It’s unlikely many readers of this publication would be unfamiliar with the concept of Teachers’ Notes. Even those who don’t teach English or Lit, will have come across these essential tools at some point in their career, but how many have considered the process by which they’re created?
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Megan Daley and Allison Tait co-host the popular podcast Your Kid’s Next Read, and in Episode 42 explain that Teachers’ Notes are designed to help teachers explain the material more effectively with a range of features including specific questions, suggestions of how to explain difficult concepts, providing background or historical information, and suggesting activities. A good set of notes will provide teachers different ways of getting children involved in and thinking about a book.
School News approached Megan and Allison to find out more.
Who writes Teachers’ Notes?
While technically anyone can write book notes, school-based Teachers’ Notes tend to be written either by the publisher or an educator specialist. “Often publishers create Teachers’ Notes,” says Megan Daley, who includes teacher librarian, author, literary judge and podcaster among her many titles. “But I feel like the very best ones are written by educators.”
“Teachers’ Notes are designed to help educators unpack a book for curriculum use or more recreational use in book clubs. They offer background information, insight into everything from themes to settings, have related classroom activities, discussion topics, notes about the author and more.” Megan Daley
In their podcast, Megan and Alison agree that two of the best people in Australia for Teachers’ Notes are Christina Wheeler and Dr Robyn Sheahan-Bright. Their notes are “such a gift to educators… they help us pull apart the book and put it back together with our classes in such beautiful depth.”
Different Notes for Different Audiences
“First an author or publisher needs to decide who the audience for the notes is – is it more discussion notes for a book club or is this for school use?” says Megan. “Teachers’ Notes are used in public libraries and book clubs, so sometimes the curriculum is irrelevant. But if a book is to be used in a school situation, being curriculum aligned is helpful.”
But assuming that notes for schools are more basic than Book Club notes simply because the audience is younger is quickly dismissed. The work involved is extremely comprehensive and detailed. “Notes for school use [which are] curriculum aligned… tease apart the curriculum year level by year level, strand by strand,” Megan explains.
Allison Tait – author, speaker, podcaster and writing teacher – agrees. “I was so impressed by Dr Sheahan-Bright’s Teachers’ Notes that I asked her… how she went about creating them. I think the final product is a testament to just how thorough she is. She reads the book several times, including once just for enjoyment, uses a template, takes notes about key learning areas in the curriculum, creates book-related activities, researches key themes in the book and writes several drafts. Phew.”
Notes for non-fiction books are slightly different, Megan explains. They are more often in the style of question and answer about content and also discuss the structure and components of the book. “[Notes for] non-fiction books explores how non-fiction books work. So we might ask kids to find the glossary and unpack some of the words, look at the captions on images and discuss how a caption works.”
The process of writing Teachers’ Notes
Christina Wheeler is a teacher-librarian and Literacy Curriculum Leader with over 30 years of teaching experience. She currently writes Teachers’ Notes for UQP and Magabala Books and has previously written for Harper Collins, averaging around 25 to 30 sets of notes every year.
“Teachers’ Notes are to children’s books what Brodie’s Notes are to Shakespeare! They offer insight and deep analysis of texts by people who are passionate about the way authors and illustrators create meaning through a range of language and visual features.” Christina Wheeler
It isn’t just high-school literary novels that get the Teachers’ Note treatment, Christina says: “It’s actually quite a diverse range. Novels… for newly independent readers to those that would suit senior secondary students and everything in between. Picture books, verse novels, morality tales, I’ve even done notes recently for a collection of essays about poetry that appeared as a regular column in The Australian.”
Regardless of the genre and length of the book, the process of writing Teachers’ Notes is lengthy and intensive. Christina explains:
“When starting notes for a new novel, the first thing I do is chunk the book into sets of 50 pages. I try to read 50 pages in one sitting, annotating and highlighting as I go. Once I’ve finished the text, I like to step away from the story for a few days to let it percolate in my head. The next step is checking curriculum links – boring but necessary. After that, I write the synopsis, followed by a summary of the themes and writing style. Once that is complete, I go back to page 1 of the text and systematically turn my notes and annotations into usable classroom prompts. These are usually open-ended questions, response-to-reading suggestions, discussion of certain language features and more project-based activities.”
As explained on the Your Kid’s Next Read podcast: “‘There is a lot of work involved in something that makes it easier for teachers to use the book in the classroom.”
Share with parents
Despite their name, Teachers’ Notes have just as much value outside the classroom. Both Allison and Megan recommend parents utilise them as a resource for school assignments: “because all of the themes and settings and characters are set out, they provide really good questions for your child to ask themselves.”
“I think it’s worth letting parents know they exist. I have found them incredibly helpful as my boys have progressed through high school,” Allison admits. “[They] give me an overview of the books and insight into what they’re studying and an idea of how to talk them through any questions they might have about those books.”
Taking the time to make connections
Christina will spend up to four days working intensively on a set of book notes. “For me, it is quite a long process. I am a slow reader by nature, but I also find it impossible to let any language features slip through the cracks, so as I read, I take copious notes and am on the constant lookout for the more subtle and nuanced techniques utilised by the author. Strangely enough, sometimes picture books are more challenging than novels. Sure, they’re shorter to read, but spending time pouring over the illustrations and looking for all of the things that are ‘not said’ directly can take me multiple reads.”
But while Teachers’ Notes are designed to make educators’ lives easier, Christina acknowledges that the work continues into the classroom: “There are no shortcuts when being a teacher of literature. Teachers have to read the books first before deciding to share them with a class. Teachers’ Notes, however, can help teachers make informed decisions about those choices by offering specialist insights into the themes, connections and value of those books. If my notes can evoke deep connections, help young readers to slow down and truly think about what they are reading, and understand the tools we have to express ourselves and articulate their ideas openly and with confidence, it is worth every second.”
About the contributors
Allison Tait (A. L. Tait) is the internationally published, bestselling author of three series for middle-grade readers: The Mapmaker Chronicles, The Ateban Cipher and the Maven & Reeve Mysteries. Her next middle-grade novel will be published in July 2023 with Scholastic Australia. Allison speaks regularly in schools and at literary festivals, teaches writing for children and adults at the Australian Writers’ Centre and co-hosts the Your Kid’s Next Read podcast. She lives on the south coast of NSW with her family and a cheeky border collie known as Procrastipup. Find out more at allisontait.com
Megan Daley is a Teacher Librarian in Brisbane and has been awarded the Queensland Teacher Librarian of the Year, as well as the national Dromkeen Librarian’s Award. Megan is the author of the bestselling book ‘Raising Readers’ (UQP) and upcoming titles ‘The Hive’ (Walker Books, 2024) and an anthology about teachers (Affirm Press, 2023). A former national vice-president of the Children’s Book Council of Australia, Megan is also a regular literary judge, workshop presenter, the creator of the popular website Children’s Books Daily and co-creator of the Your Kid’s Next Read podcast.
Christina Wheeler is a Teacher-Librarian and Literacy Curriculum Leader with 30 years of teaching experience. She writes Teachers’ Notes for UQP and Magabala Books, spent three years as a judge for the Queensland Literary Awards, and was a panel member for the Children’s Book Award.