Letting Go of Control for More Authentic Writer’s Notebooks

Today my students and I got started on writer’s notebooks.

In the past I have given students a set of guidelines to tape into their writer’s notebooks, which is a perfectly normal thing to for a teacher to do, but I elected not to do that this year.

My journey toward authentic writer’s notebooks is ongoing. The very first year I used them about five years ago, I collected them from about a third of the class every week and read and responded to their work.

I saw many students using their writer’s notebooks inauthentically, only putting on the pages exactly what I asked for and nothing more. I didn’t see the kind of ownership I wanted for this important tool, and I figured it was because students didn’t use the space authentically because it wasn’t totally theirs. I was checking on them. I was reading what they wrote. They couldn’t take risks and write with honesty because there I was, always.

So I stopped collecting their writer’s notebooks the next school year.

Still I would “assess” their use of the tools though–by watching how they used them in class and by period “writer’s notebook self evaluations” where they would report to me how much of what I asked for in their writer’s notebook they had completed over the last few weeks. This was never for “grading” purposes–only feedback for me about how they were using the tool and a chance for me to impress upon them once again the guidelines for their work.

Did you catch that, “impress upon them once again the guidelines for their work.” For a learning tool that is supposed to be individualized to and focused on each student, that sounds awfully teacher-centered.

What was I thinking?

Well, I was thinking that students need guidelines (and they do). That students need to be able to see clearly what we ask them to do (and they do). And I thought that my own list of things to do in one’s writer’s notebook would achieve that (it did). But it also made the writer’s notebook so much more about my vision than about their own.

If I really want my students to learn the skills to be life-long learners, observers of the world, thinkers, question askers… I need to teach them how to do that kind of work, and not in the way that works for me, but in the way that works for each of them individually.

So today, instead passing out to them the list of things they are to do in their writer’s notebooks and asking them to tape it into the front or back cover ophotof their writer’s notebook, I read them Ralph Fletcher’s description (from his blog) of what writer’s notebooks can be. Then I asked students to each write their own guidelines for their writer’s notebooks. I did this as well–I wrote mine on the board and then copied the guidelines into my WN. I shared my guidelines with them as my guidelines only, my own personal list, and I told them, “This isn’t crap. I’m really trying to work on this stuff.” Then I had them share their guidelines with each other–inviting them to steal a guideline someone else came up with that would work really well for them too.

Though the jury is still out on this, I think this is a good way to go. I can still do writer’s notebook self-evaluations by asking students to revisit their guidelines (as I revisit mine) and then write to me about how well those guidelines are working for them (or not). They can add to their guidelines too as the year goes on, or remove some, or whatever they need to do in order to make their writer’s notebook work as authentic as possible. In this way, the tool is theirs; it’s individualized for each of them. They have to figure out how to best use it rather than having me tell them how to use it. They can learn from each other. They can learn from reflecting over their own work. I’ve let go of control of this tool.

Authenticity in the classroom is a process of letting go.

I thought I was there with the writer’s notebooks because I stopped collecting them and reading them a few years ago.

I wonder where else I’m getting in the way of their own learning?

The less I control, the more they have to as learners and thinkers.

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