Reimagine Notebook Entries Using a Mentor Text

“Okay everybody, let’s try that part again.”  Mr. Hall raised his baton, a signal for all of us in the middle school band to bring our instruments to attention.  Placing my hands on my saxophone, I brought it upright and placed it on my right knee.  “You may wonder,” Mr. Hall said, speaking to all of us, “why we practice the same parts so many times.”  “Because… practice makes perfect?” I offered, attempting to speak for the whole group.  “No,” replied Mr. Hall.  “Practice doesn’t make perfect.  Perfect practice makes perfect.”

When it comes to writing, we can teach kids that a writer’s notebook is our ‘practice room’ (or, for the more sports-minded, our practice “field”).  It is a place where writers try things out; we put our pens down to get ideas moving forward, we practice the moves we know, and sometimes we try out new strategies.  Some teachers have even described the notebook as a “playground,” emphasizing the low-stakes, playful spirit we want kids to bring to their writer’s notebooks.  But, as Mr. Hall taught me back in sixth grade, even when we are “practicing,” the way we practice matters.  It still matters that we bring a level of rigor to our practice.  And so, when we’re practicing in our notebooks, we don’t want to forget about everything we know and have been taught to do as writers. Quite the opposite! The notebook, like the draft, is a place to put skills and strategies into play in the best ways we know how.

Reimagining a Notebook Entry

One idea to consider trying out with writers is revising or reimagining a notebook entry.  As I said to a group of seventh grade writers recently, sometimes it’s not just drafts we revise, but notebook entries, too.  When we teach kids to revise or reimagine an entry in their writer’s notebooks, I have found they are often much more willing to do the work of true revision- that is to say, making mega changes instead of just tinkering or making a few micro-changes.  Revision is tough for kids (well, probably for all of us), so revising a notebook entry can lower the stakes and provide the training ground for what real revision can feel like.

When trying this out a few days ago with seventh graders who were working on narrative writing, I decided to demonstrate a way writers can allow a mentor text to help us to reimagine how an entry could go.  After sharing the wisdom passed on to me by Mr. Hall, I shared with writers that leaning on a mentor text can be a little like taking a course from a published writer- we can allow him or her to teach us how to be stronger writers. “And,” I continued, “that certainly can happen with our drafts… but we can also do this work in our notebooks.” I then stated my teaching point: Today I want to teach you that one way writers help ourselves revise a story entry is by reading a piece of literature we admire, studying how the author made the writing, and trying some of those techniques to improve our piece.” 

Unveiling part of a notebook entry I had copied onto chart paper, I read my writing aloud, inviting the writers in the room to watch me as I demonstrated this process of revising a notebook entry.  After reading my entry, I paused and said, “Hmmm. so I know I need to imagine, ‘How else could this story go?  What have I learned from my mentor text author that can help me try out a different version of my entry?’  Well, I could go back to a text I know, letting something very particular in that story influence my story…”  Pulling out a text written by Adam Bagdasarian, a short story familiar to the students, I read the opening aloud while they followed along.  I then voiced over what I noticed the author doing (“Hmm…I see this author using dialogue followed by a sequence of small actions; I see him adding inner thinking to provide background information and build tension,” etc.).  

Following each sentence of the mentor text, which I read aloud, I demonstrated for writers how I could reimagine the way my notebook entry could sound if I reworked each sentence in the style or structure of the author.  I used phrases like, “Let’s see, so I think I could write my first sentence kind of like that… Let me try that here…” or, “Hmm…  Bagdasarian wrote his sentence like that, so I could write my next sentence like this…”.  Each time, I turned to chart paper to quickly write in front of the kids.

After a bit of demonstration, I turned it over to the students, “Writers, what do you say we try this same work on your own entry, now? What is one way you could reimagine your notebook entry, your story, using Adam Bagdasarian’s story to inspire you? I’ll read this opening part out loud again, and after I finish, right here in the meeting area, start a new version of your own story. I won’t say a word- after I finish reading this beginning, start your own beginning.”  

During the link (as I tend to do in all minilessons in writing workshop), I offered the students different choices and options for what they might work on during their independent writing time.  Remarkably, nearly all students chose to reimagine and literally redraft a notebook entry!  This always amazes me, as typically few middle school writers are willing to take on this type of large-scale revision. But again, I believe this is due to the fact that they’re working in notebooks, and somehow the stakes feel lower, the risks smaller.

If you choose to try this out with your students, of course you don’t have to show how to reimagine the opening of an entry- it could be the heart of the story, it could be the ending… it could, of course, even be in a different type of writing.  But bringing Mr. Hall’s wisdom to the practicing of writing sends an important implicit message: The way we practice matters.