Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Writer's Notebooks: Yes, Please!


 My dad was the coach of our high-school volleyball team, so I grew up dreaming about being part of his team.  I attended each game and watched the matches unfold in front of me as I cheered from the stands.  I learned the rules and the joy of the game long before I was old enough and strong enough to play competitively myself.  Then, when the time came for me to learn how to play, I practiced.  I built up strength by running and lifting weights.  My dad brought me to the weight room on Sundays and we hit the ball against the wall until my arm felt like it would fall off.  He taught me how to hold my hand,  how to take the right steps, and how to float, or spin the ball into the opponent’s danger-zone.  When we won the conference championship, I knew that it was due to the teamwork, practice and hard work over many years.  My dad, my coach, shared the journey with us.   

We know that kids need to read and write a lot to become better writers.  We, as teachers, are sharing the writer’s journey with them to help them improve.  We are coaches:  guiding, mentoring, and training.   Writers need to watch the game and appreciate the joy of it before they begin; they need to read often and be read to frequently.  Writers need to get strong; they need to practice writing and take risks.  Writers need to have different “serves” in their repertoire; they need to analyze mentor texts and try many different strategies to make their point.  Writers need a coach; they need feedback and teachers to guide them through the process. 

A writer’s notebook, therefore, is integral to helping students improve as writers.  In Notebook Know-How, Strategies for theWriter’s Notebook, Aimee Buckner says, “The purpose of a notebook is to provide a place for students to practice writing.”  We, as coaches, need to tap into the experiences in a student’s life to help them create meaningful, cohesive writing.  The writer’s notebook is the perfect place to take risks and expand thought.  Ralph Fletcher writes, "A writer's notebook gives you a place to live like a writer, not just in school during writing time, but wherever you are, any time of day" in the must read,  A Writer's Notebook.  (Sidenote:  another great resource by Ralph Fletcher about the importance of writing notebooks is Breathing In, Breathing Out.)  

Here are a few thoughts to consider about writer’s notebooks that I’ve gathered, learned, and used over the years:

Launching the Writer’s Notebook: 
  •   Establish expectations for the notebook with students.  What size should the notebook be?  How often should students write in the notebook?  Can students take the notebooks home or should they stay in the classroom?  
  •  Organize the notebooks to suit your values and expectations.  Where will students collect ideas?  Where will students draft?  How will students take notes/strategies from mini-lessons?  How will students label entries? Click here to see Nancy Atwell reflect on the importance of organization and routine in the writer's workshop, which is true to writing notebooks, too.  
  •  Provide students time for writing in class and model the stamina for writing.  The CCSS requires students to write long over extended periods of time, and the writer's notebook offers the place for students to do just that. In addition to students writing daily, teachers should keep their own writer’s notebook to model the importance of writing and share the notebook with students often.   I like this short video (click here) to remind middle-school students early in the year about 5 habits to increase stamina for writing.  

Using Notebooks Throughout the Year: 

  • Coach students to take risks in their notebooks.  Notebooks should be a place for students to try out new strategies, expand ideas, and dig deep into their experiences and their writing. 
  •  Encourage seed ideas.  As a student collects topics, encourage them to “write long” about the ideas, opinions, and stories from the world around them. 
  •  Give specific feedback.  While teachers don’t need to read and assess every entry, teachers should see a progression of student writing through the notebook.  Flip through the notebooks to monitor student growth through your unit and through the genre studies.  Provide constructive feedback to students as you quickly assess their notebooks qualitatively. 
  •  Provide relevant and authentic reasons for students to write in their notebooks.  Allow students to explore their thoughts and opinions about what’s happening in their social, academic, and emotional world.
  •  Celebrate success.  As students’ stamina increase and writing volume improves, high-light the successes.  This will keep students engaged in the notebook and will affirm expectations. 
  •  Teach “habits of mind” mini-lessons.  What do you do if you’re stuck with a topic?  Where do you find new ideas?  How do you reflect in your notebook?  How do you think through a revision?   
  • Share writing.  Allow students to share their writing in their notebooks with other students.  While not all “experiments” will be published, the purpose of writing is often for students to share their thoughts.  Give them the opportunity to read their writing aloud to partners, groups, or writing circles. 
  •   Integrate mentor texts into the experiments that students are trying.  In the revision process, ask students to rewrite a topic or idea in a different way, perhaps using a mentor text as a guide.  When students go to draft, they could have multiple experiments of the same ideas in their notebooks from which to choose.
  •  Show examples of high-quality writing.  Aimee Buckner states, “Students are going to write shallow, simple entries.  They’re going to do what they think you want.  Keep plugging away an keep showing examples of high-quality writing” (20). 
  • Play with genres.  Using similar topics or themes, ask students to write in different genres.  This will help hone students' skills as they develop the awareness for audience and purpose in their writing.  

Assessing the Writer’s Notebook: 
  • Use the writer’s notebook as you confer with writers to recognize, high-light and assess growth in stamina, volume, and product for the writer.  This provides specific feedback to students and reaffirms expectations.  Identify teaching points from notebooks to use in conferences. 
  • Use a rubric and student models to grade based on your identified expectations and values.  This should be clear and consistent for students. 
  •  Ask students to choose one or two entries to be graded- don’t try to grade them all.  Collect notebooks and grade the entries based on the criteria and values previously established. 
  • Ask students to reread their notebooks periodically and reflect on the growth of their writing.  Students can self-assess their writing process on a rubric and write about their goals and successes as their writing improves. 

Aimee Buckner says, “My foremost task with my writing workshop is to help my students believe in themselves as writers-  in what they have to say, from the stories they have to tell to their opinions on school and world issues” (5).   Writing notebooks are an important component of writing workshop, and with effective coaches guiding students, can be a launchpad for dynamic relationships and partnerships to expand and embrace student thinking and learning through the writing process. 


I didn’t become a college or professional volleyball player; many of our students won’t become professional writers.  Yet, the thinking and analytic skills that we teach students as we coach them will create the foundation for learning that will extend far beyond the academic essay or volleyball serve.  Writers cannot and will not improve just by telling them how to write.  They must also practice writing, a lot, and they must be coached through the process.  It’s a journey that teacher and student can celebrate together.  

I'm always looking for new and exciting ways to use the writer's notebook and keep it alive and vibrant in the classroom.  I'd love to hear any strategies or ideas that are tried and true in your classroom, too, as we continue this journey together.  

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