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Always Write
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Teach the Writing Process! Journals & Writers Notebooks
better journal-keeping means better portfolio pieces during writers workshop

Has this ever happened to you? It's the last week of school after a full year of having students write daily in their journals, students have been cleaning out their desks and cubbies, and you find several journals tossed in the trash can after school? Or worse yet, a student actually approaches you with a journal in hand and asks, "Can I throw this away now?" This would be evidence that you have not taught your students to love their journals, and this page has been set up to share ideas from teachers who try their hardest to make the journal something each student is proud to keep and write in daily.

At WritingFix, we believe that journals are a critical piece in a successful classroom writing workshop. A writers workshop environment, as you probably know, gives students the freedon to write about what's personally important to them. A journal is a place where students can explore those ideas that feel important in a non-threatening way. When students love their journals, they have a positive place to look for the next topic they'll take through the writing process. A great writers workshop experience, we believe, starts in a journal and ends in a published piece that goes into a student's portfolios.

So why don't our students love their journals? In Northern Nevada, we see a lot of students being required to keep them, we see teachers assign a lot of daily topics or sponges for them, but we hear a lot of moaning come from the students as they pull them out and fill their pages. We believe that if students are allowed to 1) personalize their journals more and to 2) choose topics to write about, the "moan factor" begins to decrease. It's important to have a daily topic ready to go for those students who need that extra push to write (and our Daily Writing & Journal Prompts Page is a great place to find topics), but allow your students to write about something important to them, if they have a topic in their head.

And hey...let your students decorate their journals. And not just the cover, though that's a great start. Allow them to decorate and personalize the pages and margins. Before they write, require them to draw a three-inch by three-inch box on their page, then write around the box; when they've written for ten or fifteen minutes, allow them to go back and draw a picture in that space that goes along with what they've written.

These are simple ideas that--when used regularly--should encourage your students to actually look back at their completed pages with delight. They'll laugh, first, at their decorations, and then they'll re-read what they've written. If they like the writing they find, they should be encouraged to develop the journal's idea into a rough draft they can being to writers workshop.

Please enjoy these resources, all designed to help your students find love in their journals' pages.

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Mr. Stick...your Journal's Margin Mascot
(our webmaster shares his favorite Mr. Stick materials!)
2010-2011: A Celebration of Writer's Notebooks
(our Mentor Text of the Program inspires a focus on Writer's Notebooks)

Hello, my name is Corbett Harrison, and during a really boring class I had to take once, I invented Mr. Stick. I never could draw very well, but I could make a pretty elaborate stick figure. I started sketching Mr. Stick in my class notebook, and I made him say funny things to me (in dialogue bubbles) about the information that was in my notes.

Even though the class was boring, I ended up loving the notes I took for that class because they were decorated. It occurred to me that Mr. Stick--whom I had by then dubbed my Margin Mascot, since that's where he lived on the pages--would be a great tool for my students. I not only created a series of resources that helped my students use Mr. Stick (in their journals' margins) creatively and effectively but I put those materials into a packet that I began presenting to my fellow teachers in 1997. I probably presented that Mr. Stick Demonstration three dozen times over the years, and I still get called "Mr. Stick" by friends and colleagues.

In the space below, I am sharing I am sharing some of my favorite Mr. Stick resources. I have been considering putting a complete collection of all my Mr. Stick materials into a packet that I will make available at my own website. I'll let you know if and when I have such a packet to share.

Each year, we select a book that's by an actual writer and is about the act of writing. This book become our "Mentor Text of the Year," and we ask teachers from around the world to share how they've used the text in class or were inspired by the text's principles.

For the 2010-2011 school year, we selected two mentor texts that really complement each other: A Writer's Notebook by Ralph Fletcher and Amelia's Notebook by Marissa Moss. Both texts can be easily used to discover new technqiues for teaching students to use writer's notebooks as a part of their weekly writing instruction.

To access our resources as well as any resources shared by WritingFix teacher-users as part of this year-long study, visit our Mentor Text of the Year Homepage at WritingFix.

Establishing a Margin Mascot for Journals:

Using Mr. Stick outside the Margins:

  • The Mr. Stick Haiku Comic Strip. A haiku poem has three lines: its first line has five syllables, the second has seven syllables, the third has five syllables. A haiku comic strip has three boxes: the first box is narrated with five syllables, the second has seven, the third has five. Can your students summarize a learned concept with brevity and accuracy?
  • The Radicals of Life: A Mr. Stick Soap Opera Story board. To build deeper understanding of a newly-learned concept, suggest to students that there should be a soap opera that requires knowledge of the concept to understand the soap opera's plot. Ask students to make a story board of one of the scenes from this fictitious soap opera. The story board must show knowledge of newly learned facts.
  • Mr. Perpendicular and Ms. Parallel: Original Mr. Stick Derivatives. Challenge students to create original versions of Mr. Stick that go along with newly learned concepts. Students can devote a page of their notebooks or journals to explain their original Mr. Stick creations.
  • Mr. Stick Sketch-and-Write Vocabulary Exploration. Explore and explain new vocabulary words by creating Mr. Stick-like drawings that help explain the words' meanings.

Prewriting with Mr. Stick in my Students' Mythology Journals

By far, the best experience I ever had with Mr. Stick was the year they asked me to teach a semester-long course on mythology. My objective for my high school students was to not only familiarize them with the great stories from myth, but to turn them into story-tellers who could retell the stories accurately but also embellish their own details into their retellings. The stories they learned to retell out loud became their choices for writing down during that class's writers workshop.

I came to call our Mr. Stick mythology journals Cave-Wall Journals, because when we flipped through them at semester's end, they resembled cave hieroglyphics with notes underneath them. My students completely enjoyed looking back in their journals, and I invented a whole bunch of new assignments for them to apply to their journals' pages. I still run into former students these days who tell me they still had their journals from that class! That summer, the Northern Nevada Writing Project asked me to present My Cave-Wall Journal materials to their Summer Open class, and it was a hit with the teachers, who then used the techniques all summer long in the journals they were being asked to keep as part of that class. For the next six years, I presented Mr. Stick to the Open during their first week of class. In 2009, after a five year hiatus, I was asked back to present Mr. Stick to the Open, which still happens every summer, and that is how this section on this page came about; I decided it was time to put Mr. Stick on-line for anyone who wants him!

Below are examples of a number of the special assignments I designed for my mythology students' cave-wall journals. I've used them in other classes I've taught--not just for myth--but I only have examples for mythology. The examples are scanned copies of xeroxes made back in the 1990's. They're readable for the most part, but you will get the big idea behind each one, which is why I included it.

Journal Page Assignment:
The Cave Wall Journal Page

Journal Page Assignment:
Illustrated Vocabulary Pages

Journal Page Assignment:
Empty Box Before Writing
Journal Page Assignment:
The Board Game Summary
Journal Page Assignment:
The Haiku Summary
Journal Page Assignment:
Illustrated Note Pages
Journal Page Assignment:
Looking for Threesomes
Journal Page Assignment:
Mostly Silent Storyboards

How Mr. Stick Ultimately Influenced our Writer's Workshop
two examples from my students' journals & portfolios

Lessons Specifically Designed for Writer's Notebooks
(reviews by WritingFix users of great mentor texts for journal keepers)

Notebook lesson:
What's Been Lost?

inspired by Denise Fleming's Where Once There Was a Wood

This lesson is designed to show students how they might choose to respond to an idea from a picture book in their writer's notebooks.

Notebook lesson:
The Butcher's Tale

inspired by a sonnet, "Reuben Bright," by E. A. Robinson

This lesson is designed to show students how they might choose to respond to a poem from literature in their writer's notebooks.

Notebook lesson:
Tasting an Oxymoron

inspired by an excerpt from Cannery Row by John Steinbeck

This lesson is designed to show students how they might choose to respond to an idea from literature in their writer's notebooks.

Notebook lesson:
Puns & Punctuation

inspired by a style of writing noted in The Tom Swift Adventure Series

This lesson is designed to show students how they might choose to respond to an idea from literature in their writer's notebooks.

Notebook lesson:
Fierce Wondering Stories

inspired by an excerpt from Amelia's Notebook by Marissa Moss

This lesson is designed to show students how to collect opic ideas that might become longer pieces of writing during future writer's workshops.

Chasing Vermeer Lesson
Ogden Nash Lesson
Mentor Texts that Inspire Better Notebook Keeping
(reviews by WritingFix users of great mentor texts for journal keepers)

Want a free classroom resource from the NNWP? We're looking for teacher-written reviews of mentor texts that would inspire students to want to keep (and love their) classroom journals. If you know of a book that hasn't been reviewed yet on this page, send us your review. If we use it, we'll send you any of the publications found on the NNWP's Publications Page. Book reviews can be sent to us at webmaster@writingfix.com.

Look at the reviews already posted below for ideas on what we're looking for. These three example reviews were written during a writers workshop inservice offered in Northern Nevada in 2006 and a narrative writing inservice in 2009. Both classes were offered by the Northern Nevada Writing Project.

Review #1: If you want your students to fall in love with the idea of keeping a journal, have a copy of Amelia's Notebook displayed in your classroom. Author Marissa Moss has done an amazing thing with her first book, which has become a popular series. Writing in the voice of a young girl about to move away from her best friend and school, Moss captures the emotions and everyday life that centers around a real-life experience.

The beauty of this mentor text is that it is published to look like a real composition book. We see Amelia's handwriting. We see the lines and margins one might see in a real journal. Amelia decorates the pages with drawings, side-bars, and artifacts. When I share this text with my students, they realize they're getting permission to decorate and personalize their writing, which is such a simple (but necessary) step in helping students love their journals.

Be sure to point out how Amelia writes about everyday kind of experiences and observation. Fights with her sister, the shape of people's noses, and cafeteria food are some of the topics she explores in her journal. This young journal keeper shows those students who think their lives are uninteresting that everything that happens can be written in an interesting way with an interesting voice.

The Amelia sequels that followed the success of the original are all great too. My personal favorite is the one where Amelia and her family go on a road trip and Amelia journals the whole experience. The tourist sites that Amelia visits seem very familiar to me, and they may remind you of places you and your family have stopped at.

And if Amelia doesn't inspire your boy writers, Marissa Moss has another delightful book to add to your mentor text library: Max's Logbook. Max is a bit more scientific and imaginative than Amelia (who focuses on narrative), but he writes and decorates his own ideas, and this could very well spark the imaginations of your reluctant boys!

--book review by Cathy Craik, Nevada teacher

Review #2: I use the book A Writer's Notebook: Unlocking the Writer within You by Ralph Fletcher. It's a fast read, and a true inspiration to anyone who wants to write or who thinks he/she should do more writing.  I was given this book during an inservice class from the Northern Nevada Writing Project, and it has become one of the best books in my classroom library for inspiring students to take risks with their own writing.

A writer's notebook is a tool every writer should use.  In its pages, a writer experiments with ideas and writing styles in a non-threatening way.  A writer's notebook is like a journal or a diary, except that it relies rarely on daily narrations to fill its pages.  Instead of daily accounts, each page in the writer's notebook can focus on a topic--past, present, or future--that the writer would like to some day explore more extensively; the notebook's writer explores topics in brain-friendly and creative ways.

I like to compare a writer's notebook to an artist's sketchbook.  Artists fill their sketchbooks' pages with rough drawings of randomly seen things they may or may not use in paintings someday.  Topics in a writer's notebook should be thought of as rough sketches, attempts by the writer to gain more perspective in a manner that isn't permanent and is totally disposable, if the writer chooses to never use it.

If you've never attempted to keep a writer's notebook, get this little book by Fletcher. It'll inspire big ideas in your classroom.

----book review by Diana Nielsen, Nevada teacher

Review #3: The chapter book, Diary of a Wimpy Kid written by Jeff Kinney, creates an interesting twist with journal writing. The main character, Greg Heffley, documents his experiences in a journal at his mother’s suggestion. He is mortified because his mom buys him a diary when he specifically requested a journal. Boys don’t keep a diary; that is a girly thing. Throughout his “journal,” Greg writes about things that have happened to him and his experiences at school.

I have found that my students can really relate to Greg and are always eager to hear his stories. For instance, on page 36, Greg sneaks down to listen to his brother’s CD and he gets caught by his dad. Greg finds himself in a heap of trouble when his dad calls him “friend,” which Greg knows is not a good sign. A memoir prompt for this part of the book might be something like, “Have you every done something you know you shouldn’t have and you got caught? What happened?” If students are unwilling to confess, then try, “Have you every done something that you know you shouldn’t have and you got away with it (didn’t get caught)? What happened?”

My students absolutely love this book and there are numerous memoir prompts that can be used to help students tap into their memorable moments. The series includes two other books that are chalked with many other “situations/experiences” that the students can also relate to and enjoy.

After reading and sharing a journal entry from the book, I have the students brainstorm their own ideas. To engage them further, I have the students share with a partner, group or whole group. I give them time to discuss their personal stories as part of the brainstorming session. Often, students will remember a story of their own by hearing the stories of others. I have them write two to four ideas during their brainstorming sessions. Once they have a few ideas, I have them choose one idea to transform into a longer piece or narrative writing. The students must make sure the writing piece has details that create an image and contain voice. The piece must sound like them and have their energy.

----book review by Julie Leimbach, Nevada teacher



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