Teresa wrote: “I have a few questions about how your students setup their writing notebooks. What are the sections in the notebook, and how many pages do you have them section off for each? Also, does one composition book usually last all year, or do they have to get another one at semester?”
I met Teresa at a workshop training I conducted this summer. She’s getting ready for her school year to start, and I am glad she sparked my thinking about how I will have my students set up their notebooks this year. This is it:
First of all, and you probably already know this: it’s hugely important to have students personalize their notebooks. So during that first week of school, my kids will be using scrapbook paper, wrapping paper, and whatever to make their notebooks into something that represents their life or their personality in some way.
I’m thinking of having students email me three photos from their phones, and I’ll get those printed (since I doubt many would do that on their own), and they can use those photos to decorate inside and outside the covers of their notebooks. It’s also a way for me to build a contact list of all my students. Doubling up on purpose there.
Last year I skipped this important step of personalization, and it was a mistake. Students must take some time to make the writer’s notebook their own — it can make all the difference as to the care they take regarding ideas and writing they put into that notebook.
Now, to get to your question –the notebook set up: For years I’ve made it complicated — so this year I am simplifying. Thanks to some discussion I’ve had with Shana about our writer’s notebooks, I finally have a plan for this year.
Since the focus of my instruction is to advance all readers and writers, I need to make sure my students know that their writers’ notebooks will be the tool we use to measure their movement. So on the very first page, I ask students to write big and bold at the top: My Reading Goal for my Junior Year. Then I ask them to draw a square in the center about the size of a standard sticky note.
“Write your goal in the center,” I tell them, “How many books will you read this year?”
Most students write a goal of 4, 5, or 6. They don’t think in big book numbers yet — they are used to reading (sometimes) the assigned texts in their English classes. They don’t know about reading volume or choice or the engaging titles in my classroom library — yet.
I model and write my reading goal in the center of my square on the first page of my notebook: 37. My students gasp.
Then, I show them the list I’ve kept of the books I read this summer — and the stack of books I pull from under the table. “I read all of these just this summer,” I say and watch their eyes grow real wide.
“My goal for you is that you will read many more books than you think is possible this year. Let’s set those goals a little higher.”
Sometimes during the same class period, sometimes a day or two later, we read our choice books for ten minutes and then calculate our reading rate. (# of pages read in 10 minutes times six equals how many pages you can read in an hour for that book. Multiply that number by three (the amount of reading I expect my students to do each week) and that equals your individual reading goal for the week) We draw little charts of the Reading Rate formula at the bottom of our goal page right there in the front of our writer’s notebooks.
After we calculate reading rates, we often have to return to goal setting. Students realize that if they plan to meet the expectations I have for them, they will read many more than the four-book-goal they originally set for themselves. This discussion often leads into important discussions about reading volume and how it leads to fluency, vocabulary development, more background knowledge on a variety of topics, and improved writing skills. This is where I start the mantra that I repeat over and over throughout the year:
The only way to become a better reader is to read.
Next, in our writer’s notebooks we move into our plan as to how we will reach our reading goal. First, we have to have a plan. Readers have a plan. They listen in on conversations about books. They become familiar with book titles. They come to know topics and genres they like to explore. A big part of helping students come to love reading is helping them identify themselves as readers. So many of my students do not know how to do that.
An easy way to start identifying as a reader is to walk the walk of one. We make a plan, and our plan looks like a “What am I going to read next? List.”
We make this list on the back of our goals sheet. This is where we write down the titles and the authors of books we learn about through book talks, talking with peers, exploring the bookshelves, etc — all books we think we might like to read throughout the year.
This list serves as an accountability piece. If students’ lists grow, I have one way to measure their involvement in our reading community.
I like the idea of having students include genre and start/finish or abandoned dates. I can learn more about a reader at a glance.
We also need a “What am I Currently Reading List.” We keep this list on the next page — right across from our TRN (to read next) list. This way students see how to transfer a “hope to read” into a “now I’m reading.”
Students record the title of the book, the author, the genre, the date they started the book, and the date they finished it or abandoned it. If they abandoned the book, which is absolutely fine — there are too many awesome books to suffer through too many we do not enjoy — I want short notes about why the book is being abandoned. I model statements that may work here. “It was boring” is not one of them.
“The narrator annoyed me because he seemed like a whiner,” or “I thought this book would be an engaging story, but it’s really a non-fiction book about information I don’t really care about” are both appropriate “I-am-abandoning-this-book notes.”
This list serves as an accountability piece. As students lists grow, I can see at a glance the titles and genres they are reading. I can see the start and finish dates to gage if their reading rate goals match with the dates recorded on this list. I can see where I might need to confer with a specific student about abandoning book after book after book — just from a scan of their CRL (currently reading list)
We need a space in our notebook for Response. We skip a page after our CRL and label this section of the notebook for what it is. This is where we will write our thinking. We will respond to a variety of texts: videos, news reports, poems, articles, stories, etc.
This is where we will deposit our initial reaction to and thinking about provocative things. This is a place for our quickwrites, our thinking on the page. We need a lot of space here, so in a composition notebook of 100 pages, we will reserve at least 20 for this section. (And we may need another notebook all together in the second semester.)
This serves as an accountability piece: are students engaged in the writer’s community? Are they giving a ‘best effort’ at capturing their thinking on the page? Are they showing revision moves in their quickwrites? Are they playing with language like I’ve suggested as they develop their thinking and writing abilities?
Now, to really keep the set-up of the writer’s notebook simple, we just need three more sections: reading, vocabulary, and writing.
Reading. In this section, we will record notes from reading mini-lessons, academic words
Low-stakes student writing about her reading life. We can learn a lot about a student’s reading and writing this way.
that live in those lessons (and highlight them), tips on reading strategies, and our writing about our reading that we will complete on occasion.
This serves as an accountability piece: Are students engaged in the reading community? Are they doing their part to advance their reading abilities? Are they competently writing about their reading?
Personal Dictionary. I used to give lists of vocab words for kids to student and then take a quiz over. Little authentic learning took place around those word lists. A much more authentic and useful way for students to learn vocabulary is for them to generate their own lists. Ask them what they do when they encounter words they do not know as they read. They’ll tell you: They skip them. No more.
We capture words we do not know in our choice reading books, and we record them in our own personal dictionaries. I ask students to record five words a week. They list the date of the week, then the title of their book (even if it’s the same book a few weeks in a row). Then they make a list of the five words they found in their reading that week, define them in context of how the author uses the word, and write down the sentence in which the word is used. We do this week after week, collecting words throughout the school year.
This serves an accountability piece: If students are not reading, they will not have any words to record. If students are not reading a complex enough book for them, they will not have any words to record. I can help students determine if they are reading a book suitable for their comprehension abilities if I take frequent looks at their personal dictionaries.
What started as a brainstorming activity to think about topics, lead to opportunities for discussion with this student I would not have had otherwise. Students reveal their lives to us in low-stakes writer’s notebook writing.
Writing. This is consistently the greatest chunk of our writer’s notebook. In the writing section, we craft a variety of writing territories. We take notes on writerly moves that we learn in mini-lessons and from mentor texts. We practice imitating the craft of our favorite writers. We take notes on grammar and mechanics. We practice sentence structures and the moves of writers we study as a class and in small groups. We build a tool set here of craft moves we can experiment with in our own writing. And we brainstorm and draft in this section of our notebooks.
This serves as an accountability piece: Are students engaged in the writing process? Are they giving their ‘best effort’ attempts to create a toolbox of tools to use in their writing? Are they understanding the writing mini-lessons and practicing the application of those skills? In their drafts, is their thinking evident? Do they have strong ideas that will carry a piece before they every work on revision and craft?
And that’s it. Our writer’s notebooks are set up — with sections labeled and homemade sticky-note tabs to separate each section. These notebooks become gold. They are precious to the learning that takes place in my workshop classroom. Not only do students have one central place to keep notes and ideas. They have a personal place to practice their craft and write.
The writer’s notebook– and all these accountability pieces– mean relatively easy, though sometimes time-consuming, formative assessment for me: I can choose to check the whole of student notebooks say every three weeks, or I can choose to check a section (I usually choose this option.) Either works to see if students are engaged in the workshop classroom and advancing readers and writers, which is my ultimate goal for all students all year long.
See more on writer’s notebooks by searching the TTT categories.
Please share your ideas for the set up for writer’s notebooks. I’d love to know if you think I’m missing something important that will further advance my students’ learning. And I wrote this post without having access of photos of each step. I hope the description will be enough.