#3TT Workshop: The Ins and Outs of Writer’s Notebooks

Three educators. Three states. Three demographics. All practicing Readers and Writers Workshop in our Secondary Classrooms. Read more about us here.

We are the Modern PLC, and every Wednesday, we share our behind-the-scenes collaboration as we talk about the most urgent moving parts of our classroom pedagogy.

Recently Three Teachers Talk received an inquiry regarding our use of Writer’s Notebooks.  Naturally, this question got us talking–what do notebooks look like between New Hampshire and Texas, Freshman English and AP Language and Composition?

We all agree that writer’s notebooks are one of the essential tools to a successful classroom, but integrating and sustaining them can prove challenging.  This week’s conversation between Jackie and Amy seeks to explore some of the ins and outs of writer’s notebooks by discussing what we, as teachers, consciously choose to include in our students’ notebooks and what we decide to leave out.

Please join the conversation in the comments and check back for the second installment tomorrow!

Why are writer’s notebooks important in your classroom?  What value do they hold?

IMG_1485Jackie: Notebooks are the lifeblood of my writing curriculum.  My students need a safe space to practice low stakes writing.  Too often they’ve been forced to write formally, slogging through rough and final drafts of disconnected, five-paragraph essays.  The formality of it all removes the artistry, pleasure, and process of writing.  

I enjoy the controlled messiness of notebooks and the voices I rarely heard as a first year teacher.  Honestly, writing brings me closer to my students.  It connects my classes, makes students recognize their peers are indeed human, and at the end of the day, gives many of my kids, as Ralph Fletcher says, “A room of [their] own.”

Amy:  I am all about organization. Often, my students have a difficult time keeping up with everything they need to practice, track, monitor, and evaluate their reading and writing lives. Our writer’s notebooks make all of this easier. The value of a daily writer’s notebook rises with each use of it.

How do you integrate writer’s notebooks into your classroom? How are they set up?

Jackie: We start using our Writer’s Notebooks the second day of school, when I help students establish the various sections in their composition books.  

My sections, which are all pulled from Linda Rief’s Inside the Writer’s-Reader’s Notebook, include the following: 1. Books Read (a log of the books they read throughout the year), 2. Inspiration Page (where students keep story ideas, photos, images, etc), 3. Graffiti Wall (For beautifully crafted sentences from their independent reading or inspiring quotes), 4. Notes and Entries (the bulk of the notebook), 5. Wondrous Words Dictionary (where they keep their vocabulary from their independent reading), and 6. Books to Read (a list of books they want to read).  

Our notebooks are our single most important tool within the classroom, which means that this is where we store all of our quick writes, writing, rough drafts, notes, minilessons, mentor texts, and thinking.  

When we aren’t writing in class, students independently write three pages outside of class per week.  This independent writing allows them to develop quick writes, explore various writing prompts, or jot down potential ideas.  As author Janet Burroway says, “The best place for permission is a private place, and for that reason a writer’s journal is an essential, likely to be the source of originality, ideas, experimentation, and growth.”  The act of writing helps students not only develop their voice, but it also serves as a safe space to explore various writing styles.

Screen Shot 2015-12-01 at 3.33.19 PM (1)Amy:  My students and I set up notebooks with similarities to Jackie’s. Ours look like this:  We’ve got our main reading goal written right smack dab on the front page. Then we’ve got the “currently reading list” on the next. We’ve got a “to read next list” on the very back page, so as I do book talks — or students talk about books with each other, they are able to keep a running list of titles that sound interesting. (This is a time saver in helping students who just finished a book find another one to read relatively quickly.) In the very middle of our notebooks, we’ve got our “personal dictionaries.” These are the words students find and define from their independent reading (five words a week). We also have a poetry section where we respond to poetry, or glue in poems and write around them. There’s a “write my life” section where students write an entry a week about anything they please. And we have a “reader’s response” section that we write our thinking about our books, articles, etc — pretty much any other kind of text other than poems.

I did something new this year and created notebook glue-ins. I thought this would be helpful to remind students of what went where and the expectations for learning and growth I have for each section. Honestly, I do a poor job of checking notebooks with any kind of regularity — although I do check parts of them at least every other week — so I don’t know if the glue-ins are valuable yet or not.

Jackie: I agree about the glue-ins, Amy.  While I haven’t gone that far, I have students trim down mentor examples, checklists, and typed rough drafts and tape them into their notebooks.  It keeps them better organized and makes it easy to return to previous craft lessons.

Why do you value writer’s notebooks, and how do you integrate them into your classrooms?  What successes have you had with your notebooks this year? What challenges might you still face?  


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16 thoughts on “#3TT Workshop: The Ins and Outs of Writer’s Notebooks

  1. […] How do we help our students work through their perfectionism and just start writing? Enter the Writer’s Notebook. […]


  2. […] How do we help our students work through their perfectionism and just start writing? Enter the Writer’s Notebook. […]


  3. […] ideas for students to develop the habits of a writer, even down to the practical tools — both “analog” and digital — for doing so. And we all have our own. One of my most prolific students keeps […]


  4. […] notebook is almost full, and I get to start a new one.  I love setting up my notebook, personalizing it, giving it value.  But I love, nearly as much, to look back at a full notebook–and today I […]


  5. Play + Rigor = ? | Hart Literacy February 5, 2016 at 6:23 am Reply

    […] more is also something I have began to explore in my own classroom.   For instance, the student writer’s notebook provides a place for the collection of ideas and the practice of writing.  In the notebook […]


  6. shanakarnes December 9, 2015 at 2:41 pm Reply

    Jackie, I love that you call writer’s notebooks the most important tool in your classroom. They definitely are–although they might be tied with your fabulous classroom library.

    Amy, I love the order in which you have your students create their sections. We created similar sections, plus a few, with the result being that our sections are kind of small–and that’s a BIG problem, because now we’re running out of space! When we return from the break, we’re going to put together new notebooks because ours are all full, and I really like the way you’ve got yours set up–I think I’ll shoot for something a little broader, like that.

    Thanks, ladies, for these insights!!!!


  7. […] sure to visit the first installment of our conversation, and please join the conversation in the […]


  8. Karen Cribby December 2, 2015 at 8:14 pm Reply

    I love this blog! I have students use Googledocs for all their writing, and those documents become a digital notebook. I only ask that they keep everything they write. I also ask them to label documents that they wish to keep private. It’s fun to see how students make these documents more personalized with fonts, colors, images, videos, graphs,etc. One major benefit of the virtual space is that it is so much easier for them to keep their “gold” ideas accessible for revision and publication. Also, it provides them with a place they can access from virtually anywhere, share with whomever, and have forever.


    • Amy December 2, 2015 at 9:35 pm Reply

      Sounds like your digital writer’s notebook is just as powerful and important as our paper ones. My students and I do a lot with Google docs, but I haven’t thought to take our notebooks online. Might be a good option for some of my students.

      Thanks for reading and for the comment, Karen. We appreciate you!


  9. jhuber2015 December 2, 2015 at 1:04 pm Reply

    I would love to implement writer’s notebooks very soon into my classes. I tried last year, and it just didn’t work. I was trying to do mini grammar lessons and everyone hated it. Do you all have any advice on how to start to implement this in the classroom. I teach English I, II and IV.


    • Amy December 2, 2015 at 9:33 pm Reply

      Thanks for the question. The best advice I can give might sound mean, but for heaven’s sake don’t try to get student buy-in into notebooks with grammar lessons! That’s just prep for an uphill battle. You’ve got to give students a fun and/or provocative reason to want to write. Watch a spoken-word poem by Shane Koyzcan like “To this Day” and ask students to respond to it. Then another day, read a short article or passage that lights some fire to student thinking. The more you give them interesting and engaging things to write about, the more students will take advantage of their personal space — those writer’s notebooks — and write. Keep moving forward. You can do it! We’ll help any way we can.

      Thanks for the comment!

      Liked by 1 person

    • shanakarnes December 9, 2015 at 2:43 pm Reply

      I have to agree with Amy! There are so many meaningful, amazing things that can go on in writer’s notebooks. Jackie has written a few articles on our blog about ways to spice up and personalize the inside and outside of writer’s notebooks, and Amy’s suggestions are great as far as jumping off of spoken word poems, provocative articles, or even reader’s response.

      Perhaps think about what YOU keep in a notebook–I jot ideas, lists, reminders, inspirations, quotes, words. Have your students fill their notebooks with what is real and true, too.


  10. Nancy Peterson December 2, 2015 at 11:04 am Reply

    I am a teacher educator, and teach elementary language arts methods. I believe a lot of kids who “hate writing” by the time they get to high school and college (MY students, now) feel that way because of poor writing instruction, or irregular writing “assignments” and tasks — or no instruction at all — in elementary school. I have my teacher-wannabes keep their own writer’s notebook, and turn in their written discussions (reflections, I guess) about how they can or cannot envision using writer’s notebooks in their future classrooms. I get a mixed bag of outcomes… but the two or three students who DO get it (two or three every semester), and the one or two former-students-now-teaching who take the time to write to me and thank me for the writer’s notebook experience, make it worthwhile to me to keep doing it and keep improving on my presentation of it. I will definitely be following this whole discussion! Thanks for addressing it!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Amy December 2, 2015 at 9:30 pm Reply

      Nancy, I just need you to know how much it means that you are teaching your “wannabes” to value writer’s notebooks. Those 2-3 per semester will be the ones who change and challenge the lives of many of their students. We need so many more of them! Thank you for the comment — and for all you do!


  11. shannon December 2, 2015 at 10:55 am Reply

    Thank you so much for this inspiring post! I love the sections you use as they allow the students to bring all aspects of the curriculum into one place. I would love to hear more on how you assess the notebooks as I know this is one of my main struggles.


    • jackiecatcher December 2, 2015 at 8:58 pm Reply

      Thanks Shannon! The second part of our discussion, which includes assessments, will be up tomorrow on the blog. You are right that it can be challenging to assess notebooks, and Amy and I both discuss our struggles and some of our solutions as well. Thanks for adding your voice to the conversation–I’d love to hear about some of your successes with notebooks as well!

      Liked by 1 person

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