I used to keep separate notebooks for writing and reading, but last year, I decided to combine both functions into one very messy, very disorganized notebook. (I still keep a separate notebook for books I’ve read and books I want to read). I love having everything I’m thinking in one place, but if I want to find my reading notes and responses, I have to skim through the whole notebook. It’s very time-consuming and inefficient.
So I was interested for personal reasons in Linda Rief’s Inside the Writer’s-Reader’s Notebook, a professional development book I’ve been meaning to read for awhile. Her earlier book, Seeking Diversity, is a very good professional development book that I think doesn’t get quite the love it deserves. In Inside the Writer’s-Reader’s Notebook, I hoped I might find some ideas that would help me re-envision what I’m doing in my own notebook. But I also hoped to find ways to improve my use of writer’s notebooks in my writing classes and some ideas for introducing some kind of combination notebook in my literature classes.
The first thing to know about Inside the Writer’s-Reader’s Notebook is that it’s 197 pages long, and over 120 pages are samples of student work, copied from their notebooks with little context and no real commentary or analysis from Rief (though the samples do include her marginal comments of feedback). I do think it’s helpful in professional development books to include some student work, but I can’t imagine any reader wanting to look at 120 pages of it. Nancie Atwell shares lots of student work in her books, to illustrate her point or to be used as mentor or model texts for different prompts and assignments. The work Rief shares here isn’t linked directly to her own claims about the writer’s-reader’s notebook so the samples don’t illustrate any particular points. And they can’t easily be used as mentor texts in other classrooms both because they have teacher comments written on them and because we don’t know enough about the writing situation that prompted the writing. (Yes, you could retype them, but I don’t have time to do things like that.)
If Rief wanted to include so much student work, I almost thought it would be more useful to see one student’s entire notebook than random pages from many students’ notebooks. I can find many examples online of excerpts from notebooks but no notebooks in their entirety, and I think it would be instructive and interesting to see how one student’s work in a notebook evolved and developed over time.
The part of the book that most readers will be interested in is the 40 pages at the beginning where Rief takes us into her classroom and shows how she uses writer’s-reader’s notebooks. Rief shares how she has students divide the notebook into parts: Introduction and Expectations, Books I Am Currently Reading, Books I Want to Read, Ideas for Writing, Response, Notes, Vocabulary, and Spelling Matters. Then she writes a brief description of what goes into each of those sections. For most sections, she also points to other professional development books that deal with that topic in more depth. I found it enlightening to see how her thinking about this tool has changed and evolved, and I also appreciated how she shared her struggles to make the notebooks as effective as they can be.
But I think it would be very challenging for a teacher to read this book and use it as a guide to her own classroom practice. There is simply not enough information and detail given, especially about what I consider the most important part of the notebook–Response. It’s almost like these 40 pages provide the outline for a meaningful professional development book on notebooks, but you have to look elsewhere for that book.
Inside the Writer’s-Reader’s Notebook makes more sense as a supporting tool for the student notebooks Rief designed and Heinemann publishes. It’s not a title I could recommend as a stand-alone professional development book. Teachers who are looking for ways to introduce or improve their use of notebooks might consider Ralph Fletcher’s Breathing In, Breathing Out and Aimee Buckner’s books on notebooks. Fletcher and Buckner both treat the writer’s and reader’s notebooks as separate entities, so teachers who want to combine the two will have to do some creative thinking.
While reading this book, I did have a change of heart about the messiness of my own notebook. I appreciate the organization and structure Rief teaches her students, but I am not sure how closely it approximates what it’s really like to live in a notebook as a writer and a reader. There is a fine balance in a workshop classroom between too much structure and not enough, and for me and my teaching and learning style, Rief’s approach is too orderly and too structured. It feels like there is too little room in Rief’s notebook for serendipity, creativity, independence, experimentation, discovery. Although it’s frustrating and sometimes kind of annoying to flip through my notebook looking for something I know is there but that I can’t find, it also leads to just those moments of discovery and serendipity.