Notebook Time: What It Is & Why We Do It

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Rebekah and I often often tweet ideas for notebook time, and recently many of you have been asking us to explain it and show how it fits into the workshop.

Put simply, notebook time is an opportunity for students to play in their notebooks with different ideas, information, and genres. In our classrooms, notebook time occurs at the beginning of class as a prelude to the minilesson and writing/conferring that will happen later. It usually lasts between 4 and 6 minutes, leaving 5-15 minutes for the writing lesson and 20+ minutes for writing and conferring in our 46 minute block.

Notebook Time Invitations

We learned about notebook time from Penny Kittle at the Central Virginia Writing Project last November. Penny talked about using notebook time to help kids think and write from information. For example, she brings in the Harper’s Index and asks students to choose one statistic and write from it. “If you bring in really interesting information,” she said, “kids want to write from it.”

After Penny planted this seed, we brainstormed all the other kinds of information we might bring to students at the beginning of class to inspire thinking and writing. We call these Notebook Time Invitations.

Sentence Study – Invite students to mimic a well crafted sentence found in your own reading or class texts.

Adaptable Poems – Invite students to mimic the structure of a poem or to use the first line as a starting point.

Raw Data – Invite students to examine raw data/statistics, using the following guiding questions: What do you see/not see? What does it say/not say? What kinds of writing might bubble up from this data?

Quickwrite Inspiration – Invite students to explore the answer to a question or prompt.

Spoken Word – Invite students to watch a spoken word artist perform a poem and mimic the structure of the poem or use the first line as a starting point.

Notebook Seeds – Invite students to “go shopping” in their own notebooks for ideas/seeds. (Kittle, CVWP PD, November 2013)

Our old post Sentence Study with Anna Quindlen will give you a good sense of how to conduct notebook time in the early days until students are able to work independently with little introduction or instruction.

Selecting Invitations for Notebook Time

With so many options for notebook time, how do we select invitations? Below I’ve outlined several possibilities that have worked for us in the past.

Possibility: Choose invitations that correspond to the current unit of study with the thought that students might be able to generate work during this time that could feed their current writing.

Possibility: In the last week or so of a study, give students a sneak preview of the next unit of study by choosing notebook time invitations that correspond to that genre or technique.

Possibility: The themes of notebook time do not have to correspond with your current unit of study at all. Mix and match types and genres to remind students that writers play inside and outside of their work all the time.

Possibility: If your students are engaged in back-up work, notebook time might be an opportunity to brainstorm ideas for their writing “side projects.”

Possibility: Invite students to share their own ideas for notebook time. Pass around a monthly calendar and have students sign-up for a day. Students could email you their NBTI the day/night before.

Possibility: Tie notebook time to instruction by inviting students to reread and revise for an extra two minutes. Establish the previous day’s lesson as the “revision focus.”

Does Notebook Time Really Work?

In my experience, I can point to notebook time as the sole factor in my students’ increasing appetites for writerly play and risk-taking. And the invitations work so well because they are just that: invitations. We invite students to experiment. “See what comes up in the next four minutes,” we say. We invite them to share an idea, a line, the whole thing at the end of the four minutes. (Sometimes they beg for additional minutes). We invite them to write without evaluation. (We don’t grade NBTI). We simply invite them to “keep their hands moving for four minutes.” The stakes are low. The sense of possibility is high.

It’s rare that we catch a student just sitting there, wasting away this time. But if we do–and it’s not a pattern–we allow it. Notebook time is an invitation to write, and sometimes to write, we have to pause, pens perched above the notebook, eyes staring into the abyss of the white page…and just think.

Below you’ll find one week’s worth of notebook time invitations! Please leave a comment below or tweet us @allisonmarchett and @rebekahodell1 to share students’ responses or your experience with notebook time this week!

Notebook Time: Week at a Glance

Monday – Sentence Study: “I didn’t want” from The Fault in Our Stars

Tuesday – Raw Data: A Brief History of Cool

Wednesday – Adaptable Poem: “Work Boots: Still Life”

Thursday – Quickwrite Inspiration: Tell me about your mother’s hands. Go.

Friday – Spoken Word: “Spelling Father”

Rebekah and I have collected all of our favorite NBTIs in our Mentor Text Dropbox. Click on Notebook Time, and search through the different categories for inspiration! Please shoot us an email if you have a NBTI to share, and we’ll gladly add it to our collection.



Using Technology for Mentor Text Hunting

We spend a lot of time on this blog talking about all of wonderful things mentor texts can do for writers of all ages and abilities. If you haven’t noticed, we’re mentor text obsessed.

 But,  in the interest of full disclosure, here is undoubtedly the worst aspect of using mentor texts in my classroom: it can take a lot of time.

 In my early days of conscientious writing instruction, I would often look for mentor texts for my students by staring at my bookshelves, randomly choosing books that I remember liking, and flipping through them until I found a passage that might work. Spoiler alert: it didn’t. More often than not, what I got was a passable text that sort of did the job. My approach was lame. The texts were lame. My lessons lacked spark. At best, students didn’t care about mentor texts. At worst, they hated them.

 That was years ago. The blogosphere boom and rampant presence of good writing on the internet has made mentor texts far more available than ever before. And still, until early 2014, my process for finding mentor texts had been largely unchanged. Now, instead of standing in front of a bookshelf, I would sit in front of my computer screen, pull up a website I liked, and randomly search, finally landing on a text that was okay-enough to work.

 Two innovations have completely changed the way I find mentor texts. What used to be drudgery is now a hunt that is fun — something I actually enjoy and look forward to. Continue reading

Teaching High Schoolers How to Read Like Writers with Cynthia Rylant’s When I Was Young in the Mountains

Fact: high schoolers love storytime. They love sitting cross-legged on a patch of carpet as the teacher reads a story from a chair, fanning open the pages of the book.


When I told them we were having storytime, my ninth graders appeared confused at first, exchanging dubious glances around the room.

“Like in elementary school when the teacher read aloud?” someone asked.

They gathered around me on the carpet in front of the white board, fidgety at first. I held up the cover of the book. “When I Was Young In the Mountains by Cynthia Rylant. Does anyone want to make a prediction? What do you think this story will be about?” I summoned the calm reading voice of my mother, an amazing first-grade teacher and storybook reader, and we began.


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What a High School Writing Teacher Can Learn from Preschool Writer’s Workshop

I teach big kids and always have. High schoolers. But since writing instruction is my great teaching passion — and since summer provides few outlets for actual interaction with students — my almost-three-year-old daughter became my student as I subjected her to a summer of preschool writing workshop.

How does this endeavor equal summer fun and relaxation? Well, let’s be honest — it was mostly a convenient excuse for me to spend some time studying writing workshop with our very youngest writers, something I know absolutely nothing about. But Allison and I borrow and adapt techniques from elementary workshops in our high school workshops all the time — I figured, why not extend that into preschool? What gems might I find?

Also: it was just a fun experiment for mom.


I did a bit of preliminary research on the Internet to try to find an answer to my central question: what do you do with a toddler writer. Every source I found redirected me to a single book, so I digitally scurried to Amazon and ordered a copy of Teaching, Drawing, Writing: Lessons for Our Youngest Writers, the bible of primary writing workshop. While most of the lessons and techniques outlined in this book were a bit advanced for Georgia, it was an absolutely fascinating read and got us started with doodling, captioning, and dictating.

As we worked, I wondered which elements of a pre-writing writing workshop, if any, could be useful in a high school workshop. I took away three big ideas to try with my classes this year:

Make writer’s workshop more like play

With my daughter, writing workshop meant stickers, a pretty notebook, and special markers. We put these items in a writing workshop box, and only when we were doing workshop could she use them. She begged me for writing workshop time every day. 

This was hugely incentivizing for her , and, when I thought about it, it would still be hugely incentivizing for me! In fact, I do motivate myself with pretty school supplies — the new post-its I buy each August, the colorful pens I purchase to make sitting down with a stack of papers more fun.

Why shouldn’t it be this way for my students? This year, I want to make writing workshop — and particularly my students’ writer’s notebooks — more playful. I am encouraging my students to decorate the inside of their notebooks as much as the outside. I am suggesting they doodle when they have run out of ideas during notebook time rather than merely allowing them to doodle. I am not just acknowledging that markers exist, but actually setting them out while students work in their notebooks.  

My hope is that this will bring more ownership and joy into our work. 

The writer’s notebook is the writer’s notebook

To that end, I am trying to do a better job of constantly reminding myself that the notebook belongs to my students and not to me. I want it to be sacred to them, so I need to treat it as sacred and keep my hands off!

This summer, I constantly fought the impulse to insist my daughter use her notebook in the way I envisioned. My blood pressure shot up when she would want to color on two (or three! or four!) pages instead of just one in order to tell her story. I would get anxious when she left one story unfinished before moving on to another or change stories midstream. I’m just that uptight. With the possessive truth of a three-year-old, Georgia consistently reminded me that her notebook was “mine” and I should keep my hands off.

And it is her notebook, so she should use it in the way she sees fit. So should my students. Though I almost never write in their notebooks, I do tend to micromanage them. I like for all writer’s notebooks to be organized in my image. My students, especially my younger, struggling writers, need help with organization — they need a vision and sometimes a prescription for what that should look like. But they also need the freedom to explore what feels right to them. If given room to grow, this freedom will breed independence, and both their learning and writing will be better for it .

So, even though I have prescribed the basics of notebook setup for my students this year, I keep repeating aloud — for my benefit more than theirs — “This is your notebook. Do this the way that makes sense to you.” 

Baby steps are big steps

When you are writing with a three-year-old, you go slowly. In tiny baby steps. First, we worked on drawing. Then a one-word caption. Next, putting that caption into a sentence. (We never actually made it to dictating a story.)

But I knew that the slow-going baby steps were big steps for my daughter when she proudly paraded her notebook around the house for her father, her grandparents, for anyone who would look at it.

In my classroom, I am always poised and waiting for those big, dramatic growth moments — when a struggling student suddenly (and miraculously) turns in brilliant, inspired work.  I have a tendency to move too fast in an effort to get that result, afraid that we won’t “cover” enough, afraid that students will get bored. But warp speed has a lot of drawbacks, so, I am trying this year to do a better job of reading my students, getting a pulse on how quickly they need to move, and celebrating the little baby steps of mastery along the way.

What techniques have you borrowed from the classrooms of younger or older writers? Are you a high school teacher who borrows from elementary teachers? Are you an elementary teacher who adapts the work of a high school workshop?  Do you engage in conversation with teachers of students radically different from your own? How do you adapt their curriculum, tricks, and techniques to meet the needs of your students?

We would be so interested to hear from you! Please leave a comment below or find us on Twitter @RebekahOdell1 and @allisonmarchett.


The First Six Days of School

Every August teachers everywhere lose sleep over the first days of school. Some of us dream of showing up without lesson plans, copiers that break down leaving us syllabus-less. Some dream of classrooms without enough desks, of desks without chairs.

The thing that keeps me up at night is the impression I’m going to leave with students in the first few days. I rack my brain every year for an activity that will accomplish the following:

  • set the tone for the year
  • inspire students
  • get students writing and reading right away
  • show rather than tell about the routines of the class
  • help students learn one another’s names and get to know one another on a meaningful level

As usual this August I spent several sleepless nights trying to invent an activity that might fulfill this criteria. And I kept coming back to this book that I couldn’t keep on my shelves last year: Robin Bowman’s It’s Complicated: The American Teenager.

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photo taken from Continue reading