The Importance of the Notebook

In this digital world where technology has become such an integral part of our lives, I wonder, is there still room for the notebook?

Last year, I piloted 1:1 laptops in my sixth grade language arts classroom. It goes that whenever I add something to my plate in teaching, something else seems to slip away. Last year, it was the notebook. We used them a lot in the first quarter and after that, barely ever, as all of our writing happened on the computer. I didn’t intend for that to happen, but it did. I missed the notebook and my students did too. When the year ended, I decided to focus on notebook writing along with writing online during the next school year…and I’m much happier with the results.

There’s something about a notebook. I’ve written in notebooks since I was nine years old. My notebook is a safe place for me. It’s where I can celebrate or grieve, where I can vent or grumble. It’s where I untangle my life. My notebook is an extension of me. I must feel the pen crossing the page every single day. How do I share that passion with my students? I share. I model. I write. We write.

A long time ago when I began teaching, I wanted all the notebooks to look the same. I wanted them to have creative titles. I wanted every page to be filled with thoughts of the student. I wanted doodles and word lists and maps and jots and brain dumps and evidence of living the life of a writer. I knew how I wanted the notebooks to look.  It never happened that way. I ran into roadblocks…reluctant writers who resisted the notebook. Why? I didn’t understand it then, but now I recognize the problem. All of those things…that’s what “I wanted”…I needed to allow the students to use their notebooks the way they wanted.

Notebooks this year became a lesson in letting go (for me) and in breaking the rules (for my students). No longer did I want to see neat entries, nor did I want to see the same thing inside each notebook! I want to see the messy thinking. I want to see scribbles and doodles and color and pencil and them…I want to see my students on the pages.

Students begin the year with a blank composition notebook. This is not new to them by the time they reach sixth grade, and because of that they arrive with their own experiences and expectations of what a notebook should be. We talk about what a notebook is and it’s purpose. We write on the very first day of school.

I share my notebooks. I show them entries from the 80s and 90s. We notice how messy my notebooks are and how they have changed over the years. I talk about what notebooks are for me and then the discussion turns to them and their notebooks. My expectations are simple…this notebook is a reflection of them. It shows their thinking, and it collects memories and ideas. I want dates on the pages and a title for the page (so they remember what this entry is)…but everything else is their choice.

Some of my beginning of the year mini-lessons with notebooks include:

Writing utensils: Pen, Pencil, Marker? Color or Black & White?

Ephemera in My Notebook

What’s My Name? Giving a Title to My Notebook

Doodling and Note Taking

Students must try each of these things once, that way they see if it fits for them or not. I compare it to eating vegetables at dinner time when I was a kid. My parents had a rule that I had to take two bites of my vegetables. How would I ever know if I liked green beans if I didn’t try them? It’s the same thing with notebooks. Students must try doodling once while taking notes, but if it doesn’t stick, that’s ok.

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As I release the control of the notebooks, I notice that students slowly start to take risks. We share our own personal ways of expressing ourselves on the pages. In the beginning of the year, we watch TED Talks and take notes. The first time we did this, their notes were primarily bullet points of information. As we continue, I encourage them to practice using sketching and doodling along with words. The artistic students love to share their pages and they get a chance to shine! The less artistic students (that includes me), find creative ways to express ourselves even though we lack drawing skills. Our conversations center around the pages in our notebooks, “Why did you draw that?” “How did you think of that?” “I never thought of doing it that way.” We celebrate different ways of representing our thinking.

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It’s June and we’ve reached the end of the year. Our notebooks are full and we are reflecting. We are reading our notebooks and noticing how we’ve changed as writers. Getting to watch my students sit together with their notebooks and reread entries from months ago is an opportunity for me to learn more about them as writers. Conferencing with small groups and listening to their discussions teaches me so much.

One of the favorite entries from this year is about the judge. While enjoying our read aloud for writing, Writing Magic by Gail Carson Levine, we talked about our “judge”  when we are writing. We talked about telling the judge to be quiet and allowing our “madman” to take over during the gush of writing.  While we were reading and taking notes on this, students represented the judge visually…

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A notebook is a place to collect thoughts and ideas, a place to record memories, a place to take risks and a place to play. My hope is that my students leave knowing more about themselves as writers and as people…that they have used the pages of their notebook to find answers to questions. Have you written in your notebook today?

Michelle Haseltine is in her twentieth year of education. Currently spending her days with sixth graders in Loudoun County, VA reading and writing. Michelle is a Teacher-Consultant with the Northern Virginia Writing Project and continues to search for the book she’s destined to write. She can be found at twitter as @mhaseltine and at her blog One Grateful Teacher.