Putting the Exploratory Notebook into practice…with thanks to Ralph Fletcher

In his wonderful new book, Making Nonfiction From Scratch, Ralph Fletcher tells it like it is for writing teachers (and their students) everywhere:

When it comes to nonfiction, teachers don’t have to work very hard to motivate students…with this genre we start with an intrinsic buy in from students.  On the other hand, I see an awful lot of formulaic nonfiction writing in the schools I visit.  Nonfiction is the writing genre most typically “done to” students.  We channel  students into a particular curricular area whether they like it or not.  We organize their writing for them, directing them to follow rubrics and use detailed prewriting outlines and graphic organizers.  We teach them our system for taking notes and doing research.  We tell students, “Your final report must include _____, and _____, and _____.” No wonder students feel confined! No wonder so much of their nonfiction writing lacks energy and voice.  Welcome to nonfiction writing: our most pre-packaged genre.

Ouch!

So, over winter break, I took a good long look at my plans for our nonfiction unit, which I was set to launch on our first day back to school.  My sixth graders were so excited to be moving on from personal narrative and memoir into the realm of “the real stuff” (as one put it) “the kind of stuff I WANT to be writing about!”.    And I wanted to be sure that they stayed excited from launch all the way through time to publish.  I wanted our nonfiction unit to rock!

Among Fletcher’s suggestions for  key ingredients of “making nonfiction from scratch” was an Exploratory Notebook – a place to gather information, think through ideas, and sketch out writing.  I thought back to our many varied attempts to do all of this in many different places – our writer’s notebooks, research folders, “thinking envelopes” – and how nothing had worked quite the way I’d wanted it to.   Ralph Fletcher would probably say this was because I had pre-packaged each of these research/gather/write venues, they were “done to” my students rather than “done by” them.  

Fletcher writes that students need time to experiment with sorting through their ideas, try out note taking strategies, learn how to collect chunks of similar information, and arrive at their writing through sketching and practicing shorter written pieces.  The Exploratory Notebook becomes a wonderful receptacle for all of that…and anything else he or she can think of.    Once this thinking work has had a chance to grow, students will find that they can write with greater authority in their topic and fluency.

We began with about 30 pages of blank paper, construction paper, yarn, and some ideas from Making Nonfiction From Scratch:

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and then I let my sixth graders loose, mindful of this advice from Ralph Fletcher:

But let’s be careful about how we incorporate the Exploratory Notebook into the classroom. Kids have a finely tuned detector for busywork or writing-because-my-teacher-said-we-have-to-do-this.  If the Exploratory Notebook is going to be meaningful for your students it has to have intellectual integrity.  It’s vital that they see it as authentic, flexible and optional.  One telling sign that your students find true value in the Exploratory Notebook is when they start coming up with their own ways of using it.

Here are some things I noticed about their work so far:

  • they have taken ownership of every aspect right away – from the covers to what they choose to put inside
  • they are attempting to take  ideas from our mini lessons and figure out how this idea makes sense for their own piece of writing
  • they are definitely experimenting with different note taking options I have presented in mini lessons
  • they are envisioning where to take their big ideas, and sorting through different lines of inquiry
  • they are drawing, and through that thinking through possibilities
  • they share their notebooks, and are curious to learn how their classmates are exploring their topics

And here are some examples of their work:

In the weeks to come, as my sixth graders continue to research their topics, sketch their ideas and begin to draft, I will be  curious  to see how they continue to use their Exploratory Notebooks.  Thus far, it seems to have been a wonderful way to bring excitement and authenticity to our nonfiction genre study.