Welcome. My name is Corbett Harrison, and I have been an educator and a teacher-trainer since August of 1990. I specialize in teaching writing using differentiated instruction. I also focus on critical thinking techniques, especially during the pre-writing and revision steps of the writing process. I have spent the last five years honing my vocabulary and grammar lessons so that they're differentiated and promote deep, critical thinking skills.

The Northern Nevada district I serve has a "balanced calendar" that has me teaching from early August to early June, and during my 8 weeks of summer and during my two annual two-week breaks, I independently contract to present workshops to school districts and professional organizations around the country.

Summer of 2016 is starting to fill. I already have speaking engagements scheduled in Texas, Minnesota, and Ohio.

I am no longer available for the week of October 26 in 2015. I will be presenting in Oklahoma.

I am still available in 2016 during the week of March 21 and the week of March 28.

You can find general information about the cost of my workshops here.

If you would like to check my availability for 2016, please contact me at my e-mail address.

Always
Write

 
       Because writing--when taught right--can be the most enjoyable part of your teaching day, I created this website.

the "always write" homepage | email me | writingfix | pinterest | facebook | teachers pay teachers | twitter | lesson of the month  

A painter keeps a sketchbook--a place to pencil-sketch persons and objects that might eventually be included in a painting. A writer's notebook, which all my students record original ideas in daily, serves as a our "painter's sketchbook" for our future writer's workshop pieces. Contact me at corbett@corbettharrison.com with any questions about this page.
True story...tenth grade made me hate journals! Daily, I was forced to maintain a journal in my sophomore English class. I learned to despise that spiral notebook because keeping it seemed so very pointless and very messy to me. You see, it wasn't my journal; it was more my teacher's than mine. On certain days of the week, our teacher would give us a literature-specific writing prompt, and we quietly wrote for 10-20 minutes, pretending we cared about the teacher's prompt about what we were reading. After quietly writing, I don't remember ever talking--as a class or in small groups--about what we had written to those prompts; instead, we were "blessed" to hear a lecture about what our long-winded instructor would have written as his response to his own prompt (though he never did actually write--he took role and graded papers while we wrote quietly in our journals). Basically he assigned us a specific prompt, quietly had us write to that prompt while he took care of class business, then--without asking for our input--told us what his thinking based on the prompt he'd provided was. His "journal program" was busy work. Like many traditional teachers, his idea of writing and literature instruction was lecture-driven, not student-centered.

We read Julius Caesar that year (still one of my favorite plays of all time, by the way!), and even back than I found it to be a wonderful, character-driven drama; I mostly loved the character of Cassius, and I re-read his dialogue carefully, trying to understand his rhetorical strategies as he convinced Brutus to kill his friend--Caesar--for the good of the government. As we got deeper into the play, I wanted to write about Cassius and Brutus during those 10-20 minutes we were given for our journals, but I couldn't; instead, I was forced to write to our teacher's prompts, which sounded something like --"Do you believe in prophecy? Why or why not? If so, what convinced you? If not, what would change your mind?" See, my tenth grade teacher wanted us to focus in on the famous quotes from the play, like "Beware the Ides of March," which explains the type of journal prompts he was giving us. My teacher wanted us to write quietly, then he wanted to share all of his own personal stories about why he kind of believed in prophecy. I had no problem discussing his area of interest from the play--prophecy--, but years later I can't help but think that we could have had some much richer whole-class, socratic seminars--or heck, even just informal discussions--if we had a choice to a) respond to the teacher's prompt, or to b) explore a different literature-based idea that we could bring to the table based on what we were finding interesting in the literature. How hard would giving us a choice have been for him? What always struck me as the most interesting thing about that teacher's Julius Caesar unit was that everyone in my class was assigned the exact same essay topic as our summative assessment to the unit; it was something like, "How do the dreams of men and the idea of prophecy shape our thinking about the future?" I wrote a lackluster essay, I'm sure, because I didn't care about that topic; now, had he allowed me to write about Cassius and his persuasive skills, I would have given him a killer essay. I truly would have.

When I became a teacher many years later, I did what a lot of new teachers do; I emulated the bad practices of my own past teachers...even the practices that I hated as a student. For five or six years, especially when we were reading literature, I forced my kids to write in journals using my prompts, not allowing them to discover their own prompts. In 1996, I began working on my Master's Degree, and that was the year I enrolled in a Summer Teaching Institute sponsored by the greatest organization for improving teaching practices: the National Writing Project. My local chapter--the Northern Nevada Writing Project--had me research and create a 90-minute presentation that I was required to deliver to fellow professionals for the purpose of trying to help them see why they might change a current classroom practice. I researched better ways to maintain a classroom "journal program, and I happily discovered there were new schools of thought about using writer's notebooks instead of journals. How I wished that my tenth grade teacher had known about this similar-yet-different learning tool.

Whether I am teaching response to literature or specific writing skills that we will incorporate into a paper during a future writer's workshop day, Writer's Notebooks and Sacred Writing Time have become a foundational base for everything I do when I teach Common Core- and other standards-inspired skills. My students (who, like me back in the tenth grade, used to drop their "journals" straight into the trash can as soon as the semester officially ended) now treasure their writer's notebooks. I keep a plastic crate wherein my students can store their writer's notebook between classes over night, but most want to take them home so they can either continue working on a writing idea they started in class, or they just don't feel comfortable having their cherished notebook out of their sight. I often present professional development sessions on writer's notebooks throughout my district and state, and should I ask my students if I can borrow their notebooks to share at my teacher workshops, well, you should hear them make me swear that nothing will happen to their notebooks while they are in my personal care. Does every child on my roster love their notebooks to this degree? No, of course not, because that will never happen, but 90% of my students think the time we spend working in their writer's notebooks is one of the best parts of their school day. Kindly check out the Pinterest Boards I link to below if you want to see the energy my students put in to their writer's notebooks for me.

Welcome to this page: This particular resource page at my website freely shares not only where my deep-rooted belief in this simple tool--a Writer's Notebook--came from, but it also shares some of my best techniques and lessons for inspiring creative and original thinking from my student writers between the covers of their writer's notebooks.

Writer's Notebooks...Information for my Students & their Parents
To my amazing students and their wonderful parents,

Each student will maintain a writer's notebook for my class. Every day, we will write in it. Whether it takes its shape inside a composition book, a spiral notebook, or something leather-bound and fancier, when students enter my class, the first tool that finds their desktops is their writer's notebooks. I have baskets where students can safely store them after class, or they can choose to keep them with them, which many of my students do. The worst thing that can happen in my classroom is to lose one's writer's notebook, because that's where all of our thinking and pre-writing is stored, and to lose those thoughts and ideas will mean that student cannot truly participate when we work on our writing during our class workshops on writing. Our notebooks hold all our best potential writing topics.

Right from the start each school year, we will establish an important routine in my Language Arts class. The first ten minutes of class every day begins with what we call Sacred Writing Time--or SWT. It's sacred because it's guaranteed--even when there's a substitute teacher for the day--and it's sacred because it's quiet and we take it very seriously. My biggest belief about teaching students to be better writers is that you all have to write every day, and SWT is our opportunity to develop that daily practice. Ten minutes may not sound like much time at all, but that becomes almost an hour of new writing per week per student. How often do musicians and athletes practice before playing for real in a concert or game? Certainly more often than we practice in writing class, and I do everything possible to guarantee you writing practice. I want my students well-practiced when they sit down to write a real paper, which we'll do three or four times a semester.

What you write about during those ten minutes of SWT is completely up to you. I have found when my students write about self-selected topics that they actually care about, they tend to practice better writing strategies and try to put their better skills to work for them. Even though the idea of quietly writing for ten uninterrupted minutes may feel foreign for a while, most of my students quickly learn to strategize for this: some start lists of future topics, some begin a "novel" they want to work on, and some write about something they already know a little about but in a new and unique way. My students must come to class with interesting ideas to, or they won't maximize the writer's notebook's benefits.

When you know you have ten minutes of required writing in my classroom and when you know you have a teacher who values all your attempts to be unique with your use of language skills and vocabulary words...well, when you know that is a regular routine in your academic life, you start to move through the world with not just an observer's eyes but a writer's eyes. Writer's don't just observe the world; they, also, bother to write their observations down. Whether you intend to be a paid writer in the future or not, while in my class, you will write every day. Like the examples that decorate this webpage and my Pinterest Boards, your notebook pages need to be sources of personal pride, so I ask you to consider your penmanship, language and vocabulary skills. Your writer's notebook needs to become a personal source of pride to you; otherwise, you're not taking advantage of the learning opportunity I am giving you by being a teacher who rarely tells you what you should write about.

Make the absolute most of the ten minutes I give you every day to simply write. And never lose your writer's notebook!

--Mr. Harrison (who keeps a writer's notebook too!)


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Pinterest and other Ways I Attempt to Inspire your Notebook Endeavors
Every semester I have both writer's notebook enthusiasts and notebook "hold-outs"! You will too! You have to help your students value their writer's notebook time.

One of my favorite poems is Judy Brown's "Fire." I discuss Brown's poem with my students every year near the beginning. In the poem, she talks about the importance of keeping "space" between logs in order to maximize a fire's growth potential. My philosophy behind my writer's notebook and SWT routines is simple: Standards require that I pile a lot of "logs" on my students' academic plates, and our ten daily minutes of Sacred Writing Time is there chance to make some space between those logs. With ten simple minutes of daily "space," my students' fires blaze--even when we're working on writing that's less fun than the writing we do in our notebooks.

Like yours, my students are very visual learners. In the early days of establishing my SWT Routine, I depended heavily on the mentor texts Amelia's Notebooks and Max's Logbook to show my writers what a great writer's notebook could look like. Years later, I have so many photographed examples from my own students (that I store at Pinterest) that I don't have time to show them all anymore. From these links, my students can self-explore some fantastic examples of daily writing:

Summer Notebook Pages

I used to require summer notebook writing, but now I'm only allowed to strongly encourage it. Here are some past pages of summer writing from my students.

Bingo Card-inspired Pages

Our Writer's Notebook Bingo Cards are just one of the three levels off scaffolding I provide my reluctant writers. Here are some pages inspired by those cards.

Mr. Stick of the Week Winners

Mr. Stick is the "margin mascot" in our notebooks. My students can decorate their writing on their own and nominate themselves for a Mr. Stick of the Week award.

Creative Student Notebooks

Sometimes a page from a student shines with creativity. I store some of my favorite creative ideas at this Pinterest Board. I also store students' notebook metaphors here.

Pages from my own Notebook

I currently have five writer's notebooks and am working on a sixth. One of my notebooks is particularly special to me, and this Pinterest Board shows my efforts.

Mr. Stick of the Year Winners

If you win a "Mr. Stick of the Week," you can enter my annual "Mr. Stick Notebook Page of the Year" contest. Check out how amazing these student samples are.

I also have three ways to support student if the idea of writing about anything they want is daunting to them. My students know they can ask for access to these three tools at any time:

  • 10 Writer's Notebook Bingo Cards -- Dena and I created these over the summer of 2010, and the idea is to only be allowed to make a Bingo or "Four Corners" once a month; after that, students should be able to come up with their own writing topics. Each month's unique "Center Square Lesson" serves as a great assignment that encourages your students to be unique with their writing formats and approaches.
  • 366 Sacred Writing Time Slides -- These took us three summers to finalize, and they are totally loved--even by my students who never need them for writing prompts. If I don't have the daily slide posted when they walk in, boy, do I hear about it!
  • 8 Restaurant-themed Choice Menus -- While the Bingo Cards and SWT Slides are levels of support for reluctant writers, these "Menus" provide writing challenges for your top writers.

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My Oldest On-line Resource: The Daily Writing Prompt Generator
At some point, I became a prompt-o-phile. Over my years--twenty-six of them being in the education field--I have collected favorite writing prompts that seem to spark writing from other people, and I have a pretty impressive collection going here. This random prompt collection was the very first interactive writing prompt I put on-line when I started doing that kind of work back in 2001. Writers really liked the fact that there was a button they could press.

If you know me, you know that I am a true believer that writers must be responsible for coming up with their own prompts, not depend on buttons like the one below; however, based on the continued popularity of this online prompt collection of mine, I understand that everyone must appreciate a writing prompt from time to time. If one of my prompts inspires writing from you, then I am glad I still have this original generator still online and functioning.

Need a writer's notebook writing prompt today?

Instructions: Click the button until you discover a writing prompt that sparks an idea in your brain. Write freely for ten or fifteen minutes, not worrying about writing conventions (spelling, punctuation, grammar, etc.) or if the sentences are perfectly formed. Just put some good ideas down in your notebook that you can build upon and improve later. If you have time, I always suggest you go back and add a visual (like Mr. Stick) to help you remember what you wrote down.

They start with a question on purpose! If you're not sure how to begin your prompt-inspired writing, write a sentence that answers the question and see where your writing goes from there.



 

Suggest a prompt? If you have a favorite prompt you use with students, feel free to send it to me at this email . If I end up adding your prompt to this prompt generator, I will send you a complimentary copy of my writing prompts in a thirty-four page document. Purchase these 573 prompts as a single document: Tired of clicking? I offer a 34-page version of these prompts for sale at our Teachers Pay Teachers store.

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September is International Writer's Notebook Month!
It isn't really. Not yet. In the spirit of the crazy and real holidays found on our daily Sacred Writing Slides, I am determined to have the month of September named this; I am in the process of investigating how one declares such a thing and has it taken seriously. Why September? Because it is the month I teach my students how to take their notebooks' purpose seriously. We actually start christening our new notebooks in August; we practice being able to keep an idea for writing going for ten straight minutes of writing. In September, I start teaching them how to find their own creative voice and style using their writer's notebooks.

Here are two things you can do each September to promote this future international holiday with us!

Free access to September's
Bingo Card Lesson
Enter of Writer's Notebook
Metaphor Contest!

Our 10 Writer's Notebook Bingo Cards remain one of our most popular for-sale products we feature at our Teachers Pay Teachers store. Each of the ten, ready-to-use Bingo cards features a "center-square lesson," designed to inspire a whole class to use and enjoy keeping their notebooks even more, and purchasers of the set have special access to these lessons.

Below is complimentary access to the Alpha-Genres lesson that can be found in the center-square of September's Bingo Card.


In 2015, inspired by our website followers, we decided to begin hosting an annual "Writer's Notebook Metaphor Contest" every September. The idea was inspired by the metaphor Ralph Fletcher introduces us to in chapter one of his wonderful handbook for students, A Writer's Notebook: Unlocking the Writer Within You. All of my students read this handbook book in August and September.

And the end of each September, Dena and I will select (and write a poem about) our four favorite new, student-created metaphors their teachers submit.




On this Page:
Products for Writer's Notebooks:
The writer's notebook ideas on this page are all freely shared, but keeping this website online is not free. We, therefore, sell three ready-to-go products to help teachers easily launch a writer's notebook routine. Thanks in advance for any purchasers out there! We stay online and ad-free because of you!

10 Writer's Notebook Bingo Cards

366 Sacred Writing Time Slides

8 Restaurant-Themed Choice Menus

Notebook Mentor Texts that Inspire Student Writers:


A Writer's Notebook: Unlocking the Writer Within You by Ralph Fletcher


Marissa Moss's entire Amelia's Notebook series is great, and I have them all. My favorite titles include:


Max's Logbook
by Marissa Moss
(out of print but you can get a used copy for cheap!)


Notebook Know-How: Strategies for Writer's Notebooks by Aimee Buckner


Listography Journal: Your Life in Lists
(a great inspirer! I keep this book in my chalk tray)


Wreck this Journal by Keri Smith
(another fun series that will inspire students!)

Fifteen Lessons Specifically Designed to Improve My Students' Writer's Notebook-Keeping Skills
My rationale for assigning certain pages in my students' writer's notebooks: I so truly admire the words and ideas of author Ralph Fletcher, but I am confident he and I would most likely disagree over my use--twice a month on average--of a writing lesson wherein I require my students to "publish" a finalized idea directly in their writer's notebook. In Ralph's awesome, student-friendly handbook--A Writer's Notebook: Unlocking the Writer in You, Ralph stresses that a true notebooks' pages should only be inspired by choice-based thinking and reflecting from each individual writer. The fact that I require an assigned, objective-based page each month admittedly takes away from the 100% ownership we want our students to feel about their writer's notebooks. I understand Ralph's point, but I've ultimately decided on a compromise that requires one page out of every ten or twelve to be one that I assign; I think that's a fair amount of control for me to maintain without interfering with my students' sense of ownership.

Why do I create lessons specifically for notebooks? I have a five reasons:

  1. Visual appeal. I want my students to have occasional pages in their notebooks that visually match the quality of one of our notebook mentor texts: Amelia's Notebook by Marissa Moss. A visual notebook is more likely to be shared with peers and celebrated. A visual notebook is more likely to revisited by the student who wrote and decorated the words, and it can be "mined" for topics and ideas for upcoming writer's workshops. A visual notebook is more likely to be kept after my time with these students is over. I have some students who have very few visuals in their notebooks at all, and my assigned notebook pages become a short, visual oasis in the Sahara-sized thoughts they are writing into their notebooks. When you're flipping back through a notebook, you're naturally inclined to stop and study harder the pages with visuals. Don't believe me? Try it. Pick up one of your kid's notebooks and flip until you feel like stopping; if your eyes are included in this process, you'll most likely stop on a page with visuals and writing. Visual pages = motivation to stop and re-read something written that might be worth re-reading.
  2. Word-and-image layout practice. We are a project-based school. Three times a year, our students come back in the evening and present interdisciplinary, team-created projects to community judges. We call these our "roundtables." When our students present to their judges, they must come with interesting materials they've created to share; they don't just stand there and talk, nor do they read every word off of a Powerpoint. Writer's notebooks (or "interactive notebooks," which is what my team's science, math, and history teachers call theirs) are a perfect place to practice creating something visual and something written that come together. In a perfect student notebook, visuals and words blend and support each other, and students should start to build thinking skills that teach them the basics of "layout." My assigned notebooks require students to consider and plan an interesting layout as part of the final product requirement.
  3. A unique venue for teaching trait skills. I don't assign writing; I teach it, which means I focus on writing skills (not products) when I am crafting my instruction. My lessons' objectives are less likely to be product-based (like "write a comparison/contrast essay") and more likely to be skill-based (like "practice your sentence fluency skills in your writing using your knowledge off prepositions and conjunctions"). Many of my notebook lessons are skill-based, and having those skills highlighted on a page that is in close proximity to their free-writing, well, I think the skills increase in their likelihood of rubbing off and sneaking their way into my students' writing, especially when I make them share and re-read the assigned pages every opportunity I can.
  4. Different written structures that go beyond block paragraphs. I teach simple creative structures for my students to try--like eighth-grader Kage's rhyming slogans, pictured at right. I don't want my students' notebooks to become little more than lists or little more than block paragraph after block paragraph. If you teach your students small, creative structures, then remind them often that they might use those structures in their writer's notebooks instead of always writing paragraphs, believe it or not, many of them actually experiment with structure. Many of my notebook lessons focus on giving my students a new, imitate-able structure. Once established, my students may come back to those structures at any time, applying their use to different topics or pieces of content. Having them established in the writer's notebook increases the likelihood that students will use them again. Case in point, I taught my sixth graders two years back how to write a creative recipe that recounted an event from history; now they're eighth graders and we're halfway through this school year, and quite a few of them have written a new recipe in their notebooks without being required to.
  5. Language can be uniquely "toyed" with in a notebook. I teach a love of language. My best notebook lessons showcase that love by having students play some sort of word game, and students create a page that we ultimately decorate. With all the standards and expectations they throw at us, I worry about how we can still find time to justify teaching trivial-but-delightful things like palindromes or spoonerisms. I can absolutely justify it through writer's notebook lessons and challenges; much of my notebook instruction teaches a trivial love of language, but at the same time the lesson is backed up by 3-4 of the previously-listed items in this rationale.
Three Notebook Lessons that Promote Using Interesting Visuals in a Writer's Notebooks
Letters to Artistic Neighbors
Homophone Comic Strips
Old Black Fly lands on my Personal Treasures

Three Notebook Lessons that Require Students to Plan a Page Layout
Four Unique Character Names
Pi Day Poems
Rhyming Slogans

Notebook Lessons that Promote Writing Skills
Showing versus Telling Riddles
Normal or Nuts?
What the DIckens?

Skill being taught: SHOWING, which is a subskill of the IDEA DEVELOPMENT writing trait.

Skill being taught: CAPTURING WRITTEN PERSONALITY, which is part of the VOICE writing trait.

Skill being taught: FIXING COMMA SPLICES, which is part of the CONVENTIONS writing trait.


Notebook Lessons that Encourage Students to Write without Paragraphs
Noun Phrases & Job Description Lists
Recipe Writes
Superhero ABCs

Notebook Lessons that Encourage Word-Play
Pangrams
Tom Swifties
Collective Noun Riddles

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My Own Writing Process Revealed: From Writer's Notebook to FInal Draft
I teach writing--not always well. I also write--again, not always well. I share what I've published with my students, but I also share what I've written at all steps of my own writing process, asking for their input. To be perfectly blunt, it's my willingness to make sure I have a teacher model of so many writing assignments that makes me a stand-out teacher in realm known as Language Arts. I'm certainly not the world's greatest writing teacher, and I am certainly not a very good writer myself, and I so completely understand how difficult it is for other teachers to commit to the extra time teacher modeling adds to our prep work. Here's my simple truth: I wouldn't continue to do it if I didn't thoroughly believe it's what makes my kids genuinely energetic about my writing lessons, and when my kids are energetic, they give me their best effort and their best work.

As the great Carolyn Tomlinson said about another huge, time-consuming-but-vastly-important topic for education--differentiating instruction--"It's okay to start small. Just start."

You know how I'd start, if I was just starting out again? This is not an advertisement for my own stuff, but maybe it is. I'd purchase my own Writer's Notebook Bundle (the Bingo Cards, the SWT slides, and/or the restaurant-themed choice menus), and as soon as I had made sure every single class was taking those ten minutes of daily Sacred Writing Time seriously, I'd write during those ten minutes too! I know there are teachers reading this right now who've purchased those materials from me, and who--instead of using those ten quiet minutes to establish their own writer's notebooks--they take care of class business and email while their students are being so quiet and their little student pencils are dancing. If that's you and you don't have a writer's notebook started yet, then stop doing that! My products provide you that ten minutes, and if you still don't have a notebook started, then you bought the materials for the wrong reason. Go start a darn notebook and share your crazy ideas with your kids once you realize how much fun it is to keep one, how much fun it is to ramble some days, how much fun it is to let your thoughts become decoration on what was once a blank notebook page.

It's one of noble missions, folks. I want more teachers to model their own writing. I share some of my own teacher models in this space below. If these don't convince you to write alongside your students in a notebook, maybe you're hopeless, or maybe I'm in idiotic idealist. I'll let you decide on your own.

The Story of my First Real, Authentic, Honest-to-Goodness, Choice-Based Writer's Notebook
I still own it. I cherish that little composition book. If it was ever lost, I would genuinely weep with sadness.
I began requiring journal writing way back in 1990--my first year of teaching. I had taken a methods class at my university that stressed the importance of having students keep journals to record daily responses to topics. I said, "Why not?" and every student from day one maintained a spiral-bound "journal" for me. Most students tossed their journals in the trash on the last day of class in June; they could have cared less about the responses they'd scribbled in there, and I knew they didn't care about their journals, yet I continued to use this daily practice for those first five or so years of teaching. To be perfectly honest, journal-writing was ten or fifteen minutes of daily "busy work" that allowed me to take care of attendance and set up the classroom's lesson for the day while the kids were quiet. It was boring, and I was asking them to maintain a classroom tool that I would have thought was pointless to maintain as well.

In the spring of 1998, thanks to my high school journalism students' hard work, I was awarded with a month-long, summer fellowship from C-SPAN in Washington, D.C., and the first thing the wonderful folks at C-SPAN asked me to do upon arrival was to keep a daily journal that documented my experience there. Since graduating college seven years earlier, I had not kept my own journal; I was asking my students to keep theirs going, but I was not doing it alongside them, nor had I ever shown them any of my journals from college. Maintaining that C-SPAN daily journal was an eye-opening experience for me. I really went the extra mile as I kept it too; I illustrated my daily entries (with the "Mr. Stick" character that I had recently begun using in class), and I added lots of visuals with glue and scotch tape. You can click on the image at left to be able to zoom in on the first page of my "Mr. Stick Goes to Washington" journal I kept that summer. It's quite fun to look back through a journal that you care about when you're done keeping it. So many years later, I have probably re-read each day's entry from that summer experience over a hundred times, and I am always floored by all the really good thinking I was doing back then.

When I returned to my classroom in August of 1998, I showed and shared entries from my summer journal every day during that first month of school. My kids were truly fascinated by it, probably because of the genuine energy that came out of me as I shared those cool experiences I'd had in D.C.; for the first time, my actually were excited to keep journals too, and they wanted theirs to be just as visual as mine. Because I could now explain my own thinking process based on each page I shared, they seemed much more willing to put deeper thought into their journals. I was floored at the difference in my students' attitudes about their journals all that school year. Only a few threw theirs away that June; several years later, after honing my teaching skills just a bit more, I would guess that none of my students felt their journals were worth so little that they considered dropping them in the trash.

Over the next dozen years that followed that trip to D.C., I slowly improved my ability to inspire my students with the daily writing expectations. Besides changing the tool's name (we switched from calling them journals to writer's notebooks at some point in my own learning, but I can no longer pinpoint exactly when that happened), we also changed the "spirit" behind my expectation in having them keep their own notebooks. I no longer wanted the "Dear Diary"-like writing I was receiving, I no longer wanted the writing to read like a play-by-play account of their lives' events since their previous journal entry, and I no longer wanted to provide them with prompts that they didn't care much about; instead, I wanted them to have the freedom to take an important idea and go somewhere interesting with it in their own way. They would always have my permission to be as linear and logical as they'd like during their writing, but they also had my permission to be as recklessly creative when the spirit moved them.

The overwhelming majority of my students now respect their writer's notebooks enough to hold on to them tightly. Will they keep them forever? I doubt it, but they report to me years later that they still have them. That is definitely cool, in my opinion. I certainly wish I'd kept my journals from middle school.

More importantly, since switching from journals to writer's notebooks, my teaching skills have improved. When you design a lesson with a writer's notebook element strategically placed to assist with students' pre-writing, you create a better lesson. I know for a fact that I don't ever include enough time for pre-writing, and my lessons that I've created since switching do such a better job at laying a foundation for ideas to grow and or writing skills to blossom. I used to rush through pre-writing; now, it's a purposely slow process that allows for me to strategically teach other writing skills while our ideas are still taking shape for our bigger paper assignments.

The big idea here is that students should write every day in some personal place that keeps their writing all together. Call it a journal, or tweak the journal-writing philosophy and make it a true writer's notebook. Our writer's notebooks give us the energy and the creative freedom to care about writing process. The energy my kids give to their writing, well, it simply amazes me. And it amazes them. "We have good ideas sometimes," one of my seventh graders boasted the other day after a fun lesson on starting sentences with prepositions. I agreed and asked, "Who wants to write about one of these ideas for the next ten minutes so we don't forget what we were just thinking?" Over 80% of my students raised their hand.

I have to be doing something right. I'm convinced it's my dedication to establishing a high-quality writer's notebook routine.

I now teach my students that great final drafts begin in well-maintained and thoughtful writer's notebooks; the process of taking a good or original idea from a writer's notebook entry to a revised and edited final draft is exactly what I try to model for my students. When time permits, I very much enjoy writing right alongside my students; when time doesn't permit, I recycle papers I had written in previous years, and I am thankful that I thought to save all my steps of the process. Here are three papers I can recycle because I took the time to save all my steps of the writing process. I share mine here, hoping teachers are inspired by my lead to begin doing the same with their own favorite writing assignments. We maintain a positive writing environment in my classroom because--quite frankly--I participate too.

Every year, I take several more pieces of personal writing through the writing process, and I save my steps for future use. I expect my students to see how writing changes as it moves from a writer's notebook to a rough draft, and how writing changes when it's truly revised by the writer based on peer and teacher feedback.

Below, I share three papers that I wrote alongside my students in recent years. My students are always impressed to see how much my idea develops and changes as the piece moves from draft to draft. That, my teaching friends, is the purpose of a writer's notebook--to capture the initial idea so that you can later shape it into something powerful and worthy of one's portfolio.

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How a 10-minute Notebook Entry about a Shiny Penny Inspired a Persuasive Piece of Writing for my Writing Portfolio
Inspired by Amelia in the Amelia's Notebook series, I found that it's fun to tape artifacts in your writer's notebook. I love that I still own this penny.
I often begin class with a true story about something that's recently happened to me. I amused my students one Wednesday in September with the true tale of how my bank actually made me stand in line for twenty minutes to withdraw a single penny. At my bank, I have occasionally heard other customers "explode" with anger over little things and threaten to do their banking elsewhere. As I stood in line, I debated whether I should explode when I finally arrived at the front of the line, or if I should make a funny story out of the experience. I chose to go with the funny option, and the page I created in my notebook is below on the left.

On the right-hand side, you can access the process the paper went through as I took it through writer's workshop. I made my writing process very visible to my students. On the left-hand side, you can see the original writer's notebook page that inspired the idea for the writing.

  • Pre-writing #1: First I told the story out-loud to my students, explaining that before I write anything, I like to talk it out as a story. This is a technique I learned from Mr. Borilla, my fourth and fifth grade teacher.
  • Pre-writing #2: Next, I shared with them a free-verse poem (pictured at left) I had written in my writer's notebook about the incident. My penny has been taped to the page!
  • Rough draft: I next let the piece of writing take shape as a hand-written draft. I purposely made sure the paper was very different than the idea originally in my writer's notebook. I wanted my students to understand that notebooks just hold good ideas; those good ideas may go very different directions when drafting begins.
  • Second draft: After some self- and peer-feedback on my hand-written rough draft, (using these feedback rating cards) revisions were made and the draft is typed.
  • Highlighted second draft: As part of the peer-feedback portion of the writer's workshop, students highlighted each other's drafts using the attached rubric and then discussed whether or not the highlights indicated if the student still had some areas of work to complete.
  • My final draft: Based on the goals I set from the highlighted draft and after doing some additional editing, the writing is finalized.
  • Evaluation rubric & teacher scoring sheet: I'm not sure I earned a perfect 30 on this paper! Hey students of mine, what score would you have given my final draft? Use the rubric and hand me a scoring sheet, and I'll give you a sticker for your writer's notebook!

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An Expository Piece of Writing Inspired by a Little Raptor Perched on my Porch
I often try for a "Top Ten List" during Sacred Writing Time, but I run out of room! Sometimes a "Top Eight List" works too!

As part of our Writer's Workshop, I allow my students to choose their own topics, even for their expository requirement. I vehemently encourage them to discover a topic they don't know much about but would like to learn; I'd much rather have a small amount of research than have them write a report on something they already know tons about. With the process you see below, I was modeling how you find an interesting (but not overwhelming) topic that can be researched based on personal interest.

Early one morning, a kestrel and I startled each other. He was under a rafter on my porch, and I was in my pajamas and was taking the trash out to the curb. The incident inspired a journey in writing that became one of my portfolio pieces

  • Pre-writing, part 1: Again, I started my writing process for this next piece as an oral story I told my classes. I let them know I was searching for an expository topic to do some research on, and that I'd had this experience with a bird dive-bombing my wife and I before dusk. Here's a loose transcription of the oral story they heard.
  • Pre-writing, part 2: I coincidentally needed to teach my students to highlight and summarize non-fiction articles for a project they had coming up in science class, so I found them an article on-line to practice highlighting with a partner while learning about the kestrel, giving me opportunities to talk more about my own expository topic, reminding them they needed to be finding one too!
  • Pre-writing, part 3: I created the pictured writer's notebook page (at left) to show them. I was able to snap a picture of my porch kestrel (which actually made him pretty mad at me!), and then I created a "rating system" to classify some of the facts I remembered and thought I might use in my own essay.
  • Rough draft: I hand-wrote the following rough draft to share, and I purposely used some pretty weak verbs throughout my draft as well as predictable organization.
  • Typed Second Draft: I purposely improved my verbs as I typed and revised and tried to lose some of the formulaic-sounding language from my rough draft.
  • Rubric: I used this rubric to not only come up with a personal revision plan but also to score my final draft (as well as my students' final drafts).
  • Final Draft: Complete with my "Works Cited" list.

 

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A Narrative Piece of Writing Inspired by Animal Farm and some Basic Astronomy Facts I didn't even have to Research
After creating this notebook page and the allegory it inspired, my sixth graders annually create science- or math-inspired allegories.
It's a great assignment. It began with this notebook entry that I created because I knew I was going to need a model to show my students.
My students--like yours--most likely prefer narrative writing over the expository and argumentative/persuasive genres. Sometimes I like to throw them a true challenge with narrative writing, and in fall of 2011, I based my challenge on our study of a recently-studied George Orwell novel with my sixth graders. Two years later, those former sixth graders still loved brainstorming and developing ideas for original allegories.

  • Pre-writing, part 1: I had a really smart group of sixth graders in 2011. As we read Animal Farm in November, they showed great interest in the word allegory. Past years' sixth graders were satisfied simply labeling Orwell's novel a big, fat fable, but this year, the kids wanted to talk about writing their own allegories after I introduced that term to them. We'd already brainstormed other historical events (besides that Bolshevik Revolution) that would make interesting allegories, but I wanted to challenge them to think about scientific processes that might inspire interesting allegorical narratives. I had them personify the three rock types as a pre-write for a possible narrative I was considering challenging them with. Here is a particularly fun pre-write from one of those sixth graders.
  • Pre-writing, part 2: After playfully personifying "rock people" in our writer's notebooks, I wanted to show my students how I would brainstorm for an allegory based on a scientific process. Here is the notebook page I created to inspire my own "scientific allegory" based on how a solar eclipse occurs.
  • Rough draft: I actually showed my sixth graders this draft before I showed them the notebook page (pictured at left) that inspired it because I wanted them to see if they could figure out what I was allegorically representing with just my words, not the pictures. The easily could. They were inspired to write scientific allegories too.
  • Final draft: I felt pretty good about my rough draft, so the next and final draft didn't change dramatically. I think that happens some times when you really put a lot of work into your first draft and your pre-write.

 

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