Quick Tip Tuesday: What should notebooks look like?

April 28th, 2009

In Notebook Know-How, Aimee Buckner provides the tools teachers need to make writer’s notebooks an integral part of their writing programs. She shares tips on how to launch notebooks and how to help students who are stuck in a writing rut. In this week’s Quick Tip, Aimee focuses on what the notebooks look like in her classrom and what to consider when choosing notebooks.

Also take a look at Aimee’s new book, Notebooks Connections: Strategies for the Reader’s Notebooks

The physical form of the notebook can reflect the teacher’s preference and is generally inconsequential to the concept. Many people—writers and students alike—have preferences. I prefer that students use composition notebooks because the pages are sewn into the notebook so that none can be ripped out. A close friend of mine, who teaches high school, prefers a binder for her students’ writer’s notebooks. She likes kids to be able to add pages when going back to work on a certain entry or to put handouts and class notes near the entries where they’ll have the greatest impact. Still other excellent writing teachers prefer that their students write on notebook paper and store everything in a folder.

The type of notebook a teacher chooses needs to reflect his or her teaching and organization style. Even though the notebooks will ultimately be in the hands of the writer, the teacher needs to make it work with curriculum, classroom space, and time.

When planning for notebooks, there are several things for teachers to consider. I use a series of questions and responses to help me think through the feasibility of the notebook my class will use.

Is it easily portable to take home and bring back to school?
I find that it’s important for students to take the notebook with them. I like a lightweight and easy-to-carry notebook.
Does it provide a standard-sized page?
I didn’t always think this was important until students argued that some kids don’t really write as much because their pages are smaller or thinner. To keep the peace, I require a standard-sized notebook.
Is it easily replaceable when it becomes filled?
Expect notebooks to be filled. Even if it’s a binder, you will want it replaced. There’s something wonderful about a brand-new notebook. Make sure they’re easily accessible.
Is it a size that will be easy for you to collect and read?
You will need to read these and even assess them. Keep in mind how you will collect and store them if necessary.
Do you have a plan for where students will put their class notes and/or handouts?
Some teachers like to put notes and handouts near certain existing entries. I have kids keep notes in the back of their notebook for easy reference. Handouts are cut down and glued into the notebook.
Will students be able to personalize the notebook?
It may not seem important, but it is. Students should have the ability to make this notebook their own—inside and out. Composition notebooks now have different-style covers and are easily covered with stickers and/or construction paper.
Is it important to take pages in and out of the notebook? Does your notebook support this?
If this is important to you, you may want to use a binder or folder. I don’t want pages coming in or out, so I stick with a bound notebook.
Is the notebook easy for all students to manage?
All students are expected to keep a notebook. If there are special needs to consider, be sure to do so. One year I needed to arrange for a student to keep his notebook on a computer.

I’m careful to keep the organization of the notebooks flexible, without a lot of superficial or arbitrary sections. This was difficult for me at first because it seemed it would be easier to use a sectioned, three-subject notebook with different parts for different assignments. I have gone so far as to use sticky tabs and paper clips to mark off pages. But I have found over the years that the notebook rarely fills up if you do this. Some sections have paper left over, and kids are using one notebook for entries, another for lists, another for favorite words, and so on. It gets very confusing.

In addition, it is important for students to fill a notebook—really fill it. As overwhelming as the panic of what to write about can be when flipping through the blank pages of a new notebook, the sense of achievement is equally strong when students flip through a notebook that is filled with their words on every page from beginning to end. Finishing a writer’s notebook, truly finishing it, is as important to a writer as finishing a book is to a reader.

I am a person who likes routine—many writers are. I like having a routine with the notebooks, so that students can readily transfer learning from the notebooks to their drafts in progress. With this in mind, I ask the students to have two starting points. Students write from the front of the notebook toward the back with their daily, self-selected topics. Here students date each page and title entries when appropriate. Students can also try the different strategies presented in class—interwoven with their own ways of keeping a notebook. Some students glue a table of contents in the inside cover, listing the strategies, their dates and the page numbers where they can be found. Others simply keep a list of the strategies we study on the inside cover. Still others just keep a hodgepodge in the notebook, with no indications of where things are located.

The second starting point is from the back of the notebook, working toward the front. Here we keep notes from lessons, such as revision strategies, editing strategies, and grammar notes. Examples of good writing from other texts can be found in both sections, depending on the purpose—if we’re looking at craft it may go in the mix with our regular entries; if it is a piece that emphasizes a strategy we’re focusing on, such as paragraph structure, it would go in the back. When working from the back of the notebook on editing and revision strategies:
1. Students take notes on the mini-lesson;
2. Students try the revision or editing strategy in their notebooks with a common text;
3. Students go back to their writing to use the strategy; and
4. Students refer to their notebooks as a resource when trying the new strategy.

This gives me not only a structure for teaching strategies and using the notebook, but also a reference when conferring with students. If they say they’re having trouble with a lead, I can ask, Did you review our notes on grabber leads? Did you review the “Try Ten” strategy? Did you use it for this piece? Or, if a student is struggling with endings and I haven’t focused my mini-lessons on that yet, I can still refer to what I know is in the notebook: Let’s review the “Try Ten” strategy we used for leads. Do you think you can use this strategy to help with your ending? No matter where we are in the writing process, our notebooks are not far away. And the front and back starting points make use of every available page by the time the notebook is filled. Other than introducing these two methods, I leave the organization up to the kids. Sometimes, students will use Post-it notes to make tabs for lists, poetry, special stories, and so on. Other times they’ll use paper clips to save pages for certain ideas or strategies. Some students do not use any other form of organization beyond my front/back method. When it comes to notebooks, less is more, so keep it simple and focus on what’s important—students are writing. Students in my fourth-grade classroom will usually fill two notebooks a year.

One question teachers ask is, “How will students know where to find things in their notebooks?” A binder or a three-section notebook would indeed make it easier to find things. However, as students keep notebooks and work with them on a regular basis, they become familiar with them. Much like rereading your favorite novel until you know about where a certain event is in the text, students have a general knowledge of where things are. Students reread, which every good writer should do, and fi nd what they need as they need it. It hasn’t been a big deal. Kids who want things more organized can use paper clips, sticky notes, or a table of contents and index techniques. But overall our notebooks are a reflection of our lives—there is enough organization to keep them functional and enough flexibility to keep them interesting.

Entry Filed under: Quick Tip Tuesday,Writing

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