Behind the Scenes: One Notebook to Rule them All

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Zoom in on Henry, an eighth grader whose desk sits in the far right corner of the room. The other students sit down, pull out their notebooks and pencils, jot down the homework; Henry is frantic. Where it is? Please don’t tell me I’ve lost it! Noooooo! he silently panics.

He opens his binder, closes his binder, dumps the contents of his backpack on the floor beside his desk, kneels beside the mountain of stuff in the floor, and starts throwing one wadded-up paper ball after another over his shoulder as he searches fruitlessly. Defeated, tears well up in his eyes, and he slowly crawls back into his seat. Henry silently shakes his fist at the sky as the camera zooms back out. 

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Hard at work gathering ideas in the notebook.

Okay so, this didn’t happen last week, but this is one of my dearest school fantasies. I dream every year that each student’s notebook will becomes so precious, so valuable to them that they would dissolve into tears at the mere thought of losing it.

 

We teachers know that notebooks are a powerful storehouse of student thinking and bits of writing. We know that it is the foundation for the writerly habits that will actually help our students evolve into writers, not just students who submit technically perfect writing products. In many ways, the notebook is the answer to so many of the hows that come up in our writing pedagogy:

How do we help our students identify as writers? Regular, risk-free work in their notebook.

How do we help our student writers develop writing stamina? Dedicated class time to work in their notebook.

How do we help our students gather, curate, and develop ideas for writing? Notebook play.

How do we help our students track writing progress over time? Use the notebook as a writing archive of idea development, information gathering, and drafting.

So, then, how do we organize these all-important notebooks? How do we set them up to best establish their importance? It’s a conversation a few of us have been having on Twitter over the last few weeks, and one teachers get very passionate about.

I have two central goals for my students’ notebooks. I want them to be useful (as in easily useable), and I want them to be important to my students. 

So, in practical terms this means:

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Notes from a mini-lesson gallery walk go in students’ notebooks.

My students will have more success with their notebooks when I relinquish control of them.

I wish I could take credit for this idea, but it goes to Ralph Fletcher who shared it at the All Write! Conference in 2016. Ralph told stories of teachers who had specific instructions for each page of a notebook, restricting and constricting them to the point that all of the life was sucked out of them and the joy of writing way gone.

He said, “Students care about their notebooks to the degree we stop controlling them.”

Whoa.

And, truly, this seems to be a central lesson to workshop teaching in general, doesn’t it? We get nervous about control — How will I know they are putting the right thing in their notebook? How will I know they will be able to find them later? How will I know they are complete? But when we impose OUR logic, our order, our need to hold the reigns over our students’, we will never guide them toward success. Is our goal for them to have perfectly ordered notebooks or to be able to engage in the rhythms and practices of real writers? Is our goal for our students to churn out products in the image we have cast for them or to do the real, hard work of real writers?

So, I don’t do much dictating any more about what goes in the notebook in what order. In fact, I don’t even dictate what kind of notebook my students should have. I simply ask that it be a bound notebook rather than a spiral notebook. (Spiral notebooks say “school” and “rip out my pages”, a bound notebook — even a composition book — has a completely different feeling.)

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One of the few required items in my students’ notebooks — a reading rate tracker (a la Penny Kittle’s Book Love) for Reading Workshop. 

My students glue some reading workshop materials in the back of their notebook (a reading ladder, a reading rates tracker, and a TBR list), but other than that, I simply ask them to  start filling the notebook.

 

Over the years, I have found that students’ notebooks are not easily useable when I dictate special sections, elaborate tables of contents, rules and regulations. Now, I make suggestions and show students models of others’ notebooks, but then I let them find organizational systems that work for them to make their notebooks useful in the most personal way.

Everything needs to go in the notebook.

Notice I said the notebook. Not “the notebook or the binder”. Not “one of the notebooks” or “either the reading notebook, the writing notebook, or the grammar notebook.” To be useful and to be important, notebooks need to be simple. Not only do students not need multiple notebooks to keep track of, but the very optics of a single notebook sends a powerful message: everything important goes in here, so this is important.

To the largest extent humanly possible, I do not give my students pieces of paper that Screen Shot 2017-09-10 at 9.18.32 PMwill not be permanently glued or taped into their notebooks (the one notable exception to this is mentor texts, for which my students each have a special Mentor Text Folder.) Notes, ideas, jottings, notebook times, drafts, conference notes, group work, doodles, research — everything goes in the notebook. My students know that unless I direct them to write on something different (say, a piece of looseleaf to be turned in), their default is to go into their notebook. (Because of this, most of my students will fill two notebooks in a year.)

This is what makes the notebook important, significant, life-or-death. This ensures that the notebook goes home, and gets pulled out on the school bus, and sits on the student’s nightstand, and becomes worn and full and loved. Students need it and use it all day long for myriad reasons — and so all the stuff of their brains and their hearts gets captured there.

Screen Shot 2017-09-10 at 9.20.48 PM.pngRemember Allison’s first post in this series? She suggested that we plan our first days and weeks and months of the new school year by … not planning. Friends, after many years of micromanaging notebooks (only to find them stuffed into trashcans in the hallway on the last day of school), I have found that the way to organize student notebooks is to … not organize them.

A notebook is a malleable, lifelong tool we gift to students when they are in our class. We wouldn’t give our best friend a gift and then dictate how she uses it (“You can use it between this hour and this hour and only for the following purpose …”). Students need a place to hold the thinking they will do in our classes — let’s step back, give up control, and let them discover its usefulness, its significance, its power.

I know you have your favorite ways to organize student notebooks — what are they? What organizational tips have been especially helpful to your students over the year? Leave a comment here to join the conversation, find me on Twitter @rebekahodell1, or find us on Facebook.

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