There’s a big difference in the phrases “a notebook” and “my notebook.”

Because I want my students to have ownership of their writing notebooks—to feel that their writing notebooks, and by extension, their writing itself, is an expression of themselves and driven by them—I want them to feel a sense of home immediately when they see and open their notebooks. This will frame their writing in a context that says, “your writing matters because your writing is a piece of you, and you matter.”

To drive this point home, I center the first few activities in the writing notebooks on self-expression.


The first task in the writing notebook is to mark whose is whose. Since I keep writing notebooks located in my classroom (because, let’s be serious, freshmen tend to lose EVERYTHING that is not physically attached to their person and even some things which are), I need a way to be able to quickly hand out notebooks when writing is part of the lesson for the day. I could just have them write their names on the front with sharpie, but that’s boring and doesn’t lend itself to the sense of ownership I want to create. Instead, I have my students create bookplates for their notebooks.

Bookplates are those designs that people paste into the front covers of their books to mark that the book belongs to them. They usually say the Latin phrase “Ex Libris” which means “from the book of…” as well as the owner’s name. Bookplates are a fancy way of (a) marking that the book is yours, and (b) showing something important about you through the design of the bookplate.

walker bookplate

I start by showing my students a bookplate painted by monks inside the front of a hand-copied book. I tell them about how they are going to be working on their writing notebooks for a long time just like monks took a long time to copy a single volume. Also, books were super expensive back in the day, so they were valuable just like their notebooks will be valuable because it will be their writing. Also, the bookplates showed something important about the owner of the book just like their bookplates will as well.

Then I show them a bunch more examples of bookplates. My PowerPoint for this is below. I also have backgrounds which I print out for my students to spice up their own bookplate projects:

Bookplate Project

Bookplate borders

I then assign my students to design a bookplate for their notebook. I require that they include either the phrase “from the notebook of…” or “Ex Libris,” along with their name and a picture (hand drawn or a collage of pictures cut from magazines) that shows something important about their personality. Then I have them tape or glue it in the front of their notebooks. Every time I pass out or grade notebooks, then, I reference the bookplate to see whose notebook it is and am reminded of their design that they felt represents or signifies them.

Much more classy, fun, and engaging than just writing their name on the front cover.


The first page of the students’ notebooks then becomes what Kelly Gallagher calls Writing Territories in his book Write Like This. I have found this to be immensely helpful for students. Writing Territories is a brainstormed list of topics that students can reference if they get stuck on a more open-ended writing prompt and can’t think of a topic for their writing. It can be anything that they are interested in and about which they could write several cohesive sentences. I make my students list at least 8 items in their writing territories. My suggestions for good topics to list are as follows:

  • Sports
  • Teams
  • Hobbies
  • Interests
  • Bands
  • Musical Genres
  • Places
  • Careers
  • Movies
  • TV Shows
  • Celebrities
  • Seasons
  • Foods
  • Authors
  • Classes
  • People

To show students that they probably can list more than just 8 topics if they push themselves, I show them my list of writing territories, which is pretty extensive because I have a lot of interests.

Jorgensen writing territories

My students and I make use of this list throughout the year. If they are stuck in thinking of a topic for their writing, they often turn back to this. Also, if a student is having a off day or feeling belligerent and claims that they can’t engage in the writing activity because there is nothing on planet Earth that they could possibly write about, I will flip back to their Writing Territories and remind them of their own list or even recommend a topic to them from their list. Sometimes, that gives them the spark they need to push through their own reluctance and get started.

So, the first two activities that I ask my students to complete with their writing notebooks shows me a lot about them and also is accessible for all my students, even the struggling writers. This helps ease them into the process and gets everyone off on the right foot in our writing journey for the year.

Liz Jorgensen (formerly Keiper) is a contributing blogger for WVCTE. When she’s not dressing up in togas or running around her classroom with foam swords reenacting Shakespeare, she can be found enjoying the great outdoors, playing guitar, or adding to her rather out-of-control rubber duck collection. You can follow her on Twitter @LizJorgenTeach.

WVCTE is wondering…

  • How do you inspire ownership of writing in your students?
  • What are your favorite Back-to-School writing activities?

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