Four Note-Taking Strategies for Films (Guest article by Peg Grafwallner)

I recently read Robert Ward’s exceptional article for KQED’s In the Classroom blog “Teaching Film as Literature” and was immediately struck with the simplicity of the implementation. While there is undoubtedly a great deal of background work that goes into designing, implementing, and assessing a lesson such as this one, this strategy can be differentiated for students of all abilities.

To make the whole-class novels he teaches more accessible, Robert uses film to achieve historical context. He states, “the movies I use not only augment my students’ understanding of these great books; the films I show can stand alone as worthy works of art and literature to both learn from and appreciate. In this way, media becomes an integral part of my ELA curriculum and instruction.”

However, just watching movies without some sort of interaction or communication is a waste of student time and energy. Therefore, Robert employs the use of note taking to assure that his students are focusing on several important aspects of the movie: possibly universal themes, inspirational quotations, or important character traits– something that demonstrates not just accountability or basic comprehension but insights about dramatic interactions that speak to his student audience.

As I read Robert’s article, I wondered about offering students choice in note-taking templates to give them the chance to practice different types of notes and ultimately determine which one they liked best. Recently, I created note-taking stations where students had the opportunity to move from station to station to determine which type of note template worked best on a specific type of text.

Here are four types of note-taking templates you can implement using Robert’s cinematic lesson or with your own lessons:

Cornell notes

Cornell Notes

The Cornell note-taking system was created in the 1940s by Walter Pauk, an education professor, to help students get ready for college. Cornell notes are also referred to as two-column notes and are linear in design and thought. Draw a line down your paper, but make sure the left side has less room than the right side. Label the left side “Key Words” and the right side “Notes.” Or for Robert’s particular lesson, you could label the left side “Themes” and the right side “Evidence.”

Then as students watch a movie, such as The Adventures of Huck Finn, they can jot down the various themes they identify (racism, loyalty, forgiveness) along with corresponding examples next to the themes. Then when students are ready to discuss or write about the movie’s underlying messages, they will have appropriate evidence of each.

Click here for a Cornell notes template.

Main Idea with Details

Main Idea with Details

This particular template gives students more opportunities to be creative as they are watching the film. The middle box is traditionally the Main Idea, while the corresponding boxes are the Details.

For Robert’s particular lesson, label the Main Idea box “Character” or “Society.” Then as students are watching the film The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till, they take notes on a particular character or the behavior of society. For example, students write down “Emmett Louis Till” or “Mrs. Till” in the middle box and write “Local” in one of the detail boxes, “Regional” in another box, “National” in another box, and “Global” in the final box.

As students watch the film, they take character notes about Emmett or his mother in the middle box and take notes about how his death was portrayed locally in the South, regionally in the North, nationally in Washington, D.C., and globally. Then when students are ready to discuss, they have notes about what they watched, along with their interpretations.

Click here for a Main Idea with Details template.


Concept Map

Like the Main Idea and Detail map, a concept map provides students with more flexibility. Students can use the template shown above or draw their own with a series of connected circles or squares. This type of idea mapping captures their thinking without necessarily providing a rigid structure.

For example, as students are watching Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, ask them to create a concept map about anything they find interesting or insightful: powerful words that are spoken by the characters, life lessons that are repeated, characters who appear to be caricatures of society, or societal expectations vs. individual needs.

Some students may find this type of note-taking troublesome because there isn’t a lot of guidance, but encourage them to try something new. Other students will eagerly greet the freedom this template offers. The point here is to give students experience with a variety of options from which they can choose for future lessons.

Click here for a Concept Map template.



Annotation is traditionally taught with text as students ask questions and make comments in the margins and circle unknown vocabulary. However, consider using this same type of method in a slightly different way. Give students a piece of blank paper, and ask them to draw three vertical lines, creating three columns. Label the left column “Questions,” the middle column “Comments,” and the final column “Vocabulary.”

As students watch the film Ruby Bridges, what questions do they have about Ruby, her family, or society? What comments do they have about Ruby’s experience, the Southerners’ response, or how they themselves might have handled a similar situation? What vocabulary is unknown to them, or what words need more clarification?

When students are done watching the film, they will have a variety of questions and comments for further discussion, along with a vocabulary list to help grow their own language acquisition.

Click here for Annotation guiding questions.

Film Lit KQED

After students have practiced all of these templates, gather their feedback on which ones worked best for them and why. Then, when you are ready to do another note-taking lesson, provide all four templates and give students the chance to choose their own. By choosing their own template, students are making a conscious decision to own their learning and ultimately their own success.


Peg Grafwallner, M.Ed. is an Instructional Coach/Reading Specialist at Ronald Reagan IB High School in Milwaukee, WI. Currently, Peg models, coaches, and assists teachers in creating comprehensive literacy lessons meant to enhance skill-building; in addition to providing instructional support to teachers district-wide. Peg is a blogger, author, and national presenter with articles appearing in ASCD, Booksource Banter Blog, DisruptEd TV, Edutopia, Exceptional Parent, KQED In the Classroom, Literacy Daily, Literacy and NCTE, NCTE Village Voices, WSRA Journal, and the Illinois Reading Journal.

Peg’s first book, entitled Lessons Learned from the Special Education Classroom: Opportunities for All Students to Listen, Learn, and Lead, will be available from Rowman and Littlefield in November of 2018.



If you liked this article, you’ll love my new book, Reaching the Whole Child by Teaching Whole-Class Novels. It’s my love letter to ELA teachers who want to teach with equal parts practicality and passion!

4 thoughts on “Four Note-Taking Strategies for Films (Guest article by Peg Grafwallner)

  1. Robert and Peg – thank you so much for the wonderful ideas! I often use audio and visuals in my classroom to supplement my curriculum. I love teaching literature through film and find your templates quite useful. Peg, I also teach at an IB school in Palmdale, California. Do you have a direct link for your IB Cornell Note template? If not, I suppose I can create my own, but thought I’d reach out first… Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

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