Putting the Exploratory Notebook into Practice

We are excited to have a guest post today from Tara Smith from the Two Writing Teachers blog. She used Ralph Fletcher’s new book, Making Nonfiction from Scratch, to implement exploratory notebooks in her classroom.

notebookIn his wonderful new book, Making Nonfiction From Scratch, Ralph Fletcher tells it like it is for writing teachers (and their students) everywhere:

When it comes to nonfiction, teachers don’t have to work very hard to motivate students…with this genre we start with an intrinsic buy in from students. On the other hand, I see an awful lot of formulaic nonfiction writing in the schools I visit. Nonfiction is the writing genre most typically “done to” students. We channel students into a particular curricular area whether they like it or not. We organize their writing for them, directing them to follow rubrics and use detailed prewriting outlines and graphic organizers. We teach them our system for taking notes and doing research. We tell students, “Your final report must include _____, and _____, and _____.” No wonder students feel confined! No wonder so much of their nonfiction writing lacks energy and voice. Welcome to nonfiction writing: our most pre-packaged genre.


So, over winter break, I took a good long look at my plans for our nonfiction unit, which I was set to launch on our first day back to school. My sixth graders were so excited to be moving on from personal narrative and memoir into the realm of “the real stuff” (as one put it) “the kind of stuff I WANT to be writing about!”. And I wanted to be sure that they stayed excited from launch all the way through time to publish. I wanted our nonfiction unit to rock!

Among Fletcher’s suggestions for key ingredients of “making nonfiction from scratch” was an Exploratory Notebook – a place to gather information, think through ideas, and sketch out writing. I thought back to our many varied attempts to do all of this in many different places – our writer’s notebooks, research folders, “thinking envelopes” – and how nothing had worked quite the way I’d wanted it to. Ralph Fletcher would probably say this was because I had pre-packaged each of these research/gather/write venues, they were “done to” my students rather than “done by” them.

Read the full post on Two Writing Teachers

Add comment January 19th, 2016

Author conversation with Ralph Fletcher

We recently had a chance to sit down with Ralph Fletcher, whose latest book is Making Nonfiction from Scratch. In this clip, Ralph talks about what makes nonfiction inherently creative. Preview Making Nonfiction from Scratch it its entirety online!

Add comment December 10th, 2015

Book chat with Aimee Buckner

In case you missed our live book chat with Aimee Buckner recently, here is your chance to watch it at your own convenience. We just posted the full webinar on our website, along with some additional responses to audience questions that we didn’t have time for during the event.

Follow this link to the Stenhouse site to watch the book chat.

Add comment April 9th, 2014

Infusing wonder into nonfiction reading and writing

Jennifer McDonough is the coauthor with Georgia Heard of A Place for Wonder: Reading and Writing Nonfiction in the Primary Grades. In their book Jennifer and Georgia discuss how to create “a landscape of wonder,” a primary classroom where curiosity, creativity, and exploration are encouraged. Here, Jennifer shares a couple of tips and tricks she uses in her own classroom.

In A Place for Wonder, Georgia and I quote Seymour Simon who says, “I’m more interested in arousing enthusiasm in kids than in teaching the facts.  The facts may change, but that enthusiasm for exploring the world will remain with them the rest of their lives.”  This is the idea behind infusing wonder into our exploration of nonfiction reading and writing.  Writers are curious about the world and hungry for answers.  Writing comes from these curious moments and wonderment about the world.  This is what we want to teach young children before they even pick up a pen to start writing informational books.  Reading nonfiction comes from a hunger to answer questions and learn more.  To celebrate wonder and encourage questions in the classroom primes the pump for great nonfiction writing and reading.  Here are a few ways I get students thinking and wondering in my first grade classroom before we begin a nonfiction unit.

Wonder Boxes

Debbie Miller in, Reading with Meaning:  Teaching Comprehension in the Primary Grades, first introduced me to the idea of wonder boxes.  She encourages her students to write down wonders they have about the world and keep them in a file box to pull out at later times to investigate.  We keep these boxes going all year long and find ways and reasons to pull out the questions and find the answers.

Wonder Wall

In my classroom I have students create a wonder wall where they put up wonders they have and answer each other’s questions.  When a question has been answered by a student or whole class exploration, the student gets to take home their question and answer and put up a new one.

Observation Window

Use bulletin board border to mark off a part of your window so your students can look out and observe the world outside the classroom.  Leave a notebook and some colored pencils for the students to record their thinking and observations as they look outside.  Encourage them to ask questions about what they see and leave them for the next student that comes to the journal to ponder and possibly answer.

Observation Journals

Leave small notebooks next to living things in your classroom for students to observe, write about and leave questions.  I have one in my classroom by our hermit crabs and any other living things that come to live with us for awhile:  butterflies, ladybugs or ants in an anthill.

The Wonder House

My students nicknamed the nonfiction section of our classroom, The Wonder House.  After all, they said, this is where we go to find the answers to questions we have.  They created a sign that says, “Enter Here if you Have Wonders” and we had parents volunteer to come and hang netting around the area to create a cozy area for exploring nonfiction topics.

One Small Square

To encourage descriptive detailed writing, create small frames out of black construction paper and have the students bring them outside to set on the ground.  Have them write only about what they see in their one small square.

Leaving Space in Writing for Wonder

Finally, when writing information books I always make sure to have students leave a chapter open for a wonder about the topic being written about.  After writing everything the student knows, he or she will then explore nonfiction text to find out more about the topic to write in the book.  After all, isn’t this is exactly what writers in the world do?

If you need some more inspiration, take a look at this video created by Joanne Maria Babalis and her colleagues at Bond Lake Public School in Richmond Hill, Ontario, Canada, after using A Place for Wonder in a book study group.

Add comment December 3rd, 2013

Aimee Buckner talks Nonfiction Notebooks

“What are the strategies that teachers and students can use to develop their ideas in informational writing? What are some ways that students can research and not become so overwhelmed that they get lost in their own piece?”

–Aimee Buckner

We recently sat down with Aimee Buckner to talk about her new book, Nonfiction Notebooks. In this short video, Aimee explains how writing notebooks can help students gather relevant information and practice writing in this genre, while directly supporting the Common Core State Standards:

10 comments November 20th, 2013

Preview now: Fact Finders!

Shared think-alouds are a great way to model reading strategies and help students become engaged, purposeful readers. Join Patrick Allen as he demonstrates a shared nonfiction think-aloud focusing on the key strategy of determining importance in his new DVD, Fact Finders!

Patrick’s students learn to talk not only about the text but also about their thinking. In addition to opportunities to “turn and talk” and annotate text, Patrick uses shared think-aloud near the start of his multi-week strategy studies. As you and your staff observe Patrick’s lesson, you’ll see:

  • the language and behaviors that a seasoned reader uses to make sense of a piece of nonfiction text;
  • ways to help students define and refine their purposes for reading, and identify what’s important versus what’s just interesting; and
  • how to incorporate shared think-aloud into your reader’s workshop so that students transfer ideas to their own texts and apply strategies independently.

Fact Finders! has just been released, so watch this preview clip and then order your copy on the Stenhouse website.

Add comment May 7th, 2013

Quick Tip Tuesday: Wonder Centers

Is there place for wonder in your classroom? For this week’s Quick Tip, here is a excerpt from Georgia Heard’s recent book, A Place for Wonder: Reading and Writing Nonfiction in the Primary Grades. First Georgia talks about the importance of having a “place for wonder” in your classroom and then shows how she and coauthor Jennifer McDonough introduced Wonder Centers in Jen’s classroom.

We invite you to stand back and observe your classrooms. Where are the places of wonder and discovery? An observation window? A shelf displaying shells, rocks, and other natural objects? Are there living creatures (including plants) that children care for and observe? What places in the classroom would the children mark a wonder X on? And if we extend our wonder maps beyond the classroom, are there any natural resources near your classroom that the children could visit and explore?

Our children’s lives run the risk of becoming two dimensional in the present day’s technology-driven society. The worlds of Internet and video games are becoming just as substantial to children as their reality. One student in San Diego commented that he liked to play indoors because that’s where all the electrical outlets are (from Richard Louv’s The Last Child in the Woods).

Classrooms can provide alternative environments to lure young children into continuing their passion for learning. Creating a “wonder” classroom environment is the foundation from which deeper and more sustained explorations can take place.

After I gave a workshop on creating a wonder environment, Ms. Buck, a wonderful primary teacher in Canada, wrote to me about setting up a wonder environment in her kindergarten classroom. She sent this letter to the parents explaining and preparing them for the important work the class was embarking on:
Our class is planning to launch an exploration of a new theme—The Wonder World. I am hoping this theme will help my students respond to the natural world with wonderment and awe. We will further extend concepts . . . by gathering data through our senses; we will do sound surveys during outdoor walks; we will look at objects great and small. There will be opportunities for students to wonder, to ask questions, and to pose problems and then we will explore ways to get answers. We will be using our study of the Wonder World as a springboard for math, language, science, art, and music activities.In this chapter, we map out a menu of ideas to create a “wonder world” that will help encourage children’s curiosity and exploration. These ideas can be set up as centers, if you already have the routine of centers established in your classroom, as Jen did; if you don’t have center time established, you can introduce  these ideas during a nonfiction writing study unit. The questions generated from the centers, as well as the group research on a particular question, model the exploration students will do later on as they write nonfi ction. Other teachers have explored wonder centers once a week, and throughout the year, as a way of encouraging curiosity and wonder all year long. We encourage setting up wonder centers early in the school year so that when any natural wonder occurs—the wind sweeps the leaves off the trees, the snow begins to fall, or a bird lands on the windowsill—the children will be ready to write it down!

Wonder Centers and Projects
1. The Wonder Center
2. Wonder of the Week
3. Pondering Time and Whole-Class Shared Research
4. Pet Observation and Wonder Journals
5. The Discovery Table
6. The Observation Window
7. One Small Square
8. A Listening Walk
9. The Wonder Club

The Wonder Center
When my son was younger, he asked many questions whenever we drove in the car together. It was often diffi cult to drive and concentrate on answering the questions at the same time: “Why is the sky blue?” “Where does rain come from?” “What’s in outer space?” As I stopped at intersections or changed lanes on the highway, I tried to explain some of the ways the world worked. I made a promise to myself that I would always do my best to answer each of his questions as thoughtfully as I could. I didn’t want to dampen his enthusiasm for exploring the world. Sometimes he would stump me, and I’d have to say, “You know, I don’t know the answer; let’s look it up when we get home.” Some of his questions were deeply spiritual, which surprised me, and made me really think about what I believed.

All young children have an enthusiasm and curiosity about the world that we can nurture at home and in school. We wanted to make a place in the classroom where children could write down their questions during center time or writing workshop time and throughout the day. Questions that are valued by teachers and are then included in the curriculum.

When the kindergartners arrived one morning, Jen had written “The Wonder Center” in big letters on a bulletin board in the back of the room. She placed several yellow sticky note pads and a handful of black pens in a basket on a nearby shelf. She gathered the children together for morning circle and said, “I’ve been noticing that you’ve been asking me so many questions. I’m amazed at all that you wonder about! Your questions keep growing and growing, and so I’ve decided to set up a center in the classroom where you can write down your questions. I think we’ll call it “the wonder center.”

The kids turned to one another and smiled. Two boys gave each other high fives. Jen continued, “The wonder center will be one of our centers during center time. But you can also use the wonder center anytime during the day. When you think of a question, and you want to write it down to remember it for later, you can write it on one of these sticky notes, and then stick it to the wonder center board. Not only that, every Friday we’re going to have some time to talk about your questions.”

The kids looked at each other wide eyed, with excitement on their faces. Jen said, “When we have center time today, you can also choose the wonder center as a place to go and jot down the questions you have.” That afternoon during center time three boys, Collin, Kyle, and Ryan, stood at the wonder center and wrote their questions on sticky notes. Collin wrote, “I wonder how slugs are made?” Then Kyle wrote, “How do snakes get their venom?” Ryan connected to Kyle’s question and wrote, “How come there are such things as cookie cutter snakes?” “Oh, I have one,” Collin said. “How do snakes shed their skin?” Ryan said, “I’m on my third or fourth.” “This is awesome!” Kyle said.

After they finished writing, they stuck their questions on the white board. When their ten minutes of center time was up, they moved to the next center, and a new group of students reached for pens and sticky notes on which to write their questions.

One week later, the wonder center board was filled with yellow sticky notes. As we read through their questions, we were amazed at their variety and scope. We decided to revise the center and replace the sticky notes with large chart paper to provide more room for questions. Jen also labeled a gift bag—“the wonder bag”—and placed all the children’s sticky note questions into the bag for future discussion.

We encouraged the three boys who were writing about snakes to explore and research their questions. They began their fi rst nonfi ction writing piece using questions generated from the wonder center. Be on the lookout for authentic nonfiction topics that will emerge from the wonder center.

Add comment January 18th, 2011

Quick Tip Tuesday: A climate that promotes inquiry

In Nonfiction Matters, Stephanie Harvey offers teachers the tools to help students explore nonfiction and dig deep to reach a more complete understanding of the real world. In this week’s Quick Tip, Steph shares some ideas on creating a classroom environment that promotes and encourages students’ natural curiosity.

Denver kindergarten teacher Sue Kempton maintains a classroom that looks like the Denver Zoo, complete with a working beehive. The bees fly in and out of a tube through the window to the outdoors, where they collect pollen and bring it back to the hive to produce honey. Sue’s kindergartners keep a daily log of hive activity. Intermediate students who wander in for announcements or buddy readings can hardly drag themselves away.

First-grade teacher Debbie Miller teaches science and social studies through a jobs curriculum: students are assigned real jobs such as geologist, archaeologist, mathematician, historian, reporter, comedian, poet, surveyor, zoologist. They learn to view the world through a different lens and begin to make important new discoveries.

It’s not fair to restrict these wonderful activities to five- and six-year-olds. Adolescents would revel in these explorations. Stimulating classrooms like Debbie’s and Sue’s spark enthusiasm and curiosity at all levels. Engagement follows naturally.

Comfortable classrooms foster inquiry. Teachers need only hearken to the libraries of their youth. Rooms lit by soft lamps, containing overstuffed couches, area rugs, bulging bookshelves, framed pictures, fresh flowers, promote reading, thinking, and discussion. Clusters of small tables lend themselves to the easy exchange of ideas. When kids engage in inquiry, busy conversation is the norm. I search far and wide for inexpensive furnishings to soften the classroom and frequently hit the jackpot at garage sales.

Conveniently placed resources and equipment keep unnecessary teacher interruptions to a minimum. Baskets of nonfiction books placed on each table assure that kids always have something to read; no unnecessary scrambling around in a harried search for text. A relaxed environment eases daily tension and contributes to thorough inquiry.

Don’t Forget the Halls and Walls
Walls can teach. In classrooms that value inquiry, teacher- and student created charts summarizing research reminders and strategy guidelines hang throughout the room. Topics, questions, sign-up sheets, and kids’ work cover the walls. The information is topical and useful. Teachers no longer need worry about coming up with cute bulletin boards.

Halls offer the open space environmentalists dream of. Use the halls to your advantage. Shelley Harwayne considers corridors rich with life an essential ingredient of inquiry-based education. Halls can house student-led classes, club sign-up sheets, announcements, presentations, kids’ work, popular Web sites. Halls come alive when we see the tracks of the students who inhabit them. Hospitals are sterile; schools are not. Let’s not confuse the two.

Classroom Correspondents
Classroom correspondents who keep everyone informed about goings on in the community are central to inquiry-based classrooms. Literary correspondents stay in touch with the bookstores and libraries through newsletters or occasional phone calls and report upcoming author signings and storytelling sessions. Broadcast correspondents follow radio and TV schedules and enter the day and time of important programs on a weekly chart. Film and drama correspondents report on films and theatrical productions of interest. Everyone tells everyone else about good books, magazine articles, films, plays, and TV programs read or seen, either through oral announcements or
written reviews.

Take Note of Real Events
Classrooms engaged in nonfiction inquiry celebrate real events, real issues, real people, and real stories. They invite a veteran in to share experiences on Veterans Day. They study the electoral process during a national election They follow a breaking news story. Replicating real situations fosters inquiry and enhances understanding. To help students get a sense of their place in history, some teachers encourage kids to chronicle public and personal events in a scrapbook or on a time line. Birdie, a seventh grader, highlighted sixteen events, half public and half personal, from her birth in 1983 through the fall of 1994. Taking a scrapbook, she headed to the library and copied old newspaper headlines and magazine covers that marked important public events during her young life, including the space shuttle Challenger disaster, the Gulf War, and the arrival of the Colorado Rockies in baseball-starved Denver. Personal artifacts included her first lost tooth, a blue ribbon for diving, and a picture of her first day of kindergarten. Exploring public events alongside personal milestones helped her understand the relationship between her life and world affairs in the eighties and nineties.

Add comment November 23rd, 2010

Poetry Friday: The Empire State Building

“One genre that is sometimes overlooked for nonfiction, but should definitely not be forgotten, is poetry,” write Lynne Dorfman and Rose Cappelli in their recent book Nonfiction Mentor Texts: Teaching Informational Writing Through Children’s Literature, K-8. Poetry is a “wonderful vehicle to deliver information with a powerful voice,” they argue. One example they cite is J. Patrick Lewis’ collection of Monumental Verses – a book of poems about timeless monuments. This poetry Friday we offer you one of his poems, “Empire State Building.” Enjoy!

Empire State Building
J. Patrick Lewis

I am an American boy, standing up to the world.
I sleep the city sleeps. We dream
     the riveter’s dream, held island-fast.
I wake to taxi alarms.
I am a 102-stop elevator ride to heaven.
I am ten million bricks of unshakable faith.
I capture imagination at its peak.
I hugged King Kong, he hugged me back.
I look down on Broadway for a work of art,
     the Fulton Fish Market for a slice of life,
     United Nations Headquarters for a little peace.
It’s lonely up here without my twin brothers,
     the World Trade Center Towers.
Wait here on my doorstep, Central Park,
     while I look over Harlem.
I am an American boy, face to face with the world.

1 comment October 22nd, 2010

Quick Tip Tuesday: Nudging kids to make a choice

Nonfiction reading, research, and reporting is hard work. For students to maximize their inquiry experience, they should choose a topic they care about, know something about, and wonder about,” writes Stephanie Harvey in her book Nonfiction Matters: Reading, Writing, and Reseach in Grades 3-8. But some students find it difficult to pick a topic or they think that their hobbies and interests are not suitable for school. In this Quick Tip, we get a quick glimpse into a conversation between a student, Thomas, and his teacher, Mary, as they talk about Thomas’ interest in football and how that will make a great topic for his research paper.

Some students struggle with topic selection. On the eve of the topic deadline, Thomas had not come up with a single idea for research. His mother rang Mary first thing in the morning and described a family in turmoil. Thomas had been up all night fraught with anxiety over his eleventh-hour missing topic. His mom’s voice cracked as she wondered how he would ever organize sources, take notes, or write a report if he couldn’t even think of a topic. School was not easy for Thomas. Thomas’s mother believed that independent inquiry demanded too much of him. She suggested that Mary simply assign Thomas a topic so he could get started. Mary felt bad for Thomas and promised to talk with him that morning. The last thing Thomas needed was to be losing sleep.

Before kids entered the room, Mary pulled out Thomas’s wonder book. The twisted spiral wire extended at least six inches beyond the half-torn cover. Writing was conspicuously absent. But precise drawings of NFL team logos covered the lined pages. Mary approached Thomas during writing time and asked how things were going.

“Lousy,” Thomas answered.


“I can’t think of a topic for this research project.”

“What interests you, Thomas?” Mary asked.

“Nothin’,” Thomas answered.

“Tell me about these drawings,” Mary nudged.

“Oh those, those are nothin’,” Thomas said, as he slid his notebook back into his desk.

“It looks like football stuff to me,” Mary commented.

“Yeah, I guess,” Thomas acknowledged.

“Can I see them?”

Thomas reached into his desk and handed the tattered wonder book to Mary.

“Wow, these are great. How many team helmets did you draw in here?” Mary asked.

“All of ’em,” Thomas answered.

“No kidding. Did you copy them from somewhere?”

“No, I know the logo of every team in the NFL,” Thomas said.

“Really! Which is your favorite?”

“The Broncos, of course.”

“Thomas, these are really terrific drawings,” Mary told him. She continued to draw Thomas out on the subject of football. Thomas not only knew the logos, but also the standings, schedules, and player statistics of most teams in the league. Thomas was an expert on the NFL and football in general, even though he had begun this conference by saying he had no interests.

When Mary suggested that Thomas write about football in his wonder book and list a few questions he had, he was pleasantly surprised. He didn’t associate football with school. Mary pulled out several beautifully illustrated picture books and wondered whether Thomas might want to write and illustrate a picture book on some aspect of football as his research project. Thomas pulled a Sports Illustrated from his desk. John Elway graced the cover. Mary left Thomas reading about his idol. She hadn’t actually assigned a topic. But she had explored Thomas’s background knowledge and nudged him in a direction that matched his interests.

Thomas’s struggle was far from over, of course. Reading, note taking, and writing challenged him throughout his inquiry. But finding an engaging topic represents a major step forward for kids like Thomas. Independent inquiry allows for the widest range of exploration. Choosing freely from an unlimited spectrum of topics gives kids the best shot at finding a subject that appeals to them.

Young writers need to know that selecting a topic is challenging. When I meet professional writers, I often ask them what they find most difficult about writing. The answer is almost always the same: thinking of something to write about. My students are relieved when I share this with them, because they too struggle to come up with ideas to write about.

Add comment August 24th, 2010

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