Writer's Notebooks

If you can think about it, you can talk about it. If you can talk about it, you can write about it - Alan Wright.

“A writer’s notebook is a blank book where a writer can engage in the fun, often messy job of being a writer – practicing, listening,
playing with language, gathering images and insights and ideas. The purpose of such a notebook is to nourish the writer…
such a notebook… is one of the most essential tools of the trade.”

Fletcher and Portalupi, Lessons for the Writer’s Notebook

Decorating and personalising notebooks allows students to feel a sense of ownership. 

There are many ways to decide what to put into your Writer’s Notebook. 

  • List favourite foods, movies, books, places you love.

  • Write the title of a special time in your life.

  • Respond to a poem or story and say how it speaks to you.

  • Jot down memories related to a favourite object.

  • Put in a letter, card or postcard from a special person.

  • Collect strong story leads.

  • Put in tickets from a special event you attended.

  • Make a map of your bedroom, house, neighbourhood.

My personal account with Writer's Notebooks in the classroom - Naomi Wiseman.
I began my first session asking if anyone knew what a writer’s notebook was.  Some students had heard of it but none really knew what they were.  I explained it was a place where writers record their thoughts, ideas and visual stimulus.  I showed students “A Peek Inside my Writer’s Notebook”, a video clip (2009) to explain the concept further.  Students were very intrigued by the idea.  We had a brainstorming session on the types of things you might write in a writer’s notebooks.  Suggestions included: happy memories, lists of things you like, stories of things you have done and poetry.

Students were very excited to get started on their writer’s notebooks.  We began with decorating the front covers.  A variety of craft materials was provided for this task.  We spent a session decorating the notebooks and personalising them.  This is an important part of the writer’s notebook process so that students feel a sense of ownership.  

At the next session students were told they would be able to spend 20 minutes a day working in their writer’s notebooks.  There was a general sense of excitement about this.  Students seemed amazed that they would be able to write whatever they wanted without anybody correcting it.  This was a level of writing freedom that had not been awarded to students before.  It was a powerful feeling to know they would have total control over the notebooks.

I let students work on the writer’s notebooks for 40 minutes a day for the first three days however they students kept asking for more time.  “Can we work on our writer’s notebooks?” became a common question throughout the day.  It was glorious to see the excitement children had; certainly the creativity in our classroom was at an all-time high!  We were off to an amazing start however by day three patterns were beginning to emerge that needed direct teacher intervention.  

I noticed that many students were either just drawing pictures or making lists.  Several students had done nothing but draw pictures – albeit amazing pictures full of detail, however, there was no writing anywhere to be seen and I was concerned these students might be viewing the writer’s notebooks as visual arts diaries!  I had a conversation with them about this and discovered these students loved being able to draw but did not necessarily know what to write. 

•    “I love drawing and we never get to do it”
•    “I thought we could draw”
•    “I have no idea what to write”

Furthermore, eight or so students were just making lists in their writer’s notebooks.  Bucket lists, lists of friends, favourite foods, things they want, and things they like to do were among the many lists these students had written.  I did not mind some lists but a notebook full of lists was not the idea behind the notebooks.  I wanted students to engage in the joy of being a writer – practising, listening, playing with language, gathering images, insights, ideas and memories.  For me, the purpose behind writer’s notebooks is to nourish and enrich the writer, providing them with a tool to note down thoughts, feelings and observations about their world. 

Moreover, I see writer’s notebooks as “low stakes” writing where students are not assessed on ability but rather encouraged to place value on thought, expression and learning.  The most important thing for me is that it is not a highly structured document. Students need to have freedom with their notebooks and not be told entirely what to do.  I wanted students to exercise freedom over their writing and not worry about writing what they think I want to see.  For me, it is about students getting their ideas down on paper, and then interacting with those ideas, changing them or revising them in their own self editing journey.  

Conversations with the list writers in the class revealed two main points: they liked writing lists and they could not think of anything else to write.  In fact, when I said I would like to see something else instead of lists, two students did not write anything for the entire session.  I was reminded of the famous quote from Italian novelist Alberto Moravia (1960): “When I sit at my table to write, I never know what it’s going to be until it’s under way.  I trust in inspiration, which, sometimes comes and sometimes doesn’t.  But I don’t sit back waiting for it. I work every day”. 

I thought about giving these students a topic to write about but it really went against everything I thought about writer’s notebooks.  I really wanted to increase students’ comfort with expressing their own ideas and empowering their opinions.  Moravia (1960) also said “You can’t think on purpose about somebody or something.  Either you think about them naturally or you don’t think at all”.  Thus, I really did not see how providing the topic would achieve everything I was working so hard to put in place.  I consulted with an online teaching group I belonged to.  I asked if other teachers allow total freedom over what goes into writer’s notebooks or if they provide a topic or a prompt of some sort.  Responses were varied:

•    I use them as diaries and students just write a recount every day
•    I set the topic because who knows what they would write
•    I can’t give up the control completely
•    Writing without structure seems like a waste of a lesson

At this point, I was really alarmed at how teachers’ were viewing writer’s notebook sessions. My confusion was further compounded by professional discussion about writer’s notebooks with middle and senior school teachers at my own school.  Some teachers had not started them, some were setting the topic and some were suggesting using them as an assessment/moderation tool.  For me it was abundantly clear: further research was needed.

Professional reading revealed experts agree that writer’s notebooks are a place to dream, wonder and explore Fletcher (2001) claims:

“Writers are like people, except for one important difference.  Other people have daily thoughts and feelings, notice this sky or that smell, but they don’t do much about it.  Not writers.  Writers react.  And writers need a place to record those reactions.  That’s what a writer’s notebook is for.  It gives you a place to write down what makes you angry or sad or amazed, to write down what you noticed and don’t want to forget”

On his blog, Living Life Twice, Alan Wright (2016) offers several snippets of wisdom:

•    We won’t get honest writing and true voice from writers who are denied CHOICE in topic and genre.
•    The teaching of writing should focus on the HOW of writing rather than the WHAT.
•    Look at your classroom, empty of children, and ask yourself, “What are the supports in this classroom for reading and writing?” Where have I honoured special writing? Where is the support for inexperienced writers? 
•    Conducting writing workshop mini lessons that focus on grammar, and spelling and employ quality literature are important.  It builds contextual knowledge. 

I was really happy to read all of this because it mirrored my own beliefs about teaching writing. In the end, I decided to provide a visual, concrete or written prompt that students could use if they wanted to.  It would be their choice whether they used the prompt or not.  I would also model the writing process in my own writer’s notebook.  This was a very positive step.  Students loved seeing what I wrote, the images I included and the pictures I drew. They saw, through fresh eyes, that memories were sometimes sad, that words could be beautiful, and that writing could be a salve for the soul.  I absolutely love to write, and through my demonstration of this love, my students started to love writing too.  My plan from the beginning had been to let the students write in their notebooks for 30 minutes a day during our literacy block and a structured writing session at a later time during the day where I would explicitly teach how to write.  It was refreshing to see just how well this worked.