The Zettelkasten in the Secondary Classroom

July 6, 2021
  • Middle school students are just entering the formal operations stage of cognitive development
  • This means that they are — for the first time — able to think in abstractions, ie, critically
  • Schools, as responsible for student intellectual development, must address this development explicitly in their methods of instruction
  • The zettelkasten is one method for engaging in formal operations and is easily adapted to a classroom

Data vs. Knowledge vs. Insight

I have a single poster on my classroom walls. A laminated 8.5x11 color print out of this image:


Like any good passive classroom visual, it’s there for me as much as it is for the students. It serves as a reminder of what should be the ultimate goal of education: that is, certainly not facts, nor even the organization or application of those facts, rather, the ability to make facts for one’s self and discern patterns from those – further, the use and adaptation of those patterns in a wide range of contexts.  

This is why I feel so fortunate to be able to teach middle school students. Because middle school is the time that this work can have the greatest impact.

The Formal Operations Stage

Concepts learned in one context can be applied to another

I began my teacher training intending to become an elementary school teacher, as I thought that I could do the most good with the youngest students. Learning Piaget’s theory of cognitive development changed my mind entirely.

Jean Piaget posits that at around 11 to 12 years of age, our minds develop into the “Formal Operations Stage,” which is characterized by the new ability to reason beyond the “concrete,” or what we are able to see directly. From Piaget’s The Psychology of Intelligence:

The adolescent, unlike the child, is an individual who thinks beyond the present and forms theories about everything, delighting especially in considerations of that which is not.

This makes more sense than is comfortable to admit – not because the concept itself is shocking, but because it took me enrolling in a teacher training program to see it spelled out so clearly. Why are we as a society not intensely focusing on middle school education if this is the age at which we become adult thinkers?  

For all the talk of preparing students for the future, we are almost entirely neglecting the first window of opportunity to teach people how to think. Thankfully, ELA teachers are in a great position to address this.

Teaching to formal operators

The Common Core State Standards can be an excellent starting point for teaching the essential skills of language arts. However, based on my own observations, they are not widely taught in a manner that treats them as such.

Let’s take an example. We’ll look at one standard and determine what it is, why it’s important, and ways in which it’s currently taught. For the purpose of this article, we’ll use CCSS RL.7.2 as our case study:

Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text; provide an objective summary of the text.

What CCSS RL 7.2 says

This is a critical standard – What is this work all about? It expects students be able to find the main idea of a work and analyze how the author builds the main idea throughout a work.

As this is a Reading Literature standard, the main idea of a narrative or poem would usually be called a theme. However, what goes unsaid in this standard is a prerequisite understanding of plot and structure – these are how a theme or purpose is developed in any work of verse or prose. Structure, of course, is also essential for so-called “informational text,” albeit different forms.

Once a student is able to determine the theme and its development (eg, through the beginning, middle, and end of a story), his teacher can instruct him how to best summarize that information.

That’s what this theme aims at.

Why CCSS RL 7.2 is important

Now we need to think more.

I can’t be the only one who, as a student, thought I was so cool for challenging a math teacher with “Why do we need to learn [this]?” where [this] is whatever I happened to be struggling with at the time.  

Unfortunately for everyone, this question – which should always elicit a homerun response from the teacher – is rarely answered well, at least in my experience.

“Because it’s on the test,” is possibly the worst answer to tell a student who’s pretty sure he’s going to fail that test no matter what, yet this may be the most common answer to “Why do we need to learn this?”

Students and teachers alike deserve and require an answer to “Why do we need to learn this?”  

I understand that the Common Core does not want to come across as more overbearing that it already does, and its appendixes do offer more nuanced perspectives than the standards themselves. In any case, teachers should always take it upon themselves to understand why we teach what we do.

This is a sketch of my ideas on why young people ought to be learning literature:  

Literature makes us human.

Only 1 out of 4 SAT reading passages are narratives, and to get a well-paying job (such as in “tech” or medicine) you probably don’t actually need to read any literature at all. But you will live a worse life if you don’t.  

For one thing, you won’t think as well. Your brain is a muscle and you need to train it like you do any other. Reading literature (fiction or nonfiction; narrative or informational or argumentative) trains you think better because in doing so you practice following an idea and tracking how it’s strengthened or weakened. Of course, this helps you do the same through your own use of language – convince others more effectively, better determine another’s credibility, build a more robust vocabulary that enables you to express yourself more precisely and generally sound smarter.

But maybe even more important is that you’ll be more human. You will talk with people from hundreds and thousands of years ago from places and ways of life that are long gone or are simply impossible for you to know any other way. And this is not just a cheap alternative to traveling – this is how you become more human.

More ways to look at the world’s problems and potentials. More emotions that you didn’t know you felt. And more than just knowing these things, literature helps you make sense of them — integrate them into your daily life and worldview.

According to Aristotle, the main point of stories is to feel like you experience those things in them for yourself, thus ridding yourself of the associated negative emotions without having to go through the actual crises.

If you read at all, you’re going to get these benefits. That’s worth it. But if you can read even more closely – such as, for example, by realizing what the story is all about early on and then following that theme throughout the work via your annotations – then you will get much more of those benefits from everything that you read. And you’ll know better what you want to read at any time, how to read it, how to help others from what you read.

And, of course, you’ll do much better on those tests too.

It’s a template. Use as much or as little as you’d like with your students. Let me know how it goes.

As for “Why RL 7.2?” the answer is in there. If you know what you are reading, you know what you can expect. You know better why the story develops as it does, why certain problems arise and questions are asked, etc. It makes more sense, you get more from it. You’ll recognize the crisis, climax, and resolution when they occur and better appreciate the catharsis they offer.

Blah, blah, blah, main idea questions on standardized tests, too.

How CCSS RL 7.2 is taught

The resources that Google and TpT return for this standard horrify.  

For one thing, only the most general of concepts can be shared across grade levels. Tracking a theme’s development is not the same as “[determining] how it is conveyed through particular details” (RL 6.2). How one set of worksheets could do both is confusing, and yet bundles of worksheets are often advertised as doing just this — covering RL.X.2.

And this does not even touch on the resources that purport to be appropriate for both 5th graders and 7th graders, both 10-year-olds and 13-year-olds: ages clearly on opposite sides of Piaget’s concrete and formal operations stages. That is, students with totally different ways of thinking.

But let’s finally get to the crux of this article: almost everything you will find when trying to teach RL.7.2 (or any standard) falls into one of two categories.

  1. Worksheets of test-prep-inspired multiple choice questions on teacher-selected texts
  2. Cutesy worksheets that seem to aim more at “fun“ with a few items obliquely getting at the standards

But how many of either such worksheets did you fill out for the last book you read?

What’s the going rate today for a completed worksheet?

Why is it considered OK to make students fill these out day after day, month after month, every year when these worksheets do nothing to help students learn about themselves or the world around them? Being a student is a responsibility: what do these worksheets train students to do and how do they train students to think?

Worksheets, standardized tests, and you(r job)

I do understand that students are subjected to standardized tests as measures of their aptitude and that these tests are comprised of passages paired with multiple choice questions. If worksheets are explicit practice for those tests, then that is their purpose. Fine. (If we take half a step back from this point, we’ll wind up in the absolute quagmire that is “teaching to the test,” so let’s avoid that for now.)

For now, let’s take the Donalyn Miller approach and treat test-prep as its own sub-skill, which has a place in ELA class, but is not ELA class entirely, meaning that if these worksheets were only a fraction of what happens in ELA class, it would be much less of a problem. The problem is that the presentation of the CCSS lack so much context that – be it textbooks, which are essentially a series of worksheets bound together, or loose-leaf worksheets printed off TpT – many classes become mere sessions to ensure that the teacher can confidently “check the box” beside each standard. Because no one gets fired if they check the box. Pearson is going to help you check that box. TpT-Superstar is going to help you check that box. And if anybody asks? You’re going to say I checked that box.

First principles of composition?
ELA as rhetoric?
The trivium?

No, no, no. Those aren’t boxes – not interested.

Instead, let’s get a 75-word story about chickens and some multiple choice questions: one about its “theme or central idea,” another one about the theme’s “development over the course of the text,” and one more about vocab or something. Bonus: a short answer (with sample response on the teacher’s edition) asking for “an objective summary of the text."

Congrats, you’ve passed your observation and have checked the box for CCSS RL 7.2. Onto 7.3.

I don’t need to tell you this is exactly the sort of thing that middle school ELA textbooks, curricula, and worksheet websites are full of.

Ask yourself: Are these the tasks we should assign young people who are — for the first time — able to think in abstractions and form theories about the world? Do these tasks train them in that regard? Do they speak to the “delight“ Piaget observes in young people new to formal operations?

They do not, and it is wrong subject young people these tasks. It wastes of our students’ time and of our own. It betrays the trust that society puts in teachers and that parents who send their children to our classrooms puts in us individually. Most importantly, it is an enormous waste of human potential. We have rooms and buildings full of young minds who want to learn how to learn, and instead we are giving them worksheets.  

Doing better

So where are the better resources? The ones that treat these Common Core State Standards as first principles, as exercises in rhetoric, and as inheritors of the trivium rather than objectives for worksheets?  

The answer is that you won’t find them. At least I haven’t. And after a little while of trying I gave up, because I realized that such “resources” can’t be made. Tools for critical thinking don’t have answer keys, and while they technically can be sold (or given away for free) on TpT, the platform is not designed for them, because tools for critical thinking extend beyond any one novel or unit or even standard.  

The zettelkasten is one such tool.

The Zettelkasten in the Secondary Classroom

What is a zettelkasten?

Zettelkasten literally means slipbox in German, like those walls of little wooden drawers. As a notetaking system it was developed by Niklas Luhmann, a prolific sociologist active in the 1970’s.  

As far as I know, the term and method was greatly popularized through Sönke Ahren’s book How to Take Smart Notes. Here’s a video explaining more:

For those of you who, like myself, rarely watch videos, here’s a summary:

  • Note what you read and what it’s about on notecards
  • Put all of these notecards in one box
  • Take notes about what you think about what you read on notecards
  • Make these notes easy to find with a numbering and tagging system
  • Organize notes spatially in the box, like threads of thought rather than a chronological notebook
  • Review these notes to look for…
  • connections between ideas, which you write on notecards and put them in box (“link” notecards using your numbering system)
  • lose ends which you can further explore

The basic appeal is that it is an “atomic” notetaking system. Each note is independent of context (such as a place in a notebook).  

I strongly recommend reading the first few chapters of How to Take Smart Notes or watching some YouTube videos on the concept.

Using the zettelkasten in class

The zettelkasten is a tool for thought. It is at the moment quite trendy among academics, researchers, and so-called “knowledge workers,” and it belongs in the secondary classroom.

Students in the formal operations stage deserve an education in how to think. The formal operations stage begins around 11 years of age. If we aren’t teaching 11-year-olds and up how to think, we are not giving them the education they deserve (or crave, even unknowingly). Worksheets do not teach anyone how to think. A zettelkasten can.

A zettelkasten is not a replacement for explicit instruction. Students need input for concepts, related vocabulary, and skills. They need scaffolding to hone those skills before being given the chance for freer and independent practice. Many worksheets do accomplish this; many do not.

What no worksheet can possibly do by its nature of being a literal (or virtual) sheet of paper is to help students create a mental framework of how to read effectively combined with their own thoughts on the substance and structure of what they read. That is the promise of the zettelkasten. I’ve seen it happen.  

The nuts and bolts of the secondary classroom zettelkasten

Full disclosure: at the time of writing, I’ve guided 5 classes of grades 7-8 students in maintaining zettelkastens for units of formal poetry, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and/or Shakespearean comedies. As with any first uses of a method, there have been many lessons learned and still many more to be learned. But I've also seen the tool’s potential. Here’s what I did:

Use paper and pencil zettelkastens

There are tons of great online and digital zettelkastens, which I predict will become popular among intentional teachers. Thankfully, we were in-person which reduced the complication.

I got a clear plastic folder for every student and put the zettelkasten forms in a folder on my door

MISTAKE 1: I made 2 forms. One for the student’s first findings/thoughts, and one for connecting their findings/thoughts. This was a mistake. The ability to connect should be emphasized and present on every form.

Introduce zettels

MISTAKE 2: I did not do a great job here the first time around, but have put together a mini-lesson that should get the key concepts across. (Suggestions welcome.)

The form of zettels

I told my students that most zettels should follow an Idea-Evidence-Explain format, but you really don’t want to limit them. Questions are valid to include, hand-drawn diagrams, etc.  

As always, keep an eye on how they’re doing – they criteria is “Is this helping them track their thoughts.” Highlight good examples (and share with me!).

Start to build zettelkastens

MISTAKE 3:  Just as with any new skill, writing zettels and maintaining a zettelkasten needs to be directly taught, modeled, and given guided and then independent practice. I missed some of those steps the first time around.

In my defense, I remember being taught to swim when my babysitter took away my “water wings” and then stepped on my fingers as I clung to the side of the pool. This had a profound impact on my philosophy of pedagogy.

In reality, I was definitely told many times how to swim and had plenty of chances to practice (the water wings) and observe.

The very first time around, I had also flipped the unit, which freed up a ton of time in class for students to read self-selected poems and reflect on them via zettels. But they work well as a reasonable HW assignment (eg, write a zettel on the meter/structure/whatever of a poem). As an exit ticket or start-of-class activity, they may take too long. But let me know if it works for you.

Make time to review and connect

One appeal of paper zettels is that you can literally take them all out and rearrange them, seeing each idea in new contexts. Let students do this. Allot some time for students to do this.

Use them

To learn

From texts, from each other, and from themselves. This is a lot of fun. Basically every student has a collection of ideas from reading, and there is so much you can do with that. Some examples:

Speed zetteling

Two rows of chairs and a short time limit, students have 1-2 minutes to share their ideas (about whatever is the focus) and learn one.

Encourage everyone to “steal” ideas (with attribution) and write new zettels about what they learn from each other.

Zettel bingo

Make it a goal to find classmates with zettels about certain ideas (eg, one about 1st person PoV, one about 3rd person omniscient, etc.). Co-create the bingo board with students.

As with speed zetteling, encourage students to add ideas to their own zettelkastens with attribution to their classmates.

Scavenger conferences

In small groups (eg, groups who are working a project together), students identify gaps in their webs of knowledge.

Then, members of the original groups separate into new groups formed by representatives from each original group. Students ask questions attempting to fill in their gaps in knowledge and report back to their original groups.


Students stick all of their zettels on the walls with sticky tack or tape (be sure students initial or mark their zettels before doing this).

Then, students walk around the room and search for connections and create original ideas using those connections.

Students physically attach those zettels with string (like a conspiracy theorist would) and stick a zettel on the string explaining the connection.

To make (the pièce de résistance of zettelkastens in classrooms)

No more book reports, no more posters, no more pointless slides. A good tool for thought will produce real evidence of original thought.

My students made blogs. Nothing fancy. A basic format for expressing thoughts – which is exactly what they did, and they did so very well.

Truly, the work produced was amazing. Reviewing blog posts of middle school students, one just doesn’t expect to encounter so many original observations on Shakespeare’s Sonnets or the form of the villanelle.

That is, until you give them a method to create, maintain, connect, and share those types of observations. That’s what a zettelkasten is.

Appreciating Formal Operators

It does not require expensive degrees, PD, or material to teach in a manner that is consistent with the needs of student cognitive development.

I think one way we can start to do this through using the zettelkasten as a tool for thought. Through using CCSS as a basis of what to be looking at when reading, the zettelkasten provides the how and equips students to create their own why.