the nitty gritty of notebook organization

we are big believers in giving kids ownership over as much as possible in the classroom, including supplies. this is why our supply closet is really their supply closet, and everything is organized so that it’s easily accessible to them. it’s also why, channeling our inner colleen cruz, we allow kids to get what they need when they need it – without asking us! – until they have trouble deciding what’s appropriate to “need,” and then we’ll intervene (perhaps with a pencil amnesty – another of colleen’s genius tips). supplies and materials are, for the most part, something our kids can handle independently.

we’ve found, though, that many of our kids struggle with organization, that organization isn’t something that many of them pick up on as automatically as we once assumed they would. (our mistake.) and so, over the years, we’ve grown a list of organizational tips we explicitly teach our kids in their notebooks as well as a few things we do before handing them their own reader’s and writer’s notebooks*.

we divide our students’ reader’s notebooks into four sections: mentor post-its and charts, just right, book club/partnership, and read aloud. we use post-its to mark the first page of each section (super fancy, we know). we’ve labeled these post-its ourselves in the first years we’ve set notebooks up in this way, but more recently have put blank post-its on these places and asked students to label each post-it as we explicitly teach the purpose of each section across the first few days of school. this seems like a no-brainer to us now, and we’re not sure why we didn’t do it from the start – it gives kids some ownership over the notebook organization and saves us time. win.

another something we’ve discovered only through doing this work with our kids is that we have to teach them how to go front to back in each section, to move the post-it over on the first page if it’s in their way (i.e. you don’t have to write weirdly around it – just move it! the magic of post-its is that they re-stick.). we also teach our kids to put the name of the book they’re reading at the top of the page that they’re working on. the date is helpful, too, especially when they’re writing in their notebooks about a chapter book, since they’re reading that across multiple days; the dates help show their thinking across the book. we also teach our kids that, if the page isn’t full and you’re finished with the book, draw a line across the page and write the next title you’re reading below the line. that way, we’re filling up all pages.

our students’ writer’s notebooks are a little bit simpler in set-up. at the beginning of the year, and then at the beginning of each unit, we spend time gathering ideas for future pieces of writing, mostly in the form of lists. since we do our best to teach our kids the habits of real writers, we try to return to lists created in earlier in the year whenever possible, and use them for inspiration in our current genre. (ralph fletcher teaches us that lists live in his notebook for years sometimes before he returns to them and grows the list into some longer writing.) as we did this work of going back to lists we’ve already made, we found that our kids had no idea where the lists they made earlier in the year were, which meant the lists weren’t really being used as a tool for their ongoing writing. so, we began to teach our kids that “lists go in the back, in the back, in the back; long writing in the front, in the front, in the front.” and, by teaching this to our kids, we mean singing it to our kids. or, rapping. sort of.

only fellow teachers can appreciate the amount of time that has to be spent on this at the beginning of the year; the song and dance moves we made up to those words helps students remember it, and most don’t need a reminder after the first few weeks of school. BUT, at the beginning, every time our kids are setting their notebook up for class and home writing, we remind them or ask a classmate to remind all of us where they should be flipping based on what type of writing they’re doing. basically, we work from the very last page forward for any lists, and the very first page backward for any longer writing.

the lists in the back of the notebook are all labeled with what the list is (e.g. writing territories, first and lasts, strong emotions…), and maybe the dates. the pages working from the front to the back of the notebook all have the date and either an “h” or “s” to show whether the writing was done at home or school. this is also helpful when a student chooses to continue some longer writing for homework – he can simply put an “h” in the margin next to where he plans to write (which is important when students are setting x goals, so they know from where to count forward). pages will also have a plan box or assignment box at the top to show the focus of the writing on that page (e.g. it may say something like “sketch and label the setting for my personal narrative story”). we’ve found this particularly important for writing that’s going to be done at home, so that they have a reminder they’ve written themselves of what writing work they’re doing that night, and we always have kids set this up in class at the end of writing workshop.

we have students number the pages in their writer’s notebooks for homework one night during the first week or two of school. this used to seem less important to us, but then we realized the value in having pages numbered, mostly so that students could refer to a page at a later point in their notebook. for example, when we ask kids to revise an entry they wrote earlier in the year for homework, they can write their revisions in the place they’re currently at in their notebooks, but write the page number of the earlier entry at the top of their revision writing, so that they can flip to it easily or show their partner their before and after the next day.

both notebooks have a sticky library card pocket at the back of them to hold artifacts that we’ve given students either during mini-lessons or small groups. the pockets are labeled “reading practices” and “writing practices” (something we learned from shana frazin). the artifacts are typically index cards that we have put some strategies or prompts on that reinforce some teaching that’s already taken place and support students in doing the work independently.

writing practices artifacts

a writing practices pocket (this would be stuck in the back of a student’s notebook) & artifacts. we keep our own copy of all the artifacts we’ve given to students, especially ones we’ve handed out whole-class during mini-lessons, so that we have our own to refer to during later teaching.

there are kids every year who just love, LOVE to organize, and they’ve come up with more complicated ways to organize their notebooks (usually involving elaborate post-it systems or highlighting), and we think that’s awesome for them. the organization that we spend time teaching the class and setting up for the class are things that feel pretty basic to us – as in, every student will eventually have success with them – and also purposeful – as in, they will improve their independent work in some way. there are, of course, modifications that certain students have in place on a more individual basis (like a different type of notebook with wider lines or a post-it to mark their most recent page if they’re constantly flipping to find it), and we’re sure we’ll find things that need tweaking in our current systems. for now, though, this is what’s worked for the majority of our class.

*full disclosure: in our perfect classroom (which doesn’t exist yet), the kids would do all of this themselves. and, again, we consciously have them do most things independently. the reailty is that there are a few things that go smoother for the class as a whole – especially in september when everything is new to them – if we set it up and then teach into it. pre-organizing the notebooks is one of the things we’ve taken on ourselves and have found that being able to focus the teaching on what the sections mean and how to use them rather than how to make them saves everyone a headache and time. lots of time.

how do you organize, or support students in organizing, the notebooks in your room?

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