Put Your Cub in the Den

If you’ve visited our schedule page, if you’ve been here a while, or if you know me, then you know that writing is a big deal in my classroom.   So getting into Writer’s Workshop is also a big deal.  There is a very special way that I introduce Writer’s Notebooks, a special way I share myself as a writer, and so then writing becomes a very special thing to my students, too.   It works out really nicely.  🙂

So…a couple of years into teaching 4th grade, I came up with what I thought was a great idea.  At that point, Steno notebooks were EVERYWHERE, and I found a new way to use them.  Rather than having my kiddos jump right into their Writer’s Notebooks, I gave them a “practice” notebook where I would teach them my way of using the notebook, a place to give it a try and make mistakes.  Then, once they had proved to me that they were ready, they got to “move in” to their real notebook.  Back then my class came up with the name of “training wheels” for that starter notebook, because of how you go through that learning stage before you ride a real bike.

This year, I knew I wanted to get back to this whole starter notebook idea (I hadn’t done it with my 5th graders yet), so I got to work.  Instead of using Stenos, though, which are strangely hard to find now, I decided to use a half-sized notebook.  Just a few quick slices of the paper cutter and you have a class set like this:

I liked how they are pint-sized, so are therefore portable, but have big enough pages that you can finish most thoughts on one page.

I told my class the story of the training wheels, and set goals for how I wanted them to use these notebooks over the next few weeks.  Then I asked them if they wanted to stick with the old name, or create a new one that was just for us.  And so the idea of the “cub” was born.  Instead of having  training wheels that led them to a bike, they decided that they would instead have a cub that grew up into a bear!  Then, they even renamed our cubbies (the places where they store their stuff) DENS, so they could put their BEAR in the DEN.  Get it?  Like Bearden?  That’s actually how I tell people how to spell my name: like a bear in a den.  HA!  And so the cub was born.  And very soon everyone’s cubs will become bears.  🙂

But what do we put in our cubs?  What am I teaching them to put in their notebooks?

It all started with a definition, courtesy of Ralph Fletcher:

A container.  A ditch.  A place to live like a writer.  I want my writers to think of this little notebook as a place to collect ideas, to save secrets, to start stories.  It’s a place they will visit each day, writing in a variety of different ways, collecting entries that they will come back to over and over again in their future–for sure in their 5th grade futures, but hopefully (if I do my job right!) their farther futures, too.  I am up to my 11th WNB, the first of which dates back to 2005, and I still use them everyday!

So far, we’ve learned these strategies for our writing toolboxes:

1. Lists: you can use this strategy for anything!  A list of favorite things, least favorite things, names, places, foods, story ideas–ANYTHING!  Like this, for example:


2. Memories:  I define a memory as anything that has happened to you in your past (and remember–5 minutes ago is the past!) that you want to remember.  It doesn’t have to be huge or monumental or “special,”  just memorable.  And important to you.  We’re learning that almost anything in our lives is “worthy” to be kept in our notebooks, and that we can write about these ordinary events in an extraordinary way.

A 5th grade memory or two:



3. Artifacts:These are really an extension of memories, and involves the “stuff” you put in your notebook that triggers memories–photographs, newspaper clippings, ticket stubs, candy wrappers, flower petals, cards, notes.  You name it!  Someone even taped a quarter into his notebook the other day because it sparked a story he’d heard before.  For us, it’s been mostly magazines lately.  I give them very specific directions about how the WRITING and THINKING is more important than the picture, and that they should not just cut out any old picture and write “I like…”  They are totally rocking at finding the deeper stories behind plain pictures they find in our classroom magazine bin.

For example:


4. Questions: We call these “fierce wonderings” (again per Ralph Fletcher’s smart thinking!).   We talked about how we wanted the focus to be on big questions that may not have an answer–at least not one that we can find easily or at this point in our lives.  We discovered that often fierce wonderings start with “why.”

5. Observations/Descriptions:  We added these to our strategy list today, and I can’t wait to share them with you soon!

I love the stories I keep hearing from families about how excited their students are to be writing!  They are already doing an AMAZING job with this!  But hey, that’s because they’re AMAZING kiddos!

What do you write about?  Have you ever tried any of these strategies in your own writing?  What can you add to our list of entry suggestions?  Leave a comment and share your thoughts! We LOVE to read comments!