I love literature. In fact, I love literature so much that I teach high school writing and literature classes. I love the opportunities that great literature provides for the student and teacher. In all of my literature classes, I require my students to use Andrew Kern’s highlighting system. I first learned about it when I was in the CiRCE Apprenticeship. I fell in love with it almost immediately. It helped me to visualize a variety of things, see patterns, and have several reference points throughout the text. So naturally I wanted to share this wonderful resource with my students. I just knew they would love it. Until they didn’t love it? Well, until a couple of them didn’t love it. One day while discussing our literature selection a comment was made about the highlighting process and one student said it hurt his eyes and looked like chewed up food on the page!? At first I got offended and assumed he was trying to be rude, which is always a red flag that I need to slow down for a moment and repent. So I did, and I realized he was trying to communicate a real concern. He was simply having trouble choosing appropriate words.
Over the next week, I thought about his comment and was saddened that anyone would have that thought while reading great literature. How distracting that must have been for him! I received even more clarity on this topic over the past week from two different sources. First from Janice Campbell in her talk Mother School 2. She talked about learning styles and common traits within those learning styles. She mentioned she was a visual learner and that highlighting in books was very distracting to her. As soon as she said it, I realized what had been going on with my student. I had to repent again. I turned the highlighting system into a hardline requirement, and I assumed it would help everyone just as much as it helped me. That was not what the highlighting system was meant to be at all! This reality became even clearer in my mind when I heard Andrew Kern and Sarah MacKenzie discussing reading and the highlighting system on their webinar. (I highly recommend getting it. You can learn more about it here.)
The highlighting system is not the magic key. Rather, it is the principles of the highlighting system that make it powerful. I am not sure why I never picked this up when I first learned about the system, but I didn’t. Thank goodness for learning!
I wanted to find a solution that would serve the purpose the highlighting was meant to serve, but also honor where my student was. In order to do that the same principles that govern the highlighting system ought to govern the pencil system. I think we could name those principles like so:
[box]Principle 1: The reader has questions that run through his mind whenever he approaches a book. We need to become aware of those questions and find answers to them.[/box]
[box] Principle 2: We need to be able to reference those answers easily, especially if we are participating in discussions about said book.[/box]
Furthermore, remember what Andrew Kern said in the webinar with Sarah about being free people. All of this is meant to serve us, not make us imprisoned. If this is causing you stress, then release yourself from that burden. If this is causing your student stress, then help them find a solution that fulfills what you are asking them to do, but honors where they are.
Thus, a pencil only version of the highlighting system was born. If the highlighting system was a source of hyper-stimulation for my student, then a pencil based system may be all that is needed to catch his attention as he scans through his book. Here is how I arranged it. (I’ll show you a real example of both after I explain it in words.)
[box] STARS: Instead of the blue highlighter for a quotable/something that belongs on a poster, use a star in the right margin next to the line. If the quote extends for several lines, then draw a line from the star, down the page, and to where the quote ends.[/box]
[box] UNDERLINE: Instead of the pink highlighter for names, dates, places, words you do not know, and the author defining words in the text, underline those instances.[/box]
[box] @ SYMBOL: Instead of the green highlighter for the meta structure, or what I like to call “mini scene changes”, use the @ symbol in the left margin next to the first line of a mini scene change. I like the term mini-scene change because it describes a slight turn. It could be a new speaker, a new point in the discussion, or a new character entering on the scene.[/box]
[box] ARROWS: Instead of yellow, for the main action/flow of thought, use dashes or arrows in the left margin next to the line containing the point of action. If you are reading a non-fiction book, yellow will be supporting details for the green/meta-structure.[/box]
For the orange highlighter, there are a couple options, depending on how you use this color or if you use this color at all. I use orange for one main category, action. Not the action of the story, but an action that I personally want to attend to. I do not use orange all the time. I only use it when it fits my purpose for reading. I divide personal action into three categories
[box] CIRCLE: Literary Devices to imitate or contemplate. If I am studying similes, I may highlight similes. If I am studying metaphors, then I highlight metaphors. I can refer to these when I teach a class on them and find great examples from great literature. In the pencil system, I would circle these.[/box]
[box] QUESTION MARK or WRITE: Questions. I may also highlight something in orange that I disagree with or have a question about (this is how Andrew uses orange). In the pencil system, I would either write the question in the margin or put a question mark in the right margin and write the question out in my commonplace notebook with a page number for easy referencing.[/box]
[box] ADD TO LISTS: I will also mark things in orange that I want to add to my to-do list. I get more of these kinds of orange when reading non-fiction/instructional types of books. However, there have been times when I have highlighted a compelling description in a poem or novel that gives me an idea for a painting. All of that fits here. In the pencil system, I would put it straight into my to-do list with a page number for easy referencing or use one of the arrow stickers. Then at the end of the book or reading session I would record my actions into the appropriate next action list. However -and this is a big, however -if you choose to use this last way of using orange, do not let it become a burden. If you had the thought, “Oh great! One more thing to do!” Then forget I ever mentioned this and just worry about your stars for a while. It is easier to become enchanted with a book that way.[/box]
The pencil system, like highlighting system, are just tools to serve you, the reader. When starting out remember this and take it slow. I have my students start out with pink and blue/lines and stars only. They are very easy and, therefore, a great first step. Here is a real example of the two methods from Dante’s Inferno Canto 1.
So, how are you using highlighting or pencil marking when you read? Join the conversation in the comments section below.
Expanding wisdom, extending grace,
P.S. A ton of people are talking about reading, thinking, and note-taking all over the web right now. Here are a few of my favorites:
1. A Beginner’s Guide to the Commonplace: A Workshop with Andrew Kern & the Schole Sisters
2. Why Slow Reading Matters More Than You’d Expect at Afterthoughts Blog
3. On Wrecking Books to Bring them to Life at CiRCE
4. Reveling in the Classics: an Article at Lady Dusk
5. If you are going to be at a ‘Great Homeschool Convention’ make sure to check out Andrew Kern’s talk ‘How to read a Great Book (And a Really Hard One)’