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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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Tara Smith View All

I teach Writing Workshop, Language Arts and Social Studies to sixth graders at a middle school in suburban New Jersey. This blog is my attempt to capture all the "stuff" that goes into my teaching life - the planning, the dreaming, the reading, the preparing, the hoping and (above all) the kids.
Please note that the content of this blog is my own. It does not reflect the opinions of my employer.

5 thoughts on “Keeping a “for school” writer’s notebook Leave a comment

  1. Love the conversation! I see Michelle’s point about two notebooks being challenging to manage. I need to get back to notebook writing. My fine motor skills/handwriting isn’t the best and I find I do so much better with typing/blogging. My prewriting work is often the photographs I take or the sentences I compose in my mind at the start of a piece. I find I revise a lot online. Since becoming a blogger, I type so much more and write in my notebook so much less. I think finding your own system is key and maybe showing students lots of possibilities is helpful. I read that one author (can’t remember who- maybe Anne Lamott?)used index cards and carried them everywhere.

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  2. Tara, I love this post. I only have one notebook, but I can definitely delineate which of my writing was for me and which was done in the service of teaching. I really like that this post makes it clear that we should be doing both – no matter where we house it.

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  3. I think it’s wise to have two separate notebooks going (if one can manage it). Like Michelle, I used to fold down pages that I didn’t want kids to see. Then I realized, I needed to find a different place to write that kind of “stuff.” Essentially, the writing life I lived while in the classroom was in service of my teaching (mostly) so my notebook landed up being a “for school” notebook.

    Nowadays, I have a master writer’s notebook in Evernote, https://twowritingteachers.wordpress.com/2014/01/15/masterwnevernote/, which gives me the freedom to pick and choose from my best writing — without the need to carry lots of notebooks to classrooms with me — whenever I’m working with kids.

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  4. Interesting! I actually respectfully disagree. When my students ask to see another page, we talk about audience and how some pages I’m happy to share and some pages I’m not, like with their own notebooks. I can’t manage different notebooks for different purposes and find it too much to manage. What I like about this is there isn’t just one way! Find the way that works for you! Funny to have an entry on notebooks today as I begin a new one…number 65!

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  5. Yes! I think my best writing tip for teachers I work with is to do every assignment you give. I am a terrible notebooker, though I wish desperately I was best friends with my notebook. I do, however, keep a notebook with my students and it makes such a huge difference. When they see it, they start modeling it. Truth.

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