Notebooks as a Writer’s Tool Blog Series · writer's notebook · writing workshop

Whose Notebook is it Anyway? Notebooks as a Writer’s Tool


…we write because we’re human, and writing is a way of seeing and feeling and hearing, a way of asking and knowing, a way of creating and making sense, of expressing and communicating. Maja Wilson, Reimagining Writing Assessment

The words of Maja Wilson ring true in my ears. I believe this. I know this. I live this. In my teaching life, if I allow myself to be wound by only standards, benchmarks, and targets I miss the beauty that is created in a moment, the knowing that is heard between the words, or the feeling that comes from spontaneity. Christine Hertz and Kristine Mraz remind us of this same message in A Mindset for Learning, “We cannot let fear of benchmarks stand in the way of helping children find their value and their voice.” This can sometimes feel like the knot in the center of a tug of war. One force is saying one thing, and yet there is this pull in a different direction. As a teacher, the most innovative and exciting moments in my career have been wrapped in risk-taking, failure, perseverance, and ultimately a new level of confidence that has replaced fear.

For us to re-charge our student’s voices, we have to be willing to get out of the way. Just as I continue to grow and change through failure and motivation, students need our quiet presence to lead them to their unique voices. A notebook can truly catapult a writer from a student who writes for his teacher to a writer who writes…because…well, they’re a writer.

Throughout this post, I will encourage you to look at some past practices and think about how we might amplify their purposes to meet the needs of the writers we have today. I begin with notebook personalizing, then direction, engagement, and finally requirements while looking through the lenses of “more this” and “less that.”

Personalizing a Notebook

More Choices and Less Forces

Within education, personalizing notebooks is a common practice for generating excitement for students with a writer’s notebook. The intent is to offer opportunities to personalize with pictures, stickers, and other decorative elements. My understanding of this school of thought was it served as an idea board or helped writers make their notebook stand out. It became their notebook.

I can see this being true for some writers. I also can see this being a bit fallacious in that decorating the outside of something does not necessarily make the inside a meaningful place to pile one’s identity. Not everyone’s family pictures, summer vacations, or friendship school photos lay within the comfort zone of sharing for our writers. Some would prefer to have a bare or pure cover as opposed to one covered in friends and family. Allowing open-ended opportunities for art, design, collage, or territory maps on the cover may intrigue and inspire some, but it need not be the first focus of the notebook.

Keep in mind the real opportunity to personalize a notebook comes from what goes inside. The cover can be a place of creativity, but what goes within the lines and spaces of the pages is what helps shape a growing writer. When we limit what belongs in or on a notebook we can be unintentionally stifling what might be ready to emerge.

Directions for a Notebook

More Hands Off and Less Hands In

Ralph Fletcher says it best in Joy Write, “The operative phrase for a natural greenbelt is not keep out but hands off.” A natural greenbelt, explained further in his book, is simply writers who have been given the space to write with low-stakes and fewer hands in their way. What belongs in a notebook doesn’t need to be up to us, we can let writers be free with their choices. Putting magazine scraps, sketches, drawings, doodles, favorite lines or mimicked writing, jots, poems, and stories can all be a part of a writer’s exploration of an idea. If a writer’s notebook is a place for collectings, the collection should be mostly up to the collector.

There is sometimes this unfortunate misunderstanding that if our hands are not in something as teachers we aren’t doing our job. I believe that when we are doing our job best, we can step completely away and allow students to have the space to make messes, mistakes, and be wild within their creativity. Writing can sometimes feel like a model car. If all the pieces are put together according to the directions, it will look just like the picture on the box. I challenge you to find time in your day to resist the step by step model of directions and see what students create when given the “green” space to write wildly in their notebooks.

Engaging with a Notebook

More Showing and Less Telling

Showing students examples of real-life notebooks from writers, yourself, or this amazing resource from Amy Ludwig VanDerwater at Sharing Our Notebooks can lead to exploration for young writers that they might not tap into on their own. Later this week, Deb Frazier will share great notebook mentors, and one of my favorites is from Lois Ehlert, The Scraps Book. Seeing examples of how a writer collects, shares, and inspires ideas often helps young writers begin to shape their own way of collecting, sharing, and inspiring.

For the student who never has something to write, give them time. Some like to wait for you to tell them exactly what to do. Let the notebook be a place of growth within their own thinking and processing. When we give mind space to just think, writers can become better thinkers across their day, not just as writers. The notebook doesn’t have to be a place where you swoop in and “‘rescue” them with an idea. Let them engage in productive struggle and give them opportunities to notice ideas on their own.

Requirements within a Notebook

More Time and Less Limits

Every classroom is different, and schedules can feel so limiting as a teacher. One trick I have found to make implementing a sacred space within our day for notebook writing is to look for ten minutes. I have a ten-minute block set aside every day for sacred writing. It isn’t part of writing workshop time. It isn’t during social studies or reading. It is its own short but sweet moment within the day that my writers can count on. Notebook writing can occur in other parts of our day as well, but these ten minutes give my writers that wild space they need to write within any form they wish.

I’m currently knee deep in a persuasive writing unit, but I have three boys writing a collaborative informational piece in their notebooks about Fortnite at sacred writing time. Another writer is working on a fantasy story she wants to turn into a novel. Other students create characters for stories they want to write, draw memories, write lists of topic ideas, doodle, write stories that mimic their favorite authors, and the list goes on. There is MORE writing because I am a quiet guide on the side. Setting aside this time every day also means that on those days when it’s not possible (i.e., half day, assembly, special guest, fire drill, or any other interruption you can think of) more often my students get the time. If I stopped because it “just isn’t working,” or “I just can’t find the time,” my writers would be missing out on the days we do have the time.

For the writers who can’t think of anything, stall five minutes to get their notebook out, or just stare at the ceiling, I am reminded of the quote from Joy Write by John Carroll: “There’s a comfort just knowing that wildland is there, whether or not you actually use it.” When they have the tools, the time, and the space to think, there is a comfort in knowing once the idea comes there will be a place to plant it.

So I challenge you to look at your notebook practices. Are you finding moments to allow for wild writing to take root? Do you see yourself tending the soil more than your writers? Can ideas be fertilized? I hope you’ll find the space for students to engage with their notebooks in meaningful and intentional ways throughout the year.


Below is a list of sources that I have found to be beneficial to me as a teacher of writers and were also all quoted in the post above. You will also find the giveaway information below my source list. Be sure to leave a comment to enter as well as join in our slow twitter chat beginning tonight at 7:30 EST with a question to spark a conversation. To catch each question follow #TWTblog on Twitter all week.

Source List:

Joy Write by Ralph Fletcher

Reimagining Writing Assessment by Maja Wilson

A Mindset for Learning by Kristine Mraz, Christine Hertz



  • This giveaway is for a free 20-minute classroom Skype session with author Amy Ludwig VanDerwater whose popular blog Sharing Our Notebooks is an excellent resource for notebookers of all ages and interests.
  • For a chance to win this Skype session with Amy, please leave a comment about this or any blog post in this blog series by Sunday, November 11th at 6:00 p.m. EST. I will use a random number generator to pick the winner’s commenter number. His/her name will be announced in the ICYMI blog post for this series on Monday, November 12th.
  • Please leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment so I can link you up with Amy if you win.
  • If you are the winner of the Skype session, I will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – AMY LV. Please respond to my e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. A new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.

15 thoughts on “Whose Notebook is it Anyway? Notebooks as a Writer’s Tool

  1. Such important reminders in this post! Too often I see the writer’s notebook being used as a place to house teacher-generated writing assignments. Give the notebooks back to the kids! Showing them author’s examples is probably best source of inspiration! No two notebooks look the same!


  2. I think this is just what my students need. 10 minutes just for notebook time may be a great way to start our day! Thanks so much for this post.


  3. I love the idea of 10 minutes. And I agree that sometimes I can get caught up with all the standards and have to’s…. I just always feels like I am pressed for more time- with only 51 minutes to teach both reading and writing.


  4. Love the idea of giving students 10 minutes of sacred writing time daily! My 3rd graders were so excited to decorate their notebooks in the beginning of the year and I feel like that excitement has faded a bit as we are working our way through personal narratives. So many of my kids ask to draw a picture with their writing and I rarely let them because I want them to produce more writing. Need to rethink my expectations! Thanks for the insight!


  5. I always start the year with good intentions about our writers notebooks. Thanks for this reminder that they are there. We get so involved in our other ways of writing, blogs and Google docs, that I forget to encourage daily notebook time. I love Ralph Fletcher’s book Joy Write because he gives us the excuse we need to allow our students writing freedom.


  6. I love your analogies to the model car and tending a garden. I’m going to try the 10 free minutes of writing. I recently heard Ralph Fletcher at a conference and was so inspired. CHOICE AND VOICE. That’s my new motto!


  7. Betsey,
    Perfect start to the series. What is the purpose of the notebook? So many seem doomed to fail when all the writing on specific pages is teacher directed. I know how I feel when I have that mandated topic to write about and my mind just drifts off. Love this about your 10 min. sacred writing . . .”When they have the tools, the time, and the space to think, there is a comfort in knowing once the idea comes there will be a place to plant it.” Space and time to grow ideas!


  8. I teach in an alternative school program and pretty much all of my students struggle with not knowing what to write about. As middle schoolers, writing is something they have failed at time and time again throughout their grammar school experience, so I strive to make them feel some level of success. I love the quote about the wildland, but I fear that the pages will remain blank. Definitely going to check out the resources you mentioned. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Betsy – Thank you for kicking off this blog series in such a logical way. Naming the vaious phases/areas of notebooking is helpful. I especially appreciate Kristi and Christina’s quote, “We cannot let fear of benchmarks stand in the way of helping children find their value and their voice.” What better way to empower kids then to encourage notebook explorations. Thank you!


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