Building a Strong Foundation for Writer’s Workshop with Writer’s Notebooks

By Sarah Valter

 

What is a Writer’s Notebook?

 Just like the wide amount of reading we know students need to do in order to become proficient and successful readers, children also need opportunities for a wide amount of writing. The way in which I have incorporated this practice into my fourth grade classroom has been through the development of writer’s notebooks, a safe forum for each student to explore and experiment with their writing. There is no textbook definition for a Writer’s Notebook, as this tool in the writer’s toolbox will undoubtedly look different for each writer. However, Ralph Fletcher perhaps best starts us on the journey of developing a Writer’s Notebook as he describes what it is not, "A writer’s notebook is not a diary . . . It’s not a reading journal in which your teacher tells you to summarize the main idea of a book, or write a letter to a character. A writer’s notebook is different from any journal you’ve ever kept before." While I do embrace the use of both diaries and reading notebooks in their appropriate contexts in my classroom, the writer’s notebooks my students create are personal, driven by student interests and creativity, and vary in appearance and style from child to child. The pieces of writing created in a writer’s notebook are the foundation of the workshop, providing ideas for future pieces that may be taken all the way through the writing process. This writing often falls somewhere between a plan and a draft, and the possibilities are endless.

 

Getting Started with Writer’s Notebooks

There’s no better time than the beginning of the school year to establish the practice of keeping a writer’s notebook with your students. Spending the first few weeks of your Writer’s Workshop building student notebooks allows you to set up workshop routines, build writing stamina, and get to know your writers on a personal level. Here are some easy steps for kicking off Writer’s Notebooks this fall:

 

1. Personalize the notebooks.

I begin by having each student decorate a composition notebook (usually this is supplied by the students as part of the standard supply list, but can also be purchased for about a quarter each during Back to School shopping). In the process of decorating this notebook, I typically invite students to spend three or four evenings at home adding stickers, pictures, photographs, and other items that show their individual interests, families, friends, and personalities. I share my notebook with them, which I have usually covered with fun paper in my favorite color and decorated with photographs of my family and pets, scrapbooking stickers that reflect my favorite holidays and hobbies, and pictures of my favorite book covers and movie posters that I find online. As students bring their completed notebooks into school each day they are invited to share them with the class. This begins to establish the individuality of the notebooks and is also a great "getting to know you" activity as part of the community building that defines the first weeks of school.

 

2. Establish routines.

I want my students to have access to their notebooks at all times, so it is very important to set up clear and consistent guidelines that still allow for student individuality. My few firm rules for writing in the notebook are as follows:

 

The notebook must be kept in the folder/binder/bag that travels between school and home each day. Just like a pair of glasses, it is an accessory that must be kept close at hand as much as possible because you never know when you may need it and you will be using it often.

 

Every writing session starts with writing the date. This helps with teacher record keeping, shows how long a student spends on a piece of writing, and keeps the notebook organized. If a student wants to begin a new piece and come back to one they have already started at a later time, it is easy to have them estimate how many pages they will need to use and paperclip them together before beginning the new writing. I also have students mark the writing they do at school with an "S" and the writing done at home with an "H."

 

Time is devoted to the notebook each day. Each day for the first few weeks of school is devoted to the notebook in the classroom, but students have an ongoing responsibility to write in the notebook as part of their nightly homework throughout the year. I build stamina by having them write for five minutes a night for the first week, then adding on a minute one night at a time until they have reached ten minutes of nightly writing by the middle of the first quarter.

 

3. Model writing in the notebook.

I spend each day showing students different ways they can write in their notebooks, stressing that there is no right way or assigned expectation. Some of my favorite resources for mini-lessons include sharing excerpts about writer’s notebooks from Ralph Fletcher’s book A Writer’s Notebook: Unlocking the Writer Within You (1996), a chapter book in which he describes for young writers the hows and whys of developing the notebook; the Amelia’s Notebook series by Marissa Moss (excellent mentor texts for mini-lessons); and, for those who crave more structure, the Lessons for the Writer’s Notebook supplementary materials by Ralph Fletcher and JoAnn Portalupi, a step-by-step four week unit that guides the establishment of notebooks.

 

Assessing Writer’s Notebooks

One of the most important things about writer’s notebooks in my classroom is that they are a safe place for young writers to experiment with different ideas and styles of writing. Thus, I had to find a perfect balance between holding students accountable for writing and respecting their individuality. Since I do expect students to write nightly, I establish a routine of checking for writing each day in class and maintaining a record of which students have or have not fulfilled the requirement. Recognizing the time and effort students put into their notebooks, I feel that it is important that I also devote time to each notebook beyond a quick daily glance. To make the task of reading the notebooks manageable, I divide the class into groups of between six and eight students and collect their notebooks over the weekend on a rotating basis (my goal is to read each notebook at least twice per quarter). I review the notebooks over the weekend and respond to students on sticky notes (it is very important to me that I not write in the notebook myself, as I feel this would diminish the student-centeredness of the practice). I comment on both the content and the craft, making my feedback as specific and personal as possible for each child. The process of reading the notebooks, while occasionally time-consuming, is an invaluable resource when understanding my students as writers. It becomes a formative assessment tool of the purest form, allowing me to take anecdotal notes about common errors, student interests, and the different genres and writing styles students explore outside of the work done in class and their transfer of learning from my teaching. Although I have very high expectations for editing during the writing process in writer’s workshop, I do not make corrections in the writer’s notebook—it is simply a safe environment for students to share their writing and record their ideas throughout the year.

 

Writer’s notebooks have impacted my students’ writing in ways unlike any other instructional method. My students showed a great amount of creativity and were anxious to try out new ideas. The writing they did in their notebooks was reflected in the more formal pieces written in class, and students who maintained notebooks made far more writing progress than students I taught in the past who did not have this experience. Most significantly, my kids were incredibly proud of their notebooks and excited about writing. By the end of the school year, they were initiating exchanges among themselves and some were even beginning to write their own comments back and forth. Ralph Fletcher perhaps best summarizes the writer’s notebook by stating, "Keeping a writer’s notebook is one of the best ways I know of living a writing kind of life." It is my hope that all students may grow to live "a writing kind of life" this new school year.

 

Resources:

 Fletcher, R. (1996). A writer’s notebook: Unlocking the writer within you. New York: HarperCollins e-books.

Fletcher, R. & Portalupi, J. (2005). Lessons for the writer’s notebook. Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Heinemann.

Moss, M. (1999). Amelia’s Notebook. Middleton, WI: Pleasant Co. Publishing.See also www.marissamoss.com and www.ralphfletcher.com for lots of great ideas!

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