PS/IS 686 | Brooklyn, NY

A Cornerstone to Writing: Writer’s Notebooks

In class the children have begun to use their Writer’s Notebooks. You’ve probably seen them come home; many of you helped gather photos and memorabilia to decorate them; and you may have already heard a plaintive, “I don’t know what to write about” as your child sits down to do homework. So what are Writer’s Notebooks (WNBs), and why do we use them in third grade? And how can you help your child?

Professional writers use WNBs to collect ideas and to try things out. Notebooks aren’t a place for actually drafting stories; when writers are ready to draft something, they move outside their notebooks. This is how we teach our students to use them as well, with one additional element: we’ll sometimes ask the children to try a particular writing strategy, genre, or craft technique in their notebook, to help them grow as writers. For example, yesterday I shared an observational entry from my own WNB with them, and then we went across the street to Seth Low Park and they tried writing about what they observed (the above photos).

Some of you are probably thinking: but my child’s probably not going to become a professional writer. While it won’t surprise me if some of our BSI kids do, it’s true that not all of them will. But the real reason we use WNBs is because they help our children learn to put their thoughts, feelings, and ideas down on paper more easily – to just sit down and write, to channel those active minds out through a pencil instead of through speech. Some of our children are perfectionists; WNBs are good for them, because the writing doesn’t have to be perfect – it’s just an entry. If and when they come back to that entry / idea, they can revise it and make it better. Writing in a WNB also helps our children start to notice details, which in turn helps them write at greater length and with greater specificity.

How can you help your child with his or her WNB?

  • Help them notice things they might want to write about: the homeless person who asked you for money, a funny poster in the subway, a memory triggered by something they saw. Eli was showing me a picture of a tiger in the book he was reading yesterday, and we started talking about tigers. I started telling him about the time I fed a tiger, and I suddenly realized that I’d never put that in my WNB, but that I’d love to write about it! Help your child catch those moments, those ideas. The students are required to write two entries a week, but I encourage them to take their WNBs home every day, because you never know when an idea will come up.
  • Help them brainstorm lists of things they could write about. A list is fine for an entry, as long as it’s a list that can give them ideas of things they might write about in the future. For example, lists of people you care about, places you enjoy, activities you like to do, or things that make you happy would all give you ideas for future entries. A list of candy bars you like? (Yes, I had someone write that once.) No, unless you really could write an whole entry about Snickers. Tip: A list of memories your child might want to write about would be very helpful in our next Writing unit!
  • We’ll be giving the students a list to glue inside the cover of their WNBs. It can give them some ideas when they’re feeling stuck. Encourage them to use it.
  • Ask permission to read their entries, if you like, but please, only give compliments, not corrections! If their spelling makes you wince, praise the fact that they included dialog or a rich, vivid word. If stamina is hard for them, compliment the fact that they sat down and got themselves to write without needing someone to give them an idea. Remember: one of our goals is for writing to become more comfortable for the children. Praising what they are doing well helps that happen. It’s the teacher’s job to say, “Okay, now here’s what I want you to work on next,” but even that will only happen after I find ways to help them feel good about what they’re already doing well.
  • If your child finds it hard to get started, let him/her talk to you about what s/he might write, and maybe ask questions to help the idea expand. Encouraging children to say aloud what they’re thinking about their idea, and then to quickly write those sentences down, can also help reluctant writers. “So you thought you might write about our dog? What do you think your first sentence might be?” “We got a puppy two weeks ago.” “That sounds like a good start – write it down!”