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.

–Allison

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Coming to Terms with the P-Word

My friends don’t understand why I love bikram yoga–the heat (105 degrees), the humidity (40%), the predictability (26 postures repeated twice).

“Don’t you get bored?” they persist.

No. In fact, the predictability of the class is one of the aspects that makes the yoga so enjoyable. Most people learn the 26 postures quickly–it just takes a few classes. Because the class has a predictable sequence, we know what to do and can enjoy a more deliberate practice because the series is so familiar. It never gets boring because our bodies are different every day, so we never know what kind of class we’re going to have. The predictability is a gift.

So when a student wrote on a course reflection a few weeks back that my English 9 class was “predictable,” you would have thought it was music to my ears.

But it wasn’t. “No one wants to be predictable,” I wailed to my husband.

I wrestled with this student’s “critique” all week. He had used the P-word.

I didn’t want to be predictable, but I couldn’t ignore the fact that I had sought comfort in our writing workshop routines day after day–and I honestly believed the students did, too. I picked up Penny Kittle’s Write Beside Them, searching for wisdom in my dog-eared copy. “Surely her classroom isn’t predictable,” I thought to myself, but as I turned in for bed that night, page 33 of her book seared into my head, I couldn’t help but think that her classes, too, seemed a bit…predictable.

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And I knew for a fact that Penny Kittle’s classes were far from boring. What did her classes have that mine didn’t? I was determined to find out.

In typical fashion, I fixated on this for a while–until Rebekah came to my rescue a few days later and sent me this text message:

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With a renewed sense of hope, I began to explore this idea of predictability in the writer’s workshop, and days later, I stumbled upon this quote in Katie Wood Ray’s Study Driven:

When teaching has a predictable rhythm to it, students recognize what’s happening and can engage with the whole process of teaching and learning much more intentionally because it is so familiar. Now, the fact that it is predictable doesn’t mean in any way that it is redundant or boring. The way you go about a study is predictable, but the content that comes from the study is anything but predictable. The teaching is “structured for surprise” (Graves 2001, 51) and it’s the promise of what you might discover together that gives both students and teachers energy for the study.

There it was on page 110 of her book. The rationale I had been searching for. Still, I felt that perhaps my classroom was missing a special ingredient. I wasn’t convinced I was structuring my classes for surprise, so I decided to compare my methods to hers.

  • At the start of a new unit of study, she immerses students in the texts she wants them to write. Check.

  • Then, once students have a sense of where they’re headed, students move into a close study of these texts. Check.

  • Students generate a whole-class list of “noticings” across texts. Here is an example of a list made during a study of feature articles in a fourth grade classroom:

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(The list goes on–what an inspiring list!)

Often I generate lists of noticings with students, but sometimes I dive right in to my own pre-determined series of mini-lessons. So here’s where our methods begin to diverge.

I have a fixed set of lessons I plan on teaching. Katie Wood Ray chooses what to study from students’ noticings:

You really have two choices about how to decide what to talk about during the next days of inquiry-driven lessons: you can choose something or you can let your students choose something. I would probably recommend that you do some of both over the course of close study. You’ll want to have some say in determining what seems to have the most potential on the list of possibilities, but you want to be sure that students’ interests are honored, too. Of course, since the list is comprised mostly of their noticings, you really ensure that you are following their interests no matter who does the choosing. (132)

After reading this passage, I panicked a bit. I thought of my color-coded Google Calendar, the mini-lessons planned out for weeks. I thought of my visually pleasing rubrics–the ones I often gave to students at the beginning of a new unit of study so they had a “roadmap.”

I thought about Penny’s classroom. In her book, she talks about the qualities of genres but never presents a set of plans–a prefixed curriculum.

And then I looked back at the list of noticings those awesome fourth graders had generated–all those wonderful, creative, possibilities–and I knew what I had to do.

***

I realize that I have to relinquish some of the control and do a better job of honoring students’ instructional interests. Choice has always been at the heart of my writer’s workshop–but now I know that my interpretation of “choice” has been one-dimensional. My lessons have always been teacher–not inquiry–driven.

So now, with a deepened understanding of the role that possibility plays in writer’s workshop, I’m excited to dive into my next unit of study with students. My mantra!?

Embrace possibility. Possibility. The new P-word.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

~ Allison

Kittle, Penny. Write Beside Them: Risk, Voice, and Clarity in High School Writing. Portsmouth: Heinemann, 2008.

Ray, Katie Wood. Study Driven. Portsmouth: Heinemann, 2006.

How do you honor students’ instructional interests in your classroom? Feel free to add a comment below or find us on Twitter at @allisonmarchett or @rebekahodell1.

 

 

Writing Our Way Into Critical Thinking

Way back one month ago, I made some resolutions for my classes. Among them was a switch-up that would turn the Quick Write into a broader Notebook Time — giving my students lots of varied opportunities to play with words in different ways.

In short, switching things up has been invigorating for my students. I no longer hear a low groan reverberate throughout the classroom when “Quick Write”  appears on the board. In itself, that feels like victory.

By far, their favorite way to spend Notebook Time — and the way that has proven most profitable — is playing with raw data.

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Writers Have Plans: Using Next Lists to Build Writing Lives

Last night I tossed and turned, hunting for an idea for this week’s post.

This morning at the breakfast table, a steaming cup of coffee beside me, I scan through a Google folder labeled “Blog To Do List.” Rebekah and I created this file months ago, preloading it with ideas for future entries. I feel myself begin to relax as I consider the possibilities. I am grateful for these plans.

Penny Kittle has said that “readers have plans.” Students keep to-read-next lists in their notebooks, recording titles, authors, and genres they want to delve into as soon as they finish their current read. Kittle writes that the next list is a “critical” component in her “teaching and organizing towards independence for students” (64).

I love this concept. It’s simple yet powerful, and it works for writers, too. Encouraging students to make long-term writing plans is one of those things that distinguishes teachers of writing from teachers of writers.

Writers have plans.

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Responding to the Writer, Not the Writing

Lucy Calkins’ wisdom about teaching the writer (and not the writing) continues to reverberate decades after the publication of her book The Art of Teaching Writing. Yet many of us do not teach in a way that promotes writers. I know because I was one of them.

In the past, I taught writing one composition at a time, units with finite beginnings and endings. Each stack of papers collected was an island…I gave little thought to how one student’s paper fit into the larger scheme of her writing. Students received grades and feedback, and we moved on without much reflection. I taught writing in this way because I didn’t know any better. I had good intentions, but I didn’t know another way.

Until two years ago when a colleague put Penny Kittle’s Write Beside Them into my hands, and reintroduced me to Don Graves and writing workshop through Penny’s work.

Writing workshop changed everything. It refocused my teaching and convinced me that teaching writing–even teaching writing well–is not enough. We have to teach writers.

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New Year’s (Writing Workshop) Resolutions (or, Why Didn’t I Do This in August???)

Midterms are over, and we have reached the point of the year where, inevitably, I second guess every decision I have made so far and long for a do-over. And while this year hasn’t been without its victories, I still wonder, What ever happened to that uber-planned-perfectly-balanced class I dreamed of while I sat by the pool in July?

Adding fuel to my restless fire has been my epic fall of phenomenal professional development. In November, I attended (and presented at!) my very first NCTE annual convention. A week later, I attended a whole-day workshop with Penny Kittle, my professional idol and one of the biggest reasons I stayed in the teaching profession. (I cried when I met her. Yep, I’m that person.)

Oh, I have been on a very high teaching high.

Coming off of these incredible experiences, I have synthesized all of my learning into a three-pronged attack plan for improving the thinking and writing in my classroom.  I am writing it down (and telling you) so that I will actually do it!

1) Cozying up to words, words, words

My students need to hear more words than they read or write. Why haven’t I thought of that before? If they are hearing beautiful language — the way words work together, the way words make music, the way words sound out loud — their reading will improve. Their writing will improve.

Penny Kittle and Tom Romano begin class every day with a poem. I’m beginning with a poem two days per week (on “reading workshop” days.) Students will just listen and breathe and soak up words. They will become exposed to poetry in a risk-free setting. They will be exposed to all of the things a poem can do. They might even try a collection of poetry for their independent reading. And, I hope, like Penny Kittle’s students, poetic language will start to slip into their own writing.

But wait, there’s more!

I am also planning to try something a bit experimental for a high school English classroom. I am going to read a novel aloud to my students. Teachers in lower grades do this all the time. There is loads of data that supports this practice as a way of improving student vocabulary, engagement, and passion for reading.  And yet, educators debate whether or not it’s appropriate for high school students.

Good teaching is good teaching, and if it’s beneficial for young readers then it must be beneficial for older readers, too.

Image So, I will be working Charlotte’s Web into our routine.  (Why Charlotte’s Web? Because it was all over NCTE. It felt like every session I attended mentioned my childhood favorite. Must be time to pull it off the shelf!) It should be well over everyone’s reading level.

We will use ol’ E.B. White to hear beautiful language, to reinforce the importance of re-reading at different points in ones life, to practice new skills of close reading, connect to a common text about which to write, and to just have fun with words.

2) Using media as an entry point to push thinking and writing forward

A few notable sessions I attended at NCTE used media as an entry point to close reading and critical thinking. And in a way that is more than showing-the-movie-of-the-book-as-a-day-off-when-we-are-done-reading.  Liz Lutz gave a great presentation on using Pixar films to teach critical reading. Chris Lehman, Kate Roberts, and Maggie Roberts encouraged teachers to use popular music, commercials, and other mass media to reinforce close reading skills.

I tried it as soon as I got home, using Pixar short films to help my students review the “distant reading” strategies Kylene Beers and Bob Probst outline in Notice and Note. (Haven’t read it? Go buy this one!) They loved it, and I desperately wished that I had used the films to teach the skills in the first place.

In the new year, I will use media to lead students into deeper thinking, deeper conversation, and deeper writing — especially as we move into analytical genre studies. In fact, our “light analysis” unit in February will now be working on the analysis of a Pixar short film — a friendly way of entering the realm of serious academic writing.

3) Giving the QuickWrite a facelift

On the midterm, I asked students to share the best and worst parts of writing workshop. Overwhelmingly, students listed the QuickWrite as the part they would get rid of. This isn’t new. My students last year said the same thing.

They hate the QuickWrite because they don’t see it as useful (even when they mine it for ideas in a bigger draft). Maybe this comes from years of free-form journaling in some lower grades? Maybe I’m just not doing a good job crafting interesting prompts.

While at Penny Kittle’s workshop, I was struck by her use of the term “notebook time” to describe the beginning of class rather than “quickwrite”. This is where our first ten minutes of class is headed in 2014. A QuickWrite might be one of many things that can happen during the broader and more productive Notebook Time. I will still use QuickWrites periodically to generate ideas for the writer’s notebook, but we will also:

  • Do sentence study & imitation

  • Respond to the daily poem

  • Practice meaningful revision

  • Make meaning of short bits of media

  • Play with and make interpretations about raw data (something Penny Kittle said is a weakness noted by college professors to whom she has spoken)

I hope students will like this better — that it will feel more purposeful to them and more playful at the same time. Our writing will become more like Play-Doh, and students will see the value of working with their writing even when it doesn’t become a draft.

What are your mid-year workshop revisions? What are you substituting, taking out, adding, or re-arranging (to borrow from Kelly Gallagher)?  Leave us a comment, or, better yet, join us on Twitter to chat about our writing resolutions & goals on Thursday, January 2 at 7:30pm EST. Use the hashtag #movingwriters.

– Rebekah

Moving Writers … an Invitation

Eight hours before your presentation at NCTE isn’t the time for second guessing.

Huddled on a hotel bed, surrounded by a sea of papers, laptops, and California Pizza Kitchen take-out, we debated. Something was missing. After months of polishing the fundamentals, something wasn’t right. Something we couldn’t put our finger on.  Some meaning for which we were still grasping.

The past 48 hours had been filled with more inspiration than we could process. And now it was our turn.  What could we say about writing instruction the next morning that would say it all? That would really matter?

We thumbed through our stenographer’s pads and found our notes from a session earlier in the day, led by some of our teacher heroes: Penny Kittle, Kelly Gallagher, and Chris Tovani. In her talk, Chris Tovani quoted Penny Kittle as she wondered about the criterion often used to measure good writing:  “Who will actually read this and be moved by it?”

That was it! Our own guiding question!  The idea we had been searching for but hadn’t yet found. This was what we wanted to achieve—not just in our presentation, but in our classrooms.

We want to move the text, nudging students forward in their craft.

We want our writers to move their reading—to change the way they think about or experience the world.

But above all, we want to move the writer—intellectually, emotionally. Significantly.

And so the mission of moving writers—previously unnamed but always at the heart of our instruction—went into our NCTE presentation. And now it is filling this blog.

Here are some of the questions we want to explore with you in this blog:

  • What does writer’s workshop look like in the secondary – particularly the traditional high school –  classroom?

  • What conditions, tools, structures, and norms help guide writers towards independence?

  • What works in our writer’s workshop classrooms? What doesn’t work? How can we improve our craft as educators?

  • How can we help students maintain control of their own ideas while guiding them as writers? (Penny Kittle)

  • What are the short and long term benefits of writer’s workshop?

  • What makes a good mentor text? Where do we find them? How do we use them? Can we enlist students to find them?

  • Besides editorials, commentaries, and narratives, what other genres could and should be taught to secondary students?

  • What would a writer’s workshop scope & sequence look like?

  • How do writer’s workshop and reader’s workshop speak to one another? Build off of one another?

  • What would it take to change the way our students see themselves as writers?

  • How can we develop these characteristics in our students: curiosity, clarity, self- confidence, autonomy, and mastery? (Penny Kittle)

  • How do we bring joy and meaning into the writer’s workshop?

What questions do YOU have? Leave us a comment, and join our conversation.

– Allison & Rebekah