Writer’s Notebook

I have introduced writer’s notebooks to my English classes this year, with great success. There has been a distinct improvement in presentation of student work, along with a growing sense of student pride in their precious notebooks. It took us a while to develop the writer’s notebook “habit” and we still have a way to go, but one of the students told me yesterday, that when it comes to the end of the year and his mother is helping him clean out his bag and throw out all his old school books, that he will instruct her not to throw away his writer’s notebook.  That made me really pleased.

I have decided to document our journey – and blog about the different writing ideas and prompts we use. Very few of these ideas are original or mine – but they are all successful and have all been introduced and delivered in a way that has cultivated enthusiasm and a sense of accomplishment for the students.

One of our first writing prompts was about

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I used the inspiration of Corbett Harrison for this unit of work. We began by reading the magical picture story book by Australian author Mem Fox,  Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge

We discussed metaphors and how they were different to similes – which use the words “like” or “as”. Unlike similes, metaphors state that something is something else. For example: “What’s a memory?” which is the question Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge asks of the old people in the old people’s home. Each of their answers was a metaphor. A memory is:

  • something you remember
  • something as precious as gold
  • something from long ago
  • something that makes you laugh
  • something warm
Then I explained to the students that we would be writing 4 metaphor poetry  We would be taking a noun like thunder or happiness and writing 4 metaphorical verses about each,  online samples of which I showed the students. We used the interactive section of the Writing Fix blog to use as a diving board for our own writing. We got some examples from students as a whole class until I was sure all the students knew what was required and then they had two periods of writing, editing and finally publishing in their writer’s notebooks.
We focused on the 6+1 writing traits of WORD CHOICE  and IDEAS.  

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Special person – special place, is something I have done with my students for several years now, and always evokes some beautifully reflective and poignant writing. The idea is to think of someone who is or was really special in your life and then think of them in a place where they were most happy, or most relaxed. The special person can also be an animal – a special pet – which is either living or dead.

Then you write as though you were looking at this person or animal, through a window or a space of some kind and that you are invisible to the special person. You begin the piece with “I see you ……..” The special place can be a number of different places – eg garden, veranda, shopping etc and the description should show the empathy and love you feel or felt for this person/animal.  For example – I wrote one about my father who died many years ago now. This is the first paragraph:

“I see you dad, bending from the waist down, backside in the air, weeding your precious vegetable patch. Your trusty old hat is on your head, although every now and then it plops gently onto the ground as gravity claims it for a short time. You stand up, surveying your work – all the weeding , hoeing and straightening of rows. You bend again and pluck a couple of ripe, green pea pods off the plant. You pod the peas and eat them raw – tossing the spent shells into your mulch bin in the corner of the garden beds.”
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Corbett Harrison

Above is a poem written in the Start and Stop style which makes up this lesson. Start and stop poetry, starts and stops with the same line. The trick is to have the line begin the first sentence, and then to have it end the last sentence.

“…the goal of the writer should be to include enough details in between the two repeating lines so that a reader might just not remember the last line of the poem is a repeat of its first line unless they go back and look carefully. A good Start & Stop Poem, I always say, also requires a second poetic tool (simile, metaphor, rhyme, onomatopoeia, personification, alliteration, imagery etc.) to fill in those details. In my model poem at right, I used personification, and I make sure my students notice this (as well as review the names of the other poetic options they are allowed to use.” Corbett Harrison

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We begin this lesson, by looking at the emotions faces for Mr Stick – our editing buddy. We brainstorm as many emotions as possible, making sure we wrote the name of the emotion. For example – instead of happy – we write happiness; instead of angry, we write anger; instead of anxious – we write anxiety.  I then modelled a poem on the white board, which was constructed by the whole class.

Anxiety is standing on the starting line, eyes ahead, waiting for the starter’s gun

Anxiety is waiting for that important phone call and watching the clock on the wall

Anxiety is sweaty palms and butterflies in your stomach

Anxiety is watching the red and blue lights flashing behind you

Anxiety is wondering where the fire brigade is

Now it’s the turn of the students, to write their own in their notebooks.
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Now to meet Stickman or Mr Stick  I first read about the margin mascot, on Corbett Harrison’s blog.  Basically how I use Stickman, is as an editing buddy. I use him in conjunction with the 6+1 traits. I present the students with the emotions sheet which has graphics for the many different faces for Stickman, and also with the 6+1 post it notes, for whichever writing trait we are focusing on.

After and or during the writing process, Stickman appears in the margin or somewhere on the page, with his thoughts on what needs to happen to improve the writing. For instance, if we are focusing on word choice, the Stickman thinking might be “Is there a metaphor I could use?”; “Have I used enough adjectives?”; “Awesome! I have used some ‘risky’ words in my writing”. etc This is a brilliant, popular way, of making student thoughts on the whole editing process – explicit and supports their use of the 6+1 writing traits focus.

Students do the necessary editing, then use the post it note ranking system, to evaluate their own writing. After they have revised then edited, it’s the teacher’s turn to have some input.

Emotional d

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I experienced one of those “wow” moments today while I was working with my year 7 students. I was  showing them a strategy of retelling a story (for a book or movie review) in a succinct way. I was demonstrating  how to write a 6 box summary – where you write the first and last events first, forcing you to be very selective about the key events leading from the beginning to the end. A disagreement began about where the conclusion began, which prompted me to create a timeline of key events. We then chunked a few ideas together, to create boxes 2, 3, 4 and 5 and the events to be included in the final box, became much clearer.

It is one of those really simple ideas – probably not a new one to most of you – but one that I will use again and again.

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< The IMPORTANT BOOK is written by Margaret Wise Brown. I first discovered this book on Corbett Harrison’s blog The formula is simple and supports students of all writing abilities, by providing a framework, but “the most important thing about the framework, is that you can write inside it, or outside of it.” I gave the students a template, but as we discovered, creative writing can take us many places, so writing more or less or phrasing your writing differently to the template, was fine. In fact, as long as it started and finished with the same sentence, what form the middle came in, didn’t matter.

The important thing about…..
is……….
They / it…………..
and……………
They / it ………….
and………..
but the important thing about………
is…………

I wrote one about Spring in my own writer’s notebook, then shared it with the students as an example.

The important thing about spring, is that it brings new beginnings.
It eases us out of winter, and it is colourful and warm.
It is brimming with buds, daffodils and baby animals, pollen and hay fever
but the important thing about spring, is that is brings new beginnings.

With my students, we read the book, then brainstormed a whole lot of topics which they might like to write about. We listed things such as seasons, clocks, puddles, school bus, Olympic games, winning, losing, participation, hugs, brothers, sisters, grandma etc.

One of my favourite pieces of student writing, came from a year 8 student who wrote:
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This has nothing to do with the size of the font! Writing small is a really powerful strategy to entice writers to tease out the detail and tap into the emotion of the event to develop word choice and voice.

The simplest example I can give is a student who wrote a typical piece about going to visit his grandparents. It was tediously uninteresting and included all the “boring bits” about getting up, getting in the car, picking up McDonald’s on the way, hitting a kangaroo on the way and finally arriving at Grandma’s house. Hang on there – back it up! Did you just write 2 quick sentences about “HITTING A KANGAROO”????

There is the story! That’s what Ralph Fletcher means about “writing small”. I like to tell my students that they can write big about something small. 2 sentences become the basis for an entire story – using all the writing strategies like:

Begin in action – sizzling start
Show don’t tell – paint a picture with words
Ban the boring bits – skip chunks of time with words like; later, eventually, meanwhile
Dynamic dialogue – use dialogue sparingly, and when you do, make it dynamic! Pivotal to the event.
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18 months ago, I joined the 365 photo challenge which explains why my trusty panasonic TZ10 camera, has become my constant companion wherever we go. This also explains why, whilst walking around the beautiful Albert Park Lake in St Kilda, I was able to photograph a bedraggled, soggy, white stuffed rabbit, sitting forlornly on a park bench, waiting…….. The story behind his predicament and his possible rescue, became a seed which I used some months later, to write a poem.

I printed out my couple of photos and pasted them into one of my many writer’s notebooks, also one of my constant companions wherever I go, waiting for me to think, plan and finally write about it. The story explains my version of how the rabbit ended up on the bench in the first place, and then finally, how he ended up well loved, well worn and a bit bedraggled, with another little pair of chubby hands.

I encourage students to keep their memories in their notebooks by collecting photos; movie tickets; postcards; birthday cards; feathers; buttons; newspaper cuttings; magazine photos etc and either write about them down the track, or not at all. These simple things become “writing seeds” which can be called upon when the mood, or the need to write, comes upon them.

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I have a page in my writer’s notebook, in which I record intriguing, interesting or amusing comments which I have either overhead, or had said to me. I find the funniest things come out of the mouths of little children and I am careful to record the funny things quickly, before I misconstrue or forget what was said. One of my entries was from last year, when we were in Coffs Harbour, whale watching on Muttonbird Island. A police boat entered the harbour, from having been out in the open seas. A little boy asked his grandmother what the boat was doing. She answered; “maybe the whales were speeding”. It made me smile and will one day be included in or referenced, in something I write.

I adore spending time talking with little children. I love how their minds see the impossible and expect it to be so. I love their questions; and I love their imagination. From the mouths of babes…… is certainly an unlimited source for recording snatches of talk.
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This is a wonderful way to celebrate other people’s writing – which inspires you. Sometimes when I’m reading a book, a phrase, sentence or paragraph, will really reach out to me as an example of beautifully constructed words. One of my favourite authors is Cath Crowley in her book Chasing Charlie Duskin.
Open your eyes, Charlotte love,’ Mum whispers as we hit the freeway, ‘or you’ll miss out on the day.’ Not a lot to miss out on, really. My days have been sort of shaky, lately, like a voice running out of breath. Like a hand playing the blues. That sort of shaky gets into your heart and hangs around.”

I have a page in my writer’s notebook, which is now “several pages”, filled with other people’s writing which is just so beautifully crafted, that it stays with me, even after I turn the page.

I gave a small group of year 7 readers, each a copy of this book and had them flip through the pages, looking for some of the many examples of her writing, which touched them somehow. I was delighted with their responses and pleased to see them happily fill up a page in their own writer’s notebooks, with sentences and phrases which had delighted them as readers.
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What fun we had writing these. Our learning intention focused on the importance of word choice and how a careful selection of descriptive words, could enable you to write succinctly, whilst both building tension and entertaining the reader. I used a couple of examples of student work from last year’s school magazine:

“I was nervous. My hands were sweaty. I didn’t know if I could go through with it. I was about to run, when the doors opened. I was dragged in and seated by force. I didn’t know what to do. My life flashed before my eyes. I started the test.” Nathan

“I turned the corner with extreme speed, hoping to catch anyone approaching off guard. The gun in my hands was steady and prepared, ready to annihilate my opponent at a seconds warning. I heard the shuffling of feet on dry leaves. I raised my weapon and let the water fly.” Chloe

“It was exciting. The hunt was on. I looked to my right, then left. I slowly turned around. Nothing! I tried again. This time more carefully. I thought it was there, waiting for me. I looked around the corner and there it was. The biggest Easter egg I’ve ever seen.” Elly
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Writing lists can be a fun way to encourage even the most reluctant writer, to make a start. Writing lists is fun and most of us do it quite naturally, when we need to plan something or make a birthday/Christmas wish list. But lists can be so much more than a wish list. Some of the ideas listed in Ralph Fletcher’s book “A WRITER’S NOTEBOOK” as well as some of my own ideas include:

• Favourite words – funky, chunky, onomatopoeia, wigwam
• unusual words – tse tse fly, mnemonics, crescendo
• words little people say when they just start to talk
• possible titles for future stories – The Red door disaster; The wattle tree cubby
• books I hope to read
• movies I’d like to see
• places I’d like to visit
• bucket list
• famous people I would like to meet
• fascinating facts about……..
• things that irritate me
• things I know about ………..
• 10 things you don’t know about me
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A week or so after I added the above post about Ralph Fletcher’s “lists” I received a book in the mail (one of my greatest pleasures) which I had read about as a suggested mentor text, on Corbett Harrison’s blog. I call this serendipity

My head is spinning full of ideas on how to promote this fascination, adoration, love of words within my students. The ideas below are a list of ideas as I think of them. I will flesh them out as I go:
• Create a word wall in the classroom – cover it with gorgeous words
• Cover the windows with wonderous words
• Fill pages in your writer’s notebooks with tantalizing words
• Share your favourite words with a partner
• Create a word web for your favourite word this week – dictionary/sentence; an illustration; word building; word art
• Publish this week’s favourite words in the newsletter
• Use the word wall to write a lyrical paragraph or sentence
• Hang your words from a branch so that they look like leaves
• Create a google doc where all your friends can add their words
• Create a word web for one of your favourite words
A page from Thalia’s wonderful words collection.

3 Comments

3 thoughts on “Writer’s Notebook

  1. Pingback: Time line book review | Technoliteracy

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