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Slice of Life 12: The Power of the Notebook — It’s Personal

By Janice Ewing

One of the strategies we’re focusing on in my grad class is the use of the writers’ notebook. This is a new concept to several teachers in the class, although most have used journals of one kind or another. I’m looking forward to learning along with them as they try out this practice in teaching situations that range from kindergarten to secondary, including an alternative secondary center for formerly incarcerated youth who are earning credits towards high school graduation.

Thinking about particular position brought me back to a previous class, during which I visited the teachers in their schools. Ms K taught at a residential center and school for incarcerated youth, ages 14-20. My visit there began with TSA-type screening and escorted walk through a series of doors that each had to lock before the next one could open. Ms K had a calm and confident demeanor that was well-suited to the volatility of some of her students. She happened to be a music teacher who had a strong interest in literacy and was doing a great job of integrating literacy skills into the music program.

On this day, the students were reading and responding to an op-ed piece about a popular rapper. They had strong opinions of their own and the oral discussion became heated enough that I noticed one of the guards stationed in the hallway peering into the window of the classroom. It was nothing the teacher couldn’t handle however; she acknowledged their strong views and successfully transitioned to having them jot down ideas for their response to the letter in their writers’ notebooks. One of the virtues of the notebook is the flexibility of its design and use. In this context, that meant specifically that no staples or spiral binders could be used. No problem – the teacher had previously hole-punched several sheets of paper for each girl in the class (classes are gender-separated) and allowed them to choose from an array of colored ribbons to fasten the notebook. Markers had been provided (and closely monitored) for personalization of the covers. When the girls left the classroom on this particular day, they asked Ms K if they could bring the notebooks back to their rooms (it was the last class of the day). She agreed. Afterwards, she and I talked about the value that these girls seemed to place upon the notebook. She explained that their standardized, regimented lives at the center did not allow for much of a personal nature, or many outlets for written expression of opinions and feelings, without fear of failure. Of course there was the chance that a notebook might not come back the next day. A girl herself might not come back the next day – there were court dates, DHS hearings, sudden changes in placement. Nothing was certain. The notebook was something to hold onto.

* This “Slice of Life” post is part of a larger blog series, hosted by the blog site, Two Writing Teachers: A Meeting Place for a World of Reflective Writers.

???????????Janice Ewing is an adjunct for Cabrini College and a co-director for the Pennsylvania Writing & Literature Project. Janice co-facilitates PAWLP’s “Continuity Days” and this blog. She is an avid reader and writer, and especially enjoys writing poems.

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. What an amazing music teacher! I started using a writer’s notebook with my third grade writers and for myself last year. It is a great tool.


    March 12, 2015
  2. What powerful learning for these girls – a place to share their own thoughts and feelings. So glad this work is going on!


    March 12, 2015
  3. Rita Sorrentino #

    Even low-budget materials can be invested with purpose, meaning and ownership. Thanks for sharing this story of how a teacher and her students work to make the best of a difficult situation.


    March 12, 2015
  4. I have been keeping a writer’s notebook for more than 15 years now. I use them all of the time when I teach. Now as an administrator I still fill them and use them to model how to keep a notebook (both for students and for teachers). They are truly documentation of our lives.


    March 12, 2015

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