#3TT Workshop: Assessing Writer’s Notebooks and Sparking Engagement

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.

Make sure to visit the first installment of our conversation, and please join the conversation in the comments!

As the year progresses, how do you keep students engaged in their writer’s notebooks?  How do you help students to recognize their inherent value?

Screen Shot 2015-12-01 at 3.34.55 PMAmy:  Well, we do use our notebooks every day. Of course, this helps with keeping students invested in their use. This year I wish I had taken more time to have students decorate their notebooks, really take ownership of them. I love how Jackie setup collage stations and took the time for this with her students. Students care more about their notebooks when they have taken the time to personalize them.

My students also come to value their notebooks more during our conferences. For example, today I met with a student to talk about her reading life. I asked her how she felt she was progressing. She told me that she was stumped because “I keep abandoning books. I’ve started 10 this year, but I’ve only completed four.” I asked to see her Currently Reading List in her writer’s notebook. She did not have it updated. First, we took some time to write all her titles down, and then we marked ‘finished’ or ‘abandoned’ like I’d hoped she would do all along (my fault for not checking notebooks with more fidelity.) Once we had a complete list of the books this students had tried, I was able to talk her through why she might have needed to let them go. We zeroed in on the narrators. The books she has finished have unique narrators:  a dog, a voice in verse, an 11 year old boy, an autistic 16-year-old. We then talked about the narrators of the other books — all third person omniscient, which she did not know, so I taught her the term in a mini mini-lesson. Together we learned that when the narrator “goes off into some other character’s part of the story, I get confused.” This was a powerful learning experience for my student, and a great reminder to me. There is power in the IMG_0163writer’s notebook. It can be our primary teaching resource.

Jackie: Sustaining interest in writer’s notebooks throughout the year can be a difficult task; students must be invested in and committed to their notebooks to understand their full value.  I believe sustained investment comes with consistent use.  As Amy mentioned, the collages at the beginning of the year helped students connect to their notebooks.  Even now I have students adding to their collages or entirely recovering their notebooks.  

Using notebooks everyday also reinforces the value of these tools.  I talk about them constantly, conduct notebook checks throughout the year, and ask to see them during reading conferences.  I display example pages in a giant writer’s notebook, and I typically ask students to write their drafts by hand.

How (and how often) do you assess writer’s notebooks?

Jackie: Writer’s Notebooks provide a safe space for play within the writing process.  To become confident and secure writers, students must have a low stakes area to both visualize and enjoy the process of putting pencil to paper.  That being said, notebooks are also valuable because they provide me with insight into a student’s thought process, progress, and personal exploration.  


Students’ notebook pages are displayed in a giant writer’s notebook.

My grading process is relatively simple.  I keep a list of notebook contents on a board in my classroom, adding to the board every day.  Notebook checks take place every two-to-three weeks depend on the class content and units.  A week before we have a notebook check, I provide students with a checklist, with which they self-grade and return upon notebook submission.  On notebook check day, students use mini-sticky notes to mark two pages, one page they want me to respond to, and another page they want to display for their peers in our class’ giant writer’s notebook.  This process reinforces that students are writing for a wider audience than myself, while also embracing the messiness and imperfection that comes with writing.  I value the scribbled drafts full of doodles for the sole reason that they model the realness of writing, the fact that these pieces, while fun and entertaining still require molding and modeling to become a polished final piece.

While my grading is low stakes, I file writer’s notebooks under summative assessments for a few different reasons: it helps me assess student’s executive functioning skills, which is particularly important for my freshmen and struggling learners.  In my school, it allows students to “retake” the assessment, requiring them to revisit, revise, and refashion.  The more they return to the contents of their notebook and develop its structure, the more invested they become in the final product.  Finally, notebooks align with the common core, which is essential in my competency-based grading school.  They help “students develop and strengthen writing” (W.9-10.5), “write routinely over extended…and shorter time frames” (W.9-10.10), and “determine the meaning of words and phrases [in their dictionary section]” (RL.9-10.4).

Amy:  I’ve tried scoring the whole of the notebook. I even have a glue in for how I would if I did. I am not disciplined enough. I find short chunks much easier to manage, and I can zip around the room and look at everyone’s personal dictionary to see if it is up-to-date in the first 15 minutes of class while students are reading. Or I can collect notebooks and look at just the skill we practiced that day. These always equate to completion grades. Sometimes I’ll pass out sticky notes and ask students to mark whatever writing they’d like me to read. I learn important information about my students this way. When students share their hearts with me, I value it in a way that is so much more important than a grade. How would I ever grade that anyway?

How do you keep your students excited about their writer’s notebooks throughout the year?  How do you assess notebooks without stifling creativity?



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13 thoughts on “#3TT Workshop: Assessing Writer’s Notebooks and Sparking Engagement

  1. kboogi25 May 9, 2018 at 10:24 am Reply

    I’d also love to create a simple writer’s notebook rubric, for use by unit. Any good ideas?


  2. kboogi25 May 9, 2018 at 10:22 am Reply

    That giant writers notebook is a great idea. Any tips on how to simply create it?


  3. […] 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 want to share mine […]


  4. […] we’ve written often about the value of writer’s notebooks–how to set them up and establish them as part of a learning routine–I’ve been thinking lately about the importance of sharing notebooks, creating a […]


  5. shanakarnes December 9, 2015 at 2:59 pm Reply

    Jackie, I love the “giant class writer’s notebook!” What a cool way to build a continually growing anthology of student work that is just for fun!!


  6. […] Three Teachers Talk has an excellent post about assessing writer’s notebooks. […]


  7. Rexie Lanier December 3, 2015 at 11:13 am Reply

    Thank you so much for the great ideas! I can always implement something new from this blog. I am going to try the writer’s wall idea and copy pages from writer’s notebooks. I have had my students lift a line from their writer’s notebook and display on an index card hanging in their classroom. Thanks for always inspiring me with your great posts.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jackiecatcher December 3, 2015 at 7:08 pm Reply

      Thanks for the support Rexie! I love the bundling process you use. The day after I post new writer’s notebook pages, kids instantly run up to the notebook to see what their peers have written. I highly suggest it! Students should be able to see every step of the process.


  8. Rexie Lanier December 3, 2015 at 11:05 am Reply

    I teach 150 7th graders and have group conferences around common skills that I am noticing that they need support with. For example when working on descriptive words and phrases I used exit tickets to sort who I would meet with for small group conferences and additional instruction. Noticing a pattern saves me time and makes instruction more powerful in a small group. One day I was able to conference/meet with 16 students during one 45 minute class period.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Amy December 3, 2015 at 2:37 pm Reply

      I love this, Rexie! I do something similar — Bundle Conferences save a ton of time. Meet with students who share similar struggles or need similar instruction. Sometimes after I meet with them they keep talking with each other, which just strengthens the learning point.

      Thanks for the comment!


  9. shannon December 3, 2015 at 9:59 am Reply


    I cannot express how excited I am about these posts! As I sit at my desk preparing for next semester, establishing a notebook routine has become my top priority. I think that consistent grading and use is a must. If students don’t use their notebooks regularly, they loose value. What I love most about your blogs is they fact that you present differing perspectives and options which I find extremely helpful. I would be interested to hear more about your conferencing system. My main question is how to schedule conferences with large classes (36 students) in order to meet with each student regularly. What are the other students doing? How often do you conference? Do you tend to focus more on reading or writing? Any ideas you can share would be invaluable! Thanks you so much for your daily inspiration!!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Amy December 3, 2015 at 2:36 pm Reply

      Thanks for the comment, Shannon. Best wishes as you embrace writer’s notebooks next semester! You ask great questions about conferring. We will write about that soon, promise.

      Liked by 1 person

      • jackiecatcher December 3, 2015 at 7:07 pm Reply

        Yes, Amy is the conferring queen–she truly knows her stuff, so it’ll be fun to get that discussion up and running! I’m still working on conferring in my own classroom. Thanks for the awesome ideas Shannon.

        Liked by 2 people

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