Helping Student Writers Make The Most of Their Notebooks

Writer Joan Didion said our (writer’s) notebooks give us away. We are revealed by the contents. Our notebooks are a place to collect and then take those collected items and use them to spark further original writing. As Ralph Fletcher, writer and educator reminds us, we use our notebooks to breathe in (collect) and breathe out (generate).

With these thoughts ringing in my ears, I envisage notebooks brimming with words and ideas across a range of subjects and genres. The notebook is a place to experiment, take risks, make important discoveries or excavate memories and ideas from deep within. It can be a place to have fun with words.

So why is it that in many classrooms when students take out their notebooks the pages reveal a picture far removed from the images I have just outlined?   Why does one get the impression that the notebook in these school settings is only realizing a small part of its potential?

Why is the critical ingredient –‘writing,’ so sadly lacking as to be almost missing in action? Content is so critical to the developing writer and yet the writer’s notebooks in these contexts, lack integrity because they’re not being used to generate authentic writing.

What does one see documented in these notebooks? Well, usually it’s limited to such entries as pictures, artifacts, lists, Y charts, plans, graphic organizers, but very little genuine writing! A closer examination of the few notebook entries reveals the sad fact that the entire class is frequently writing about the one same topic in exactly the same way. The teacher’s topic reigns supreme! The writer’s notebook takes on the appearance of a stage managed planning book, rather than a place to write. Some student notebook look like scrapbooks, and it is obvious that ‘writing’ is not the major focus of these stylized, stilted and overly managed creations.

A further observation is seeing notebooks that look suspiciously like 'workbooks.' In these notebooks you witness the unmistakable hand of the teacher, controlling the types of entries in the notebook.  The notebooks have a sameness about them. 

The name says it all really- it’s a writer’s notebook! It may contain elements of scrapbooks, sketchbooks, diaries, or journals, -but at the end of the day, it is the writing that is the critical component.

I have been told on numerous occasions, ‘This is where my students do their thinking. They do their writing in a writing draft book!’ Why the dis-connect?

I have always believed that it is in my writing  I reveal my thinking and if I have a writer’s notebook, why do I need a writing book? It seems redundant.

Student writers certainly benefit from having a writing folder. When the time comes to lift a piece from the notebook for further ‘developing’ a folder provides the freedom for writing to spread and expand across several pages if necessary. The writer has the option to cut and paste and generally move the writing about.

Some teachers encourage student writers to leave a blank page opposite the writing page in their notebooks. -The aim here is to allow students the option of adding additional information, changes and the like. This idea works because it is about growing the writing. 

I could espouse a theory as to why this situation of under nourished notebooks has developed, but I want to focus on possible solutions rather than further examination of the problem at this time. So,

·How do we maximize the potential of the writer’s notebook?
·How do we improve the situation for student writers and their teachers?

I propose the following actions to preserve the integrity of the writer's notebook:

  • Increased professional reading about writing. Books such as Ralph Fletcher’s Breathing In, Breathing Out, Keeping A Writer’s Notebook, or Aimee Buckner’s, ‘Notebook Knowhow’ provide a great insight into using notebooks. That’s a start.
  • Increased use of the writer’s notebook by teachers. We learn by doing. For the notebook to be truly impactful, it requires teachers willing to embrace it. --Risk taking educators who lead the way forward for the young writers seeking direction. The notebook is not just another thing we make students do.
  • Sharing notebook entries provides further insight as to how a notebook might look. Let the sharing begin!
  • Strengthen the reading writing links. Embrace literature as a tool for teaching writing. Teachers of writing are not alone. Mentors await discovery.
  • Teach students how to harvest ideas for writing. This requires the teacher to discover where ideas reside and then share these places with their students. A simple place to start is your own life, books, places, people, pictures, photographs, media, events…
  • Allow students some choice in the configuration of their notebooks. One size doesn’t fit all. I have notebooks of various sizes to suit various situations.
  • Use the notebook to make lots of ‘starts’ before choosing one special piece that may be lifted out of the notebook and developed further.
  • Make the notebook a place for the writer to experiment, collect, and wonder through writing.
  • Encourage students to fill the pages of their notebooks with words and ideas. Let them follow your lead as a joyfully literate educator.
  • Encourage students to take their notebooks out into the world beyond their classroom. Push down the classroom walls. Set the notebooks free!

Let’s remove the unnatural impediments to writing. Teach into the notebook through our actions as writers and teachers. Then watch the writing take off and the notebook realize its true potential as a resource.

I would love to hear your views and suggestions on this issue.


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