I’m sitting in Nashua preparing for tomorrow’s presentation. Part of my preparation means returning to my old binders and files when my thinking changed about the teaching of writing. The shift in my thinking came in 2006 when I was engaged in my studies as a graduate student in the Teachers College Literacy Specialist Program. Here are the words I put together for an expertise paper, about writer’s notebooks, for Lucy’s Course on the Teaching of Writing in December 2006.
I’ve come to believe the best way teachers can get students to keep writer’s notebooks is by keeping a notebook themselves. With the daily pressures teachers have, many teachers might say, “I don’t have the time to keep a notebook.” However, is it essential to promote writing by modeling that teachers, themselves, believe in keeping a notebook. As stated in What You Know By Heart: How to Develop a Curriculum for Your Writing Workshop, Ray asserts that teachers should have goals for themselves as writers. She suggests that “The first curriculum development many of us do, then, is to start our own writers’ notebooks where we try and gather from the world around us. We try gathering different kinds of entries in the ways we’ll expect students to gather them” (34). Additionally, Ray asserts that teachers who keep notebooks will have an easier time constructing curriculum for the Writing Workshop:
Our writers’ notebooks will become one of the most important curriculum documents we have for the teaching of writing. Just a few predictable questions about our own writing experiences with notebooks can help us find all the curriculum we need for this part of the process: getting ideas and keeping up with them (35).
Further, having a notebook chock-full of entries will drive the demonstrations of minilessons and the conferences we have with students since we will be able to draw upon our own writing and use it as a mentor for our children. I turn my writing whenever I get stuck and cannot find a mentor text to fit what I want to teach on a given day. Additionally, having lots of my own writing in my writer’s notebook allows me to differentiate my instruction when I am conferring with my students. Further, when I open myself up and share my stories with my students, I notice they share more of themselves with me in their (notebook) writing.
If we keep notebooks, we will expect and welcome diversity. We will soon come to know, in a deep-seated way, that there are wide variations in how and why writers keep notebooks. Some people always write in sentences and paragraphs; others often include lists and sketches. Some people do most of their writing in jotted notes as they carry their notebook around with them, and others write mostly at their desks during a predictable period each day. Some people continue with their notebook even when they are drafting and revising a piece, and others let the notebook slip into the background when a writing project moves into the foreground… In the end, it will be the diversity in our classrooms rather than our minilessons and conferences that extends what we and our students do in notebooks (Calkins, 1991, 52).
Teachers must understand how notebooks work by keeping them themselves so they won’t be apt to say, “This is right and this is wrong” when assessing students’ notebooks. A writer’s notebook will look different for every person: adult or child. I feel teachers will only be able to accept this diversity, which Calkins speaks about, if they keep a notebook for the purpose of writing down their observations, what fascinates them and makes them wonder.
When we ask our students to keep notebooks and we take the time to read them, we are showing them we care about what they have to say. Further, we are witnessing their lives, validating their existence and showing our students their lives matter to us.
As I put the final touches on the words I wish to share with others at NEATE tomorrow morning, I am reminded of what Katie Wood Ray and Lucy Calkins wrote in their books. Their writing backs up what I truly believe is at the core of quality Workshop teaching: Teachers must be writers, as well as educators, if they wish to significantly raise the level of student writing.
Literacy Consultant. Author. Former 4th and 5th Grade Classroom Teacher.