I start off each school year with good intentions. My files will be more organized, my newsletters more concise, and my time more productive. I’ll read more about teaching math and social studies and reading and writing. I’ll be a better teacher by staying on top of the newest research and going to conferences. Yet none of those goals seem to be as effective in improving my teaching as solid reflection and asking hard questions about what I do and why I do it.
In a recent curriculum meeting, we were discussing the types of things our students do in their writers’ notebooks. Teachers said some buzz words — small moments, slice of life writing, zooming in — but as we talked we became clearer. “My students keep their drafts in their notebooks,” stated one teacher. Another teacher piped in that her students only use notebooks to draft poetry. And that’s when things got interesting.
Drafts in the notebooks?! Only poetry?! I wanted to pass out my book and say, let’s begin with chapter one. But I know these teachers, because I have their students. They’re good writing teachers. They’re well read, thoughtful, and passionate about children writing. There was honest confusion as to what should be in the notebook.
The rule of thumb is this — a writer’s notebook is set up to emulate what real writers do. They use their notebooks to jot down ideas, to explore their thinking, and to cultivate entries that might become a bigger piece of writing. The notebook, in its purest form, is for the writer. The writer is the audience for the writing. Once the writer turns his or her attention to a different audience, like taking an observation about twilight and turning it into a picture book like Twilight Comes Twice, then most writer’s begin to leave their notebook in order to draft.
As I’ve been thinking about this, I’ve come to reevaluate the writer’s notebooks my students keep. Although we don’t draft in the notebooks, we have kept notes on grammar and craft strategies in them. Hence, I’ve not used writing folders for that kind of thing. Yet I don’t know any writers who keep grammar tips in their writing notebooks. (That’s what the editors are for, right?) I’m adjusting my own notebooks in my classroom, and re-envisioning writing folders for my students. I’m definitely moving grammar notes and tips to the writing folder, leaving the notebook for the writer to practice . . . writing.
Teachers and Notebooks
I believe teachers need to keep a writer’s notebook if they’re to be effective writing teachers. Just as teachers read books and share their lives as readers, we must do the same as writers. It’s essential to understand the stance of a writer.
I’ve kept notebooks for years now — I have them in a box at home. I stopped bringing them to school as often, because I realized that there were things in my personal notebooks that would be inappropriate for my students to read. What if I left my notebook out and a student opened it? I might get fired for those divorce or dating at 35 entries. Seriously, though that has never happened (a student picking up my notebook), it has been on my mind.
I encourage teachers to keep a notebook over the summer, when we may have more time to write. Keep in mind the strategies you’ll want students to try and create samples in your notebook. From this notebook, a teacher could then keep it in his or her classroom and pull from it as needed. I never thought too much about this advice, since I was a habitual notebook keeper and thought this was a ‘compromise’ for teachers who didn’t want to write, but were interested in their students keeping a notebook.
Carl Anderson recently visited my classroom. He nudged my thinking further about teachers’ writing notebooks. He also suggests that teachers create a notebook specifically for teaching writers. Paying attention to strategies I want students to know as well as common writing glitches my students have, I create entries that are about my life and yet can be used as a mentor text during a minilesson or conference. I hadn’t really thought about conferring from my notebook, as I mostly used it in minilessons.
This is what Carl is referring to as strategic conferring — for example, planning a notebook for the purpose of having mentor texts at my finger tips for conferences. It’s made me pay more attention to what my students are and are not doing in their writing. As I anticipate what they need as writers, I work in my notebook to create mentor texts that may help them. It’s a different stance for me — the teacher of writing keeping a notebook instead of a writer keeping a notebook to teach. I’m loving it — rethinking my writer’s notebook has reinvigorated not only my writing, but my conferring as well.