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  • Amy Ludwig Vanderwater

Yes, to Notebook Keeping!

Last fall, I was fortunate enough to have two books published within a few weeks of each other—one for adults, and one for children. Two different genres, yet each sprung from the same place: my notebooking life. Now, with springtime upon us, it’s a great time to inspire young notebook keepers. As we hike outside, ask questions, and invite students to consider their inner lives, may we remember that time spent with a writer’s notebook is time well spent, for it’s time spent understanding the world.

To nurture children’s awareness of the value and joy in notebook-keeping, let’s share with them the real life stories of how books often start as a jot. Most every poem in my poetry book Read! Read! Read! Read! grew from a scrap or a list or an entry that sat in the dark of my notebook for years. It is full of poems based on memories of my life and our children’s lives. It is true that our Henry reads under his covers and true that I once tried to convince a friend-afraid-of-sadness to read Charlotte’s Web to her young children. (“Your mother will die one day.”) My husband Mark fills this house with field guides and hawks, and I do indeed keep a favorite word list in every notebook. (Today, after turning off NPR, I added the word cabinet.)

Poems Are Teachers grew from my notebook too. It follows writing through the writing cycle, from idea-finding through title-choosing, with everything from structure to language play in between. As a coffee and copy maker at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project over twenty years ago, I listened and learned and wrote in my notebook as wise thinkers shared ideas about writing craft. For two decades I have copied poems into my notebooks, and again and again, I have read these poems aloud to groups of teachers. This notebooking, this collecting of poems over time, taught me the great power of great poetry to teach. And it gave me the material I needed for this professional book.

Sometimes we ask our students to write instant poems and easy-bake essays, offering them blank paper and encouraging them to get started. But without pages of notebooking behind them, sometimes they struggle. They look at us with wide honest eyes, eyes that say, “I am not sure.” And I am not sure either. Writing is a wrestling of sorts, with oneself, with the page, with self-doubt, with worries about what others will say. But a notebook! A notebook is a friend. A notebook is a meadow full of places to explore. A notebook does not judge or hurry. A notebook helps us discover.

Take a look at Sylvia Duckworth’s Iceberg Illusion. It illustrates how the success we see rests on top of hard work, dedication, and persistence. A notebook is the place for this foundational work, the place to play hard and fail hard and to be okay with it. It’s also the place to find light. Light in our words, light in our stories, light in ourselves. And it doesn’t have to be fancy or tricky or impressive.

You might try this:

1. Make time to read poems aloud. Poems are short, and beginning each day with a poem is a lovely ritual, one which fills young writers with words. You need not read poems related to a current curricular theme, just choose poems that you love, poems you think your students will love. Ask your school librarian to recommend all kinds of poem books, books such as Kristine O’Connell George’s Hummingbird Nest: A Journal of Poems and Kwame Alexander’s Out of Wonder: Poems Celebrating Poets.

2. Set aside five to seven minutes, perhaps at the start of writing time. Just say, “Let’s write in our notebooks.” Maybe start with something together such as an idea from Aimee Buckner’s classic Notebook Know-How or Ralph Fletcher’s great A Writer’s Notebook: Unlocking the Writer Within You or from the finding ideas section of my Poems Are Teachers or my blog Sharing Our Notebooks.

3. For these few minutes, write with your students. Demonstrate the sacred nature of quiet thinking time. Look off into space momentarily as you think, and let those little faces see you do so. Nod your head, remember your grandfather’s beard, laugh a little, wipe a tear, and write. You don’t know if these words will become a poem one day or a letter or the idea that sparks a story or essay or speech. Perhaps these words will never be read again. No matter. There are words where five minutes before there was nothing. And that’s notebooking. Taking time to think. This gets better and richer each time you approach the page. It is simple. And it’s worth it.

Melissa Deakin Photography

Amy Ludwig VanDerwater is author of children’s books Forest Has a Song, Every Day Birds, Read! Read! Read!, Dreaming of You, and With My Hands: Poems About Making Things. A former fifth grade teacher, Amy received her MA from Teachers College, Columbia University, has taught writing for nineteen years, is author of Poems Are Teachers: How Studying Writing Strengthens Writing in All Genres and blogs for children at The Poem Farm and Sharing Our Notebooks. Find Amy in real life making crafts, baking, and cuddling kittens with her family in Holland, NY and on Twitter and Instagram @amylvpoemfarm. You can contact her for school visit information at

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