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Annotating a Life Lesson

Posted On August 5, 2019

The reading trail called marginalia

By LuEllen Huntley

I wised up about new versus used collegiate textbooks around the third or fourth semester as a university undergraduate. The off-campus new and used textbook store on Hillsborough Street across from N. C. State University — a labyrinth of dimly-lit rooms, uneven wooden floors, and makeshift signs labeling books and materials — became the place I learned to be choosy about buying used or new texts. I began to prefer used ones but not those overly highlighted with pastel markers; rather I learned to wade through until I located books previously owned by students who used pencil or pen to annotate in page margins, commenting on key details. I became a sleuth for used books, seeking the “marginalia” of prior book users who had left behind their reading trails. That was the beginning of my learning how to go beneath the surface of the printed page and read critically. No one taught me; the books and their previous users did.

Quite the opposite from my generation’s public school days when time came to show teachers that our books looked “gently used,” meaning no “end-of-year” book fines. For such a clean feat, a student might receive gold stars. We were meticulous about making our own book covers to preserve books’ edges and spines. But we were never permitted to write in our books, nor would the thought have crossed our minds. 

But what to do about our grade school students with so much online computer learning? How do we teach them the most useful comprehension reading strategy — writing in the margins, diving deeply when they read, and annotating? Perhaps it proves best to show how to do it, explain the concept and keep it simple. 

Of course, marking state-owned textbooks is out. Materials abound, however, for unveiling how annotated pages look. The cool part means we create moments for discussing reading and writing intersections. Put another way, writing and reading are “reciprocal processes” which seems obvious. We learn to improve as readers the more we write; we catapult as writers the more we read and study what writers do in print. Plus, what fun to show students what their writing looks like when “under construction.” And on the flip side, how great to let students see what a careful reader’s pages look like when smartly annotated. 

We do not need to wait until students enter college for these lessons. My work in the Writing Lab at Sandhills Community College has shown me that. Learn where good used bookstores are, or seek used books online and create your own marginalia. And remember, those reading trails are wonderful to pass along.