3/365 Let’s Have Students Perform without Nets

When I lived in Philadelphia, I became enamoured with story slams. Produced by First Person Arts, the monthly slams had three rules for those who signed up to participate:

  1. Keep your story to five minutes.
  2. Tell your story in the first person.
  3. No notes.

Around the same time, I discovered the Moth podcast featuring the Moth Theater’s best stories from their storytelling shows.

A similar rule featured in the Moth podcast – stories were told live and without notes. As someone who’s been performing in improvised theater for about 15 years, this rule never really struck me as exceptional.

As a classroom teacher who worked to help students scaffold their knowledge and prepare for presentations, it gives pause.

Today, I finished reading the article I mentioned in yesterday’s post. As the writers were describing some of the mechanisms deployed by teachers to foster knowledge-creating communities, the issue of notes appeared again.

No Notes Permitted

When students did research on a topic, such as Buddhism, they were not pennitted to use notes from their research when they were writing their entries in the Knowledge Forum database. This was designed to prevent students from copying out what they found in books into the database. Students had to synthesize their own understanding of the topic they were writing about and characterize in their own words what they bad learned. They were encouraged by the scaffolds in the system and by the teachers to develop their own theories and questions, and to pursue them through reading and discussions with other students and adults. The emphasis was on students creating their own understanding and expressing it in the tentative voice of a learner rather than repeating the words of an author.

Mostly, I noticed this section because it seemed strange to me and so I asked myself why.
Notetaking is a skill I’ve heard discussed ad nausseum in faculty meetings and various “So you wanna be a teacher” books. Pulling out key information, organizing it for easy retreival, and stowing it away in a tidy notebook are steps with which I’m intimately familiar as both a student and a teacher.

This suggestion, though, highlighted a key step that has been missing for me in both of those roles – leaving the notes behind. Much like improv or storytelling, presenting new knowledge and forming it into something useful loses its luster if you haven’t owned the ideas in real and personal ways. A student still reliant on the notes she’s taken isn’t yet the owner of this new knowledge. She’s leasing it.

Building an activity where students have to synthesize and apply their knew knowledge without access to or use of notes based on the old knowledge pushes them a little farther out on an intellectual limb. It will be scary, but I’d wager the learning will be deeper.
If you’d like to see my highlighted copy of the article, you can download it here (PDF).

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