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Teaching Strategies that Use Sticky Notes

Jordan Catapano

I have a large stack of post-it notes on my desk, and I’m not afraid to use them. Most of the time I use these trusty notes to write down my to-do lists. I have my “What to Grade” to-do list, my “Contact These People” list, my “Current Projects” list, and many others, too. I rely on these notes to help keep me organized.

When I get to school in the morning, the first thing I often do is snag a post-it note and list out what I want to accomplish that day. I even have used a “Sticky Note” app to keep a list on my computer screen. I love my to-do lists.

But because I surround myself with these sticky notes, I’ve begun to find different uses and for them, too. Sometimes I use them for instruction, for communication, for teaching strategies, for group work, or for my own wacky needs. Let me share with you five top ways beyond the to-do list I tend to use post-it notes around school.

Teaching Strategies that Encourage Students Via Sticky Notes

Ever see a student feeling a little down? We can’t control much of what a student thinks and feels during the school day, but we can show that we care. Do this with your post-it note: take a moment to write a short, encouraging word, and then stick it to the student’s desk in a way that no one will notice. No attention is brought to the student, but they get a nice little message directly from their teacher.

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  • One student had gotten picked on earlier in the day, and his face showed it during class. So I wrote a note that said, “Don’t let it get your down. You’re still great!” He told me later this really helped him feel better.
  • One student was having trouble at home, so I wrote, “You haven’t been yourself. Hang in there. I’m here to talk if you need me.” She wrote in a letter to me two years later that this made a world of difference for her.
  • Another student had worked hard to get an A in class, and she did. I wrote, “You did it! I knew you could do it!” This, she said, was somehow even better than the A.

Teaching Strategies for Setting Goals

I’m big on goal setting. Studies have shown that writing down goals makes a big difference on the likelihood of achieving them, so I write my goals down regularly on my post-it notes. Some have easily confused goals as another to-do list, but they’re not. Our to-do list is what we’re working on; our goals are what we’re working towards.

Each year I make a few goals for myself, and then commit these to post-it notes that I keep on my desk or computer so I see them often. These aren’t things I just cross off when they’re done because I’m continually considering these objectives and focusing on them throughout my year.

I’ve done this with students, too. Pass out post-it notes, have them write their goals, and then stick them on the walls or have students post them to their folders. The size and color of the sticky-note ensures that they’ll see their goals often.

Annotating Books and Articles

As an English teacher, annotation is an essential skill for my students to master. I often flash them copies of my own books so they can see how I record my thoughts while I read and interact with the text. But you know what? Sometimes those margins are just too small! Publishers don’t publish with the intent of readers composing mass annotations, so sometimes we have to take matters into our own hands – with post-it notes.

When reading certain books or articles, I equip students with a pen and a stack of stickies. As we have thoughts, we write them on the notes and stick them right into the book. Added bonuses:

  • If reading school or library books, the annotations come right out just as easily as they went in.
  • Post-its can act like bookmarks for important portions, too.
  • Use different colored sticky-notes to color code different annotations.


Sometimes we just need an easy way to get our thoughts out and organize them. If you have a lot of disorganized ideas that you need to commit to paper and make sense of, then start with post-its. Grab a stack and put one idea on each post-it until you run out of ideas. Now you should have a desk with scattered, random ideas. Next step, start to organize them into similar categories; this is easy to do with stick notes. Finally, once you have written down and organized your ideas, rewrite them somewhere permanent.

This works just as well for groups, too. Have individuals start by recording their own ideas, then in small groups they can share and organize them. Sometimes including different colored post-its works for different classes of ideas; for example, I have used yellow post-its to have participants list ideas for “What we want to do” and green post-its for “How we want to do it.” Then we posted these on walls and easily organized our different ideas together. Instant collaboration!

Process and Structure Analysis

When analyzing any process or structure with students, it can be helpful to use post-its as an instant visual to get a grasp of the big picture. Post-its can be used to list various steps required in any process, and then collaboratively hung on a wall for groups to enrich their understanding. Of course, steps could be listed on paper just as easily, but there is something more tangible and interactive with post-its notes. Plus, individual notes can be easily rearranged, reshaped, or revised without affecting the other notes.

For example, in English class you might try this with chapter summaries: Have groups list the main plot elements on sequential yellow post-its, characterization details on green post-its, setting details on red post-its….you get the idea.

How can you use this to analyze a sequence of events in history, a set of processes in science, or a series of logic in mathematics? Try it out!

What I love about sticky-notes is that their size, colors, cost, and you-can-put-me-anywhere qualities provide limitless applications. Whether for myself, colleagues, or students, these sticky-notes offer a multitude of easy opportunities to improve thinking and collaboration.

How do you use post-it notes? Tell us about it in the comments – please share!

Jordan Catapano is a high school English teacher in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website

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