Creating Smart Notes to Organize Your Thinking

"We need a reliable and simple external structure to think in that compensates for the limitations of our brains." (Sönke Ahrens, How to Take Smart Notes)

In the world of continuous learning, taking notes is an essential part of the process. However, not all note-taking methods are created equal. In his book “How to Take Smart Notes,” Sönke Ahrens introduces the zettelkasten note-taking system, a method used by German sociologist Nicholas Luhmann to write 58 books and over 500 academic papers.

The zettelkasten system is a remarkable way of connecting index cards to simplify the way in which you write the first draft of your book, academic paper, business plan, or article. It uses a two-stage filter to prevent mediocre ideas from diluting existing notes. Here’s a breakdown of how the system works:

Stage One: Capture Literature Notes and Fleeting Notes When making notes, capture literature notes by highlighting passages in your ebook reader or taking notes in a mobile note-taking application. You can also capture sections of online articles or podcasts that discuss the topic you’re researching. You can also capture fleeting notes by writing down random ideas that come to your mind throughout the day.

Stage Two: Create Permanent Notes Once a day, preferably at the same time every day, go through your literature notes and fleeting notes from the past 24 hours. Determine which notes you should convert to permanent notes. Two criteria for converting a note into a permanent note are:

  • Does this note produce a similar level of excitement as when you first captured it?
  • Does this note add value to other permanent notes?

If an idea from your literature notes or an idea from your fleeting notes meets those two criteria, make it a permanent note by rewriting it on an index card. Add a location code prefix to the title, a list of keywords in the top right corner, and links to permanent notes in the bottom right corner.

One of the advantages of the zettelkasten system is its bottom-up approach to writing. Rather than outlining your book or article from the start, the system encourages you to follow your curiosity, generate a list of keywords as you go, and organically grow an outline over time. By adding keywords to every permanent note, you can group notes together and quickly find relevant notes.

Location Code Prefix When you prefix every permanent note title with a location code, you make it easy to reference your notes later on. The first note you add to your zettelkasten system will have one prefix to its title, and your second note will have a two prefix to its title. If your third note builds off the first note, it should go between notes 1 and 2 and have the code 1a prefixed to its title.

List of Keywords Identifying keywords is as important as taking notes. Aim to add one to three keywords to the top right corner of every permanent note. Identify keywords by asking yourself what one word or phrase relates this note to existing notes. When you develop a new keyword or phrase, put it on your master index, located on an index card at the very front of your index card box.

Note Links A new permanent note may have many potential friends in your zettelkasten system. If a note could fit nicely behind note 12a1 but it also relates to notes 2b1 and 24b, don’t spend too much time debating where the note should go. Simply put it behind 12a1 by giving it the code 12a2 and write down the location codes for related notes in the bottom right corner of the note. These links will be helpful when you write your first draft.

To summarize, start by capturing literature notes and fleeting notes in a mobile note-taking application. Then, convert a select few into permanent notes by rewriting them on index cards. Continuously update your master index with keywords and use it to outline your first draft. Go through your zettelkasten system sequentially, one card at a time, and effortlessly write your first draft. The zettelkasten system is an incredibly powerful tool for anyone looking to improve their note-taking and writing skills.

So, what are you waiting for? Give the zettelkasten system a try, and transform how you take notes forever!

Juneteenth: A Celebration of Freedom

celebrating juneteenth


It’s important to recognize and commemorate significant events in American history. Juneteenth is just such an event, celebrated on June 19th each year. Juneteenth is an important date in American history because it commemorates the end of slavery in the United States.

The History of Juneteenth

On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared that all slaves in the Confederate states were to be set free. However, it wasn’t until two and a half years later, on June 19, 1865, that Union General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, to announce that the Civil War had ended and that all slaves were now free. This announcement came two months after General Robert E. Lee had surrendered at Appomattox, Virginia. The news of the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the Civil War had not reached Texas until then.

The newly freed slaves in Texas celebrated their newfound freedom with great joy and jubilation. They held parades, sang songs, and read the Emancipation Proclamation out loud. This day became known as Juneteenth, a combination of the words “June” and “nineteenth.”

Why Juneteenth is Important

Juneteenth is an important date in American history for several reasons. First, it marks the end of slavery in the United States. Although the Emancipation Proclamation had been signed two and a half years earlier, it wasn’t until Juneteenth that the news reached all of the states. This day symbolizes the end of a dark period in American history and the beginning of a new era of freedom and equality.

Second, Juneteenth celebrates the resilience and perseverance of the African American community. Despite years of slavery and oppression, African Americans were able to maintain their culture, traditions, and sense of community. Juneteenth is a celebration of their strength and determination.

Finally, Juneteenth is a reminder that the fight for civil rights and equality is ongoing. Although slavery was abolished over 150 years ago, systemic racism and inequality still exist in America today. Juneteenth serves as a call to action to continue the work of those who fought for freedom and equality in the past and to work towards a more just and equal society for all.

Resources for Teaching about Juneteenth

10 Powerful Books for Adults, Teens, and Kids to Celebrate and Understand Juneteenth

For children:

Addy: An American Girl

In this American Girl classic, Addy Walker is a young slave living in 1864 who dreams of escaping to freedom with her family. However, their plans are foiled when their owner decides to sell Addy’s father and brother to a different plantation. Left with only her mother, Addy must escape alone and hope to reunite with her family in Philadelphia. Follow Addy’s courageous journey as she adjusts to life as a free person in the North and strives to be reunited with her loved ones.

Freedom’s Gifts: A Juneteenth Story

Young Black girl June celebrates Juneteenth, while her cousin Lillie celebrates the Fourth of July. Can June teach Lillie the importance of Juneteenth at the family picnic?

All Different Now: Juneteenth, the First Day of Freedom

This picture book tells the story of a little girl’s liberation on the first Juneteenth. The book includes notes from the author and illustrator, a timeline of notable dates, and a glossary to help children understand the significance of Juneteenth.

I Thought My Soul Would Rise and Fly: The Diary of Patsy, a Freed Girl

This Coretta Scott King Honor winner tells the story of Patsy, a 12-year-old girl living in Mars Bluff, S.C., after the Civil War. Written in diary format, the book follows Patsy as she observes the changes around her and embraces her newfound freedom to read and write. Through her own determination, Patsy creates a better life for herself and her fellow formerly enslaved people.

For teens:

Crossing Ebenezer Creek

During the Civil War, General Sherman leads Union soldiers through Georgia, setting enslaved Mariah and her younger brother Zeke free. The two join the march for protection, but as Mariah dreams of a better life for herself and her people, the harsh realities of slavery continue to weigh on her.

Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You

Preteens and teenagers who are too young to read Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning can still learn about antiracism from his collaboration with young adult author Reynolds. The book uses critical race theory, history, and pop culture references to keep young readers engaged.

For adults:

The Deep

This novella is a fantasy story inspired by the song “The Deep” from Clipping, a Hugo Award-nominated rap group led by Daveed Diggs. It follows the descendants of African enslaved women who were thrown overboard during their journey to America, now living under the sea. Yetu, a historian, must remember her people’s traumatic past since no one else can. But she escapes to the surface, discovering the world her people left behind and the traumatic memories held there.

Between the World and Me

In this essay about race, Coates writes a letter to his son about his life as a Black man, his fears and dreams for his son, the nature of the Black body in America, and his aspirations for the Black community. Coates weaves an intimate look into Blackness in America.

Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America

In this deep dive into Black history, Ibram X. Kendi details the history of anti-Blackness in America, from the first enslaved people to today. He highlights five key historical figures in American and Black history: Cotton Mather, Thomas Jefferson, William Lloyd Garrison, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Angela Davis. Each represents the attitudes of their era and played a significant role in the fight for or against abolition, segregation, assimilation, or equal rights.

The Brightest Day: A Juneteenth Historical Romance Anthology

Romance fans will enjoy this anthology about love and hope after Juneteenth. The stories cover various topics, from the day enslaved people were freed to a Juneteenth-themed cruise, out-of-wedlock pregnancy in the early 20th century, and boxing rings during the Civil Rights Movement. Each story captures love and Black joy during difficult times.

On Juneteenth

In this book, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Gordon-Reed discusses the history of slavery in America, leading up to the events that culminated in Juneteenth. She also weaves together American history and her own family history to pay tribute to the integral role of Black people in shaping Texas. The author previously wrote Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, which challenged Americans’ perception of the founding father due to his exploitative relationship with Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman on his plantation.

Friday Assorted Links

Title: "Az 1848-49-iki magyar szabadságharcz története [With illustrations.]"

Author(s): Gracza, György [person]

British Library shelfmark: "Digital Store 9315.h.13"

Page: 272 (scanned page number - not necessarily the actual page number in the publication)

Place of publication: Budapest

Date of publication: 1894

Type of resource: Monograph

Language(s): Hungarian

Physical description: 2 köt (4°)
Source: British Library on Flickr

The 11 Most Beautiful Post Offices Around the World

I’m a Student. You Have No Idea How Much We’re Using ChatGPT

– I’m halfway through Cory Doctorow’s latest novel, Red Team Blues. It’s pretty great.

These glacier photos are breathtaking

– Matt Damon on brainstorming and collaboration

The Hero’s Journey, according to Joseph Campbell

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The 1-Bit Great Wave

I’m sure you’re familiar with Hokusai’s “Great Wave” or have at least seen this image:

Hokusai's great wave
By Katsushika Hokusai – Metropolitan Museum of Art: entry 45434, Public Domain

I’ll go ahead and say that this print is one of the more famous art pieces in the world. It’s part of a series of 36 views of Mt. Fuji.

If you’re looking for ideas for student projects, a good starting point is having them recreate public-domain works in their own ways using whatever materials they choose.

For example: let’s say they wanted to use old software to create a 1-bit version (black and white) of this image. It might look something like this:

1-bit great wave by @hypertalking

A very cool project from @hypertalking. He’s briefly recapped his process here and could inspire you or your students to get creative in unexpected ways.

Trust and Vulnerability in Schools

"We need to trust to be vulnerable, and we need to be vulnerable in order to build trust." (Brené Brown, Dare to Lead)

“We need to trust to be vulnerable, and we need to be vulnerable in order to build trust.”

Brené Brown, Dare to Lead

Trust and vulnerability are two essential elements for a productive and effective learning environment. In schools, teachers, coaches, and administrators must establish trust with their students and colleagues to achieve academic success. Trust is a crucial element in creating a positive and safe learning environment. It can be defined as the firm belief in the reliability, truth, or ability of someone or something. When teachers trust their students, they provide them with the freedom to take risks and make mistakes without fear of judgment. Vulnerability, on the other hand, is the quality or state of being exposed to the possibility of being attacked or harmed, either physically or emotionally. When teachers are vulnerable with their students, they create a connection that can lead to more profound learning experiences.

Why Teachers Must Trust Students and Be Vulnerable

Establishing trust with students is critical in creating a positive and safe learning environment. When teachers trust their students, they provide them with the freedom to take risks and make mistakes without fear of judgment. Students who feel trusted are more likely to take academic risks, which can lead to deeper learning experiences. Trust also allows students to feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and feelings, which can help teachers better understand their students’ needs and respond accordingly.

A student who trusts their teacher is optimistic that the teacher will act in a certain way even though the student does not know whether the teacher will do so. If the student knew that this would occur, no trust would be necessary. The intriguing thing about trust is that it makes us rely on other people without knowing whether this reliance is warranted. We often find ourselves in situations in which trust is needed. This is also true for students at school. In many cases, students do not know whether what the teacher teaches is worth knowing. They simply trust that the teacher will select relevant content and appropriate learning methods for their lessons. Also, when it comes to testing their intellectual competences what they have learnt in class, students trust that the teacher will provide them with helpful and encouraging feedback, that the teacher will not make fun of their errors and that the teacher will recognise the effort and progress that the students have made.

Monika Platz, Trust Between Teacher and Student in Academic Education at School

Additionally, teachers who are vulnerable with their students create a connection that can lead to more profound learning experiences. By sharing their own experiences and struggles, teachers can help students understand that it is okay to make mistakes and that learning is a process.

Your students need to see you struggle. They need to know that it’s ok not to know everything. When I’m visiting classrooms, the number one idea I try to convey to students is that it’s perfectly fine not to get “it” right on the first try. There is a benefit to the productive struggle.

This can help students develop a growth mindset, where they believe that they can improve their abilities through hard work and dedication.

The Significance of Teachers Trusting Other Teachers

Trusting other teachers is crucial in building a strong professional community. In a school setting, teachers should be able to rely on each other for support, brainstorming, and collaboration. When teachers trust each other, they are more likely to share ideas and resources, and they can provide each other with constructive feedback. This collaboration can lead to improved teaching practices, increased student engagement, and, ultimately, better academic outcomes.

When teachers trust other teachers, they are more likely to seek out feedback and support. When the #observeme movement began, it was all about teachers being open and vulnerable with each other. It wasn’t some teachers believing that they had it all together and were experts.

They genuinely wanted feedback from their peers. You can’t get better professional learning than this. Peer-to-peer feedback is a huge boost to your teaching practice.

Whether teachers are working on instruction, developing curriculum, or discussing students, they value the opportunity to collaborate. In our school, the literacy coach held periodic workshops with teachers from all departments. These volunteer workshops focused on different techniques and were always full. Teachers saw the workshops as an opportunity to work with colleagues from other departments and to learn new strategies and protocols. In an atmosphere of trust, they were willing to take the risks that new learning requires. Once teachers experienced the value of this kind of collaboration, they began to use the new strategies in their own classrooms with their students.

Jane Modoono, The Trust Factor

Vulnerability can lead to a culture of continuous improvement, where teachers are constantly looking for ways to improve their practice. This can lead to better academic outcomes for students, as teachers constantly seek to improve their teaching practices.

The Importance of Coaches and Administrators Trusting Teachers and Being Vulnerable

Coaches and administrators play a vital role in creating a culture of trust and vulnerability within a school. When coaches and administrators trust their teachers, they give them the autonomy to make decisions that benefit their students. This can lead to a sense of empowerment among teachers, which can lead to better academic outcomes for students.

Additionally, when coaches and administrators are vulnerable with their teachers, they create a space where teachers can share their thoughts and feelings without fear of repercussions. I am the first person to admit I don’t have all my ish together at times. Especially when trying something new. I’m learning right alongside the teachers and students I work with most of the time. Communicating your own faults opens so many doors with others.

This communication can lead to improved teaching practices, increased teacher satisfaction, and, ultimately, better academic outcomes. When coaches and administrators are vulnerable, they demonstrate that it is okay to make mistakes and that learning is a process. This can lead to a culture of continuous improvement, where teachers are constantly seeking to improve their teaching practices.


In conclusion, trust and vulnerability are essential components of a productive and effective learning environment. Teachers must establish trust with their students and be vulnerable to create a safe and positive learning environment. Trusting other teachers is critical in building a strong professional community, while coaches and administrators must trust teachers and be vulnerable to create a culture of open communication and collaboration. By prioritizing trust and vulnerability in schools, we can create an environment where everyone can learn and grow together.

As educators, it is our responsibility to create a culture of trust and vulnerability in our schools. By doing so, we can create an environment where students feel safe to take academic risks, and teachers feel empowered to improve their teaching practices. When prioritizing trust and vulnerability, we can create an environment where everyone can learn and grow together.

Thanks for reading. This site is a completely reader-supported publication. The best way to support it is to check out my recommendations or become a paid subscriber.

Midjourney Recreates Ancient Battles

From the “This is wicked cool” department, here are some examples of Midjourney’s take on ancient battles.

I continue to be blown away by the power of AI tools. At the same time, I completely understand many of the concerns about AI replacing working writers, artists, and other creators.

There is a way forward, and I think it lies in using AI as a support tool. The possibilities for students to use AI as a support to their work are many, but we must be judicious in its usage.

The Library is a Safe Place

I had no idea that Wil Wheaton graced my home state with his presence back in March at the Southern Kentucky Book Fest. I can’t tell you how bummed I am that I missed seeing him speak.

Neverminding my failure to stay on top of cool things, Mr. Wheaton was nice enough to post a copy of his remarks on his site. I’m just a few years younger than Wil and not only empathize with his childhood experiences but can say I had my own version of them.

I also totally agree that “the library is a safe place” for everyone.

In order to survive, I disassociated for much of my childhood, but I clearly remember the books. That’s where I found comfort, companionship, inspiration and validation. It’s where the imagination that powers everything I do creatively in my life today was born. And it all started in that library, with that librarian. She was one of the first people I can remember asking me, “What do you like? What’s important to you? What do you want to know more about? How can I help you find it?”

That moment was so special and meaningful, not just then, but for years after. When I got older, I began to learn that so much of what had been presented to me as truth in school wasn’t just false, it was propaganda. I remember the first time I saw a banned books display at a bookstore in the mall when we were on location for Stand By Me. I wanted to read all of them, because I’d figured out that if They didn’t want me to, there must be something pretty great inside.

I read To Kill A Mockingbird, and began thinking about racism and injustice.

I read 1984 and Brave New World, and began thinking about autocrats, and what it meant to be truly free to choose our own destinies.

I read Johnny Got His Gun, and All Quiet on the Western Front, and saw firsthand the horrors of war.

– Wil Wheaton

You can read his full remarks right here.

Would AIs make better professionals than humans?

Doug Johnson posits:

One quality that AI may put to extremely positive use would be objectivity – a lack of personal biases or prejudices. Properly programmed, my financial advisor AI should not be advising me to invest in areas where the advisor would get the biggest fee, but where I would stand to make the biggest return at the lowest risk. Would my AI dentist or doctor only recommend those procedures and medications that have proven rate of effectiveness not the most kickback from pharmaceutical companies? Would an AI intelligence agent be more likely to uncover double-agents in the office?

Of course, the burning question in education is “Would AIs make better teachers than humans?”

We Need Easier EdTech Integrations

I won’t spend my time here griping about the overuse of technology for standardized testing and other “necessary” tests. That fight is for another day.

Today, let’s talk about how frustrating it is to use many testing services. I’ve spent most of the past two weeks getting two grade levels into two different online testing systems.

One system required an SFTP upload of a CSV file. I kept getting errors even using the company’s template and data tool. After trying a few dozen times, I gave up and sent the file to the company. The next day, the data was uploaded and corrected. I still have no clue what was wrong.

The second company uses Clever to sync students and teachers. But not to log students in for the test. No, no, they require a lockdown browser for their exam. Conveniently, they autogenerate usernames and passwords for the students.

Did I mention these elements are 11 characters or so each? And the students using them are in kindergarten?

Yep. Smiles all around.

Mind you, I have a decent amount of experience with all the tools I used to make these data uploads happen. I would venture to say that the person at most schools responsible for this process is NOT as experienced. Just a hunch.

There has to be a better way.

Enter the Zettelkasten: Note Taking, Making, and Organizing

This week, while I’m on a bit of a break between doctoral classes, I’m taking some time to better organize my personal knowledge management system. It’s what I and others refer to as a “second brain.”

Why do I need this second brain? There are several answers to that question, but let’s start with this one: the human brain was not designed to be a storage container. It was designed to make connections between concepts and draw conclusions. In other words, our brains were made to think, not to be an all-powerful, Trivial Pursuit winning, treasure trove of information.

To be sure, I play a mean game of Trivial Pursuit, but not because I’m trying to learn random facts. That happens to me with no focus. It’s a sickness I and many others have that, at the end of the day, isn’t useful for much. Although my wife refuses to play against me in any trivia game…

For me to get the most out of what I read, watch, or listen to, I need a way to make notes and organize them. But perhaps most importantly, I need a way to connect those notes and ideas to create something new.

As lifelong learners, we constantly search for ways to optimize our learning experiences and retain valuable information. In the world of personal knowledge management, there are numerous techniques designed to help us do just that. One such method is the Zettelkasten method, a unique and powerful approach that has gained considerable traction in recent years. My first encounter with the Zettelkasten method—albeit a revised version—was learning how Ryan Holiday writes his books using index cards. A commonplace book also works as a sort of Zettelkasten but with a severe lack of organization.

Let’s dive into the core principles and benefits of the Zettelkasten method, and explore how you can use it to unlock your full learning potential.

What is the Zettelkasten Method?

The Zettelkasten method is a personal knowledge management system that German sociologist Niklas Luhmann created with the intention of improving how we process, store, and connect information. Luhmann used this method to produce an astonishing 70 books and over 400 articles throughout his career. The word “Zettelkasten” translates to “slip box” or “note box,” which refers to the physical or digital space where notes are stored and organized.

Core Principles of the Zettelkasten Method

  1. Atomic Notes: Each note should focus on a single idea or concept, making it easier to digest and connect with other notes. This principle encourages clarity and brevity, preventing information overload.
  2. Unique Identifiers: Assign a unique identifier to each note, typically a combination of numbers or letters. This allows you to quickly locate specific notes and create meaningful connections between them.
  3. Linking Notes: Establish connections between related notes by linking them together using their unique identifiers. This forms a web of interconnected ideas, fostering creative thinking and deep understanding.
  4. Continual Expansion: Continuously add new notes and connections to your Zettelkasten, allowing it to grow and evolve over time. This ongoing process promotes active learning and reflection.

Benefits of the Zettelkasten Method

  1. Enhanced Knowledge Retention: By focusing on single ideas and forging connections between them, the Zettelkasten method encourages deeper understanding and long-term retention of information.
  2. Improved Creativity: The process of linking related notes stimulates creative thinking and helps you discover novel connections between seemingly unrelated concepts.
  3. Efficient Organization: The unique identifiers and linking system make it easy to navigate through your notes, reducing the time spent searching for information.
  4. Personalized Learning: The Zettelkasten method adapts to your individual needs and interests, allowing you to develop a customized knowledge base that reflects your unique learning journey.

How to Get Started with the Zettelkasten Method

  1. Choose a platform: Decide whether you prefer a physical or digital Zettelkasten. Physical options include index cards and notebooks, while digital platforms such as Evernote, Notion (my preferred platform, more to come on that topic soon), or specialized Zettelkasten software like Zettlr or Obsidian offers more advanced features.
  2. Create your first note: Write a brief, focused note on a topic of interest. Remember to assign it a unique identifier.
  3. Expand your Zettelkasten: As you continue to learn, add new notes to your collection, ensuring they follow the atomic note principle.
  4. Link all related notes: Use the unique identifiers to create connections between relevant notes, promoting a deeper understanding of the subject matter.


Of course, this isn’t a complete look at the Zettelkasten method. The more you learn and implement the system yourself, the more you’ll develop your own “style” that works for you. The beauty of the system is its simplicity and adaptability.

The Zettelkasten method offers a powerful approach to personal knowledge management, fostering creativity, deep understanding, and efficient organization. By implementing this method in your learning journey, you can unlock your full potential and become a more effective, lifelong learner.

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