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Notebooks: Starting with What Matters Most

Before summer began, we at Two Writing Teachers planned this blog series, and I blithely volunteered to write a post about the value of notebooks in writing workshop.

Notebooks. What was I thinking?! So much has been written about them. I started rereading, and ran out of time…A single post, I realized, would barely scratch the surface. I realized something else too, and that is that notebooks are so important that we needed to time to think about them here in the context of starting with what matters most.

Some of my favorite books with information about writer’s notebooks.


As writers and teachers of writers, there are a few things we know for sure about notebooks. Notebooks matter. Writers keep notebooks. Beyond that, there is much to ponder. We need to determine for ourselves  and in our classrooms the what, the how and the why.

You and your students will undoubtedly experience satisfaction, surprise, frustration, and pride as notebook keepers. There are unknowns regarding the role notebooks will play in your classroom workshop. There are also some questions and ideas we can explore together before the start of the school year. Doing that will help us create our plan not just for how to launch the writer’s notebook but also for how to nurture the notebook work as the school year unfolds.

Notebooks matter:

Before we can introduce notebooks to our students we have to know why they matter.

Why do writers have notebooks?

We have notebooks because they help us to live and work as writers in an authentic way.

  • Notebooks are a place for collecting and storing ideas, seeds, and snippets. They serve an invaluable role as a place for quickly jotting things we want to hold onto and revisit as writers.
  • Notebooks are a place where writers make choices.
  • Notebooks are a safe space to experiment. Notebooks, as Melanie described them “are a playground for writers.” Writers can hold them in their hands, choose what to put where, in what color.
  • Notebook pages can be revisited, reread, added to, and flagged with sticky notes.  

Notebook matters:

And then there are the logistics to consider.

Who will use notebooks?

Generally, writer’s notebooks work best in third grade classrooms and beyond. While I have seem them used in classrooms with younger writers, notebooks can be difficult for them to manage and can feel overwhelming. If you’re inclined to try using notebooks with primary grade students, consider  “tiny topics” notebooks. Find small spiral bound notebooks and invite young writers to use them to jot down ideas and make quick sketches.

How will you introduce notebooks to your writers?

It’s been said before but it bears repeating. Build excitement for notebooks. Begin talking about writer’s notebooks in the early days, and make them part of the workshop from the start. Take time to allow students to personalize their notebooks. Share your own notebook so your writers begin to form a vision for the possibilities. And if you don’t have one, now’s a perfect time to start a notebook. You will gain credibility with the writers in your classroom and make discoveries that will enrich your teaching about notebooks.

My current notebooks

What will go in the notebook?

  • Will students brainstorm in the notebook?  Create lists and webs?
  • Will they experiment with craft moves there?  
  • Will it be a place to store tips from mini lessons?
  • A spot for quick writes?
  • Will it be formally organized and divided into sections? If so what will those sections be called?

You’ll want to consider what kinds of writing your students will do in their notebooks.  And I hope you’ll consider carefully the drawbacks of drafting in notebooks before you ask writers to do that. 

Determining the how, what and why of notebooks will be a journey for you and your students. The good news is there are lots of resources you can consult (see below) but very few absolutes. As Kate Messner says in 59 Reasons to Write,

“There are some very strict rules for having a writer’s notebook. Here they are: Rule 1: Write in it. Rule 2: There are no other rules.”

Let’s keep in touch about our notebook journeys this school year.


A few of my favorite resources:

 A Writer’s Notebook by Ralph Fletcher

Notebook Know How by Aimee Buckner

Day by Day by Ruth Ayres and Stacey Shubitz

59 Reasons to Write by Kate Messner



  • This giveaway is for one copy of The First Six Weeks of School, 2nd Edition. Many thanks to Responsive Classroom for donating a copy of this book.
  • For a chance to win one copy of The First Six Weeks of School, 2nd Edition, please leave a reaction to any post in the blog series, including this one, by Monday, August 8th at 11:59 p.m. EDT. Dana Murphy will use a random number generator to pick the winners, whose names she will announce in our blog series’ IN CASE YOU MISSED IT POST on Tuesday, August 9th at 11:59 p.m. EDT.
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Starting with What Matters Most in Writing Workshop

43 thoughts on “Notebooks: Starting with What Matters Most Leave a comment

  1. For middle school readers, my favorite writing resource is “Rain, Steam, and Speed” by Gerald Fleming. It seems to be underutilized, perhaps because the title is really oblique. 🙂


  2. I have been primary teacher but moving up to 4th grade this year, I was wondering how to use the notebook. I’m afraid the notebook would limit the student’s creative. I can see that the student’s could use it for practicing author’s craft and storing mini lessons topics but where or how do they start a new piece of writing?


    • I think drafting works best on looseleaf paper with fourth grade writers. Writing on every other line, ideally just on the front side of the page will also give them lots of flexibility for revision. Feel free to contact me if you want to discuss this further, and good luck with your move to 4th grade.


  3. I found that Tiny Topic notebooks were wonderful in first grade. I offered these to everyone but did not mandate their use. Students were thrilled to have their own space to write down small moments as they noticed them–they all wanted to have a notebook! These small notebooks were kept in the caddies at tables and often as a class we’d stop and quickly jot something down immediately after it happened. Students were free to take their notebooks between school and home and many opted to do so. The biggest plus was that students became adept at recognizing the small stories in our shared lives and in their own lives. Those who struggled to do so had consistent peer models pointing out these moments. Eventually the notebook use faded for many students, but they would still point out, “Oh! That was a small moment story! I could write about that!”
    I’m moving up to fourth grade and this post was a timely investigation of the use of writing notebooks. I’ve been thinking a lot about them and in preparation kept my own notebook diligently this summer. Thanks for the resources so I can do a bit more investigation before school starts!


  4. These ‘What Matters Most’ posts have me very excited for the new school year! And, since it is still summer, I have plenty of time to read them and think about how to apply them!


  5. Do you segment your notebooks or just write on the next blank page? I start notebooks every year but don’t feel like they are special. I want to do better! This will be the year…


  6. Notebooks are very doable with second graders, Have been using them since down to primary. They just take a bit of patience and time. Like the idea of tiny topics notebooks, though. If I ever move again, downward, that will come in handy. Thanks!


  7. LOVE this post, talking about what REALLY matters, the child’s thinking! I have grave concerns about the explosion of Interactive Notebooks being bought on TPT. Notebooks should give students voice, choice, and have meaning. Why/How did interactive notebooks become glorified worksheets for students? Am I the only one who thinks that way? Would love feedback. .,BTW, I teach 5th grade 🙂


  8. Great post! I think I need to start a new notebook that I can share with my students this fall. More notebooks to share the better. Right? Just thinking, I would love to read more about high school teachers using notebooks in their classrooms…..


  9. Once again I found a gem to use at the begging of the year. We will make writing note books with my new heavy duty stapler & special paper for cover. Thinking the students will I enjoy constructing & writing.


  10. I can’t ask families to provide notebooks so I use composition books. Using scavenged book jackets (ask your librarian) and scrap colored paper, kids cut & paste to make the cover their own. Before kids use the new notebooks, I cover with clear contact paper to preserve their work. I love doing this on the first day of school…it’s a quick peek into student interests and an easy time for conversation.


  11. Glad I saw this before school started and I love the idea of the little notebook. So often, my students only use the first four lines and feel discouraged by the big blank space. Thanks!


  12. Love those rules because so many teachers I see have very specific and stringent rules regarding the notebook. When there are no “rules” it makes teachers nervous that they ate losing control. Need to change that mindset.


  13. I love the idea of notebooks. I have gathered resources about notebooks. I purchase notebooks for my students. What’s the problem? I cannot become consistent with toe book behavior. My students lose them, can’t find them, whine about writing in them, and I usually abandoned them eventually. I want to be successful notebook aficionado. I really do. Great ideas here. I have hope.


  14. I am a 5th grade teacher that teaches writing and science. I’m having a hard time meshing the two and finding time for journals. I teach science/writing combined for one hour each day. Hard to get it all in.
    I am planning to use the journal more as a resource since it includes science content too. Would love for them to have journal time but working on planning some quick writes of some kind just to get them writing.


  15. I think I have undervalued my writer’s notebook into being just brainstorming scratch paper. I really would like to utilize it more in mini-lessons and using mentor sentences.


  16. The copy center has graciously made me small notebooks for my 2nd graders. Last year a child named them the speckle books because of tiny flecks on the covers.


    • While I don’t teach that level, I think they would be invaluable in a high school writing workshop. A great place to try craft moves, keep seed ideas and observations, notes about minilessons, etc. I would caution against using them for drafting entire pieces however. Feel free to email me if you want to chat further about this.


  17. Lisa,
    Love talking notebooks as I purchased a “fancy-schmancy” one this summer and am now using a very plain one instead.

    LOVE this: “There are some very strict rules for having a writer’s notebook. Here they are: Rule 1: Write in it. Rule 2: There are no other rules.”


  18. “Notebooks: Starting With What Matters Most”
    I like the idea of using the”tiny topics” notebooks with the younger children. Great way to introduce writing notebooks to them.


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