The Teacher’s Writers Notebook

Apr 18, 2012 by

If you are a writing teacher, I highly encourage you to keep a writer’s notebook.  Because I’m not much of a journal writer, keeping a writer’s notebook used to intimidate me, and it seemed like “one more thing” to put on my to-do list.  Then a few summers ago, I participated in the Oakland Writing Project which is affiliated with the National Writing Project.  For four weeks I had to live like a writer.  I had to keep a writer’s notebook, write some drafts, share them with my colleagues in a peer response group, and even publish a couple of pieces.  Guess what I found out?  I really enjoyed keeping a writer’s notebook and “living a writerly life” (as Ralph Fletcher would word it).  I vowed to continue adding to my notebook.  You can probably guess what happened—life got in the way and I only periodically added entries—mostly when I needed them to teach a lesson. 

Of course, I felt guilty about that because I know it is a valuable tool that I can use to model writing for my students during mini-lessons and individual conferences.  But then I felt better when I read some words by Katie Wood Ray in What You Know by Heart. She writes about the importance of teachers modeling our own writing for students.  On pages 4-5 she writes,

“…why do we need to write…?  Because we breathe when we’re in classrooms.  We breathe, in and out,and some of us trip over things and have funny hair and great shoes and horrible jokes we can’t remember the punch line to and husbands and wives and pets and because some of us are scared of spiders.  You see, we are live people students can see doing what they are trying to do.  And we don’t have to do it well!  There’s no pressure for us to do it well because Cynthia Rylant and Gary Paulsen can do it well.  We just have to do it and breathe at the same time.”

She continues,

Now, as teachers of writing, we don’t need to write a lot or even very often.  We can’t; we’re very busy.  In my past, I have tended to do a lot of writing in the summers, sometimes in summer institutes.  Once I’ve done it, I have that experience in my “teaching file” for the rest of my career.  I still frequently use writing from notebooks and drafts that I did ten years ago, and all along the way since, to develop curriculum for minilessons and conferences.  We don’t have to have incredibly active writing lives to understand the process of writing as insiders, but we do need to have tried, at least once, to do the things we are asking our students to do.”

Well, that made me feel much better.  I share these excerpts with teachers at my writing seminars all the time to help them feel better, too.  After I read that, I re-committed myself to my writer’s notebook (with very realistic expectations this time).  First, I decorated my writer’s notebook.  This is totally optional, but I felt differently carrying it around after I decorated it.  Students noticed and commented on it.

my writer's notebook1 my writer's notebook2

Next, I started adding little pieces that I could use to demonstrate a craft or a generating strategy for my students.  I have found it so helpful to have my notebook at my fingertips while conferring with a student.  Sometimes I use it to demonstrate some new writing right in front of the writer. (I have learned that it is more powerful to demonstrate using my own writing or a mentor text rather than the student’s writing.  In this way, the student has to make the transfer and try to apply the strategy in his own work and becomes a more independent writer). At other times, I don’t demonstrate, but instead show an example from my writing by turning to a completed page in my notebook.  Two powerful ways to use my writer’s notebook!

But here is my new dilemma:  my writer’s notebook has no organization to it.  When I use it to confer with a student, yes, I do have the notebook at my fingertips, but can I easily find what I need?  Not at all!

I’ve been thinking about what to do about this, and I may have a solution.  Tune in tomorrow and I will share my plans with you!

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