Wonderfully Messy Notebooks

About a month and a half ago, I wrote a post about my plan for new notebooks in my AP Seminar class.  I was fired up. We were going to make them into bullet journals. There were layouts, there were intricate planning grids, and there were lots and lots of colored markers and pens involved. After I posted the blog, several people said, “Make sure you update us! Let us know how it’s going!” So here we are, warts and all, with my wonderfully messy, not-at-all-what-I-imagined-but-actually-pretty-awesome writer’s notebooks.

Keep reading if you’re curious about what I’ve learned about my students and their writing lives.

Lesson #1: Suggest Organization but Accept A Different Path

In my sixteen years of teaching, I’ve tried many different iterations of writing notebooks with varying levels of success. This year with AP Seminar was nothing different except perhaps my desire to help them organize was stronger. I loved all the sections and charts of a bullet journal and thought it would be such an awesome way to help my students organize the messy thinking of research writing. They were struggling to make sense of complicated questions, and I thought imposing some structure would help with that.

It didn’t.  

I don’t know what I was thinking, really. High school students? If you say A, a good chunk of them are going to say B. Before I was half a class into helping them set up their notebooks, they were creating their own sections, retitling ones that I had given them, and generally doing their own thing. A section for gathering ideas that I had told them to organize by month quickly morphed table by table:


I loved their title, and the different ways they approached the sections made me realize that perhaps I was imposing too much structure on kids totally capable of creating their own.  Three weeks later, at the start of the new semester, I started new Reader’s/Writer’s Notebooks with my AP Language class. This time, I showed them my notebook but encouraged them to organize in a way that made sense to them. I told them they’d need to walk me through their notebook in our first writing conference, but as long as it wasn’t a tornado of disorganized loose-leaf paper, I was cool with whatever they had.

Here’s what I saw:

This student, already a bullet journal-er, dove in headfirst.
This student has a weekly section where she sets little goals for herself
Some students ditched the notebook altogether and used binders or accordion folders!


Notebooks don’t look anything like I imagined on January 5, but my students are invested in their system and it’s working for them.

Lesson #2: Slow Your Roll, Maguire

One of my friends has a great quote from American architect Daniel Hudson Burnham in his school email signature:

Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood… Daniel Hudson Burnham

Every time I see it, I smile. I love that sentiment, and I totally embraced it with these notebooks.  No little plans? Heck. Yes. I gave my students FIFTEEN sections for these notebooks. Well, some of those were monthly, so maybe it was more like six, but it was definitely a lot of different things I was asking them to record.

It was too much and you know how I know?? My own notebook:


A little embarrassing, but I did say “warts and all” so there it is.

I love the idea of asking kids to record and reflect on what they’re adding to their contextual pools, but I think this isn’t the right place for it. As much as I like to think they take their writer’s notebooks with them everywhere, most of them don’t.  Clearly I don’t!  I was excited, and I wanted their notebooks to capture everything they were thinking, but they just can’t.

Deepening their contextual pools works better when it’s social because they can learn from each other. We’ve started creating a bulletin board where we’re gathering our ideas and the things we’re learning about history, politics, the arts, etc. I’ll see how that goes and maybe update in a later post if it actually works.


Lesson #3: Share Your Mess

I’ve always been very open with my students about my own writing and my own writing process. However, I’ve never so deliberately shared my own writer’s notebook with them.  As this experiment with bullet notebooks has unfolded, I’ve continually shared my progress with my students. When I fell off the wagon with daily charting of my own writing progress, I told them.  Some laughed and owned up to it as well. Others proudly displayed their daily logs.  

It led to a great discussion about how we organize our writing lives, but showed them that we all have writing lives! They look different, and that’s okay. Sharing my mess with them helped my less organized students see that the writing process doesn’t have to look the same for all of them, it just has to look like something. For me, there are no more fancy headings, and I don’t color code anything. My pages are scribbles and cross-outs and chicken scratches. But they’re there. My students can all say the same thing. When we write at the end of class, some get out their multi-colored pens and go to town on beautiful entries. Others fish a broken pencil out of my jar of rejects and scribble down their daily reflection. No big deal.

At the end of my January post, I said I was putting my resolution out there in the world to hold myself accountable. I said I was “resolving to help my students become reflective, deliberate writers through the use of bullet journals.” I think I’m still on track! My definition of “bullet journal” has morphed a little, but the important part of that resolution–helping my students become more reflective, deliberate writers–is happening!

So, I’ve shared my messy notebook. What does yours like? What do you do to help your students be reflective and deliberate? I’m always game to try new things and would love to hear your suggestions below or on Twitter @TeacherHattie

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