Choosing a Writer's Notebook Philosophy: The Purists vs. the Hybridists

The Writer's Notebook has become a cornerstone of the English classroom over the past decade and has been touted by NCTE, The College Board, The National Writing Project, The Young Writer's Project, and others as a necessary component in the writing process.

It is true that the Writer's Notebook is a fantastic tool to use in any English classroom, but it is important to discern which notebook philosophy you are using or would like to use in order to get the most out of it.  

The Writer's Notebook Purists are the Ralph Fletcher-ites who believe that the notebook should represent the organic writing process in which students are completely free to make the notebook their own.  With this philosophy, students can select their own writing topics and brainstorm strategies and have complete FREEDOM to express their ideas about the world around them.

I have been a Purist myself and have used this type of Writer's Notebook in both my English classes and my Creative Writing course.  However, I saw more success with the purist notebook in my Creative Writing course because students were doing creative writing assignments without the constraints of standardized testing.  AND, not to mention, my Creative Writing students selected the class because they liked to write.  So, I had no problem with any student using the notebook.  They used it every single day of class and throughout every single facet of the writing process.  I gave my Creative Writing students the freedom to choose what kind of notebook they would use-- the traditional composition book, a specialty spiral, a leather-bound journal-- the choice was theirs!  Some of these notebooks were small, some large-- it did not matter because I never took it up for a grade.  Their notebooks were their notebooks, their personal private property.  

On the other hand, things were a bit different in my English classes.  My students in these classes did not all enjoy the writing process, and many struggled with the challenge of creating something from nothing.  I, too, faced challenges with a purist notebook under the constraints of standardized testing due to the expectations to see my students pass an exam with argumentative/ persuasive/ literary analysis essays as the litmus for success.  I saw very quickly that when given complete freedom to write, my students were not voluntarily choosing to write a literary analysis essay about King Lear, nor were they choosing to brainstorm evidence before and against recycling programs in school.  I also found it difficult to hold students accountable for using the notebook and difficulty grading them on the same targets since they literally had different sized notebooks and were doing very different things with it-- and some not using it all. I also found more and more that students wanted to use their iPhone notepads and other Apps for capturing and storing ideas, not a hard-bound notebook.  This was the point in my career when I made the transition to the Hybrid Writer's Notebook-- or what is being termed the Interactive Notebook.

With the hybrid notebook, I married the concept of free writing with the structured writing assignments needed to help my students pass the standardized test.  This meant giving my students structure while still allowing room for the writing to breathe.  But how did I accomplish this feat?  

Here's how:

At the beginning of the school year, I require my students purchase two 5-subject college-ruled spiral notebooks-- one for each semester.  These notebooks become their Interactive Notebooks for the entire year. When they bring them to class, we set up the five sections of the notebook as follows:

Section ONE-- Journals

Section TWO-- Notes

Section THREE-- Grammar

Section FOUR-- Vocabulary

Section FIVE-- Free-writing

Inherent in this notebook structure is a system that addresses the needs of the Writer's Notebook Purist as well as the demands of preparing our students to write effective analysis.  The sections of this notebook are self-explanatory, but how I integrate free-writing into the class is by allowing students free time to write at least 2-3 times per week in class.  I also require that they select a piece of writing of their choice to take through the writing process and turn in by the end of the semester.  With this system, students' work is kept primarily in this notebook, their class Writing Folder, and on their computers at home.  It makes assessment much easier for me as a teacher but also helps keep students organized.  This is not the only way to set up an interactive notebook.  This is what works for me, but there are a TON of ways to do this to meet the same goals.  At the end of the day, you should select a philosophy that meets your needs and the needs of your students.

Selecting a Writer's Notebook philosophy is an important decision to make because it determines how you will assign work and assess it.  It determines how you will use class time and what homework assignments will look like.  

So what are you?  A Purist?  or a Hybridist?  What works for you?

Leave a comment with any other tips/ thoughts/ ideas you have about the Writer's Notebook.

And if you'd like more information about how I use the Writer's Notebook in my classroom (as well as the handouts I use for the different sections of the notebook), check out this product on my TpT store by clicking on the image below.  Positive feedback is always appreciated!


About the Author

Meredith is the founder and creator of TeachWriting.org and Bespoke ELA.  She has taught high school English for 10+ years in Dallas, Chicago, and New York City and holds a M.A. in Literature from Northwestern University.  She has always had a connection to the written word-- through songwriting, screenplay writing, and essay writing-- and she enjoys the process of teaching students how to express their ideas.  Meredith enjoys life with her husband, daughter, and sweet pups.