's words and merge them with the reader's thinking.  Together melding the comprehension we need to truly understand and remember the story.



  1. As a teacher of a lot of years, I'm not sure I ever had a conversation about helping with reading because of marginalia. I taught students to write notes within the books, or to write in articles that were copied & theirs to keep, but didn't quite use it the way you describe. Thanks for writing about it. You gave me lots of detail & food for thought.

  2. Way cool. Isn't it always amazing when we find out we weren't the ones to 'begin' something - that is began long before we ever existed? I didn't even know writing in the margins had a term! This is great, Michelle. I love what you've presented. I love when you wrote "Hold it-stop the clock...the history?". I love hearing your voice peek through in your writing. I chuckled when I read this.