At the beginning of each school year, my students set up their writer's notebook. This is an important part of the writing process, and it is a crucial step for helping engage students in writing and helping it seem approachable and fun.
What is a writer's notebook for students?
If you're unfamiliar, a writer's notebook is a composition book or notebook that students use to collect their writing across time. It is a tool that lets students capture their thoughts, feelings, and experiences through writing.
The writer's notebook becomes the hub for student learning, giving them a place to practice the new writing and grammar skills they are introduced to throughout the year.
Throughout the course of a year, the students take the blank journal and create a record of their learning while they play with language and work to develop their author's craft.
Selecting the Notebook for Writing
The type of notebook you select should be determined by your organizational style and student needs. Most writer's notebooks are put into one of three formats:
- Composition book
- Spiral-bound notebook
- Binder with loose leaf paper and tabs
How to decide which notebook format is best for you
A composition book can be great for keeping things neatly organized because pages are bound together tightly. They can also be easily cut in half to make them more approachable to younger learners.
Below is an example of a writer's notebook from my classroom a few years ago. Our campus used Lucy Calkin's Units of Study for writing. Early in the year, we introduced her idea of seed writing, cutting apart watermelon to help us visualize. As a result, we called our notebooks Seed Journals and were all this bright pink color.
This particular year, I had a class of reluctant writers (about 3/4 of my students would write 2-3 sentences max at the beginning of the year). This is why I elected to cut the composition books into two pieces instead of overwhelming students with a big blank page.
A spiral notebook can also be used if you want your students to be able to pull drafts out or more easily remove pages. I hesitate to recommend this style of notebook, however, because the wire tends to cause issues as the year goes on.
Personalizing Writer's Notebooks
Once you've selected your notebooks, you are ready to get them into the hands of your students. Before we ever start writing, I focus on ways to make the journals as individual as my students. This makes a great beginning of the year writing lesson.
While it might seem like a time-filler, giving students the opportunity to personalize their writing journal is a really important part of engaging them in the writing process.
I finally created my class seed journals for our writing time. These are composition books cut in half…in watermelon pink. Each journal has a pink and black polka dotted ribbon hot glued in the back that we will use as a page marker. Even with a table of contents, I often find that kids skip a number of pages. I am hoping (fingers crossed) that this will solve this problem.
Personalization makes the notebook feel more welcoming. As silly as it seems, this can be a major barrier for many writers who feel they don't have anything to say.
This personalization process can also give students a place to start when writer's block hits.
Unlike many teachers, I do not have my students personalize the outside of their writer's journals. I did this early in my career, and I found it frustrating to have notebooks peeling apart and losing those special ideas as the year progressed.
It also became hard to collect and take all the notebooks home without worrying about the peeling edges and the weird lumps from all those items glued to the cover. The pile was awkward and often fell over.
However, I wasn't ready to abandon personalization altogether. Instead, I have my students personalize the inside cover and title page. The only rule is the cover still has to be able to close.
They can glue or tape pictures. Add glitter glue designs. Sketch, paint, or doodle. Their design is up to them, and I encourage them to add to it during small spare moments throughout the year. Many students have rapidly changing interests, and it can be a fun way to decompress.
Organizing Writer's Notebooks
Once the notebooks have been personalized, I like to take some time to break them into sections that students will use across the year. This is an important organizational strategy because it helps students quickly and easily find their place and ensures that the journal can be used as a reference throughout the year.
Writer's Notebook Sections
I typically have my students break their writing journals into three different sections. Below is a description of each.
Mini-Lesson Notes/ Reference
The first section is for mini-lesson notes and interactive notebook pieces. This section is designed as a reference section, and I typically have students dedicate 15-20 pages to this.
As we learn new skills and strategies, my students will use this section to glue in miniature anchor charts, guided practice models, and other materials that they can reference when they are writing.
This section is the area we fill up early in the year with all the ideas in their mind. During our first writing unit, we do LOTS of exercises in brainstorming.
The ideas they generate are kept in this section so they have them readily available for use throughout the year.
Students can also return to this section to add new ideas as they arise. If you are new to teaching writing, you can read my article on brainstorming with reluctant writers to get some ideas for this section.
Rough Drafts or Sloppy Copies
This section is where students begin the process of fleshing out their compositions and work through the editing and revising process. As a result, this section of the student writing journals gets REALLY messy across the year.
By mid-year, this section is full of color from our editing exercises. It has writing that can be challenging to read. The compositions are full of arrows and additions.
This is my favorite because it is authentic to the writing process. It is the meat of writing and shows the work and progress students make as they learn to apply their new skills and play with language.