“I love the idea of writer’s notebooks,” she sighed. “The problem is, my students begin using them with the best of intentions at the start of every school year, but by the end, they’ve been neglected. I send home empty writers’ notebooks nearly every year. It’s such a waste. I think I’ll just let the whole thing go.”
Don’t do that.
Notebooks are far too important to abandon, and it takes time to tap their full potential. I should know: I’ve sent home plenty of empty notebooks myself, and even when writers have filled them, their work with their notebooks hasn’t been as fulfilling as I hoped it would be.
I’ve been riding the writer’s workshop roller coaster for twenty years now: dreaming and reading and gathering ideas before a new season of writing begins, launching them in earnest with new writers, and working hard to establish consistent practice before watching everything go off the rails.
It’s only been during the last two years that I’ve found satisfaction with writer’s notebooks, and getting there required me to adjust my priorities a bit. When I did, two huge discoveries were made:
Workshop Practices and Notebook Practices Must Be Symbiotic
Notebooks aren’t the icing on our writer’s workshop cake anymore. They center, contain, and allow us to reflect on our work. The quality of our workshop practice is dependent on the quality of our notebook practice, and the quality of our notebook practice is dependent on the quality of our workshop practice.
Thanks to this pin, elementary writers at the WNY Young Writer’s Studio now divide their notebooks into categories, reserving a specific number of pages for their work within each. The notebook categories align nicely with different workshop experiences: notes are taken during mini-lessons and conferences, writers use their notebooks to contain their ideas, they tinker with text as they’re approaching revision and in response to feedback, and more importantly, this structure enables even our littlest writers to navigate their notebooks in order to reflect.
When kids wrote page by page for varied purposes within their composition books, what emerged was often an incoherent collection of planning pages, reflective entries, notes, and drafting. As an adult, I embrace this chaos. My notebooks look like this, and I love it. Little ones have a hard time sorting through all of those pages in order to find what they need and think about their growth, though. Our notebook structure allows me to reference colors when I’m referring to different sections, helping writers navigate and make easy use of their notebooks. They’re able to connect the color to the work that consistently happens in each section ,too. This seems to be deepening their understanding of what writers do and how notebooks connect to that important work. Providing them powerful reflective prompts helps as well.
Here’s a quick picture of the dividers we use. We slice heavy weight construction paper or tag board into triangles, and writers staple up the bottom and right side edges of a single page, leaving the flap on the diagonal open to tuck in ephemera that they collect along the way. Sometimes, we add Ziploc bags to notebooks, too. This makes for safekeeping.
I know that your purposes and categories may vary, and you may not like the idea of using categories at all. This is the beauty of notebook keeping: everyone does it a little bit differently, and our needs and preferences change and evolve over time. It isn’t important for you to adopt my ideas. It’s important that you work to resolve whatever dissatisfaction that you or your students might be experiencing. Looking for more ideas? Feel free to scoop my notebook board on Pinterest.