More importantly, since switching from journals to writer's notebooks, my teaching skills have improved. When you design a lesson with a writer's notebook element strategically placed to assist with students' pre-writing, you create a better lesson. I know for a fact that I don't ever include enough time for pre-writing, and my lessons that I've created since switching do such a better job at laying a foundation for ideas to grow and or writing skills to blossom. I used to rush through pre-writing; now, it's a purposely slow process that allows for me to strategically teach other writing skills while our ideas are still taking shape for our bigger paper assignments.
The overwhelming majority of my students now respect their writer's notebooks enough to hold on to them tightly. Will they keep them forever? I doubt it, but they report to me years later that they still have them. That is definitely cool, in my opinion. I certainly wish I'd kept my journals from middle school.
We read Julius Caesar that year (still one of my favorite plays of all time, by the way!), and even back than I found it to be a wonderful, character-driven drama; I mostly loved the character of Cassius, and I re-read his dialogue carefully, trying to understand his rhetorical strategies as he convinced Brutus to kill his friend--Caesar--for the good of the government. As we got deeper into the play, I wanted to write about Cassius and Brutus during those 10-20 minutes we were given for our journals, but I couldn't; instead, I was forced to write to our teacher's prompts, which sounded something like --"Do you believe in prophecy? Why or why not? If so, what convinced you? If not, what would change your mind?" See, my tenth grade teacher wanted us to focus in on the famous quotes from the play, like "Beware the Ides of March," which explains the type of journal prompts he was giving us. My teacher wanted us to write quietly, then he wanted to share all of his own personal stories about why he kind of believed in prophecy. I had no problem discussing his area of interest from the play--prophecy--, but years later I can't help but think that we could have had some much richer whole-class, socratic seminars--or heck, even just informal discussions--if we had a choice to a) respond to the teacher's prompt, or to b) explore a different literature-based idea that we could bring to the table based on what we were finding interesting in the literature. How hard would giving us a choice have been for him? What always struck me as the most interesting thing about that teacher's Julius Caesar unit was that everyone in my class was assigned the exact same essay topic as our summative assessment to the unit; it was something like, "How do the dreams of men and the idea of prophecy shape our thinking about the future?" I wrote a lackluster essay, I'm sure, because I didn't care about that topic; now, had he allowed me to write about Cassius and his persuasive skills, I would have given him a killer essay. I truly would have.
When I became a teacher many years later, I did what a lot of new teachers do; I emulated the bad practices of my own past teachers...even the practices that I hated as a student. For five or six years, especially when we were reading literature, I forced my kids to write in journals using my prompts, not allowing them to discover their own prompts. In 1996, I began working on my Master's Degree, and that was the year I enrolled in a Summer Teaching Institute sponsored by the greatest organization for improving teaching practices: the National Writing Project. My local chapter--the Northern Nevada Writing Project--had me research and create a 90-minute presentation that I was required to deliver to fellow professionals for the purpose of trying to help them see why they might change a current classroom practice. I researched better ways to maintain a classroom "journal program, and I happily discovered there were new schools of thought about using writer's notebooks instead of journals. How I wished that my tenth grade teacher had known about this similar-yet-different learning tool.
Whether I am teaching response to literature or specific writing skills that we will incorporate into a paper during a future writer's workshop day, Writer's Notebooks and have become a foundational base for everything I do when I teach Common Core- and other standards-inspired skills. My students (who, like me back in the tenth grade, used to drop their "journals" straight into the trash can as soon as the semester officially ended) now treasure their writer's notebooks. I keep a plastic crate wherein my students can store their writer's notebook between classes over night, but most want to take them home so they can either continue working on a writing idea they started in class, or they just don't feel comfortable having their cherished notebook out of their sight. I often present professional development sessions on writer's notebooks throughout my district and state, and should I ask my students if I can borrow their notebooks to share at my teacher workshops, well, you should hear them make me swear that nothing will happen to their notebooks while they are in my personal care. Does every child on my roster love their notebooks to this degree? No, of course not, because that will never happen, but 90% of my students think the time we spend working in their writer's notebooks is one of the best parts of their school day. Kindly check out the Pinterest Boards I link to below if you want to see the energy my students put in to their writer's notebooks for me.
True story...tenth grade made me hate journals! Daily, I was forced to maintain a journal in my sophomore English class. I learned to despise that spiral notebook because keeping it seemed so very pointless and very messy to me. You see, it wasn't my journal; it was more my teacher's than mine. On certain days of the week, our teacher would give us a literature-specific writing prompt, and we quietly wrote for 10-20 minutes, pretending we cared about the teacher's prompt about what we were reading. After quietly writing, I don't remember ever talking--as a class or in small groups--about what we had written to those prompts; instead, we were "blessed" to hear a lecture about what our long-winded instructor would have written as his response to his own prompt (though he never did actually write--he took roll and graded papers while we wrote quietly in our journals). Basically he assigned us a specific prompt, quietly had us write to that prompt while he took care of class business, then--without asking for our input--told us what his thinking based on the prompt he'd provided was. His "journal program" was busy work. Like many traditional teachers, his idea of writing and literature instruction was lecture-driven, not student-centered.
Welcome to this page: This particular resource page at my website freely shares not only where my deep-rooted belief in this simple tool--a Writer's Notebook--came from, but it also shares some of my best techniques and lessons for inspiring creative and original thinking from my student writers between the covers of their writer's notebooks.
Each student will maintain a writer's notebook for my class. Every day, we will write in it. Whether it takes its shape inside a composition book, a spiral notebook, or something leather-bound and fancier, when students enter my class, the first tool that finds their desktops is their writer's notebooks. I have baskets where students can safely store them after class, or they can choose to keep them with them, which many of my students do. The worst thing that can happen in my classroom is to lose one's writer's notebook, because that's where all of our thinking and pre-writing is stored, and to lose those thoughts and ideas will mean that student cannot truly participate when we work on our writing during our class workshops on writing. Our notebooks hold all our best potential writing topics.
Right from the start each school year, we will establish an important routine in my Language Arts class. The first ten minutes of class every day begins with what we call --or SWT. It's sacred because it's guaranteed--even when there's a substitute teacher for the day--and it's sacred because it's quiet and we take it very seriously. My biggest belief about teaching students to be better writers is that you all have to write every day, and SWT is our opportunity to develop that daily practice. Ten minutes may not sound like much time at all, but that becomes almost an hour of new writing per week per student. How often do musicians and athletes practice before playing for real in a concert or game? Certainly more often than we practice in writing class, and I do everything possible to guarantee you writing practice. I want my students well-practiced when they sit down to write a real paper, which we'll do three or four times a semester.
What you write about during those ten minutes of SWT is completely up to you. I have found when my students write about self-selected topics that they actually care about, they tend to practice better writing strategies and try to put their better skills to work for them. Even though the idea of quietly writing for ten uninterrupted minutes may feel foreign for a while, most of my students quickly learn to strategize for this: some start lists of future topics, some begin a "novel" they want to work on, and some write about something they already know a little about but in a new and unique way. My students must come to class with interesting ideas to, or they won't maximize the writer's notebook's benefits.
I currently have five writer's notebooks and am working on a sixth. One of my notebooks is particularly special to me, and this Pinterest Board shows my efforts.