The Cult of Pedagogy Podcast, Episode 111 Transcript

Jennifer Gonzalez, host

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In episode 104, I reviewed a whole bunch of research on note-taking. If you haven’t listened to the episode yet, you should, but the gist of it is that quality note-taking does make a difference in learning, but we need to explicitly teach students how to take notes.

Today’s episode will be an excellent follow-up to that one. Peg Grafwallner, an instructional coach and reading specialist, created a station-rotation lesson on note-taking for a group of chemistry students. The lesson worked so well, she wanted to share it with us. What you’ll find on my website today is a guest post Peg wrote about the lesson, along with photos of the students in action. In this episode, I’m interviewing Peg and Abby Felten, the chemistry teacher she collaborated with on the lesson.

The lesson they describe is a really effective way to teach note-taking, but what I want you to keep in mind as you listen is that this model is most definitely NOT specific to high school, or chemistry, or even note-taking, for that matter: Giving students opportunities for brief, structured practice, scaffolded by teacher-created models, is a powerful instructional tool for all kinds of academic skills. So as you’re listening, be thinking about the ways you could apply this method to your own classroom.

Before we get started, I’d like to thank our sponsor, Microsoft Hacking STEM. To engage the leaders of tomorrow, we need to give our students hands-on practice with science, technology, engineering, and math–experiences that reflect the academic standards and bring real-world scenarios into the classroom. Microsoft’s Hacking STEM is a resource devoted to helping teachers enhance and democratize their current STEM curriculum through inquiry and project-based lesson plans, aligned to middle-school standards. Using computational and design thinking, students build affordable scientific instruments that visualize real-time data in Microsoft Excel. All these resources are absolutely free and can be accessed by going to

Support for this episode also comes from Peergrade. Peergrade is a platform that makes it easy to facilitate peer review in your classroom. Students review each other’s work, while Peergrade takes care of anonymously assigning reviewers and delivering all the relevant insights to teachers. With Peergrade, students learn to think critically and take ownership of their learning. They also learn to write kind and useful feedback for their peers. Peergrade is free to use for teachers and students. And now, Cult of Pedagogy listeners can get 3 months of Peergrade Pro free of charge! Just sign up for a free 30-day trial, then redeem the code CULT to extend that free trial to 3 months. To learn more about Peergrade visit

The Cult of Pedagogy Podcast is part of the Education Podcast Network. The EPN family now includes 26 different podcasts, and each one is focused on education. Check out all of the EPN podcasts at

One last thing before we start: Thank you so much for the fantastic reviews you’ve left for this podcast on iTunes. These really help draw more people in and get them listening, so if you’ve been enjoying the podcast and you think other people should listen, too, take a few minutes today to go over to iTunes and leave a review. Thanks so much.

Now here’s my interview with Abby Felten and Peg Grafwallner. Quick apology: There’s a bit of a buzzing sound on their end of the conversation — I wasn’t able to remove it in the editing process, so I hope you’re able to tune it out. Okay, here we go.

GONZALEZ: I would like to welcome Peg Grafwallner and Abby Felten to the podcast. Welcome, ladies.

GRAFWALLNER: Thank you, we’re happy to be here.

FELTEN: Yes, thank you.

GONZALEZ: So you are going to be sharing with us a lesson, basically, that you did with your students, and we’re going to have a post that goes along with this that explains it and has some photos so that people can use this. When Peg showed this to me, I thought, “This really would work for pretty much any class.” I just did a podcast episode a few months ago about note-taking, and so this is almost like a great sort of Part 2 for teaching students different note-taking strategies. So why don’t you go ahead and just start by telling us a little bit about who you are and what your current roles are in school.

GRAFWALLNER: Okay thanks, Jenn. So first of all, my name is Peg Grafwallner, and I’m the instructional coach and reading specialist at Ronald Reagan IB High School in Milwaukee. And my overall goal is to collaborate with teachers to help them embed literacy into their content area without disrupting the classroom objectives. So in the morning I could be in music working with the teacher or in the afternoon I could be in phy ed and I could be in biology or chemistry. So it just matters on what teachers need and how I can help them shine.

FELTEN: And I’m Abby Felten. I’m a chemistry teacher here at Reagan High School, and my goal in teaching is to teach students to help appreciate science as a subject and understand that science is a process and something that can be used in all different contexts, and they can fill all of their different content knowledge in, which is part of the reason why I work so much with Peg, because it helps me make the connections with students in terms of what literacy strategies we can use in the science classroom to be successful and make those connections explicit for students.

GONZALEZ: All right. I got it. So Peg, you’re basically helping Abby improve a situation in her class with this?

GRAFWALLNER: Absolutely, I’m the support.

GONZALEZ: Okay. So describe the problem that you were noticing before you planned the lesson that we’re going to talk about.

FELTEN: So part of the problem that I was seeing with my students is that their notes were just another thing to them. So whether it be a reading assignment, whether it be direct instruction in class, they were just another thing to my students. They didn’t mean anything more than writing stuff down on paper and then filing that paper away into some everything folder to never be seen again, and that’s not what we want notes to be. I really want students to have notes that are meaningful to them and something that they can use as a tool as they review and solve new problems. So after doing a lot of reflection and discussion with Peg, I realized that I was trying to force students into a one-size-fits-all approach, and saying, “All right, students. Here is your outline,” or “Here are the PowerPoint slides,” or “Here is a graphic organizer that I want you to fill out for this reading or this lecture,” and it wasn’t working for students. It just wasn’t meaningful to them. And so what we then tried to do is, say, turn it on the kids and say, “All right, students. Take notes.” And that didn’t work either, because they are sophomores, they do have some experience, and so we wanted to give them that opportunity. But at the end of the day, we realized that they just didn’t know how to take good notes.


FELTEN: So we wanted to come up with a way to teach them and give them practice in taking good notes before it was something where it could damage them in terms of not having good notes to reference.

GONZALEZ: Right. So then you went to Peg with this, and you came up with a lesson.

GRAFWALLNER: Right. So what happened here is that Abby came to me and explained that note-taking was a challenge for her sophomores. So we wanted to create a lesson that could be used for all abilities, one that could easily transfer to other content areas, and one that gave students choice. So what we decided was to create note-taking stations. So the very first thing I did is I gathered three different kinds of note-taking templates. So the first one was Cornell notes, you know your traditional two-column notes. The second one was a concept map, and again, the iconic concept map. The third one was a magnet summary, and for your listeners who aren’t sure what that is, because there’s a lot of different ways you can look at it, this is one that’s inspired by Doug Buehl, and I’ll give a quick visual. You have your middle box, which is your main idea, and then you have the four surrounding boxes in each corner. You give students a very short piece of text, just like a short paragraph. They read that, they come up with what they think the main idea is, and then the four details go in the corresponding boxes. Then what students do is take that main idea, that becomes their topic sentence, and the corresponding details become then the rest of the summary. So we had those three types of note-taking templates, then we had annotation, and the way we annotate here is for questions, comments and vocabulary. We make it very doable, and I don’t want to say “simple,” because that gives the impression of ease, but what I want to say is simplistic. It’s not heavily color coded like a coloring book, it doesn’t have a huge legend, questions, comments, and vocabulary.

GONZALEZ: Okay, got it.

GRAFWALLNER: Yeah. The idea was then Abby gave me four pages of text from a chemistry book, and together we determined what type of note would work best on that page. Then I applied that specific template to the corresponding text. So as an example, if we decided a page, so if we looked at a page, Jenn, and it had a whole lot of writing on it, that would lend itself then to a two-column note or a Cornell note. If another page of chem text had, let’s say, more patterns on it or more formulas, that might lend itself then to a graphic organizer, the concept map. So we tended to align it in that way.

FELTEN: So then we took those four graphic organizers, and we split them into four separate stations for students to do. And so at each station, we had the exemplar that Peg had filled out, we had a simple direction sheet in terms of which page in their textbook they were reading as well as which graphic organizer that they were using as well as a very large stack of blank graphic organizers for them to use so that if they needed one they could use one, or if they needed two copies of it, if they felt there was too much information they could have two. And we just told them to try the different styles. So we gave a brief introduction in terms of the fact that we were going to try out these four different note-taking stations, they’d have one page or less of text to read. Honestly the textbook is usually about half a page and then the other half is review questions or images, things like that.


FELTEN: So it’s not a ton of heavy-duty reading for them. And then we sent the kids to the stations and said, “OK. You have 12 minutes with this page and that graphic organizer, and you’re going to fill it out and take notes on that chunk of text.”

GRAFWALLNER: And I just want to interrupt here. It was so funny because when Abby said 12 minutes, Jenn, you should have seen the looks on their faces. They were like, “Twelve minutes, way too long, all I need is a minute or two. I can get this information and move on.” So just the, it was kind of fun watching the kids and their reaction.

GONZALEZ: Yeah, yeah. They really just had no idea how long it would take.

FELTEN: No, they didn’t, which was really awesome, because we sent them to their four different stations, we had four groups working in different pages of text, different graphic organizers. I told them to go and get started and that’s when the awesomeness really happened. The room of 36-ish kids fell completely and utterly silent. I think it was more quiet than when they take a test type quiet, which was really amazing to see. Every single one of my students was actively engaged with the text, from my students who are the ones who just rush through everything to get it done, they couldn’t with this, because they had to figure out what information went where and really critically think about the text that they were reading as they were reading it.

GRAFWALLNER: And what was really cool is remember, there was an exemplar at each station. And students would look at that exemplar, so at the Cornell station, there was a Cornell exemplar. So students would look at that, hold it up, make sure that their notes visually looked the same, and that’s what was really cool. They were using the exemplars at each station as well.

GONZALEZ: And let me just be, to be clear about this one, you had the exemplars written about different parts of the chemistry textbook, and the students had to do the exercise with fresh text that it wasn’t the same content, basically, and what they were doing themselves and what they were looking at as the exemplar.

GRAFWALLNER: Correct. And the other thing you have to remember too, Jenn, is when Abby gave this to me, I’m an English teacher.


GRAFWALLNER: So I wanted to know that, that I was going into this blind too, and I think that’s really important. I told them that I’m not a chem teacher, so when I sat down with this text and these notes, I was learning too. And I think that really helped them to see, “OK, this is, not only do I have to actively read, but I can go in this without all that chem background that Ms. Felten has.”

GONZALEZ: Right. Right, right. That’s important that you were transparent with them about that, that probably gave them a level of confidence that they might not have had if they didn’t know that.

GRAFWALLNER: Absolutely.

FELTEN: It definitely did. And in terms of confidence too, for some of our developing learners, by only giving them a page and then one graphic organizer to fill out, it was something manageable for them to do and accomplish in that amount of time. So it was feasible for every single one of my students.

GONZALEZ: I’m glad you brought that up, actually, because I think probably that’s a question some people are going to have. They’re going to be thinking, “Well this is all fine and good if you’ve got a room full of advanced students.” But do you teach a range of abilities?

GRAFWALLNER: Yes, a very, very, very wide range of abilities.


FELTEN: In my classroom, which is, it’s part of what brought about this lesson is that there was this big range of abilities, and we needed to figure out a way to get them all to a point where they could take good notes on their own.

GONZALEZ: Right, right.

GRAFWALLNER: And we were thinking, Jenn, you know for those students who are visual, there you had a concept map. For those again who are better writers, oh I don’t know if that’s really what I want to say, but were able to be more linear thinkers, the Cornell notes. So we tried to, again, give students choice and tried to give the template to match the learning style as best as possible, if that makes sense.

GONZALEZ: Right. Were students allowed to talk to each other at any point while they were at the station to compare notes?

FELTEN: They were. But they really didn’t. Maybe in the last, like, minute or two of the 12 minutes some of them would take a peek at each other’s notes, but they were so engaged with what they were doing in front of them that it didn’t even dawn on them that they could talk to each other. I never gave them the direction that they had to be silent.


FELTEN: They just did it. So after they did all four stations and that silence and that work repeated for all four different note-taking templates, we had actually asked the students for some feedback, because we were going into this, we’re like maybe this will work, maybe it won’t. So we put it out there for them of like, “All right, guys. What do you think?” And so a lot of them came back saying that they didn’t realize how mentally exhausting those four pages of text could be, and that they would probably never look at a piece of academic text the same way again.


FELTEN: Simply because they realized how much more there is to that reading and note-taking than they had thought previously.

GONZALEZ: Right, right.

FELTEN: Which was pretty powerful. The other thing that we both found a lot of joy in was that students came out using different templates than they had used before and loving some templates that they had scoffed at me for making them use previously. For example, like Cornell notes, students started to enjoy actually filling those out, because they had the time to practice it in a low-stakes manner.

GONZALEZ: Oh, okay, I was going to ask you what you think made the difference this time. If they had already been introduced to Cornell notes and really hated them, I was wondering what did you think made the difference?

FELTEN: Yep, I think that difference was like they knew that they only had to do it at that one station, and they just had to give it a try, and then if they hated it after that day, they could be done with it forever if they wanted to be. But then we also found that a lot of our students wanted to marry two or even three different styles of note-taking together. So for example some of them wanted to throw Cornell notes and put a concept map in on the right side and then do a brief outline on the left. Some of them wanted to be more visual while still having the concept maps. And so they were really starting to think outside of the box in terms of the way their notes would look moving forward.

GONZALEZ: Right. So this was introduced to them as, and this may be something you’ve said and maybe I just wasn’t processing it quickly enough, but when you introduced this to them, did you basically say we are trying these four styles and your goal is to sort of figure out what works best for you? Were they in that mindset when they went into it?

FELTEN: Yes, they were. So they, we had told them we’re going to give these a try. If you don’t like any of them after today, no big deal, that’s fine. You don’t have to do this again. But if you find something that you love, stick with it, because then it’ll make it meaningful to you.

GONZALEZ: Right. Okay, okay.

GRAFWALLNER: And when we were asking, when the lesson was over, Jenn, and we were asking for feedback, the things that I noticed that I thought was kind of interesting, students had commented, first they were able to determine which note-taking template, as Abby said, they liked and which one they didn’t, and that’s where that choice comes in as opposed to Abby saying, “We’re going to read this and you have to use this template.” No, you use whatever works for you. The second thing, this I just thought was interesting, the students commented, several students commented that the boxes on the concept map were too small. And I said, “OK, then what could we do next time?” “Well I would just make my own.”


GRAFWALLNER: I thought was a big deal, because here is students who had never thought of a concept map now telling me that what I gave them was too small, and they would do it this way. It’s exactly what you want.


GRAFWALLNER: And then the third thing, of course, is having just the opportunity to try different notes, and we really can’t say that enough. I think as an instructional coach being in so many different classrooms with so many different teachers, I do see teachers attend to, and I think it’s just after awhile what we become comfortable with. We’re going to read this, here’s the graphic organizer, we’re going to read this, here’s the strategy. And sometimes I think we ourselves have to open up and realize, wait, there’s more out there? And why not let them choose?

GONZALEZ: Right, definitely. And that really does give them so much more ownership for their learning, and it’s stuff that they can transfer to other classes then.

GRAFWALLNER: Yes, very much so.

GONZALEZ: So since doing this lesson, Abby, what improvements have you seen in the way that students read their textbooks, the way they take notes or even other effects that you’ve noticed?

FELTEN: I’ve noticed several things since doing this for the first time with my students. But the big one is that their notes now are actually meaningful to them. They are proud of what they come to class with in terms of their notes. They don’t get shoved into the abyss of the everything folder anymore. They take great pride in their notebooks being neat and organized and things like that. That makes my heart happy, because they are realizing that this is a good tool for them, and they are doing what’s best for them, which is really, really powerful.

GONZALEZ: Oh yeah.

FELTEN: Additionally, I’m still seeing students varying which note-taking style that they’re taking. So when you take a look over their shoulder in lecture or when they’re reading their text, some of them are concept mapping, and then they’ll switch to a Cornell note, and then they’ll go back, and then they’ll start doing outlining, and they’re making that choice based on the text that they have in front of them and what they’re learning about, which is really, really awesome.


FELTEN: And lastly, they’re really actively engaged with their text and using their notes as a resource for themselves. So they’re not, at the end of a unit, they’re not going back and reading the entire chapter and they’re not going back and redoing all the problems. They’re actually using their notes as that review point for them, and a lot of them are able to actually synthesize their notes down into a page or two to be even more powerful for them.


FELTEN: And so a lot of their test scores have increased because they have been able to use their notes as a reference and things like that.

GONZALEZ: And they’re sophomores, right? Most of these are sophomores?

FELTEN: Yes, most of these are sophomores.

GONZALEZ: I bet the impact is going to reach a lot further than just your class.

FELTEN: Hopefully.


GRAFWALLNER: And you know what’s exciting too, Jenn, is Abby and I work together on numerous lessons over the past several years, and I’ve taken this one now on stations and incorporated it into different classes, different content areas. So we tried it in health, an article and then some different kind of graphic organizers. So again, that’s why I think this is so important because it can reach all abilities and it can transfer to other content areas.

GONZALEZ: Yeah, absolutely. That is wonderful. Anything else you want to share about this lesson or anything else before we wrap up?

GRAFWALLNER: I think what I’ve found most powerful about the lesson is first of all just as from a collaborative point of view is that Abby’s the expert, and I go in as her support, and we work well together, because we know our level of expertise, we have mutual respect, and as a result of that, we can stand up there in front of our kids and have conversations with them knowing that we’re all in it together.


GRAFWALLNER: They don’t see, I don’t perceive myself as Abby’s co-teacher. I am really her support, but yet she gives me the opportunity to be a very important support in that classroom, and that’s important to me.

GONZALEZ: Yeah, you know it’s funny, when I hear, if your focus is on literacy, I think this is such a good example of somebody who is in a content area that I think a lot of people don’t necessarily associate with literacy, in chemistry, you know? And this is a really good example of how important it is to actually get some support from somebody who understands literacy strategies so that students get more out of that content.

FELTEN: Yeah, exactly. And that’s one of my big takeaways from doing all of this, is that it really helps students to see that connection between chemistry isn’t just chemistry, it’s reading and it’s math, and what I’ve been preaching to the kids in terms of, “Hey, everything connects in my class right here right now,” they are actually able to see, and they’re actually making that meaningful and they’re starting to be able to transfer those skills in, which I think is very powerful for them, not only for me but also moving forward.

GONZALEZ: Right, yeah. So if somebody were to want to find you online, I know Peg, you’ve got some online stuff that people might be interested in learning more from you.


GONZALEZ: Where would they go to find that?

GRAFWALLNER: Thank you, Jenn. I’ve got a website, and it has a whole lot of resources, and several of what we talked about is on my website, the concept map is there, the Cornell notes is there, the annotation is there, and the magnet summary, so if your listeners are interested, just check out my website and they can get everything we’ve talked about downloaded. The other thing is I’m on Twitter, I’m @PegGrafwallner, and the final thing that I’m very excited about is in three days I have a book coming out from being published by Rowman & Littlefield, and the title is, “Lessons Learned from the Special Education Classroom: Creating Opportunities for All Students to Listen, Learn, and Lead.” And like I said, it’ll be available in three days on Amazon, and I guess what, just listening to this whole lesson and talking over with you, that’s exactly what this lesson was about, giving the students the opportunity to listen, learn and lead within their ability.

FELTEN: I am @AbbyFelten1. I am starting to work on my own teaching blog thanks to a lot of encouragement from the lovely lady sitting next to me.

GONZALEZ: Oh good. Well then good, if people find you on Twitter, then I’m assuming you’ll probably have a link to that once that’s up and running too?

FELTEN: Yeah, I will.

GONZALEZ: Okay, yeah. Great. And all of the links to everything that you just said, I’m going to put that also on the website along with your post that you wrote describing this strategy so people can easily find that. Thank you both so much for coming up with this in first place and then for sharing this. I think a lot of people are going to probably try this in the next couple of weeks after they hear this.

FELTEN: Yep, thanks.


For links to all the resources mentioned in this episode, visit, click podcast, and choose episode 111. To get a weekly email from me about my newest blog posts, podcast episodes, and products, sign up for my mailing list at Thanks so much for listening, and have a great day.