Education, learning, Literacy, writing

Your New Favorite Form of Writing, Revealed

If you, like me, have ever clicked on a social media post with a headline that reads, “5 Reasons Your Eyes Are Puffy,” “10 Ways to Look Less Like a Frumpy Mom” or “50 Times Judge Judy Proved She’s Our Bae,” you’ve engaged with a form of writing that can be found virtually everywhere these days. Whether online or in your favorite magazine, the annotated list has become as ubiquitous as the five paragraph essay has become obsolete–and yet, how often do we invite students to explore this low-risk, high-interest form of composition in our classrooms?

Many of us were asked to compose an annotated bibliography in college or graduate school, a task that still brings tears to my eyes from all the yawning that ensued. (I’m only half kidding. Some of the annotated bibliographies I was assigned to write were incredibly useful…at the time.) Google “annotated list,” and the helpful search engine (is Google a white male?) will decide that what you really meant to search was “annotated bibliography.” NOPE. Annotated list, baby!

How did I come to worship the annotated list? As a frequent reader of magazines and posts from websites like BuzzfeedMental Floss, and Cracked, I can’t go 24 hours without seeing an annotated list like this one or this one. Most of the time these lists have some element of humor to them–which likely accounts for why I’m so enamored with them–but some, like ASCD’s “10 Ways to Get Your Mojo Back,” are simply super-informative.

Recently, my colleague Kitri and I wanted to offer our students a multimodal way to share the work they ‘d done during an inquiry unit focused on hurricanes. Throughout the inquiry, students were given tons of choice around how they conducted their research, which resources they used, and what “doorway” into the hurricane inquiry they wanted to enter. For the sharing part, however, we wanted to offer students a chance to experiment using a form of composition that was authentic–that could be found in the real world–but that was not overly demanding.

Enter the annotated list.

We asked students to read and analyze some mentors in order to become familiar with the content, organization, and overall “feel” of the annotated list. Being the super analyzers they are, students were able to identify the following common elements.

Each annotated list had…

  • a title
  • a heading for each list item (often numbered)
  • at least one paragraph per section/item
  • an introductory paragraph

Many of them included…

  • a visual element such as an accompanying photo or illustration [HINT→ this is where the multimodality comes in!]
  • a list of sources (usually at the end)

Students then used their noticings, as well as the mentors themselves as a continued resource, to create their own annotated lists about hurricanes that they developed after weeks of research.

Students from a neighboring class offer feedback on students’ annotated lists.

(But WAIT–there’s more!)

Inspired by the success even our most writing-averse students had with this form of composition, I decided to use it as inspiration for our October RGS Teachers Write session, a monthly event where I offer my colleagues the space, time, and opportunity to compose (and to talk about writing) as a group. We used Questlove’s “My Youth in 27 Records” as a mentor, which both Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher have recommended in the past. My colleagues noticed the same common elements of annotated lists that students did, but in addition noticed that, in this particular piece,

  • each item/section is headed by a year (e.g., 1974)
  • each item/section includes a “mini story” about the author’s life
  • the reader is able to “get a sense of who [the author] is” by reading the list

We then began to brainstorm what albums–not necessarily records, as one of my much younger colleagues pointed out with a wink–we might include in our own “My Life in…” pieces.

From my notebook: yes, you read that right. Andy Gibb.

It was so fun to play with this form of writing. Incredibly high interest (thanks in part to the awesome subject matter), and equally as important, low-risk for even the most anxiety-ridden writer.

So here is what I am NOT proposing: that we add a neatly-planned, washed, and sanitized “annotated list” unit to our already-overstuffed writing curriculum.

What I am proposing is this: that we experiment with this particular form of composition when it feels right to do so, helping our students to see both 1) the many places where we might find it in the world outside of school, and 2) the myriad of possibilities for using it as part of our ever-expanding writing repertoires.

Even better–let’s continue to keep our eye out for new and inspiring multimodal forms of composition like the annotated list in order to continue to broaden–and improve–our ideas of what “writing” can be. Our students will thank us for it.


Like what you’ve read here? Check out my debut book from Stenhouse Publishers, Renew! Become a Better–and More Authentic–Writing Teacher, which you can preview in its entirety here. I am donating 50% of my royalties for the first year of publication to 826 National, a wonderful organization that provides opportunities for children who live in traditionally underserved populations to explore their creativity and improve their writing skills.  


5 thoughts on “Your New Favorite Form of Writing, Revealed”

  1. I have seen this form all over the place and never thought about suggesting it to my students. Duh! Thanks for this informative article with so many great resources. I’m now excited about trying it out with my students.


  2. Love this post, Shawna. I have sometimes shied away from writing “list” posts or pieces because I thought they were a little forced: it was always 5 of this or 5 of that…like the 5-paragraph essay. However, lately I’ve noticed that there is no magic number when writing these and, as a result, they are more appealing to read and more accessible to write. I will give this a try in the next unit we do in my classroom. Heck! I’m going to try one of these myself as a blog piece.


  3. This is great! My thought process went from having students write an annotated list of what they did over winter break to integrating this into a final project for our reading of Fahrenheit 451 in May. Maybe both? Thanks for the idea!


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