My Reader’s Notebook: Making My Thinking Visible for My Students

By: Jessica Michael Bowman

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Since you’re spending your time perusing the WVCTE best practices blog, I have a hunch you’re probably a teacher of all things reading, writing, and thinking. I’d venture to guess you’re also a words person. I mean, it comes with the territory. If you are, you are my people.

We are the words people. Maybe, like me, you feel a deep sense of joy in your ability to turn a phrase, get a little lost in the glee of word play. And yet you agonize over finding, choosing, and inserting the perfect word that will carry the weight and nuance of the meaning behind it.

What is it about the the written word that we, as words people, appreciate so much? Why do we so painstakingly and lovingly collect them, arrange them, meditate upon them?

For me, my love of words is evident in every part of who I am and who I have been.

Lyrics, extracted from a melody, turned over in my mind and jotted down in a journal. Captured in script and suspended in my daughter’s nursery.

Love letters, creased and worn with the unfolding and reopening of time. Kept sacred and treasured, memorized in my heart as much as my mind.

Words of warmth, scrawled in old Christmas cards or immortalized in Times New Roman in my inbox. Time capsules where I seek out the comfort of those who are no longer with me.

It still amazes me – the gift that words are. The freedom we have to choose them and the magic that unfolds as we place them before and after one another. And it still terrifies me – the way they can be distorted, their beauty turned sinister, left twisted and tarnished.

Words, while universal, are so personal.

And so I often wonder: If the written word can be so powerful for us, what what about our students?

The discovering, collecting, and arranging of words are science and art. I am fascinated by what moves us, lovers of words, to cling to certain phrases, to place importance on some and not others. I think about the choices we make when we read and write, what resonates with us.  It’s this fondness for the written word and interest in others’ thinking, reading, and writing lives that has lead me down the path of one of the most rewarding discoveries of my teaching career. Teaching, a universal and personal endeavor, has been where my love affair with words has been most fostered. And it has been the most infectious vehicle for it to spread.

Nothing has transformed my teaching of reading and writing about reading like my reader’s notebook. And when I say “my,” I truly mean it is mine. My students have theirs, and this is a necessity. But it is my reader’s notebook that has been the biggest catalyst for developing their thinking about reading and response to reading. It has also given them a glimpse into my own thoughts, and therefore a bit of who I am as a lover of words.

By sharing my reader’s notebook, I’ve let my students in on the secret that all of us word people know.

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Even if you’ve never used reader’s notebooks in your classroom before, I’d wager that you have used one yourself. It may not be a notebook, spiral bound and lined. Perhaps it’s sticky notes you fancy, or a go-to app on your phone. Maybe it’s a conversation you have over coffee with someone who has read the same book as you, or a line scribbled down on paper – affirmation affixed to your fridge. In some form, words person, you have read and in turn – it got you thinking. And you captured and shared this thinking in some way, for some purpose. Big ideas, powerful lines – something had to stick with you, keep you wondering, leave you questioning.

While we are so aware of our own thinking, metacognition is something we need to nudge our students toward.  I’ve found no better way than to bring my reading and writing life to the forefront of my classroom, to bare my soul a little and invite my students into the world of word lovers.

Using My Reader’s Notebook Authentically 

I’ve been using reader’s notebooks, the cornerstone of reader’s workshop, in my classrooms for years. It’s always been with careful attention that I’ve implicitly and explicitly taught my students how to use them to jot as they read independently. We would call it “opening a dialogue with our books,” and as I conferred with students, their learning was made visible to me. Their notebooks were a great starting point for formative assessment, and even a great accountability piece for increasing engagement. The first time one of my students shared a reader’s notebook with me, I could see transfer.

Still, it wasn’t until I began sharing my reader’s notebook that I saw my students’ love of reading and voracious writing about reading transform. Previously, I always modeled how I might jot about what I’m reading during a read aloud or mini lesson solely with an anchor chart or on my interactive whiteboard. While I was modeling the kind of thinking about reading I wanted my students to replicate, I was missing the authenticity and beauty of what a real reader’s notebook can offer. I wasn’t making my thinking visible for them, and I was hiding a vital part of my reading self from them.

Now, whenever I’m teaching and coaching, I always carry with my reader’s notebook with me. It’s full of my favorite lines, theories, quotes, character analyses, and questions. It draws upon the work we’re doing in the classroom, as well as the books I read personally. And I make visible the ways in which I use it, how it is truly an invaluable piece of my reading life and identity as a reader. I model thinking aloud and the ways that I stop and jot as I read aloud or teach mini lessons, and I also invite my students to study it, get to know me as a reader. It becomes a tool for reflection for all of us.

While reader’s notebooks are artifacts that can guide inquiry and inform teaching, they are really so much more. As I brought my reading life to the forefront of my classroom, students began to know the me behind Mrs. Bowman. My reader’s notebook become a window into a world, the world of word lovers. As they peeked behind the curtain, they caught a glimpse of the word lover and knew me in a new and different way. The books I treasured and the lines that resonated with me, my questions and reflections – they all seemed to make me more real, more human in their eyes. Most wonderful of all, my love of words inspired their own reading lives.

As I bean to show up with the kind of authenticity I expected of them, it was as if they were also sharing a little bit of their minds, and also their souls, with me. As they read, I watched them them slow down, as if they really noticed the words for the first time, and were struck by the meaning – and the person- behind them. And then I watched them reread, collect the words, arrange them, and love them. They would write their own. – questions, theories, wonderings, quotes, and reflections to favorite parts. The more authentic I kept my notebook and dedicated time to using and sharing it, the more theirs flourished. No premade packets, no worksheets – just pencil, paper, and promise. Where freedom and trust thrived and not rigidity and control, their notebooks become organic, authentic extensions of their reading selves. They became words people.


(A few examples of students’ entries in their reader’s notebooks)

Remember when I said I let them in on our secret? That’s not completely true. I should have known all along that they knew the power of words. Before they ever step into our classrooms, they understand what words can do. The know the potential of words to heal, to hurt. The words are inside of them, we just need to provide them with the encouragement, trust, and opportunity to share them. So words person, I encourage you, as you begin this new school year, to let go a little, and to allow your students the freedom and joy that a reader’s notebook can offer. But most of all, I invite you to lead with authenticity – to bare your soul a little, and to wear your reading life, your love of words, on your sleeve.

WVCTE is wondering… How do you make your thinking visible for your students? Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!

Jessica Michael Bowman is an unabashed bibliophile and advocate of lifelong literacy. She is currently a literacy coach in Berkeley County, WV and the WVCTE Vice President of Elementary Affairs. When she’s not coaching teachers, teaching students, or blogging for WVCTE, she’s probably crying over a book. Aside from all things literacy, she’s passionate about her family, traveling, and adding to her music collection. You can connect with her on Twitter @JMichaelBowman5.


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