Looking through baskets full of my writing notebooks, I find a handful of pages repeated in each one. They aren’t repeated in the sense that they are identical; rather, the concept is repeated. As teachers, we write in a variety of genres, and I’ve found that these are the pages I return to again and again as I model for students the way to select a topic for a new writing project.
Taking some time to include these pages in a writer’s notebook will be well spent, because they will serve students across the school year. Whether the genre is poetry, narrative, informational, or opinion writing, these pages serve as a springboard into topic selection for many writing projects.
Page Concept #1: Writing Territories
Nancie Atwell suggests this kind of notebook page in her kit Lessons That Change Writers. The idea is that writers have territories. This is certainly true for me. I write about the same four territories over and over again: adoption, faith, teaching, and writing. More than 90 percent of the topics I select come from these territories. I might also add Jeff to my territories list when I’m sharing with students. Jeff is my younger brother, and when I’m stuck for a story idea, I think about him and an idea always magically appears. Jeff’s and my childhood adventures are rich fodder for topic ideas when I’m writing with students.
It is important to list not only topics on a territories list, but audiences too. What readers are territories for you? What readers are territories for your students?
Page Concept #2: My Roles
A collection of different roles I play in life has served me well in generating ideas for topics. Although this could easily be made as a list, I much prefer pictures and words. When I slow down to make a sketch, my brain is able to generate even more ideas. This page is inspiration for narrative, opinion, or informative ideas. For example, take my role as a runner. I can write a story about helping my daughters learn to become distance runners. If I’m looking for a topic for a review, I could review my favorite running shoes—New Balance—or the great new socks I purchased last month. If I need a personal essay topic, I can consider all of the things I believe are important to being a runner and build a thesis around these beliefs. Maybe I’m hunting for an informative topic, so I could write about the way cardio exercise increases heart health and what happens inside a body when running. All of that from a single role! If I want to find another idea for a story or a review or a personal essay, I consider another role.
Page Concept #3: I’m Curious
Wonderings fill every notebook I’ve ever kept. I like to use my notebooks to keep my curiosity alive, so it is natural to create a page titled I’m Curious. On this page, I collect all of the things I’m interested in knowing more about. Pirates have topped this list for years. It’s okay to have the same idea on a list again and again. At the same time, I push myself to be curious about new things. I live with my curiosity receptors carefully tuned. When my son asked me about the Boston Tea Party, I was left with more questions than before, so I added it to my list. I’m Curious pages spark a number of ideas for informational writing, as well as poetry and sometimes even opinions.
Page Concept #4: “Place I Love” Map
Place continues to be my go-to inspiration for topic ideas. As a writer, I’m inspired by place. I think a map of a favorite place is ideal in generating topic ideas because of the strong emotional attachment. Ralph Fletcher suggests marking X on spots where a story takes place. This turns your favorite place map into a sort of treasure map for story possibilities.
It’s important to help students consider whether they should zoom in or zoom out on a place. For example, I can draw a map of my parents’ homestead—there are barns and woods and raspberry patches—or I can draw a map of my childhood bedroom. Both are rich sources of story ideas.
Check the fly pages of some of your favorite books for mentor maps. Once you have your eyes peeled for maps, you’ll be surprised how many you may find in your classroom library.
Page Concept #5: Heart/Bone Map
Georgia Heard encourages young poets to create heart maps. What is closest to your heart? Encourage students to think through a variety of subjects—people, hobbies, food, places, music—to identify the things in life that are closest to their hearts. It is powerful for students to consider what is in the center of their hearts. Sometimes students draw sections in their hearts and other times they make a collage of pictures and words.
A few years ago, when I suggested creating heart maps in our notebooks, an outspoken fifth-grade boy exclaimed, “There’s no way I’m putting a heart in my notebook!”
Chuckling with the rest of the class, I decided it wasn’t an issue to force. After all, a notebook is for the writer, and if he didn’t want a heart in it, who was I to insist? Earlier in the summer, I spent two afternoons in a writing session with Katherine Bomer. Katherine encouraged all of the teacher-writers to write close to the bones.
As I braced myself for more students to reject the idea of hearts in their notebooks, I remembered Katherine’s words. Looking the student straight in the eyes, I smiled sincerely. “I understand,” I said. “Would you consider putting bones in your notebook?”
He shrugged. “Yeah, bones are okay,” he said.
It’s important that writers write close to the bones—that we be real and genuine. Bone maps and heart maps help students mine topics that are worth pursuing in a variety of genres.
Ideas for a Year of Writing
Spending time creating this collection of pages will give students topics for a year of writing. As they mine topics, they will learn their richest sources of ideas. These are powerful pages for a notebook—and they are powerful pages to repeat in a notebook year after year.