Writing Notebooks: Setup, Maintenance & Grading

One of the perks of using the workshop model is that I am using so much less paper and wasting way less time standing by the copy machine. Less worksheets is great for so many reasons: it saves money, and trees, and time, and frustration, and best of all, students aren’t bored or feeling buried in work that doesn’t seem meaningful.

But if I’m focusing on writing, students have to write, so where do they do that? The answer is simple: virtually everything that we write in class goes in the students’ writer’s notebooks. And since everything goes in one place, it’s important to have a system that makes sense and keeps it all organized. It’s also essential to have a system for grading it that is as quick and painless as possible. Today I’ll detail what I’ve done so far this year, and how it’s going for me.

I want to first credit a lot of this back to Amy Rasmussen from the blog Three Teachers Talk. After she came to teach us how to use workshop in our classes, I adapted and implemented many of her notebook ideas in my own class.

I knew that I needed an organizational system that would be simple to setup and easy to maintain. I decided to set up the main components of our notebooks right away on day 2. This allowed us to get in the routine of using our notebooks right from the start. (On day one, students wrote their quick write on a notecard that they turned in at the end of class for me to read.)

Notebook setup & organization

Page 1: This is where we put our reading goal for the year. It is also where we calculate our current reading rate. Students should recalculate their reading rate each time they start a new book. We use reading rate to determine how many pages each student needs to read each week, so it’s important to have an accurate calculation.

This example is from my notebook. I haven’t actually calculated my reading rate, but I probably should.
I had students glue the instructions for calculating their reading rate inside the front cover of their notebooks so they could recalculate each time they start a new book. Unfortunately, despite my constant reminders, most students only do it when I include it as part of class.

Page 2: The second page of our notebooks is where students track what they are currently reading. They haven’t been good about maintaining this list on their own, so I remind them on Mondays to check their list and update it: completed books, abandoned books, and new books they are starting. I ask them to give a brief explanation why they abandon any book.

For next year, I want to add some things our English teachers include on this page: author, genre, date completed. Since I didn’t start the year with that, though, I won’t try to add it now.

From my notebook. I’ve been reading a lot already this year!

Bulk of notebook: The majority of the notebook is dedicated to our daily writing tasks: Quick Writes, mini-lesson notes, writing workshop pieces, etc. We also glue a lot of things into our notebooks: rubrics, mini-lesson notes, mentor texts, anything I want them to have handy and keep from one day to the next. Below are several examples.

Example of a couple pages of quick writes from a student’s notebook. Note how she made revisions in a different color (as instructed).
I had students glue their rubrics into their notebooks. I also asked them to write a reflection on their writing process, what they did well, and what they still need to work on.
This is a review of some figurative language we were working on. I realized that I needed to give students a copy so they could refer back to it as they worked on their writing.

The last page: This is where students keep their “To Read Next” list. I do book talks every day, we do a variety of book browsing activities, and I sometimes use quotes from books in my library for a Quick Write. I always remind students that, if a book sounds interesting, they should add it to their list. Students are accountable for having multiple books on their list when I check notebooks and also during reading conferences.

This list is so important in helping students continue reading after they finish a book. Rather than spend all of their reading time searching for a new book, they can flip to their list and quickly find their next book. Since I mostly only have single copies of books, students need to have multiple titles on their list so they can find something they are interested in that’s available on the shelves.

This student came to me already identifying as a reader, so it’s no surprise that she has a long and varied list of books she wants to read.

2nd to last page: This is where we glue the instructions and start our personal dictionaries. Each student is expected to add 5 entries per week from their independent reading book. They can be words that are new to them, or words they understand but don’t often use in writing or speech. For the personal dictionary, students will work backwards through their notebook.

Personal dictionary instructions (with example entry).

This system allows us to keep things separate and organized in a way that seems logical and easy to maintain. We don’t need tabs or dividers that might fall off or break, and everything has a place.

Notebook Grading

This is the part we all dread. Right? Right! After my first slow, tedious notebook check, I learned some things and made some changes. They made my second notebook check faster and less subjective.

One change was creating a notebook grading slip that works as a scoring checklist. This makes it obvious to students why they received the grade they did. It also made it easy for me to track all of the things I was looking for, which were many because too much time passed between checks. I purposely stapled the slip into their notebook on the last used page and sticking up about 1/4 inch, to help me easily know where to start the next time I collect notebooks.

I made a similar slip for grading personal dictionary entries:

These slips turned grading notebooks into a more streamlined and less painful process. Still, I will make changes going forward. For one thing, I will not be collecting notebooks for more than one purpose at a time – last time, I was checking notebooks, grading a writing piece, and grading vocab entries. Don’t do that! You will regret it! Please, trust me here. That was a really bad decision. I’m also considering collecting notebooks one or two classes at a time to make it more manageable and less panic-inducing.

If you made it this far, congratulations! You are a real trooper! This post is not nearly as exciting or fun as a unit or lesson explanation, but I hope you’ll find it practical and useful.

Do you use writer’s notebooks, or another notebook system, in your classes? I’d love to hear how you manage notebook setup and grading!


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