Your New Favorite Form of Writing, Revealed

If you, like me, have ever clicked on a social media post with a headline that reads, "5 Reasons Your Eyes Are Puffy," "10 Ways to Look Less Like a Frumpy Mom" or "50 Times Judge Judy Proved She's Our Bae," you've engaged with a form of writing that can be found virtually everywhere these days. Whether online or in your favorite magazine, the annotated list has become as ubiquitous as the five paragraph essay has become obsolete--and yet, how often do we invite students to explore this low-risk, high-interest form of composition in our classrooms?

Many of us were asked to compose an annotated bibliography in college or graduate school, a task that still brings tears to my eyes from all the yawning that ensued. (I'm only half kidding. Some of the annotated bibliographies I was assigned to write were incredibly the time.) Google "annotated list," and the helpful search engine (is Google a white male?) will decide that what you really meant to search was "annotated bibliography." NOPE. Annotated list, baby!

How did I come to worship the annotated list? As a frequent reader of magazines and posts from websites like Buzzfeed, Mental Floss, and Cracked, I can't go 24 hours without seeing an annotated list like this one or this one. Most of the time these lists have some element of humor to them--which likely accounts for why I'm so enamored with them--but some, like ASCD's "10 Ways to Get Your Mojo Back," are simply super-informative.

Recently, my colleague Kitri and I wanted to offer our students a multimodal way to share the work they 'd done during an inquiry unit focused on hurricanes. Throughout the inquiry, students were given tons of choice around how they conducted their research, which resources they used, and what "doorway" into the hurricane inquiry they wanted to enter. For the sharing part, however, we wanted to offer students a chance to experiment using a form of composition that was authentic--that could be found in the real world--but that was not overly demanding.

Enter the annotated list.

We asked students to read and analyze some mentors in order to become familiar with the content, organization, and overall "feel" of the annotated list. Being the super analyzers they are, students were able to identify the following common elements.

Each annotated list had...

  • a title

  • a heading for each list item (often numbered)

  • at least one paragraph per section/item

  • an introductory paragraph

Many of them included...

  • a visual element such as an accompanying photo or illustration [HINT→ this is where the multimodality comes in!]

  • a list of sources (usually at the end)

Students then used their noticings, as well as the mentors themselves as a continued resource, to create their own annotated lists about hurricanes that they developed after weeks of research.

Students from a neighboring class offer feedback on students' annotated lists.

Students from a neighboring class offer feedback on students' annotated lists.

(But WAIT--there's more!)

Inspired by the success even our most writing-averse students had with this form of composition, I decided to use it as inspiration for our October RGS Teachers Write session, a monthly event where I offer my colleagues the space, time, and opportunity to compose (and to talk about writing) as a group. We used Questlove's "My Youth in 27 Records" as a mentor, which both Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher have recommended in the past. My colleagues noticed the same common elements of annotated lists that students did, but in addition noticed that, in this particular piece,

  • each item/section is headed by a year (e.g., 1974)

  • each item/section includes a "mini story" about the author's life

  • the reader is able to "get a sense of who [the author] is" by reading the list

We then began to brainstorm what albums--not necessarily records, as one of my much younger colleagues pointed out with a wink--we might include in our own "My Life in..." pieces.

From my notebook: yes, you read that right. Andy Gibb.

From my notebook: yes, you read that right. Andy Gibb.

It was so fun to play with this form of writing. Incredibly high interest (thanks in part to the awesome subject matter), and equally as important, low-risk for even the most anxiety-ridden writer.

So here is what I am NOT proposing: that we add a neatly-planned, washed, and sanitized "annotated list" unit to our already-overstuffed writing curriculum.

What I am proposing is this: that we experiment with this particular form of composition when it feels right to do so, helping our students to see both 1) the many places where we might find it in the world outside of school, and 2) the myriad of possibilities for using it as part of our ever-expanding writing repertoires.

Even better--let's continue to keep our eye out for new and inspiring multimodal forms of composition like the annotated list in order to continue to broaden--and improve--our ideas of what "writing" can be. Our students will thank us for it.