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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.

41 thoughts on “The Importance of the Notebook Leave a comment

  1. I LOVE THIS POST!! ♥

    “I am not in a party, I am a party!”

    I’ve been keeping notebooks since I was 11 years old – which was a LOT of years ago – so I have a LOT of notebooks that fill a very large bookshelf. I have so many of them now I wonder what to do with them. Sometimes I will find my kids (who are actually officially adults now) reading one of them and laughing – or even crying. They tell me I should publish them. I never expected anyone would want to read them, but maybe I could blog some of the pages from time to time and see if anyone is interested….
    My notebooks and journals have been my creative release, my best friends and my free therapy through all the years. They are a safe place where I can be totally 100% me. Unashamed. Unfiltered. I am so happy that you are teaching children to discover and embrace the joy of keeping notebooks. The act of simply using a pen on paper to express ourselves is a dying art. Thank you for keeping this important gift alive.

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  2. I finally got a chance to read this post!! Oh, I have notebook envy!! I need to be in your class in order to establish my own notebook habit. I’ve started and stopped so many notebooks, I’ve lost count. I’ve been doing ALL my writing on the computer, but I know I am missing something by not keeping a notebook, and because I don’t, I haven’t been good at encouraging my students to do so. I have a lot to learn from you! Excellent post.

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  3. Michelle, I found the same in my 4th grade classroom. Writing notebooks became google docs this year. I, too, missed the personalized writing notes that appeared in their notebooks. I am going to resurrect my passion for writing notebook this next school year. Doing lots of reading and reflecting on writing workshop this summer as I am ONLY going to be a Lang. Arts teacher next year. First year I’ve released the other content areas to my team. I am saving this wonderful post in my “thinking” files. Thank you! D 🙂

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  4. I love this! You are such an inspiration to your students and friends. I, too, love my notebooks and have kept them over the years. My notebooks allow me to stay true to who I am in a world that preaches conformity and at times can bash individuality. Thank you for sharing these inspiring words and honesty.

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  5. You are an I aspiration to your students daily. I think the world of you. I, too, have kept my notebooks with quotes and doodles. My notebooks allow me stay true to who I am ina world that is always trying to preach conformity and bash individuality.

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  6. I love this post. Notebooks are so important to writers. A place where they can live, experiment, try on ideas, or just breath in and out into the page. Loved to see the student work. Thank you for sharing.

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  7. Michelle, I love this post on writing notebooks. I love the playing and the thinking your students are doing. I love how you model being a writer for your students. Your students see a real world use for the notebooks that transcends just your classroom. I can’t wait to blog and fill up my notebook with you during class next month.

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  8. I still value the notebooks, but didn’t start them this year when I took over the class & I missed that messing about with writing. We did blog a lot & did the March challenge, so they could experiment with style & content, but it still isn’t the same, I agree, Michelle. We couldn’t examine ideas the same, etc. I love that you returned to the notebook, & wonder what happened to the computer work then? Did it go away? Such a dilemma faces us today! Beautiful post with great examples of joy in this kind of writing! Thank you!

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  9. Michelle-Love, Love, Love your reflection and thinking around having a writing notebook. Your words inspire me to continue and improve the way I have my students think about and use their notebooks. I didn’t introduce the madman, judge, architect ideas and now I sorry I didn’t–Next year!!! 🙂
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and students’ journals.

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  10. You can tell you walk the talk Michelle. Everything about this post oozes passion for writing and the value of documenting everyday thoughts. What a wonderful keepsake it is for them to treasure. Passing this on to your students is a true gift for their present and their future. Great post, I loved it. 🙂

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  11. I’m delighted to see what an emphasis you’ve put on notebooks with your students, Michelle.

    In some places, I feel as though notebooks have gotten short shrift since the adoption of the CCSS (not sure why!) in many writing workshops. This post reminds us to get back to basics with a notebook. Notebooks are such important tools… neglecting them doesn’t help our writers. Thanks for sharing your passion about notebooks here on TWT today.

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  12. What a great post, Michelle – I love how you found a way to convey your passion and purposefulness for the notebook to your kids in a way they could own it for themselves. What a powerful lesson!

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  13. Michelle, your post really spoke to me because, as you know, I am a huge writer’s notebook fan, and the incorporation of technology into my life has made it a bit of a struggle. Kudos to you for recognizing the struggle and remaining true to your roots. Thanks for sharing your thinking and student work here!

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  14. This awesome post is incredibly timely. I am teaching several two-day writing workshops this summer throughout Iowa and Wisconsin and naturally we address writers’ notebooks. I THOUGHT I had my presentation complete and ready to deliver, but…I was wrong. I love your suggestion about allowing (and encouraging) students to personalize” their notebooks, and I appreciate your tips on beginning-of-the-year mini-lessons. Now it’s MY turn to edit and revise.

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  15. I love everything about your post. Thank you for sharing your reflections, photos, your thoughts about notebooks- yours and students- and for your ideas about mini-lessons at the beginning of the year. One of my summer goals is to dive more fully into my own notebook. I haven’t really done that yet and at the moment I am more comfortable composing on a keyboard. But there are times when I want to record or save something or jot down an idea and I don’t want the computer. I would love to know more about your own notebooks and how you use them. How incredible that you are able to share notebooks from many years ago with your sixth grade writers. That must be such a thrill for them.
    By the way, I’m a huge fan of your blog and read your posts regularly. Wish we were closer (you are in Loudon and I am in Charlottesville) and could connect.

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    • Lisa, Charlottesville isn’t too far away!! I’d love to connect!!! Let’s brainstorm something soon! Thank you for your compliments! Enjoy your notebook diving…have fun with it and give yourself permission to PLAY! Your questions have another blog post brewing already!! The most important thing about my notebooks is there are no rules…or rather, I MAKE the rules! Make your own rules and don’t be afraid to break them! My students love reading my old notebooks. They LAUGH!!! Thanks for the comment and I hope we connect SOON!

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  16. Michelle,
    I have 2:1 (devices to students) and have been grateful for that! It forced me not to go 100% digital. Some days I’d tell students I forgot to charge the iPads, or another teacher borrowed them just to get them ALL notebooking! As adults, we can see the power of doodling and reflecting that exist in the notebook. The need to keep that physical playground where the words we write have color and a personality is important.

    I agree, there is “something” about notebooks for our writing lives. Your love of notebooking comes out loud and clear to your students and it shows in their work. I love how you take students on a journey of cautious boxes and bullets style notetaking to bold colorful creative thinking notebookers. It’s always such a pleasure to read about your beautiful classroom.
    Julieanne

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    • Julieanne, Haha! There are days when I need a break from the digital world (as much as I LOVE it)! Thank you for your encouraging comment and I’m glad you enjoyed seeing their journey!!! My students were excited that others were seeing their notebook pages! They feel famous!

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  17. I love this post. Our notebooks need to be places where we allow the freedom to just be and express. I have never graded notebooks for this very reason. I’m so glad you discovered their place in your classroom and didn’t throw them out when digital writing happened. My favorite picture is the judgy monster.

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  18. Wow! Awesome post, Michele! Notebooks are something I’ve always struggled with and I think you just showed me why — they were more about me and what I wanted in them, and not about my students. I think you may have just discovered a topic for that book you are waiting to write. FLY!!

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  19. I love how your mini lessons teach students how to play in their notebook and make it their own. I’m sure their growth as a writer is obvious as students look back to entries from the beginning of the year.

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  20. Great post, Michelle! As you know, I have been struggling to make my students take more ownership of their writing notebooks. Your article will certainly help. Thanks!

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  21. It’s such a pleasure to read your writing, Michelle, as you tell the story of your teaching and your students so masterfully! I love seeing the samples of their notebook pages and having them take notes during TED talks is a fantastic idea (love that Kid President!). Sharing your passion for writing and specifically writing in a notebook is powerful. I love that you do a writing read aloud and now I need to check out Writing Magic, too. So much to love about this post and so much to think about. This summer, I really wanted to try to rediscover my writers notebook. I’ve been doing almost all of my writing digitally and I feel like I need to live in the notebook so I can share more authentically with my students. Do you have your students decorate the notebook with pictures and artifacts early in the year or do they gradually add to it? Thanks for reminding us of the power that lies in a Writer’s Notebook.

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    • Kathleen, Thank you for your comment! Writing Magic is awesome and so is her other book about writing, Writer to Writer! In the beginning of the year, we spend some time talking about personalizing and I show examples. They make their own choices. Some go crazy with scrapbooking materials and pictures, some illustrate and some leave it mostly plain. I insist on a title…that’s a minilesson. We continue to add ephemera all year long!

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  22. Michelle,
    How awesome that you can have both the physical notebooks and the digital work of students. My favorite lines are . . .
    “All of those things…that’s what “I wanted”…I needed to allow the students to use their notebooks the way they wanted.”

    And of course the eating vegetables analogy! It’s so important to let the students figure out what works for them and “learning” to let go of teacher control is a parat of that.

    Great guest blog . . . Thanks for sharing student work! This has been a great series!

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