As a teacher, it is necessary to clearly define the purpose of student notebooks. Create an organized system that allows students the opportunity to freely explore all areas of writing in a personal and safe environment, an environment where students can write what they want and not be judged on spelling or mistakes. A place where they can write, without the fear of doing it “wrong." Consider a few of these tips when prepping writer’s notebooks with your students.
In "Setting Up Writer's Notebooks, Part 1," I give examples on how to help students personalize the outside of their writer's notebook and how that process helps them to connect with their books. A personalized writer's notebook also provides inspiration when writer's block hits.
Before having the kids begin filling the inside of their writer's notebooks, I start by reading aloud notebook texts such as Amelia’s Notebook by Marissa Moss. I ask questions such as, “What might be the purpose of our notebooks?” Students usually respond with, “a place for our writing” or “a place to put our ideas.” I then show "Wreck this Journal" by Keri Smith, a video featuring a book of the same title, in which journal writers are invited to stomp on, poke holes in, and otherwise invest themselves in their personal notebooks in highly unconventional ways.
I open the discussion anew about the purpose of a journal and what type of creativity can happen within its pages. The ideas that come from this "aprÃÂ¨s video discussion" are usually much more imaginative.
A writer’s notebook is a place where thoughts are written. It is also a place where students can try things out and explore ways of doing things without being judged on how they are doing it. A writer’s notebook is a place to jot down strategies like using strong verbs and conventions such as repeating words, and then attempting to create a piece of writing using those skills. I end this short class discussion with, “What do you want to get out of your notebook?”
I leave students with a few moments to themselves. As they are thinking of their answers, I invite them to write down their responses in the back of their notebooks.
Brainstorming and ideating takes place at the back of the notebook because, quite literally, this kind of writing is something students can come back to. Most ideas that come out of brainstorming sessions need no more than a page of space. Putting them at the back of the notebook allows students to build one brainstorm on top of the other without losing track of any of them. They start on the last page of the notebook and continue forward.
Keeping brainstorm writing at the back of the journal also allows for the journal writing to stay connected within the front of the notebook. If a student is writing something that goes beyond one page, there is no separation made by brainstorms or practice modeling that will interfere with the continuity of the story being written.
I kick off the brainstorm writing with an open-ended question such as the one stated above, “What do you want to get out of this notebook?” Students can bullet point their answers in the back of the notebook (they like bullet points more than writing and don’t realize they are actually writing) and then pick one point to elaborate on at the front of the notebook as the start of their writing piece. An example of this would be a student who wanted to get lots of poems out of his writer's notebooks. He takes the idea of poems from the back of the notebook and then can start writing a poem at the front of the notebook. The brainstorm is used as a way to invest students in something they can write about instead of something they have to write about.
Another quick brainstorm that I like is having students create an “Expert List.” This is a list where students write down all of the things they are an expert at. I use the term "expert" as something students know a great deal about. This could range from soccer, to cooking, to being a sibling. It is a bulleted list from which students can choose one topic from the brainstorm at the back of the notebook, and write an informational piece on everything they know about the given topic in the front of the notebook.
It is nice to have a date for when writing pieces were created. This goes for brainstorms as well. Sometimes the best way for students to remember what they were writing about is to recall the day that they were writing. They often make a connection to something that may have happened that day or an instance related to a certain time in the year. I remind my students to put the date in the top corner of everything they write. This way they can monitor what they have created and when.
Keep it clear to your students that the notebook is a starting point. This is where students experiment with forms of writing. This is where the story starts and not where the final story ends. If students start a piece of writing in their notebook and they want to complete a more polished piece (by polished I mean a piece of writing that will go through the writing process of editing, revising, and multiple drafts), I have them use a yellow legal pad. The large detachable paper is nice, big, and yellow, which helps to visually separate it from the notebook. It allows students to appreciate the function of the notebook when they can take what they want from their brainstorming and first drafts and apply it to the piece of writing they plan to publish.
As a class, we talk about referring to our notebook for ideas and writing styles that we have learned through mini-lessons and then applying those to our drafts on the yellow paper. Something about the yellow makes the kids feel extra professional. The idea of taking a piece of writing “out” of the notebook adds a “real writer” sense to their work.
As a closing thought to how we manage notebooks in my homeroom, I always go back to the "Wreck This Journal" video. We watch the video again, and I talk to students about the stories we can tell as writers. The wrecking of the journal symbolizes the use of a writer's notebook. The notebook does not have to stay neat and barely used. The notebook and the writing that goes inside of it is a form of "wrecking" it in the most meaningful way. Stories do not have to be pretty and they do not have to be perfect in the writer's notebook. Writing is work in progress. Mistakes can be made inside the notebook and that is okay. It is in the writer’s notebook that we construct, craft, reshape, and mold the stories we want to share with others. I remind students that they hold the power of story-maker. They can imagine endless possibilities and the notebook they have is where those possibilities come to life.
We usually stop about fifteen minutes earlier than scheduled to have an "open mic" session where students who are willing, share what they wrote or a piece of what they wrote that they are proud of. They stand in front of the whole class with a microphone in hand and read their writing. The audience thanks the speaker for sharing with round of applause.
Writer’s notebooks are a gift of power to students. Setting clear expectations of how you’d like them to use their notebooks helps them to understand how the notebook can be used as a tool that will help them become better writers. A small bit of foundation will go a long way in the writing process throughout the school year.
How do you set up writer’s notebooks with your students? I’d love to hear from you!
Looking for that next step with your notebooks? Check out Beth Newingham's piece on notebook assessments.
Thank you for reading!