Assisting The Inexperienced Student Writer Make Best Use of Their Notebooks

As inexperienced writers, students frequently need extra guidance and support in the early stages of the year to develop that essential momentum and confidence necessary for successful writing. They are learning to trust a new teacher, new surroundings, and maybe new classmates. There is a lot to consider. It takes a little time to adapt to new routines and expectations when the new school is beginning. What does this teacher expect of me as a reader and writer? 

How do we as teachers assist students to gain trust and develop momentum as writers?

You will have to gently lead them forward by revealing the hidden potential of this writer’s resource, showing them how it can play a vital role in their daily lives as writers.

Used appropriately, Writer’s notebooks allow developing writers to make stronger connections to the world surrounding them. The harvesting and documenting of their daily lives provides an easy, informal way to start thinking about new topics and ideas. They become increasingly more observant and this leads to increased engagement.  With time and practice, the notebook becomes a purposeful collection zone for a myriad of ‘stuff’ to stimulate their writing lives. Embryonic writing ideas, experiments with words, favourite quotes, amazing facts and trivia, lists, dreams, wonderings and ideas for the future begin to spread across the notebook pages. The statement, ‘I don’t know what to write about,’ fades into history, buried under an avalanche of potential ideas. 

Encourage your students to maintain a close connection to their writer’s notebook. Make it a travelling companion. Keep it handy and write, draw, paste anything that presents as a possible writing inspiration.

 Encourage students to regularly reread their blossoming notebook entries. Have them excavate those hidden gems, to see if there are any entries that spark ideas for further writing.  Frequently, new ideas for writing emerges from older ones.

 After a few weeks of notebook entries have been completed conduct a silent share session (walk around the room silently observing and making notes about the great things they are witnessing in notebooks) where students select a page they believe best demonstrates their thinking and documenting as a writer. Leave that page open on a table/desktop and allow others to read, observe and note ideas they believe might assist them as fellow writers. Following the silent share, allow time to discuss some of the great ideas seen as did their gallery walk of the classroom.

Hopefully, these ideas will build content and confidence within your burgeoning community of writers. Remember though, those notebooks need regular feeding to stay healthy.

Learning to Notice
Learning to be observant is a valuable life skill. Keeping a writer’s notebook requires student writers to develop observational abilities. In this way they begin to notice things in the world around them more acutely and begin to collect sensory observations that will inform their writing efforts.

To help student writers to develop greater awareness of how writers capture sensory observations you could:
   Share some text examples where the writer includes sensory details. Details that enable the reader to visualize the scene.
   Share an example from your own notebook where you have focused on what’s around you. Consider your 5 senses. Your writing is a snapshot of the world around you.

When we write about characters we need to explore the physical terrain of that character. It is often helpful to think about this character in terms of the senses. I often share examples from my own writing to emphasize how as a writer I try to incorporate such devices.

Touch: When I shook my father’s hand, it felt as firm as the wood he had worked with all those years.

Sound: I listened to my mother’s singing as she ironed and I played with my cars at her feet. The hissing of the iron provided an accompaniment to her questionable melodies. She sang joyfully, like the birds of the morning.

Smell: On laundry day my mother whenever my mother gave me a hug, I was enveloped in the unmistakable smell of Velvet soap. It was so pervasive, I had to rub my nose.

Sight: When she smoked, she drew the terrible smoke into her lungs, slowly titled her head back and exhaled towards the sky. She could have been a dragon caught in a daydream.

Taste: When I kissed my father good night, I could taste the saltiness of sweat on his cheek.

Using the Senses

When developing writers write about familiar scenes they often have trouble describing that scene with sufficient clarity. They may not realize that the words on the page do not provide enough information for the reader to form a clear image of the setting. They forget that the reader may not be as familiar with the setting as they are. In such instances it is useful to request that the writer ‘develop’ the scene using the five senses to build the image the reader needs.
The aim is to assist young writers to notice sensory details and develop the habit of writing them down when using their writer’s notebooks.

Ask questions about the use of sensory details when conferring:

Which senses did you use when you wrote this piece?
What other details could you add that involve the senses?

Example of text strong in sensory observation

‘The Red Girl and I stood under the guava tree looking each other up and down. What a beautiful thing I saw standing before me. Her face was big and round and red, like a moon –a red moon. She had big, broad, flat feet and they were naked to the bare ground: her dress was dirty, the skirt and blouse tearing away from each other at one side; the red hair that I had seen standing up on her head was matted and tangled; her hands big and fat, and her fingernails held at least ten anthills of dirt under them. And on top of that, she had such an unbelievable, wonderful smell, as if she had never taken a bath in her whole life.'

Source: ‘Jamaica Kincaid’    Annie John


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