Summer Mentor Text Countdown — Week 3

Our students use multiple mentor texts constantly throughout the writing process — from planning all the way through publication. But our students also encounter daily mentor texts as they play with words and ideas in notebook time, our amped-up, mentor-text-based bell ringer.

These mentor texts are very different from the ones we use in our genre or technique writing studies, but in many ways, these mentor texts are the ones that make those habits of mind possible later in the writing process.

We think so highly of notebook time and the way it inspires student writing, that we have dedicated an entire chapter to it in our new book, Writing with Mentors (Heinemann, September 3, 2015).

Today, as we countdown our most-popular posts about mentor texts, we give you a little preview of notebook time and why we do it.


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.


  1. I love this idea of notebook time. I teach 4 th grade.
    How do you think it would look like on a younger level?

    1. Adrienne, this is such a great question … in fact, it’s inspired us to do a longer post soon about adapting these strategies for younger students. After all, MOST of what we do in our high school classrooms have been adapted from teachers of younger students.

      I think most Notebook Time activities could be translated straight into your classroom, just with age-appropriate mentor texts! For example, could you take a sentence from a book at their level for a sentence study? You could have students mimic children’s poetry. Amy Ludwig Vanderwater has an amazing blog (The Poem Farm: where she writes poems for children and issues invitations for them to do the same! I’m not entirely sure about raw data — but I bet your students could access a variety of simple charts and graphs. (And our big kids aren’t instantly good at this either … they have to work toward it.) Quickwrites can come from anything!

      Good luck! And if you try this, please let us know! We’d love to follow up with how these strategies play out in other people’s classrooms!

  2. Rebekah, counting the days until I have more time to devote to planning for next year. Thanks to you and Allison for your inspiration.

  3. This is fabulous and generous, and I could not agree more. You can see a growing list of other invitations, links, and ideas at my blog, Sharing Our Notebooks…
    I will be linking on over to you, of course. Fantastic! Thank you for sharing. Warmly, Amy

    1. Amy, thank you! We are great admirers of your site, and, in fact, plan to start doing Notebook Study (the study of the notebook habits of others) as one of our notebook time invitations when we return to school in the fall. Your site is bookmarked to share with students as they consider how other writers use their notebooks! So, thanks for all you’re doing to collect such great resources for all of us!

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