Friday, September 18, 2015

Unpacking Writer's Notebooks

     I love the start of a new year and thinking about the essential tools in the classroom — the ones I need to use as well as my students. One of my true pleasures in teaching writing is introducing students to the writer’s notebook. Whether I am working with third graders or pre-service teachers, there is no better tool for students.

     What better way is there to validate their lives or say to them, “What you observe and notice matters.”

     So what are these notebooks or daybooks or lifebooks?  I think of them as vessels or containers of sorts — places for you and your students to quietly record their musings, thoughts, and delicious words.  Ralph Fletcher says, “Notebooks give children the lens to appreciate the richness that already exists in their lives.”   The notebook validates one’s existence.

     It’s true that if we are not careful, they can become just another place for writing, like journal recordings or endless lists, or the rehashing of another day — or they can become a new way of looking at the writing process.  

     These notebooks become an invitation to generate thoughts, drafts, observations and ramblings on millions of topics.  They help you as well as your students to live more wide awake lives.  They help you to become careful observers.  Because truthfully, you don’t want to walk around unwritten.

     Truly, they ask you to pay attention to the small moments. These small moments can become kernels for larger pieces of writing — they are the seedlings waiting to develop.

     So how do you start this?  In the beginning of the year, I hand out small notebooks and explain to my students how they need to have one with them at all times.  

     I model my own notebook and show how it is filled with all kinds of entries. When I am reading aloud to my students, I keep it nearby, eager to jot down great lines, modeling its importance. Notebooks need to leave the walls of your classroom and they should be accessible all day long. These treasure chests become invaluable during our writing workshop because students might be gathering around a new topic or have chosen a seed idea that we’re ready to develop further.  We mine our notebooks, noticing patterns and themes.  We find topics we truly care about; we find the surprising piece of writing that is inside of us.  

     In reality, when we prompt our students to write we will not get a glimpse of their best work.  But when students use their writer’s notebook as a repository of their musings and thoughts, profound writing jumps off the page.

     When I was conferring with Alexander one day, I noticed that he had a small entry in his notebook, written in tiny handwriting saying, “3/5 of a person.”  We talked about this entry and he said that he jotted it down as I was reading Nettie’s Trip South, a story of slavery in the south by Ann Turner.  Alexander was anxious to understand its reference and began reading on his own, trying hard to understand this tumultuous period in history and ended up writing the following pieces.

Freedom Path
a creepin’ and a crawlin’
rite on the freedom path
through straw and grass and thick and thin
not all of these many refugees
got safe and sound up North
and some of these poor people
never made it to the freedom path

Black Slave Lullaby
moses is a comin’
every whip cracked, she’s a creepin’
she’s a crawlin’ and a creepin’
through that forest every sec’
she’s made her way to freedom
and so will we rite soon
cause moses is a comin’.

     Clearly, he would never have written these poems if he hadn’t stop to take a note, forcing him to do more thinking, reading and exploring.

     When Katelyn was conferring, she showed me an entry in her notebook about icicles and winter words. She was delighted by her observation since it was nearly springtime and wanted to be sure not to forget her delight in noticing the wintery accessories on the building.  She wrote an amazing piece directly related to her observations.

It was Winter in July
It was winter in July,
The trees were like snowcones
Filled to the top.
A big nippy white blanket
Of fluff,
A true smell
Of winter’s wonders.
Frosty snow drizzles
Slushing bites of frost
Sprouting like flowers
In the spring.
The brisk breath of snow
It was winter all right
It was winter in July.

     I remember taking the train to New York one day and overhearing someone’s conversation.  A man was talking aloud to another remarking, “I’m all about powdered sugar.”  Wow!  What a line! I quickly pulled out my notebook and jotted down that phrase.  Months later when my Mom fell ill, I was writing a note to family and friends. I looked through my notebook, came across that line and knew I had to incorporate it somehow as I described Mom and how baking was such an important part of her life.

     Writer’s notebooks.  They matter.  They beg us to take the time and notice our rich, wondrous lives.  They speak to our individuality.  The kernels tucked inside lead to surprising, powerful writing.

– Bev