Sharpen Your Routines Blog Series · writer's notebook

Sharpen Your Workshop Routines: Setting up the Writer’s Notebook for a Year of Writing


Let's have a conversation about sharpening workshop routines.
Let’s have a conversation about sharpening workshop routines.

Welcome back, readers!  We have returned from our July break refreshed and ready for a new school year of sharing ideas, resources,  and teaching practices here at Two Writing Teachers. For many of us, the first day of school is right around the corner, and we are turning our attention to preparing our lesson plans and  classrooms.  Here at TWT, we thought it might be helpful to host a blog series – some ideas about how to Sharpen Your Workshop Routines.  Each day, one of the TWT team will write about a workshop topic that (we hope!) will be both helpful and well as of interest to you.  We hope you will join us each day, and share your thoughts and ideas as well.  

Sharpen Your Workshop Routines : Setting up the Writer’s Notebook for a Year of Writing

The writer’s notebook is at the very heart of my sixth grade writing workshop, it is the gateway to all the work we will be doing from September to June.  I can think of nothing more important, therefore, than to start our  year by taking the time and effort to set up our Writer’s Notebooks for a year of writing.  Here are  five steps we take in Room 202:

1. Sharing my own writer’s notebook: A few weeks ago, Penny Kittle Tweeted out this quote by Mem Fox: “If we are so foolish as to dare to teach writing without ever writing ourselves, we are treading with arrogance on shaky ground.” I believe wholeheartedly in this idea – we cannot teach writing if we don’t write.  And there is nothing so powerful as making this known to our kids on the very first day of writing workshop, our own writer’s notebooks in hand.  If you haven’t kept a writer’s notebook, start NOW!  None of your carefully planned mini lessons will count as much as this visible reminder to your kids that you, too, live a writer’s life.

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I always bring along my current writer’s notebook, and I do so because I want my kids to see that it is a living, breathing writer’s notebook, not a pre made prop I haul in every year for a demonstration.  Our kids are smart enough to spot inauthenticity right away, and this detail holds more currency than we might think.  Not all my notebook entries and jottings are ones that I wish to share with my kids, so I tag a few with sticky notes and gallery walk through my notebook this way.  I want my kids to see the variety of ways in which I write, and the many types of “jump starters” I use to inspire writing.  I share incomplete entries and ones for which I have left blank pages – I want them to know that returning to entries to add and extend ideas is a natural part of writing.  And I also share messy pages in which I have scribbled here and there, with arrows and marginalia added in different ink at different times when I’ve returned to my notebook to re-read – that’s part of the writing life, too.

2. Clarifying the notebook’s structure and purpose: After “trying out” a variety of  reading and writing notebook structures and combinations, I settled for separating my workshop notebooking into two: my students have two composition notebooks:  a reading journal and a writer’s notebook .  All my sixth graders have kept writer’s notebooks since first or second grade, so they expect to decorate them with photographs, ticket stubs, quotes, and stickers sometime during the first week of school.  I collect these on the first Monday after the first school weekend, enough time to find all the “stuff” to personalize notebooks, and then laminate these with clear packing tape (after all these years of practice, I can get 50 notebooks done in just under an hour!) But, far more important than the notebook’s “look” is clarifying its structure and purpose. However you wish to set up the notebook, it is important to figure it out ahead of time and stick to the same structure all year.  In 202, we use the front of our notebooks for writing:

photo 3 (1)  photo 4 (1)  photo 5

and keep our minilessons in the back:


photo 1 (3) photo 2 (2)

On average, each student will need two notebooks over the course of the school year. Our very first mini lesson focuses on the purpose of the writer’s notebook: *a place to plant the seeds for future writing *a place to jot down ideas, observations, thoughts, and concerns so that you do not lose them *a place to experiment with new ways of expressing yourself through writing We also paste in this reminder from Ralph Fletcher’s A Writer’s Notebook: Unlocking the Writer Within You:

Use your notebook to breathe in the world around you. You can write about: 1) What amazes/surprises/anger you 2) What you wonder about 3) What you notice 4) “Seed Ideas” or “Triggers” to generate stories or poems 5) Small details that intrigue you 6) Snatches of talk you overhear 7) Memories 8) Lists 9) Photos, articles, ticket stubs or other artifacts 10) Your own sketches, drawings or doodles 11) Quotes or inspiring passages from books or poems

All of this is to remind students that the purpose of the writer’s notebook is just that…to practice and grow the craft of writing.  I make a point of checking notebooks quite often in the early weeks of school to make sure that they are not also being used to take notes for music or health class, I also make a point of sharing the way I respect my own notebook as a place for just writing – not making grocery or to-do lists.

3. Planting “writing seeds”: In the first two or three weeks of the school year, we spend time creating idea banks for our writing lives.  Each workshop begins with an introduction of the idea, a visual so that my kids get a gist of what it entails, and time to create the initial lists/topics  that can be added to as the year progresses.  Here are some of our favorites (please note, I’ve borrowed ideas from so many fabulous teachers over the years – from Georgia Heard to Linda Rief  –  to so many creative teachers who blog about their ideas or share them on Pinterest.  I owe them all!):

  • a heart map of all that one holds near and dear (Georgia Heard’s idea)
  • a map of a favorite room, neighborhood, or house
  • a memory hand – tracing the outline of one or both hands and jotting ideas they inspire (things we’ve made, hands we’ve held, etc.)
  • likes and dislikes lists
  • best moments and worst moments lists
  • positive and negative life graph (Linda Rief)
  • a timeline of big and small moments
  • a list of “fierce wonderings” (Ralph Fletcher)
  • a collage of photographs for “moments frozen in time” entries

Planting these writing seeds in these early writer’s notebook pages gives my students plenty of ideas  to draw from all year long.

4. Practicing quickwrites:  We are blessed to have an enormous reservoir of gifted writers and poets who have crafted exquisite mentor texts for writing workshop across the grade levels.  I begin the year with many quickwrites based on these mentor texts both to expose my kids to fine writing techniques as well as to practice their writing craft.  I learned of quickwrites through Linda Rief’s Seeking Diversity, and 100 Quickwrites, here’s how she explains the process in her most recent book Read, Write, Teach:

Quickwrite, to me, means to write fast for a short amount of time,less than three minutes.  It is writing to find writing, not planning or thinking through the writing before the words hit the paper.  It is writing for the surprise of not knowing you were going to write what you wrote.  But it is having something to see, hear, and hold on to (borrow a line and write from that line) as you try to find ideas for your own writing.

I use picture books, poetry, passages from YA books, and ideas directly from 100 Quickwrites for these writing exercises, and I encourage my kids to return and extend these quickwrites all year long.  Sometimes, they contain the seed ideas for memoirs , narratives, and other types of genre studies.  Whenever a student feels that an entry is private, they fold the page over and label it as such.  Whenever a student feels that they have begun an entry that they know for certain they want to return to and extend, they place a sticky note on it.  I find that it is meaningful to build intentionality into keeping of a writer’s notebook – I want my kids to feel, right from the beginning, that their writer’s notebook is an essential part of their workshop tool kit.

5. Sharing!


We share our writing and our thinking about writing from the very first day of workshop – we begin building that expectation for our writing community  right away.  I try to make sure we have enough time to gather in a writing circle at the meeting area and share for the last 8 to 10 minutes of our workshop time.  There is something quite wonderful about facing each other in a circle of acceptance and anticipation, listening to each other carefully, complimenting and encouraging our efforts, and jotting down new ideas inspired by what we’ve heard.  I always bring my notebook along, too, and do the same – it sends a powerful message that writers are always learning from each other…even old lady teacher writers! By the third week of writing workshop, I begin to see the value of investing focused time and planning into the launch of the writer’s notebook.  When we meet at the easel for our mini lessons, they know exactly where and how to take notes for later reference.  And when we move into mentor text work, or quickwrites, or free writes, they know exactly where and how this fits into our workshop life.  Best of all, my kids regard their notebooks with the same sense of purpose and reverence as I do. They “get” the quote I’ve had them paste on the very first page of their notebook: “A writer’s notebook is like a ditch, an empty space you dig in your busy life, a space that will fill up with all sorts of fascinating creatures.  If you dig it, they will come. You’ll be amazed at what you catch there.” -Ralph Fletcher

Twitter Chat: We’ll wrap-up our week of blog posts with a Twitter Chat on Monday, August 11th at 8:30 p.m. EDT. This will be an opportunity to talk about procedures that have worked in the past and new ones to start before the school year begins. We will use the hashtag #TWTBlog.

31 thoughts on “Sharpen Your Workshop Routines: Setting up the Writer’s Notebook for a Year of Writing

  1. Can you explain what a “copy of your mini-lesson” might look like in a student’s notebook? Does this mean they are writing down your teaching point? Are you copying your chart for them to glue into the notebook? Thanks!


  2. I want to come and visit your class this year, Tara! I long to see your students at work in writing workshop. Bonnie says you’re a phenomenal teacher (which I already knew from talking with you in person!) and this post is yet another reminder of how much thought you put into the workings of your classroom/writing workshop.

    I LOVE that you bring your notebook to the rug for sharing and show students your in-process notebook (NOT AN OLD ONE!) at the beginning of the year. These things are so important. While this post contains lots of wonderful tips for setting up a writer’s notebook so kids can get writing from the start of the year, I know those two tips will make or break teachers as they lead writing workshops this year.

    Thanks for this excellent post. (And seriously, I want to come and visit!)


  3. Thanks for an informative and helpful post. Love the ideas with folded over paper for privacy and post-its for un-finished entries. Jan Burkins & Kim Yaris shared a post yesterday that I thought links to your post as it is also about the writer’s notebook and how to start it. They suggest to use a metaphor and the phrase “Small Things Worth Keeping” to explain what might be written about in the WNB/the purpose of it.


  4. Glad to see your thoughts Tara. I really like the keeping of teaching in the notebook. How wonderful students are thinking to use their smart phones to take pictures of charts. So SMART! I’ve decided to combine my readers/writers notebooks this year. I’m hoping the reading life feeds the writing life. I’m imagining them working through several notebooks during the year and archiving them in the classroom. We’ll see.


  5. Tara, I enjoyed this piece and think a look at a writer’s notebook is a wonderful way to start the school year. I am glad that you noted Penny Kittle’s retweet of Mem Fox’s quote: “If we are so foolish as to dare to teach writing without ever writing ourselves, we are treading with arrogance on shaky ground.”


  6. Tara,
    What a great post with so many ideas to come back to. Appreciate knowing that a minimum two notebooks were needed and the visual of the “Table of Contents for Mini-Lessons” was helpful. If notes or practice don’t go in the WNB, hard to remember the lesson even with anchor charts.

    Thanks for the strong start to August!


    1. Thanks, Fran. I sometimes wonder if it’s necessary for my kids to have copies of our mini lessons…and then it turns out it was needed! Many of my students also use their smartphones and create an album of mini lesson charts. Why not use tech when we can, right?!


      1. I think the key is “Many of my students also use their . . .” because when they want to hold on to the charts, it is their choice to create that album! Love that they have the opportunity which means they will be “used” not just “admired” as subtle differences are also critical!


  7. I’m so happy I found your blog! Thanks a lot for your post, I found it really useful, even more so considering the fact that I’m an Italian middle school teacher and I’ve completely changed my teaching since my epiphany 4 years ago (caused by Atwell’s “In the middle”), but I feel lonely because Writing Workshop is completely new in Italy. I will follow you and try to make contact with other mentors: I’m sure I’ll have lots of questions, I hope you will be patient! 🙂


  8. Great post, from Day One I always wanted students to know that we’d be writing and celebrating that work often. Love the quote from Fletcher at the end-don’t know that one-will share it. Thanks, Tara.


  9. I am going to use a binder with my grade 2s instead of a notebook. I find the flexibility of a binder is less intimidating for little people. I need to get busy making my new mind map, heart map, etc.

    Question: My students will be brand new to WW. What sorts of things should I do to set us up for successful sharing sessions? I keep thinking if grade 2s as such little people, and j want to get the routines right. They are independent than grade 3s!


    1. Thanks for stopping by, Lisa! I set a timeframe for sharing, about 5 to 8 minutes. I make note who has share d so that the same people are not always the ones to share their thinking. But I think that any grade level needs the time limit- we share so we can learn, not so that everyone can just talk. There has to be a sense of serious purpose.


  10. Thanks for all the terrific information, Tara. I do exactly what Aimee Buckner does– once the kids have found ideas in their WRNotebooks that they want to develop into longer, fuller pieces, they go to paper outside the notebook, or directly to the computer. Often an idea will begin to grow in the WRN, as the writer goes back to it again and again. When it feels ready to develop into a finished piece, the writer carries it out of the WRN. I’ve been working on ideas for a children’s book about a bison calf my son and grandson rescued from the field and the ideas pop into the notebook months apart. It’s getting closer.
    Love the quote from Mem. I, too, believe that we can only take kids so far as writers if we don’t write ourselves. When I ask at the end of the year, what helped you most as readers and writers this year, and they always say, “You wrote with us, and you read with us.”
    There is such pleasure in writing– there would be so much of my life lost if I didn’t have the 25 years of notebooks in front of me– first words of grandchildren (“Actually, I want to go look for pallapiglars…”)– funny things students have said or done– the squirrel trying so desperately to get to the birdfeeder outside my office window– his persistence and patience in leaping from the roof and missing the birdfeeder again and again– as Ralph Fletcher says, “This is the place to breathe in, and out.”


    1. Once we get into the habit of writing, it becomes exactly the lovely breathing in and breathing out that Fletcher writes about. Funny story about notebooks- I am on holiday in England now, and I took my notebook along to pause and write on a long hike along the Cotswold Way. A goat wandered over from a pasture and made immediately for my notebook. I had to trade him my sandwich in order to get it back! And yes, this story made its way into my notebook, too! PS. Hooray for your children’s book- looking forward to it!


  11. So happy you are back! This series is going to be a great one and I’m looking forward to the Twitter chat. Jack Gantos talked about drawing a map of a known place (house, neighborhood) and how it leads to seed ideas during his keynote in June at TCRWP. I’m excited to wrap my head around how we are using notebooks in our workshops at our school… but I’m also really excited about/ working on keeping and regularly using my own notebook. That has been more challenging for me than blog writing. I often think of things I want to write in a notebook but don’t have it with me. So I’m making it a habit to keep it close and I made one simple change that has made that easier to do. I bought a smaller notebook. I too loved Penny Kittle’s tweet quoting Mem Fox. Thanks for this post!


    1. Yes, it’s that habit of writing something every day. I just paste my scraps of paper in later, should I not have my notebook on hand. It’s messy but gives my notebook a lived in feeling.


  12. Love this! What if kids want to go back to a story and write more-but their story was at the beginning if the notebook andvt here have been 10 other quick write/free writes since then? Do you have them glue in paper-make a note (story in pages 2-3, note: continues on page 22)?

    Thank you!


    1. I am reading Aimee Buckner’s Notebook Know How and she has the students move to yellow legal pads to draft longer pieces. I know I’ve read that Tara does this, too. I plan to try it this year. The notebook remains a place for getting ideas on paper, but drafting happens somewhere else.


      1. I’ve used the yellow paper idea too. I love the way it signals moving on to the next stage. I also found that it was a good organization strategy for some of the disorganized kids.


    2. We date our work and use sticky notes for cross referencing, Noel. Dating entries really helps, and since my kids often go back to rethink this or that entry and extend their ideas more. If they feel that they want to develop an entry into a longer piece, we go out of the notebook and into their yellow legal writing pads. There again, the date helps so they can revisit the original entry if they want to.


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