nonfiction writing · notebooks · ralph fletcher · writing workshop

Exploratory Notebooks

I’ve been doing quite a bit of reading lately. My current favorite is Making Nonfiction from Scratch by Ralph Fletcher. One chapter, in particular, is helping me in preparation for the research unit I am gearing up to teach in the next few weeks. It discusses the use of Exploratory Notebooks.

In the beginning of the chapter, Fletcher cites William Zinsser from his book Writing to Learn (1993). Zinsser discusses the difference between Type A and Type B writing. Type A is a finished piece or a piece used in publication as an authority on a subject. Type B writing is more indefinite and helps learners wade their way through their understanding of a topic. Zinsser projects that we often anticipate and expect Type A writing from our students and often find a formulaic understanding of the topic as opposed to an insider’s view. It’s too soon for our students to demonstrate this kind of understanding on a topic within a few short weeks of study.

In using an Exploratory Notebook students are able to begin by activating their prior knowledge through lists and jots of their current understanding. Instead of giving students a defined outline to organize their ideas, why not begin with inquiry and wondering about a topic. What are the heavy hitting questions? Students can then take this inquiry and develop an outline that is based on their own interests within the topic.

When students have determined their outline they can begin researching. Fletcher recommends having students react to their learning. Creating a chart within the Exploratory Notebook that reserves one side of the page for findings and the opposite side for reactions. Another interesting strategy for deepening engagement within the content of their research and learning was to have students make a prediction about what they would gain from their source. Before watching a video or reading an article, have students write a short paragraph or prediction about what they expect to learn. Students are more likely to pay close attention to the source’s information and determine if their prediction is accurate.

As students research a topic they are likely to uncover re-occurring terms, phrases or keywords. Keeping a page reserved for these findings will encourage students to always be on the lookout. Students can begin defining and re-phrasing these key statements from their sources. While students collect all these nuggets of information, they can also begin thinking about the relevance of each. When conferring with students, walking through these collections and discussing what seems most important can help to shine a light on what is truly speaking to the student and relevant.

Fletcher concludes the chapter by reminding teachers to use the Exploratory Notebook with purpose and care. Students will tune in quickly if we are merely using it for busy work and lack of intention. Fletcher also reminds us that the Exploratory Notebook is an opportunity for students to take part in “low-stakes” writing. This is important. I think I do a really good job encouraging low-stakes writing in the writer’s notebook but when it comes to information writing I tend to push in a different direction. This chapter has really helped me to think a little deeper about the use of a notebook when preparing for information or research writing. I’m a little more at ease as I begin to plan how to launch into these notebooks and the unit itself.

I’m looking forward to sharing more progress on this unit as I wrap up the school year. My last day is June 10th. We are in the midst of our state test followed by MAP testing. I can then take a bit of a breath and begin feeling like a teacher again soon!

Have you used an Exploratory Notebook? I’d love to hear how it went and what you found most useful.

9 thoughts on “Exploratory Notebooks

  1. I love the idea of an exploratory notebook. I also wish I had students to work with is idea. It did make me wonder about using this idea with the research I am doing for my fiction book. I have been stuck and think this might be helpful in gathering words, facts and information needed and then my or my characters reactions. I going to play with that a bit – excited to read more of Making Non Fiction from Scratch.


  2. I wish I had a classroom of my own right now since I’d love to try out the exploratory notebooks Fletcher presented in Making Nonfiction from Scratch. I think there are enormous possibilities for student learning and growth with these. I can’t wait to read your end-of-year reflections about using them, Betsy.


  3. I really like the idea of predicting before reading or watching. I am wondering how we nudge students to generate those richer “heavy hitting questions.” This is often challenging and questions seem to be small in scope.


    1. I completely agree. It can be hard to get students to really look deeply at what they are curious about. I think it’s okay if the questions start out more general at first. I’m hoping that the Exploratory Notebook might be a great vessel to craft some more sophisticated questions as they move through their process. Maybe it begins with, “How do fish breathe?” but later, as more research occurs it becomes, “How do fish take the oxygen out of the water?” I also think that you bring up a good point that is worth some modeling. It would be interesting to pose questions to the class and ask them how to make them more clear, detailed and specific. Could be a fun peer revision activity. Revising questions!


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