Try It Tuesday: Red Thread Notebooks

img_3173-1So much of a workshop philosophy centers on the assumption that reading and writing are forever intertwined.  Vocabulary, grammar, poetry–they’re all pieces of the puzzle that make up literacy and a passion for words, too.  It was with this in mind that I created Red Thread Notebooks.

The idea came from two places–one was Penny Kittle’s “big idea books” (found on page 8-9 of those handouts), which are reading response notebooks  centered around themes in literature.  The other was Tom Romano‘s “red thread” assignment, in which teachers had to write about which parts of our teaching philosophy would run through all of our teaching, like a red thread.


This student booktalks The Selection in the “STRUGGLE” notebook.

So, when composition notebooks are just a nickel in the summer, I buy 60 of them each year.  My students and I begin the year by brainstorming themes and topics that are important to us–love, cell phones, faith, music, family, video games, death, high school, forgiveness, four wheelers.  We label our notebooks and use them all year long.

There are a variety of ways I invite students to write in these notebooks:

  • Vocabulary practice: list related words, synonyms, word associations, etc. similar to the notebook title
  • Skill practice: write dialogue, revise sentence structure, practice figurative language, craft descriptive writing, about the notebook’s title
  • Book talks: write about how the book you’re currently reading might add to a conversation about the notebook’s title
  • Grammar instruction: revise a sentence, imitate a paragraph, tinker with style, while writing about the notebook title
  • Free writing: write your thoughts and musings on the notebook title
  • Poetry: find an existing poem, craft your own poem, or create a found poem about the notebook’s title

Hailey and Ryan practice dialogue in the “VIDEO GAMES” notebook after I teach a mini-lesson on its conventions.

Because these are shared notebooks, I ask students to refrain from using profanity in them or writing about any of their peers.  I don’t require names, but many students like to sign their writing.  Those are the only rules.

Once the notebooks have begun to fill up, students can refer to them to find book recommendations, writing topic ideas, or vocabulary words to add to their personal dictionaries.  They can also look for examples of skills practice, craft studies, or grammar lessons that we’ve done for additional guidance.  One year students even selected multigenre topics based on our red thread notebooks.

These notebooks are a lovely way to make permanent a yearlong conversation about literacy.  The topics change every year–Michael Jackson had his own notebook my first year of teaching, and this year Lebron James had one–but the opportunities to write, reflect, and make connections remain the same.

Do you think you’ll try Red Thread Notebooks next year?  Do you do something similar?  Please share in the comments!


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11 thoughts on “Try It Tuesday: Red Thread Notebooks

  1. […] across class periods, and even between our two classes.  In order to do this, we are going to take Shana’s Red Thread Notebooks, and take them to FlipGrid and possible Canvas discussion boards.  I hope to have different boards […]


  2. Start with a Question | November 29, 2016 at 7:40 am Reply

    […] we’ve known this for a while, and it just took some time for me to find the red thread of questions running through our […]


  3. 9 Books to Hook Your Holdouts | September 23, 2016 at 6:42 am Reply

    […] power of social capital, harnessing tools like speed dating with books, book passes, or writings in Red Thread Notebooks, to get my students recommending books to one another.  If I couldn’t hook my holdouts, […]


  4. Amy June 21, 2016 at 10:06 am Reply

    You do a lot of activities within these notebooks that I’d never thought of before, Shana. Most of what you write here, my students just do in their own writer’s notebooks, but I see the value of the shared and potentially anonymous experience. You’ve given me something to think about.

    What I’ve got now are about 40 notebooks with various topics related to the themes students may find in the books they are reading. (Pretty much like PK uses her big idea notebooks.) But on the front page I glued in some reminders about the signposts in Notice and Note by Beers and Probst. For students who struggle thinking through theme, which is pretty much every kid I teach, this little cheat sheet helps students write more about their books that just bland and vague summaries. Also, what I like about using the same notebooks year after year until the pages run out is that students have other student mentors to mirror their work. Before we write, I ask students to read a few entries in the notebook they’ve chosen. Then I ask “How do you think these students did in regard to writing specifically about theme?” Many times this practice serves as a jump start to more purposeful writing about our books.


    • shanakarnes June 22, 2016 at 5:55 am Reply

      I love the idea of gluing things to the front of these notebooks–I’ve seen the Shelfie Talk girls post something similar, I think. And it’s a great activity to have kids read and reflect on former entries before writing their own!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Leigh Anne June 21, 2016 at 9:37 am Reply

    Thank you for writing this post. I did not use the notebooks this year like I had hoped, but I learned a lot about what I need to change for this year. I like the idea of students coming up with the topics or themes. I think I will add that this year. My notebooks will carry on from year to year, but having student input each year is a great idea. I am sure there are many big ideas that I have not thought of simply because I am not a middle school student! 🙂


    • shanakarnes June 22, 2016 at 5:56 am Reply

      Exactly! Sometimes we forget how OLD we are compared to our students–even my high school seniors!!! 🙂


  6. paola ruocco June 21, 2016 at 9:35 am Reply

    After spending the past few years on Chromebooks I find myself needed the pen and the paper. I am going to try this next year with my 9th graders. I need to reflect on the ‘red thread’ as well. Thank you!


  7. cmadeleine0816 June 21, 2016 at 7:37 am Reply

    I tried these big idea notebooks a few times this year. There was not as much as enthusiasm for them as I had hoped for. The students were accepting and polite and did it (I think) because I told them to. Maybe I just need to have them write in the big idea notebooks more often. Well learn from the first time and there’s always next year! 🙂


    • shanakarnes June 22, 2016 at 5:54 am Reply

      I think you’re right that frequency would help! I find it also helps to get kids looking in the notebooks right after a peer writes in them, and even writing back–a little encouraged engagement, like the notebook pass mini-lesson I wrote about.

      Liked by 1 person

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