Monday, June 5, 2017

Linda Rief: Keeping a Notebook Makes Me Pay Attention

Notebook Shelf

Don Murray used to carry around laminated cards about the size of a bookmark, that said, “Nulla Dies Sine Linea—Never a Day Without a Line.” He gave them to anyone and everyone who asked him about writing. It was his mantra—and the most important advice he gave to all of us, the reminder to put our thinking down every day, or it would slip away.

Every day Don wrote in his daybook. “The most valuable writing tool I have is my daybook… All the writing in the daybook is a form of talking to myself, a way of thinking on paper….The daybook stimulates my thinking, helps me make use of those small fragments of time that on many days is all the time I have to write. There is no sign of struggle. I’m not fighting writing. I’m playing with writing. …The daybook also keeps my writing muscles in condition; it lets me know what I’m concerned with making into writing; it increases my productivity….(it’s a place) where you can do all the bad writing and bad thinking that are essential for those moments of insight that produce good writing.”

Influenced by Don, I keep a Writer-Reader Notebook. I have more than 25 years worth now, and I can trace every piece of writing I have ever done either personally or professionally, to these notebooks. I admit that I don’t write in my notebook every day —and I realize so many things I wanted to remember are gone. Still, what I have, gives me a lot from which to work and with which to play.

Every note I have ever taken at a workshop or conference, every passage I have wanted to remember from books I am reading, and all the pictures, sketches, and random notes I just didn’t want to forget, reside in these notebooks. The notebooks hold the nuggets of ideas I have saved that help me remember my thinking. In most instances I have no idea where or when I will use some of this writing, some of these sketches, or some of these professional notes, but they are there waiting patiently for the right moment—the moment when I need them.

I have moved from lined spiral-bound notebooks to large bound notebooks with blank pages. These work best for me—inviting sketching and leaving me room to set up the page in any way I choose. 

My students are prominent in my notebooks. My grandchildren have crawled, toddled and walked their way in also.

As we were watching the Anne Frank movie in class, I was sitting behind my students, watching how reverent and shocked they were throughout this movie. 

Sketch of Students
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On my oldest grandson’s graduation from high school I found pictures of him picking apples at our house, wanting to remember those little hands that have now become those of a young man. 

Photos of Hunter
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I have been teaching myself drawing—practicing what I read in journaling and sketching books. What have I learned, just like writing—practice, practice, practice--the more I sketch, the better it becomes. Sometimes the sketches lead to writing. Other times they simply allow me to slow down, take a breath.

I sketched Rye Ledges on a marine biology field trip with our students after several years of trying to get rocks looking like rocks. 

Postcard of Rocks
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Sketch of Rye Ledges
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As I was working at my computer one day I watched a squirrel at our bird feeder, grabbed my notebook, sketched and wrote. 

Bird Feeder

I ask students to sketch their thinking as readers and do it myself when the book creates images in my head. As I was reading The Great Gatsby I wrote out my frustration. 

Joy Sketch
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Reading A Separate Peace, there were so many passages I wanted to capture that I thought they had to be written on that tree I kept imagining. 

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And as we were reading and discussing “Nothing Gold Can Stay” from The Outsiders I kept thinking about how quickly the years go by and put together my thinking with images and writing from being a grandchild to watching my grandchildren. 

Circle of Life
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Painting & Reflection
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When I go to conferences and workshops I take notes in this notebook. Sketch notes from a workshop with Kylene Beers and Bob Probst last December in Maine. 

Workshop Sketch Notes
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Penny Kittle and I gave a presentation at the New England Reading Association. She asked us to draw our hands after showing Sarah Kay on YouTube saying her poem “Hands.” This has stimulated lots of stories for me, some of which have become longer pieces. 

Sketch Notes, Hand
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And what are the last two pages in my current notebook? An article cut from the newspaper pasted into my notebook with notes from Anthony Doerr after hearing him speak at the Portsmouth Music Hall, written in April. The cover of the latest book from one of my former students, Abby Carroll, and notes from her reading. Then nothing—until two emails from today that I did not want to forget. Jotted down—and dated. So much to remember.

Anthony Doerr Notes
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Book Cover, Notes, E-Mails
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One of the greatest pleasures of keeping a Writing-Reading Notebook, and asking students to keep one also, comes from hearing from one of them every now and then. Four years after having Lil in 8th grade, and having heard nothing from her for four years, I received this email:

Wednesday, January 17   9:51 PM

“Mrs. Rief,  I counted my journals tonight. I have written 21 since eighth grade. Thank you!”  Sincerely, Lil”

Keeping a notebook makes me pay attention to the world. It slows me down. It lets me breathe. It makes me a deeper listener, a stronger observer. It lets me think. It captures what I want to remember. It gives me a place to think, and think again.

Here's something to try.  Watch “Hands” by Sarah Kay on YouTube. Then, read the text of "Hands." Ask the students (I would suggest 8th grade and higher) to find a line they like and write off that line for several minutes. At another time they could trace their hand, as I have done and put some dash facts on each finger that remind them of a story that has to do with hands, as I did. They can go back to any of these pieces and extend the quick write to a more developed piece. This summer, carry your notebook with you. Sit in front of a painting at a museum and sketch it. Take it to the beach, sit by the lake or ocean and sketch what you see, write what you are thinking.

Linda Rief is the author or coeditor of five Heinemann titles, including Inside the Writer's-Reader's Notebook, The Writer's-Reader's Notebook, Adolescent Literacy, Vision and Voice, and Seeking Diversity , as well as the author of 100 Quickwrites. She is an eighth-grade teacher at Oyster River Middle School in Durham, New Hampshire, and an instructor in the University of New Hampshire's Summer Literacy Institute. She is also a national and international consultant on issues of adolescent literacy. In 2000 she was the recipient of NCTE's Edwin A. Hoey Award for Outstanding Middle School Educator in the English/Language Arts. Her classroom was featured in the series Making Meaning in Literature produced by Maryland Public Television for Annenberg/CPB. 

Linda and Heinemann are generously offering 2 giveaway books, so we will have two winning commenters on this post. Please leave your comment by Thursday, July 29, 2017 to be entered into a drawing for one of two of Linda's books: Inside the Reader's Writer's Notebooks or Read, Write, Teach.  I will announce the winners in this space on Friday, July 30, 2017 as well as on Twitter and at The Poem Farm Facebook page.

Inside the Writer's-Reader's Notebook pack

Read Write Teach

Please know that Sharing Our Notebooks welcomes all kinds of notebook keepers - of any age and interest - to open up their pages and share their process.  At the present time, I am accepting all notebook entries and am especially hoping to receive some entries from boys and men who keep any kind of notebooks.  If you are interested in writing in this space, please contact me, Amy, directly.  I took a little break from this blog to write Poems Are Teachers: How Studying Poetry Strengthens Writing in All Genres (Heinemann, Fall 2017)...but I'm back and welcome you!

Please share a comment below if you wish.


  1. What I love about this is that Linda shows us (and by us, I mean mostly adults!) that keeping a writer's/reader's notebook doesn't have to be scary. It's personal, so there is no "wrong" way to do it. The important thing is to just do it. I love the variety of things she includes in her notebooks.
    It was so smart to feature Linda here because she is so skilled at inspiring others to keep a notebook.
    Thank you both, Linda and Amy.

  2. This is such a wonderful explanation of the use of reader/writer notebooks. I can't wait to share the concept and encourage the teachers with whom I work to keep a notebook and have students keep notebooks as well. It makes me sad to realize that I stopped writing and will make an effort to begin again. Thank you for sharing.

  3. My older sister gave me a big blank book (just like hers!) when I was about eight, and I journaled steadily until my late 20s. Nearly twenty years on, I blog to scratch that writing itch, but am having fun with a sort of bullet journal/reader's notebook hybrid. There's something about using colors and drawing, even badly, that pulls out a different kind of creativity. So glad I came across this post!

  4. What a great set of example pages - thank you for sharing what a life full of writing looks like! I am inspired to do more writing along with this summer's #bookaday challenge. I see a family notebook excursion in my very near future...

  5. What a fantastic example of what readers/writers notebooks can become! Thanks for your willingness to share!

  6. Thank you for sharing this, Linda! Your book, Seeking Diversity, inspired so much of what I did with my middle school students for 15 years. When I moved to high school, I noticed that the art of noticing and recording often gets lost in favor of more "serious" work. I am working hard to weave it into our class again, so thank you again for inspiring me!

  7. I have been keeping a writer's notebook since I became involved in the Connecticut Writing Project and recently introduced them into my classrooms this year. Although it was a bit intimidating sharing some of my writing with students, I found that providing my notebook as a model has engaged even the most reticent of writers in my classroom. Yet I find I want to do so much more with them and am not quite sure how. The journey continues! Thank you for such a thought-provoking post!

  8. Linda continues to inspire us when many other teachers would have said I no longer need to work this hard. Thank you for continuing to inspire us to be our best selves for students.

  9. As an almost 40 year old I am just now learning how amazing using a 'writer's notebook' can be! It's a new concept for me, with the exception of the pre-teen diary I kept for a year. I've tried blogging but that is so public, and I'm not quite confident enough to write about everything in that way. I'm in my 2nd year of my k8 teacher certification program and I'm currently in a Writer's workshop course where I'm writing more than ever...and I really love it! Your post and your examples here are amazing! I love how they include all aspects of your life. Thank you so much for sharing this!

  10. I'm sad to say that keeping a writer's notebook is new for me! For several years now, we've purchased spiral bound blank notebooks for all Kindergarteners to use for our illustrating study which launches Writer's Workshop each fall. This year I encouraged my students, after reading about the importance of writing notebooks, to use them in that way. They've become a wonderful repository of sketches, words, ideas, etc... Working in them has even become a frequent choice during Choice Time. Hooray! -- Christie @

  11. I have heard Linda speak and am always inspired to start keeping a notebook. I've bought several. I even have one in my is empty! I need to be purposeful and write, sketch, capture. I need to develop the habit of pausing and paying attention. Thank you for this blog for sharing such amazing inspiration and for the reminder that there are so many ways to go about keeping a notebook. Happy writing!

  12. Love seeing your notebooks, Linda. And your artwork is equally wonderful. I just heard children squealing while running under a sprinkler on this steamy summer day as I was reading your words, and I ran to write down what I heard and felt! Looking forward to recording more of these serendipitous moments. Thank you! -- Christie @

  13. I am so envious of artistic people! These are beautiful and oh, so inspiring. thank you for sharing these with us.

  14. I watched Sarah's youtube of Hands and am feeling inspired to do what you did, Linda. You have also inspired me to get back into my notebook to slow down and breathe. It's something classroom teachers never have a chance to do, but I'm going to make some time for it this summer.