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Jen Hoyer
July 23, 2018

Brooklyn Connections is the education outreach program in the Brooklyn Collection. It focuses on cultivating 21st Century learning skills in students and supporting teachers on the incorporation of archives materials into curricula.

This blog post is part of a series from the Brooklyn Connections team, sharing skills and ideas for using archives primary source material in the classroom. Using primary sources in the classroom shows us that we can access history through many different formats as long as we are grounded in historical thinking.

[Children's Room at Grand Army Plaza Library], [ca. 1950]. Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn Collection. 


One of the most basic skills that we’ve all used in the classroom is also one of our most-practiced here at Brooklyn Connections: taking notes. This blog post describes one of the ways we love to teach notetaking skills, and it examines the skills developed through this activity.

Get ready

Taking notes is something that we feel like we know how to do already – and so might our students. But there are always new things to learn!

For this activity, we use note cards on a loose leaf ring. You can buy note cards and just use a hole punch to make a hole in one corner. Attach a loose leaf ring (also known as an opening o-ring) through the hole; you can open the ring any time you need to add more cards.

You’ll also need something that you and your students can take notes on. Choose a primary or secondary source that you feel is at their reading level; add a glossary of vocabulary words if you feel like that will help them comprehend the text.

Get started

We like to start by asking students two questions:

  • Why do we take notes?
  • What makes one detail more noteworthy than another?

Responses to the first question will vary. Most students realize that taking notes helps them remember important details so that they don’t have to read a full text again. Some students will point out that this helps them put the text in their own words, to avoid plagiarism. 

As we discuss what makes one detail more noteworthy than others, we’re focusing in on the core skills of historical thinking. Analyzing historic documents to determine key people, places, and events in history is an important skill. It’s also a skill that many students struggle with, and so we may actually preface this part of the lesson with a Do Now:

  • What are the three most important things that have happened in your life so far?

After students spend three minutes thinking about this question, we are able to share our responses as a group and reflect on how most responses highlight, people, dates, places, and events. This helps us understand some of the key details we look for when taking notes:

  • People
  • Locations
  • Dates
  • Events
  • Facts that are NOT common knowledge: we don’t need to write down things that everyone knows
  • Facts that are relevant to our topic: we don’t need a really cool fact if it’s completely irrelevant to our research
  • Facts that are interesting to us: we’re allowed to write down things that aren’t completely important to are topic if they are really interesting to us; that can let us look back later at things we want to learn more about


Try it out:

We can practice this with a quick turn and talk. I like to display a fairly straightforward primary source, like an image or this news headline, and ask students what the most important detail about it is:

Brooklyn Daily Eagle. 28 June 1883.


As students suggest the most important detail from this source, it is important to emphasize that they explain it in their own words. Writing notes in our own words is an important step of the research process. It helps us internalize knowledge and avoid plagiarism.

Using Note Cards:

Note cards help us implement our new skill of identifying the most important details. At this point in the lesson, we explain to students that we’ll use our ring of note cards for taking notes. Each card gets ONE important detail written on the front of it. We then write source information on the back of the same note card. It’s helpful to talk with students about what “source information” means; usually, it will be enough to write the author, publication title, publisher, date, and page number. If your students have learned to cite their sources, they could write source information in proper citation format.

Distribute a text for the students to take notes from, and practice the first note card together. Ask a student volunteer to read one paragraph aloud; discuss as a class what the most important detail would be, and invite students to write this detail on the front of their first note card. When they have finished, they can write the source information on the back.

After you feel that students have a good handle on the task, invite them to complete their notetaking work on their own.

We can do a few key things with our note cards:

  • Add additional cards as we continue to take notes from different sources
  • Open the ring and sort our cards into sub-topic piles once we have finished our research, to help outline our research project
  • Create a bibliography from all the source information on the back of our cards


Students may struggle to identify the most important details in a source; it may be helpful to guide them to look for a specific number of details in each paragraph.

The source text for notes should be scaffolded to the learning level of the students.

Notes can be taken from text-based and visual sources. It’s fun and also very helpful to take notes from photographs or illustrations: ask students to look at the image and describe the most important things that they see, and then write these on their note cards.

This post is the seventh in an ongoing series. Read the other posts in the series: What's a Primary Source?, Observations and InferencesMaps and AtlasesUsing the Internet to Find Primary Sources Online, Asking Questions for Research, Citing Sources, and How can we do research with political cartoons?

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