At some time in your students’ academic lives, they have probably kept a journal. Journals are wonderful teaching tools — they help students reflect on their learning, expand their understanding, make hypotheses…and so on. The great thing about learning journals is that nearly any discipline can use them — math, science, social studies. They are a flexible, wonderful teaching tool. A journal prompt directs the student’s writing to address a specific task.
But a writer’s notebook is a different kind of animal.
I think of a writer’s notebook like an artist might think of a sketchbook. A place to gather ideas and practice skills.
So how does an artist use a sketchbook? Take a look at Talouse Lautrec’s sketchbook of horses. The Chicago Institute of Art’s “Turning the Pages” interpretive resource let’s viewers page through his sketchbook. There is a page filled with gloved hands holding the reigns, a page of horse heads, even a few sketches of just the horse’s…um…derriere (can you imagine THAT conversation? “Hey, look at the sketch I made of this horse’s…”).
The point is that not every sketch was converted into a painting. Perhaps none of them were — but the artist was practicing skills — both drawing and observation skills.
Writer’s notebooks are right along those same lines. Not every idea, thought, or observation will end up as a full essay, story, or poem. Perhaps a writer’s notebook includes a page of introductory paragraphs, or “first lines” that the writer has collected from books or articles. A writer might want to practice ways to describe something (“Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” anyone?!) or go back to a prior piece of writing, maybe a description, and cut away all but the essential elements — or add dialogue. A writer’s notebook is the perfect place to record interesting conversations heard or great lines from songs or books. Record observations of the world, ask questions, collect words, copy sentences from favorite writers, or create lists. Dig deep into memories to find favorites, worsts, bests —
What happens when a writer uses her notebook to list earliest memories, top ten toys from childhood, or favorite lines from a song? More memories, thoughts, ideas, and observations bubble to the surface. And that is a beautiful thing — because how many times have you asked students to write something (anything!), and they look at you and ask, “What am I supposed to write about?”
The “seeds ideas” as Ralph Fletcher calls them can be culled from a writer’s notebook. A notebook that gives the writer control about what he or she will write about next.