Keeping a “for school” writer’s notebook

When I first began teaching writing workshop, I brought my own writer’s notebook into class to share with my students.  I wanted them to know that I lived a writing life, just as I was asking them to do; my writer’s notebook was visual proof to my students that I was on a journey of writing to discover myself, too.

Unfortunately, my first-year teacher earnestness ran into a roadblock  from the very first workshop day, when I picked up my writer’s notebook and began to leaf through entries in search of a suitable one from which I could teach.  My writer’s notebook was filled with entries that reflected my writing life – ruminations about poetry, philosophy, ramblings about nature, and sketches of life with my children.  My students, ever alert sixth graders, saw me weighing options in my notebook, and were instantly curious.  What was that sketch they could see on the page before the page I was sharing?  How about the entry after the one I had just read?  Clearly, my attempts to pick through specific entries had aroused middle school suspicion. What was in Mrs.  Smith’s writer’s notebook anyway?  Why can’t we see everything? Soon, my bid for authenticity as a writer didn’t seem like such a great idea after all.  Enter my “for school” writer’s notebook.  It’s been a wonderful idea, and here are some reasons why:

*My writer’s notebook serves to move me along as a writer, and by “me” I mean a woman of a certain age, with very definite tastes in what I read and what I enjoy in other writers.  I may read a passage from Virginia Woolf, and use my notebook to practice writing something similar, just to get a feel for that type of stream of consciousness writing.  This type of exploration may help me as a writer, but is of no use whatsoever to my sixth graders.  This type of writing is just for me.

*My writer’s notebook often contains entries about my children, twenty-somethings all, who would not appreciate having their lives read about in my classroom.  My children’s stories  are not mine to tell in a public forum, even though I use my writer’s notebook to craft sketches of scenes from our lives together, or to capture snippets of their conversation.  Once again, my sixth graders would not be much interested in these types of writing entries; they would find it just as awkward as I would to have them shared aloud as mentor texts.  This type of writing, too, is just for me.

*BUT…a writer’s notebook just for school allows me to frame entries in the context of the genre we are investigating, at a writing level that would inspire my students, not intimidate them.

*A “just for school” writer’s notebook allows me to explore topics that are of interest to my students, so that when I use it to confer or to demonstrate how I’ve used our mini lesson strategies, they can follow along and relate to the subject matter.

*I tend to be a bit fussy about my writer’s notebook, especially after I spent a summer workshop with Linda Rief and Penny Kittle and had a chance to have a glimpse of their works-of-art notebooks.   I see my “just for school” writer’s notebook,  however, as a part of  my writing teacher toolkit.  It’s there to do a quick writing sketch for my students, demonstrating how I think aloud and build my ideas, or to write  with them, modeling the way a writer references mentor texts in the writing process.  At recess yesterday, a student borrowed my notebook so that she could read over an entry I had sketched with the class out earlier that morning; I would not have been quite so willing or generous with my own writer’s notebook!

Taras writing notebook

Here are some ways in which I keep a “for school” writer’s notebook:

*I start a new composition book in late August, decorating it just like my students, with photographs, ticket stubs, and favorite quotes.

*I write a few summer entries, and begin a writing territories list.

*Once school begins, I use the document camera to write before my students.  I deliberately make every attempt to incorporate their ideas during these quick write times.

*A “for school” writer’s notebook may seem like extra work, but it’s well worth the effort, and you are rewarded with a real time reflection of your writing practice over the course of the year.  If you already have such a notebook, bravo.    If not, maybe this is the time to give it a try?

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