What Time is It? Notebook Time!

We are singing Hamilton as we read today’s fantastic, deep-dive guest post from Scott Bayer, an English Language Arts (ELA) Instructional Specialist for grades 6-12 in Montgomery County, Maryland. He has taught high school English for 16 years and is passionate about creating meaningful learning experiences for students, teaching a more inclusive reading list, and developing student agency, voice, passion, and curiosity. You can find him on Twitter: @Lyricalswordz

Even though students have always written in my class, I’ve always known that they’ve needed to write more and in different ways. When I first started teaching, I was stuck in traditional modes—ones that I learned from my own experiences as a student in school: students wrote what I told them to write, and then I graded their work.

As my craft evolved, so did my classroom. I began to have kids write in various ways during class and for various purposes, but my methods were always somewhat wayward and unevenly implemented. My classes would go through periods of writing and writing instruction.

More recently, I passed out marble composition notebooks, and although I gained a lot of muscle transporting stacks of those things home and back every weekend, their use always faded, being replaced by something else deemed more worthy of instructional time. My desire for kids to write more was the correct impulse, I just had never quite figured out how to sew it into the fabric of our classroom.

But the following remained true: If I want my students to be thinkers, I must provide them opportunities to think. If I want them to be writers, I must provide them opportunities to write.

What Changed

Screen Shot 2018-01-10 at 9.10.59 PMI was so inspired last summer by reading Writing with Mentors, by Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell. Their ideas about mentor texts are so clear and relevant and utilitarian and are not so much a strategy as a way of life.

So. Inspired, yes, but also overwhelmed.

I decided I needed to start small and adapt an idea that would work for me and my students. I wanted a strategy that would encourage risk-taking. I wanted a tool that would provide low-stakes writing opportunities. I wanted something that would let students develop their own voices. I found Notebook Time made these possibilities a reality, and in a way that could be implemented in my classroom right away.

Since I would have a 1:1 Chromebook classroom for the first time, I also considered how I would adapt this to the newly available technology. The Notebook Time experience detailed here is almost entirely digital, which has been a big risk for me, but the rewards have been immense. If you don’t have access to technology in your classroom, this experience can be replicated in your classroom—there’s just more printing involved!

How Notebook Time Works in My Class

This year I teach on-level English 12 and Notebook Time functions like this in our classroom: the first three days of the week, my students have the first 10 minutes of class to complete a Notebook Time entry. On Thursday, we spend the 10 minutes learning about the art of writing or the craft of revising, focusing on a specific skill or idea or strategy. On Friday, students choose one of their three entries from the week, revise it, and submit it for a grade.

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Each week I try to provide various types of texts. Because I limit Notebook Time to 10 minutes, I elected to avoid lengthy passages that students would need to read and interpret. I will use a few lines of prose, a stanza of poetry, or a verse from a song, but rarely more than that.

I also select from various images (photographs, paintings, drawings, cartoons), as well as charts, graphs, and statistics. I pull from a resource library of collected readings in my curriculum in which the texts are thematically linked to our units of study, but I also search the internet for anything relevant to students’ own lives. So three times each week, students are seeing a wide variety of cold texts, and then they can respond in writing however they want. In a broad sense, they may perform analytical, argumentative, or narrative writing.

We started Notebook Time in mid-september, with a presentation and a student handout adapted from Writing with Mentors.

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All of this was to explain what we were doing and why we were doing it. It is really important for students to know not only what they are doing, but why they are doing it. Additionally, although a bit paradoxical, this type of freedom can be paralyzing for some students. I had to convince them that as the author of their work, they are in full control. For the remainder of that first week, we did some practice, and I wrote along with them to model some different types of responses.

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Learning Writing and Revision Strategies

There are an endless number of things to talk about with regard to writing, so I try to have kids try a strategy for a few minutes and then talk about it for a few minutes. For instance, one day, I gave them a quote from Brent Staples about rewriting, and I merely had them discuss why rewriting is so important. Another day, we looked at Kelly Gallagher’s STAR Method and considered ways we could use it to revise our work.

Although we occasionally look at something as an entire class, I want them to maintain the same sense of choice, and I want what we learn to be germane to their own writing. So I have never, for example, taught a mini-lesson on run-on sentences. That might be new learning for some kids, but not all kids. But I did, one day, give them the option, based on feedback I’d given them, to choose whether they needed to learn more about run-ons, fragments, or “other” (which explored how to create more complex sentence structures) .

Another day we tried something a bit different: In our Google Classroom, I shared an exemplar I wrote on Winslow Homer’s “The Gulf Stream”, and then gave them “can comment” access to the document, with the following directions:

  1. Read the sample Notebook Time entry below from start to finish.
  2. Consider the work as a whole in relation to the text.
  3. Highlight part of the writing that engaged or interested you.
  4. Write a comment about why it is a strength of the writing OR
  5. Write a comment about how and why you will try something like it in your writing.

Students developed insightful comments about the writing itself, but also talked about how they wanted to try specific moves in their own writing, which was so inspiring. Here’s an example of Derrick’s comments, in which he noted the intentional fragments (even if he didn’t know to call them that) in one comment and rhetorical questions in another, as well as his later work on an M.C. Escher drawing where he tried using both writing moves he commented on.

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Closing the Notebook Time Cycle

Students choose one of their responses to revise, copying and pasting it in the table provided at the top of that week’s document. Then they begin their revision process in the adjacent box. Seeing their original and their revision side-by-side has been powerfulScreen Shot 2018-01-10 at 9.25.03 PM for students. In our classroom we have talked a lot about the importance of revising, but as teachers know, revision talk can be cheap to burgeoning writers. My students wanted something more concrete, so I shared with them an adaptation of the STAR Method from the inestimable Kelly Gallagher, and this really cool Upgrade Your Sentence document I found on Twitter from @heymrshallahan. I gave them an exemplar with a single sentence so they could see how one sentence could be upgraded in many different ways, and then I gave them a more functional document where they can actually plug their sentences in and work on their writing at the sentence level.

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Why It Works:

  • Routine: Students come into class, get a Chromebook, and know exactly what to do for the first 10 minutes. Some students even begin before the bell rings to get a few extra minutes—which of course is great! We stop after 10 minutes every time. Things like this can take over a lesson if you let them (and that wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world), but students know exactly how long they have and I know precisely the remaining number of minutes to plan for.
  • Low-stakes: The environment allows kids to take risks without worry of being penalized by something as silly as a grade. I encourage them to reach, because there is no fear of falling.
  • Text Variety: In addition to what’s normally going on in our classroom, students are exposed to texts in real-world situations. They bring only the knowledge they have to a cold text, and must reason inductively. They cannot wait for someone else to tell them “the answer;” they must forge ahead alone, which fosters their self-reliance and independence.
  • Revision: I no longer have to hope students are making revision a regular practice. I see it every week. By juxtaposing the original and the revision on the documents, kids see it too.
  • Practice: My students wrote for 190 minutes during Notebook Time during quarter 1; they will write for more than 350 minutes during quarter 2.
  • Grading: I don’t get buried under a stack of papers. No teacher has time to provide feedback on four Notebook Time entries each week, so I give them feedback on the one they want.
  • Timed Writing: Because they are the most tested generation in the history of education, it’s not a bad thing that students get regular practice of on-demand writing in a timed situation. Just a bonus!

Impact & Implications So Far

For years, I was unsure of how to embed regular writing opportunities that challenged and inspired kids, giving them the freedom to write in ways that are important to them. I tried different strategies and routines, but none had the staying power for me or my students. That has all changed with Notebook Time. The routine—using the first 10 minutes of class every day, writing to three prompts the first three days of the week, talking about writing on Thursday, revising on Friday—has been great for me and for my students.

The overall benefits of Notebook Time have been almost too numerous to list, but a few that I’ve found incredibly important: an increase in the volume of writing—some students have claimed they’ve written more this semester than they ever have before; writing as a way to explore one’s own thinking, rather than just being a way to demonstrate final thought; and the development of student voice, and this one is the most meaningful of all. Students who were resistant to writing—there was almost a mutiny in the first week when I asked them to write 100 words—and now are not only writing a lot more than they ever have before, but they are writing about things that are important to them in ways that elevate their voices, bringing them from the margins to the mainstream.

Scott has generously shared a folder of resources with you! Go ahead — thank him here in the comments or on Twitter @LyricalsWordz. You can also comment with strategies you have used to adapt Notebook Time for your students! 

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