While 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 community space for writing, and keeping the writing process transparent. Similar to how revision is a daily part of workshop, peer feedback is too. It’s key that we know how to open our notebooks to other eyes so that our writing can grow its best thanks to many brains. This mini-lesson focuses on a low-risk intro to an open notebook and its role as a workshop norm.
Objective: Using the language of the Depth of Knowledge levels, make predictions about a character’s actions and interpret their actions thus far; create a response to a peer’s questions and inferences.
Lesson: I love to introduce students to each other’s notebooks through a shared bit of reading. Early in the year, we’d just finished reading a selection from Fahrenheit 451 about halfway through the novel, and were all intrigued by what in the world was going on with the variety of characters. What was Guy’s wife doing with herself all day? Was the fire chief good or evil? Would Guy become a reader? Would the mechanical hound eat everyone alive? There were more questions than answers (as is the norm in workshop, I feel), so we turned to our notebooks.
“Today, we’re going to write a letter to a character we’re fairly interested in. Maybe you find Guy indecisive and aggravating. Maybe you think Clarice is a great role model. Maybe you think Ray Bradbury himself is a genius for predicting so many of today’s technological innovations. Whoever you’d like to write to, ask them all the burning questions you have and don’t worry about the answers!” I turn to model on the board, writing to the main character’s wife.
“Be as real as you want–I’m going to write to Millie, who lives in this trancelike state all the time, obsessed with TV and media. She drives me nuts! I’m going to really hit her with some hard questions. But know that we’re going to share our letters, so don’t get too crazy.”
We’ll take 6-7 minutes to write our initial letters, and I circulate the room as kids work to select and address a character.
“Okay, time up. Sign your letter, and then I want you to pass your notebook to the person to the left of you. Whoever gets your notebook is going to write you back–but here’s the catch. They have to pretend to be the character you addressed. So if you wrote to Millie, like I did, then whoever gets your notebook will pretend to be Millie and try to answer all of your questions.”
We take a few minutes to read letters, giggle, ponder a response, and then write. After about 5 minutes of responding, I ask students to close their in-character letters, then return the notebooks to their owners. When kids get their notebooks back, the volume in the classroom inevitably increases–everyone loves seeing someone else’s words in their notebook, and there are questions about handwriting and the veracity of a response and shouts of laughter at someone’s humor.
“Okay, take a few minutes to read your responses, then summarize both letters with your table. As a group, talk about all the new insights you reached about these characters.” The classroom gets loud as everyone shares at small tables.
Follow-Up: Once small group sharing concludes, I ask for a few volunteers to share exemplars and we discuss those characters in depth as a class. I love this lesson because it gets students to deeply analyze characters, as well as creates a norm for notebooks as a space for shared writing. It’s a lengthy lesson–usually consuming the quickwrite and mini-lesson portions of my class–but one that’s worth repeating frequently to get students doing deep analysis and writing to one another in a no-risk way, which lays the groundwork for more vulnerable sharing later.
As we move further into the novel, I’ll ask students to revisit these letters to see if their predictions came true or their questions proved insightful. Further, when I collect notebooks, I can check for deep understanding of the text with these letters.
How do you use notebooks to create a shared learning space or blend reading and writing instruction?