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Engage Striving Writers by Keeping a Notebook During the COVID-19 School Closures

There are many people in the literacy community whose children are voracious readers and prolific writers. My daughter, due to academic challenges, including Dyslexia, is not a “chip off the old block.” Reading, spelling, and writing are challenging for her. Isabelle would rather be drawing pictures than writing. Let’s be honest, she’d rather sit with a math workbook than read. She is a striving reader and a reluctant writer.

Pennsylvania’s Governor closed schools due to COVID-19 two weeks into my 12-week recovery from foot surgery. While I worried about the disruption to my daughter’s education (and to my recovery), I tried to look at the silver lining of Isabelle being home for three weeks of enrichment and review once schools closed. School districts sent home optional educational activities to reinforce and extend students’ learning. Since it was optional, I designed academics responsive to my daughter’s education needs. (Remember, I was home recovering from surgery.)  I had three weeks to engage my daughter in whatever way I wished since the return to schools got pushed from March 30th to April 6th, when planned instruction began from her school district.

Initially, I thought I’d teach Isabelle an information writing unit of study. After all, we had time. After spending a couple of days preparing materials – and weighing the gravity of the stay-at-home orders – I came to believe a formal unit wouldn’t be in the best interest of our mother-daughter relationship. Instead, I took a softer approach and opted to engage her with notebook writing.  

We went to my home office, where I keep a bunch of blank writer’s notebooks. I gave her with carte blanche to pick whichever one she wanted. Isabelle selected a 64-page writer’s notebook with a colorful cover and lines I knew were not big enough to accommodate her handwriting. However, giving someone carte blanche means you keep your mouth shut after they make a decision. I grabbed a new notebook for myself, a new pack of gel pens from a supply basket, and hoped for the best.

Here’s a picture of Amy and I when we met at NCTE in 2010. I was eight months pregnant with Isabelle. Isabelle was fascinated Amy “knew her when…”

Writing was HARD for Isabelle for the first week. Generating ideas was difficult. Oral rehearsal was difficult. Drawing and writing on the same page was difficult. The first week shaped up to be nothing like the “enrichment and review” Pennsylvania suggested since everything was challenging. As a result, I began to doubt my effectiveness to teach my own child.

The following week, I turned to Amy Ludwig Vanderwater’s Keeping a Notebook series. I told Isabelle the two of us would watch Amy’s lessons and do them together. Isabelle was resistant to the idea of doing a series of notebook lessons, but when I told her I knew Amy, she agreed to try out the first lesson.

For the next two weeks, I watched Isabelle’s writing volume explode. Typically, she filled two notebook pages per day. A few days into Keeping a Notebook, Isabelle apologized for taking so long to write because she “had a lot to say.” (I told her not to apologize since writing LONG was fantastic!) By early April, Isabelle was churning out as much as five pages – skipping lines – of writing in one sitting. It was incredible to watch her volume and writing stamina increase in a short period of time. As a result, I made the decision to keep writing alongside Isabelle once “planned instruction” from her school district began last week since I didn’t want to lose the momentum she gained in such a short amount of time.

Something monumental happened two days ago. Isabelle finished the notebook she began on March 17th! That’s right, she started a new writer’s notebook, which she adorned with a butterfly.

Left: First writer’s notebook (3/17 – 4/13/20)
Right: Present writer’s notebook (Started on 4/13/20.)

Upon thinking about what’s worked for my striving writer, I believe a few things have helped:

  1. ROUTINE: Writing happens at the same time of day in our house. Every morning of quarantine school begins with basic math fact practice, then I read aloud from a chapter book to Isabelle. Next, we write. It’s the same structure every weekday. (Initially, I had Isabelle writing after lunch, which was not the right time of day for her.)
  2. BREVITY: The “Keeping A Notebook” lessons are short and have a predictable structure. There’s a technique or strategy presented each day. Amy models each one by brainstorming, then writing long about one of the things she listed in her brainstorm. Once the YouTube video ends, Isabelle and I do the same thing in our notebooks.
  3. CHOICE: Amy provides kids with choice in each session. Having topic choice — or even choice in the way one brainstorms – has been useful to Isabelle when she sits down to write each weekday.
Writing long & strong.

Even though Isabelle would probably tell you she’d rather be drawing, rather than writing, I can tell her confidence is increasing. In fact, on the third day we wrote poetry with Amy, Isabelle crafted a list poem about a time last week when her little brother made a mess of their play room. After she wrote the poem (below), Isabelle leaned over and said, “You know, Mommy, writing this poem was actually fun.”

Here’s the list poem Isabelle wrote as part the “Poems Can Tell a Story” lesson. When we typed up the final copy of the poem together, she decided to omit blankets since it wasn’t a toy. She also fixed up the spelling of games too. However, I wanted to share the poem in its original form.
Brainstorms, lists, sketches, prose, poetry, revisions, and edits…
They’re all in the pages of this notebook.

*****

I reached out to Amy to ask her how long she planned to keep up the Keeping a Notebook lessons.

I plan to keep going until this is all over. Every weekday. During April, every single day as I always do in April. I will stop if I get sick or if a close family member gets sick, but otherwise, I’m in that little camper sharing writing for the long haul. As long as teachers are virtual teaching, I’m vintage camper teaching.

Amy Ludwig Vanderwater

So, there you have it. If you would like to engage your own child or your entire class with some low-stakes writing that will allow them to have lots of choice – and some fun – then check out Keeping a Notebook.

Click on the image to visit Amy’s YouTube Channel.

Stacey Shubitz View All

Literacy Consultant. Author. Former 4th and 5th Grade Classroom Teacher.

6 thoughts on “Engage Striving Writers by Keeping a Notebook During the COVID-19 School Closures Leave a comment

  1. God bless Amy! I am adding her writing lessons as one of the “supplemental” activities for my students who are really longing for more language arts than our district will let us require (for equity reasons). I have some strong writers who will love having an outlet. Thank you for sharing your struggles and successes with Isabelle, too. My son is also an extremely resistant writer who prefers drawing. Hopefully, I can do something similar with him and use Amy’s lessons to help develop his writing skill, stamina, and maybe even enjoyment! I hope you are still recovering well and the stress and unexpected presence of your family at all times don’t have you walking more than you should be!

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    • Amy’s lessons will be an excellent supplement to the language arts assignments you’re already giving students.
      One thing that I’m grateful for is the chance to write alongside Isabelle every day. I do all of the lessons with her and I think it helps to have another living, breathing writer alongside her. Otherwise, it just turns into an assignment. We share our writing each day and I think that, too, has been helpful.

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    • I feel like we need to work on a list poem of “things we want to do once the world returns to normal.” In fact, I might suggest that to her since we keep talking about what she wants to do when it’s “safe to go out” again.

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