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!


12 thoughts on “Put Your Cub in the Den

  1. Pingback: They Grow Up So Fast… « 20somethingkidsand1kookyteacher

  2. Hello 5th Grade,

    I have read writing is a big deal in your class. So it was in my last class but that was now seven years in the past. Did my love for writing and sharing ideas stop on leaving the classroom?

    NO! Writing is now an even bigger part of my life. I have no idea how many hundreds, or possibly thousands, of words I write in the average day.

    Writing is a part of our learning journey that can take us to worlds of the imagination where the impossible becomes possible.
    Writing can help us record thoughts and experiences to remind us and share with others the experiences life throws at us.
    Writing can help us explain things we have discovered.
    Writing can help us ask the questions needed to find the answers.

    Writing is a way of sharing a little of ourselves with the world.

    Now a little extra writing to answer the questions on this post…

    What do I write about?
    Stories: Some of you may have seen a comment from me on a blog. Others might have seen the special blog I have for sharing longer comments when a class or student post starts me thinking in different directions. It’s not too likely any of you would know I also have a blog just for writing stories (always G rated). They are normally very short stories for writing challenges, but also including longer stories and even hints at novels I’ve attempted but never published.
    Blog Commenting: When I went online on Sunday morning, I started writing comments for classes taking part in International Dot Day. At first, I had no idea what was to follow.
    In response to my comments, one class asked what other materials I had used to create dots. This is where the mind planning came into play. After four to five hours, a post was created with over 800 words, 3 You Tube clips I created just for this post and links to other useful information.
    Here is a link to what resulted…

    Have I ever tried any of these strategies in my own writing?
    I must say, in a way, I use these strategies but not so much in written form. I would use these strategies if I was preparing a presentation or lesson but most of my writing is planned in my mind. The ability to do this is something we learn over time. Like sport needs us to practise and strengthen our muscles, writing needs to be planned and practised to strengthen our creativity.

    What can you add to our list of entry suggestions?
    Lists, memories, artefacts, questions and observations/descriptions are all important strategies when writing, whether we have written them down or stored them in our minds.
    I wouldn’t add to your strategies as I find strategies are personal methods we each use. One personal strategy of mine when writing came into play when I was wondering where I should take my stories next. I would go for a long walk along a bush trail, returning home after perhaps three hours. Without too much attention, I often found new ideas had come to mind while walking. Our sub-conscious mind works behind the scene.

    I think cubs becoming bears is a wonderful way of describing your journey into writing. I hope not only do all of your cubs quickly become bears, I hope the bears burst with ideas and stories you can share with the world.

    Keep blogging.
    Teacher (retired), N.S.W., Australia

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