|This writer's notebook page idea was inspired by a wonderful little alphabet book: Written Anything Good Lately? by Susan Allen and Jane Lindaman. The book provides an alphabet-inspired list that explores 26 different and highly unique genres of writing. The book serves its purpose of helping me illustrate the idea that anything we write
can be written in an interesting way or a unique way.
After discussing Written Anything Good Lately?--an alphabet book that explores different (often clever) forms, modes, and genres that writing can take in a classroom--students spend one or two weeks at the beginning of the school year slowly and thoughtfully creating their own alpha-lists of types/forms of writing they would be willing to create during the upcoming year of writing.
When all students have brainstormed a complete and unique alpha-list, they then devote a two-page spread in their writer's notebooks to neatly publish and decorate their lists. Over a week's time, they illustrate their lists when they have a free moment or two in class. I give special notebook stickers to the five best from each class.
Once a classroom writer's workshop has been established, this two-page spread can be revisited whenever students are seeking a new idea for a writing assignment. If using our ten-card set of ten Writer's Notebook Bingo Cards we created, please know the remainder of the Bingo cards have a space that says "Find something on your Alpha-Genres List and write it for ten minutes," so it's kind of required that you complete this lesson if you're going to use the whole set of Bingo Cards after using September's. No worries...it's an easy and fun lesson for both you and them.
Lucky for most who use the whole set of Bingo Cards, this lesson always produces a fun addition that valuably helps inspire the philosophy of a writer's notebook: think like a writer by writing about topics that interest you personally. Ass teacher, I have to keep remembering to remind students NOT to put anything on their final product they wouldn't be willing to write about during an upcoming ten minutes of Sacred Writing Time; otherwise, this becomes an exercise in filling in words that start with letters, not an actual task that will build a tool that could easily inspire a writer (or his partner) to do some self-chosen writer's workshop writing at a later date.
Two Variations of this idea: The first year I felt I had perfected this lesson (which was probably the second year I taught it), all my 6th-8th graders created alpha-genres for their notebooks; the year after that--when my sixth graders became my seventh graders and my seventh graders became my eighth graders--I knew I had to create new variations for them when they started their school year up with me again. Below the alpha-genre examples, be sure to see the Alpha-Topics pages I do with all my seventh graders, and the Alpha-Tones pages I do with all my eighth graders.
Beginning the Alpha-Genre version of this Lesson with a Brainstorm-inspiring Idea Mentor Text
Sharing the Mentor Text/Brainstorming: In my classroom, I spend the first month of school establishing the all-important writer's workshop environment that I need to be in place to teach writing the way that feels best to me. Slowly and diligently, we learn the vocabulary and practice the processes students will need in order to become the 'community of writers' I expect them to become. Not only do they learn how the writer's workshop will work and what roles they will play, but they also begin to collect and record independent topics they would be willing to write about. Every teachers' writer's workshop adaptation is a little different and, in mine, students have a combination of assigned and free-choice writing they will be doing during workshop days; this particular lesson write-up sets my students up with a resource for any of their upcoming free-choice tasks: a personal alpha-genre list.
First, share the fact that the book is an alphabet book, and share the first two or three pages. Tell them this is an alphabetized list naming different forms writing can take. The 'A' page features an autobiography, and the 'B' page features a book report (a brilliant book report, in fact). Ask, "What do you think are some of the other forms (or genres) of writing that might appear on the other pages?" Allow them some time to brainstorm with a partner or small group. This is a great opportunity to learn what they already know about different genres and purposes of writing. So walk around and use your auditory skills to spy on their conversations. Guide them to go more specific: "You put poetry for P; can you think of any poetry forms that have a more specialized name?"
As they discover the mentor text uses a lot of alliteration (like brilliant book report), challenge them to add alliterative adjectives to the different forms of writing they brainstormed, or to come up with alternative alliterations for the book's items: a better-than-bad book report, for example.
Inform students you are going to give them a pre-writing task that you want them to spend a week on: you are going to have them create the most unique alpha-list of interesting things they might write during this upcoming school year. Not topics! What FORMATS/SHAPES can they use when exploring topics? Love Letters? Fake News Stories? Mystery stories? Acrostics? Let them talk while they brainstorm and you'll know all sorts of formats the students may already know or need to know.
I give my students a few minutes here and there to add to their lists, and in between any time you give them in class, they are to be thinking of unique forms of writing to add to their lists later. Students will be allowed to share ideas with each other, just so long as everyone ends up with a different list of 26 items; no two people should have the exact same list of 26.
Distribute the alpha-list brainstorming sheet pictured at left. I like to run a blank copy on both sides of the paper for those students who "mess up" and want to start over.
During the next week of class, remind students of this task. Brainstorm out loud in front of them: "Hey guys, I came home yesterday and there was a pamphlet in my mailbox. Has anyone thought of putting a pamphlet in their P section of the alpha-list yet?" Give them a few minutes here and there to add; celebrate out loud when a student independently brings an idea to you that the student thought of.
Also, encourage them to combine letters that are next to each other on the alpha-list into one item. On my teacher model below, for example, I combined my A and B boxes into this noun phrase: an Allegory about Bullying.
Continue the Alpha-Genre Version of this Lesson with Good Modeling--with teacher and/or student models
Modeling/Creating the Assigned Writer's Notebook Page:
In my writer's workshop, most of my students' ideas for their independent writing begins in their writer's notebooks. If you have never established a writer's notebook routine with your students, be sure to read over Always Write's Writer's Notebook Resource Page, and if you can, get yourself a copy of Ralph Fletcher's A Writer's Notebook: Unlocking the Writer Within You. This little advice guide from Ralph (pictured) is a constantly-referred-to text in my classroom, especially in the first few months that we're setting up our notebooks. Unlike a journal, which contains daily thoughts and often-forced ramblings, a writer's notebook is a place where students 'save' ideas, observations, or arguments that occur to them; the ideas they save must be topics the students would be willing to explore further during an upcoming writer's workshop block.
Once a week, I require my students to make something visual happen in their notebooks, incorporating stickers, cut-outs, and original drawings inspired by ourMr. Stick "margin mascot", which I introduce students to in the very first weeks of school. Mr. Stick becomes a common visual in my students' notebooks, and he allows them all to be "artists" even when they're not; you should look at my Pinterest Board inspired by Mr. Stick to see how very great the pages of their notebooks become; if you're not a member of Pinterest (which is free to join), you may not be taken to my specific board if you use the link I have provided.
This lesson's two-page notebook spread is a good opportunity to have students practice the combination of words and visuals early on in the school year. But they need to see a model. I believe it so very important to have my own version of this notebook page assignment that I can show my writers. Below, you will find mine, which you can certainly claim as your own if you're feeling uncreative or overwhelmed, but I'm including it here as my attempt to inspire you to create your own. Your students will be incredibly inspired to do a better job with this notebook spread if they see your creative attempt to do the same assignment. They love my notebook, which you can see pages from at this Pinterest Board; if you're not a member of Pinterest, the link probably won't take you to my specific board.
Before having students transfer their brainstormed alpha-list choices in to their notebooks, it might serve a good purpose to have students double-check each other's work on their alpha-genre lists for misspellings. Once you and they feel confident that their lists are somewhat spell-checked, have them divide up a two-page spread (with comic book-style boxes) that would allow them to record their 26 ideas; they could have less than 26 if they combined two letters into one noun phrase (as I did with my Allegory about Bullying), so you might want to have them carefully count their actual number of items, then divide the total by 4 (for four rows, as you see in my example, which leaves enough room for small illustrations) so they can figure out how many different boxes they need in each row. Planning a layout for a page like this absolutely helps to build ORGANIZATION skills, by the way.
In my notebook, I tend to lightly pencil my boxes in first, then ink/color pencil them in once I verify I've left enough space for all. If you do this, be careful with ink that soaks through because you will not be able to use the backside of your pages if you use this type of ink. My kids use those Sharpies sometimes, and those really soak through to the next page.
So here's the deal. I often photograph my own process when I am making a teacher model. Below is evidence of me completing the last two steps of creating my own alpha-genre page. I showed these two steps to my students before I added my visuals; I took a digital photo of this page before adding pictures, and I can show the digital picture when we're at this step of the process. If you click on the picture, you can see it in a slightly larger form and you can print it. If you are unwilling to make your own model, you have my permission to lie to your kids and say this is your model. I discovered after thirty years of teaching that when you write the same thing your students are going to write, you are able to guide them about 300% better because you've gone through the process too.
Here's my Teacher Model after I've planned my final layout, before adding pictures
Here's my Teacher Model after I've added pictures to finalize my page
Click either image to see it on your classroom's projector.
Over the next week, whenever we had a free minute at the end of any activity, I challenged students to grab their notebooks plan a visual for one or two of their comic-book-sized boxes; some students, of course, asked to take them home, where they added stickers, magazine clippings, or drawings. At the end of the week, I gave students twenty minutes to finish whatever boxes weren't complete, and I had colored pencils ready for those who already had all their images down on the pages.
Create a Classroom Resource while Students are Completing this Assignment for their Notebooks
A community of writers shares ideas...create a poster, celebrating really unique answers that you can hang up later on workshop days
As my students brainstorm, draft, and publish these Alpha-Genre pages for their notebooks, I purposely create a classroom resource: a poster. Below, you can see a sample I photographed back in the 2011-12 school year, a year I had a really creative group of students. As they worked on this writing task, I wandered. As I wandered, I actively sought out clever, unique and charming answers from my students. My students were honored when/if I bent down beside them and said, "Oh wow, your answer for [insert alphabet letter here] is so darned creative. Can I add it to my secret class list I am building?" I made one of these lists for each of the two or three grade levels I was usually assigned.
Having the list visible was great. Not only did it display the "best of the best" ideas from our early-in-the-year task for our writer's notebooks, but it also reminded each student they had their own lists in their own notebooks that could be mined at any time for a writing topic.
When students finish their decorated versions of their lists, I require them to share them, usually with their Sacred Writing Partners, but we've had fun doing a whole-class walk-around, where we all looked at each other's finished products while we wandered the rows with a specific purpose: "find the one you wish you'd thought of" is a favorite quest of my students.
After students have laughed and shared their pages with each other, explain, "Next time we have Sacred Writing Time or a Writer's Workshop day and you're unsure about what you can start working on, here is a page that may inspire you. I expect everyone to use--at least--one idea from this page before the year is out. We might even have a little contest that rewards the writer who uses the most ideas from this two-page spread, so find a way to keep track, and find a reason to keep visiting this page in your notebook."
Remember, establishing SWT and a Writer's Workshop environment requires that you remain very conscious of community. Everyone should be contributing their parts here and there, so they feel they belong to the community. Having an item from your alpha-list on the master class list may not sound like much to you, but there are students who absolutely see that gesture as an invitation to join a community they may have reluctantly joined if their item hadn't been listed. As a teacher building a community, every small gesture of accomplishment, especially at the beginning, can go a long way.
Variations on the Alpha-Theme for Writer's Notebooks or Brainstorming
This idea works with more topics than "Alpha-genres"
Earlier in this write-up, I mentioned that I made three variations over the years, since I found myself in the situation for several years teaching writer's notebooks and Writer's Workshop to three different grade levels, each grade level having its own curriculum focus in writing.
PLEASE don't think because I assigned this lesson to a certain grade level that this means that's the only grade level that should use this assignment. Adapt the idea to fit the grade level and ability levels of the students you teach in your classroom.
- My sixth graders became my grade level that completed the ALPHA-GENRES task for their writer's notebooks in September.
- My seventh graders became my grade level that completed the ALPHA-RESEARCH TOPICS task for their writer's notebooks in September. This set us up nicely for our first Writer's Workshop requirement: a research paper based on a self-chosen, teacher-approved research topic.
- My eighth graders became my grade level that completed the ALPHA-TONES task for their writer's notebooks in September. This set us up nicely for our first Writer's Workshop objective: Argumentative papers that utilize a pre-determined tone(s).
Now that I'm out of the classroom, I'm looking for newer samples of this lesson. If you have a student create a particularly great example, photograph or scan it and send it to us at email@example.com. If we end up sharing it here or at our Pinterest or Twitter Boards, we'll send you a complementary product from our Teachers Pay Teachers Store.