Implementing the Writer's Notebook in the Secondary English Class: 5 Decisions for Success!

The Writer's Notebook has become a cornerstone of the ELA classroom as a tool for facilitating the writing process.  The Writer's Notebook not only helps students have a central database for their ideas and drafts, but it also helps them stay organized and enables easier assessment for teachers.  

Here are FIVE DECISIONS you should make when implementing a Writer's Notebook into your secondary ELA class.

1.  Choose a Writer's Notebook Philosophy

In one of my previous blog articles, I discussed the importance of choosing a Writer's Notebook Philosophy.  You can find that blog article by clicking on the picture below:

Click on the photo to read my blog article about Writer's Notebook philosophies.

Click on the photo to read my blog article about Writer's Notebook philosophies.

There are two Writer's Notebook philosophies:  Purist and Hybridist.  The essential difference between the two philosophies is that the Purists believe the notebook should be 100% student choice and not assessed by the teacher while the Hybridists involve both teacher-directed and student-directed tasks.  Deciding upon your notebook philosophy should be your first decision because it will determine how you will organize, implement, and assess the notebook.

2.  Physical notebook or Computer-based notebook?

The second decision you need to make after deciding upon a philosophy is whether or not you will have your students use a physical notebook, such as a spiral or binder, or whether you will have your students use an App/ Website/ Blog or other online tool for their work.  OR a third option could involve a combination of a physical notebook and something computer based.  

If you have never had your students use a Writer's Notebook, my recommendation would be to start with a physical notebook to simplify the process and then move onto technology later. Once you feel comfortable with how you will use the notebook, you can move on to experimenting with technology.  I would suggest easing into the online component by having your students display a portfolio of their final work on a site such as Atavist or Seesaw.  And then a possible third step in this process would be moving from the online portfolio to using these applications for collaborations and draft work.

3.  What will you have your students do with the notebook?

Remember that the goal of The Writer's Notebook is to facilitate the writing process.  In its purest form, the notebook is supposed to be the place where writers jot down ideas, thoughts, questions, lists, inspiration, poems, drafts, snippets of dialogue, etc.  It's supposed to be a place for a writer to explore and to capture ideas and to draft writing.  I'm a huge advocate of Backward Design, what I call going from MACRO to MICRO, so what your students will do with the notebook depends on what the end writing products are and the skills the students need to master by the end of the school year.  This will vary from grade to grade.  A 6th grade ELA class will not use the notebook the same way as a 12th grade ELA class, and they shouldn't because they have different skill sets to master.  For instance, 6th graders might focus on learning the writing process through writing memoir while 12th graders might focus on writing a synthesis essay-- different goals for different grades.  Therefore, the 6th grade class might have a notebook with the following sections:  Memories, Mini-lessons, Drafts.  The 12th grade class might have a notebook with the following sections:  Quote Logs, Synthesis Charts, Drafts.  

I have my students in 10th grade organize the notebook into the following sections:

Writing

Notes & Grammar

Quote Logs

Vocabulary

Free Writing 

The section titles explain what goes into each section.  Section #1, the Writing section, contains teacher-directed prompts and essay drafts.  Sections 2-4 all involve gathering evidence, information, mini-lessons, and tools needed to write the drafts in Section #1.  I like for my students to have all of this information in one 5-subject spiral notebook so that as they are writing they can easily access the tools they need right at their fingertips.  Section #5 is the Free section where students can have the freedom to explore any type of writing they choose.  In this way, I try to strike a balance between the Purist Notebook concept and the Hybrid concept.  

4.  How will you assess the notebook?

Making this decision connects back to Decision #1-- the notebook philosophy.  If you have decided to be a Writer's Notebook Purist, this means that you will not assess the notebook at all. The Purists believe in giving their students a truly organic writing experience.  Before you go this route, it is important to determine if your students are able to handle this level of responsibility.  I can honestly say that the only classes I've seen this work in were my Creative Writing classes and AP Literature classes-- and that was not with 100% success.  A Purist concept can work if students are disciplined and have had enough teacher direction under their belts to know what to do with it.  So, consider that when deciding to go this route.

For everyone else who is doing a hybrid notebook, figure out a system for how you will hold students accountable for the activities you want them to complete in the notebook.  I am not a fan of taking up notebooks because I believe they belong to students, and besides that, I have 170 students, so taking up 170 notebooks would be a nightmare.  Instead, I take frequent homework and class participation checks in class while my students are working on something else by simply walking around with a checklist on my clipboard.  When it comes time for a formal notebook assessment, I have my students swap and grade each other, and I simply audit the process.  To do this, I have my students turn in their rubrics that they've used to grade each other, and I will randomly select 5-10 rubrics from the stack and have those students turn in their notebooks for me to double-check.  I have rarely, if ever, found any real inconsistencies with the grading process.  Here is an example rubric that I've used with my students for the grading process:

The Writer's Notebook should be a safe place for students try out new ideas without the risk of being graded or losing points.  It should be a safe place to try something out and get it wrong. The notebook should not be a place where you are grading for accuracy of information.  You want to simply assess the notebook for participation.  Are students participating in the process of learning?  Are they attempting to interact with the information in class?  If so, then that's a 100. You can assess their skills' mastery when they turn in drafts throughout the writing process.

5.  How will students reflect back upon their work?

Part of the writing process should include reflection upon work as well as the skills and enduring understandings for each piece of writing.  I like for my students to do this kind of reflection in Section #1 of the notebook by using the Common Core One Sheet (pictured below).  Students identify the standards they worked on for each activity in the notebook and then reflect back upon how they think they performed as well as what they need to continue to work on.  

By having students reflect back upon the standards, they become responsible for tracking their own learning and their own progress-- that is the goal of education.  To forge independent students, and this process facilitates that rite of passage.  So, figure out a way for students to reflect back upon what they're writing and what they're learning.  

What ideas do you have for implementing the notebook?  I'd love to hear from you!  Please comment below with any thoughts and ideas about implementing the Writer's Notebook into Secondary ELA classes.