Category Archives: Try It Tuesday

Try It Tuesday: Notebook Write-Arounds

Tom Romano calls writer’s notebooks “playgrounds, workshops, repositories” in Write What Matters.  As such, the writer’s notebook employed in a workshop classroom is much more than a place to store drafts, brainstorm ideas, or take notes.  It becomes a sacred space that is personal, meaningful, and enjoyable.  To fill it with writing and wordplay that spurs a love of language, I like to write around various artifacts in my notebooks, and urge my students to do so too.


I cheated and wrote around a poem and a picture here

Write around a poem – In this lesson, inspired by advice from Penny Kittle (she told me her writing got more beautiful when she read poems more intentionally), I ask students to cut out a poem and glue it into their notebooks.  This activity can change with its purpose–sometimes students can respond to the language in a poem, sometimes they can write from a line, and sometimes they can work to analyze the text for literary devices and figurative elements.  The act, though, of gluing a poem into our notebooks keeps beautiful language at the center of our work, made visible when we flip backwards through our pages.

Write around a picture – Like Amy, I like to see my students’ notebooks full of pictures.  I ask students to bring in or print photos of any sort, then write descriptions, craft imagined dialogue, or narrate a memory the photo evokes.  In addition to being personal and meaningful, these quickwrite activities often serve as jumping off points for longer pieces of writing.


Lisa sent me flowers, and I wrote around her note

Write around a note – My friends and I are big note-writers, and I’ve always had the compulsion to write “thank you for your thank you note” notes (maybe that’s just me, but Lisa is a dork so she might do it too!).  Because that’s socially awkward, I like to glue notes into my notebook and respond to them that way.  I also have students glue in their Bless, Press, Address responses from other students, or my own written feedback (like Amy’s Silent Sticky Notes), and respond to it in their notebooks.

Write around an object – Whenever I unearth something meaningful from the depths of my glove box, I like to glue it into my notebook and write around it.  I have Starbucks


I’ve memorized my library card number, so I no longer need to carry it in my wallet…

sleeves, library cards, ticket stubs, and even an old necklace glued into my notebook, surrounded by writing.  In this era of electronic communication, I think it’s important for students to put physical objects into their notebooks–I still have shoeboxes full of notes from my friends in high school, and I like their tangible power more than just a series of saved text messages.

Write around an idea – A written version of the Four Corners activity, students write down a statement in the center of a page and then exercise some critical thinking around the statement.  The top left corner represents the “strongly agree” perspective, the top right is “agree,” bottom left is “disagree,” and bottom right is “strongly disagree.”  I’ve also experimented with just having students respond to the statement in general, but I like the Four Corners because it forces them to consider multiple perspectives.  Mostly recently, I asked my preservice teachers to respond to the idea that “Teachers are responsible for 100% of their students’ learning” using the Four Corners method–I can’t wait to see their responses when I collect notebooks next week.

What ideas or artifacts might you have your students write around? Please share in the comments!

Try it Tuesday: 3 Easy Ways to Get to Know One Another

“I’m pretty sure my students are going to know I’m a dork,” I said to my husband last weekend, “from day one.” 

I had been working on updating the pictures I include on my “Getting to Know Mrs. Dennis” PowerPoint (dork alert), and noticed how having a child has really brought out the dork I think I once tried to suppress. I’m sure my daughter, now only three, will delight in that fact someday.

I’d be lying to you if I said that I’ve lost my cool over the years. That becoming a mom turned me from Audrey Hepburn into Jill Taylor (90’s sitcom references only serve to solidify my dorkdom).  To be honest, I never really had the cool. I had the kind, the careful, the detail-oriented, the poofy hair, and the braces, but not the cool.

But cool isn’t me. Watching Stranger Things with a bowl of pretzels and a glass of milk is me. Reading The Nightingale at stoplights because I can’t put it down is me. Pretending to be a bear at the zoo to make my kid smile is me.

And this week, at school, I’ve been introducing my students to the real, dorky, punny, excitable, overly-optimistic me, and it’s going really, really well.

As I told one of my classes on our very first day together, “I’m going to push you all year to share yourself with this class, on paper, in discussions, through conferences. We need to build community in here so we all feel safe enough to share things that actually matter to us. And I’d be a hypocrite


Gentetically linked dorks. Poor kid.

if I preached that to you, but didn’t clue you in to the deeply dorkish, flawed, silly, person I am. I’ll be endlessly dedicated and passionate to our growth as readers and writers this year, and I’ll be looking for the same from you. To start, we need to get to know each other. I’m Mrs. Dennis and I promise to be real with you.”

Building community is why I teach. I want my students to feel that self expression can help make them more comfortable in their own lives and thereby help them connect to others, regardless of the differences they once perceived. In building community, it’s so terribly important to be honest (though considerate) and real (though appropriate), that I spend several class periods at the start of the year working to make that possible for my students.

Here are a few of the first day activities that have my students learning about this new community we’ve just created. I tell them on the first day that our class is about the study of what it means to be human, so we start with getting to know the humans around us, as understanding breeds trust and comfort (key components to any successful group, but especially in a workshop classroom).

  • Share Parts of Who You Are: Last week, I introduced myself to students with the PowerPoint linked here. It includes plenty of pictures, a few policies and expectations, and a lot of who I am. I try to incorporate the people I love, the fun I had over the summer, and some of the background that supports the joy I find in the classroom. I encourage students to ask questions, and this year we had a few laughs over the antics of my summer with a precocious three year old. Horribly embarrassing public tantrums are hilarious in the retelling, thankfully.
  • Encourage Students to Start Sharing Who They Are: I also took Amy’s advice and made time for decorating our writer’s notebooks. I shared some of the pictures and song lyrics I used to decorate mine. We discussed the power of making something their own and turning an ordinary notebook into something that they would hopefully look forward to writing in. I took song requests for work time, students laughed about my complete lack of artistic ability, and we had fun. Rigorous, no. Important, yes. But we followed up that activity with a quick write where students chose to respond to either a quote about conformity from Marcus Aurelius or a quote about the origins of cruelty from Lucius Seneca. They supported their viewpoints with an example from something they’ve read and current events. Boom. 
  • Keep Learning and Sharing Well Into the New Year: Over the years, I’ve done countless ‘get to know you’ activities. Three Truths and a Lie. Interview Questionnaires. Find a Friend. Scavenger Hunts (See below. It’s not pretty). This year, I combined a traditional questionnaire, a twist from a colleague, and a plan to use a little time each class period talking with kids about some silly things that make them tick. On day one, I wanted to get students writing. We have only 18 minute class periods that day, so time is precious. I had kids turn in summer work and get down to a quick write in their notebooks and chat with their classmates after drafting. To take attendance, I had students write their first names (as they would like me to call them) and last names on an index card. I collected the cards and then handed them back the next day to test my knowledge of students names. But I wanted more. I now plan to use the cards to learn about my kids and share some fun with them too. I had them flip the cards over and write:
    • Personal anthems (songs that capture your soul)
    • Spirit animal
    • Dream job when you were 5 and today
    • Book that speaks to your heart
    • Extracurricular passions

So far, I’m seeing smiles and enthusiasm, and hearing lots of discussion. Students are already talking about themselves as readers and writers. 

Not always so. In my first year of teaching, a colleague had me take my five classes of freshmen through a textbook scavenger hunt. They sat silently at their desks (model students) and searched their new textbooks for answers to the questions on the worksheet I’d run off for them on “fun” green paper. I’m bored just typing about it.

Thank the heavens and Fitzwilliam Darcy (Pride and Prejudice and Dorks – my forthcoming novel), I’ve grown to trust myself and the value I see in learning about my students and building relationships. The energy it brings to the start of the year has been incredible.




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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