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How do I launch a digital writer’s notebook?

september 8, 2020

Tech-savvy teachers have been utilizing digital writer’s notebooks for years. But for many others, the sudden pivot to remote learning has generated questions about how to start and maintain this resource without relying on the trusty spiral notebook or binder.

Before you jump into using digital writer’s notebooks, be sure that students have a clear understanding of the apps or software you plan to use. Whether it is a learning management system like Canvas or Google Classroom or something as simple as a Word file or Google Doc, kids need to be familiar with the format.

Once you have selected a platform, teach them how to create, organize, and manage their writings.

Set up folders

Just like you would if you were teaching students to set up a paper-bound writer’s notebook, be intentional about having kids create specific folders to house different types of writing.

One of the benefits of a digital writer’s notebook is that you can have multiple folders—without needing more school supplies! As you are planning folder organization, consider a few key questions.

Should I have a separate folder for quick writes versus long extended products? Do I want separate folders for informative writing versus narrative writing versus persuasive/argumentative writing? How about English-language arts writing versus content-area writing?

If we want students to have organized writer’s notebooks, we need to provide a framework up front. So whatever decisions you make about folders, communicate these clearly to students so that everyone starts with the proper setup.

Introduce naming procedures

After format and organization are determined, teach students how to save individual documents.

Just like in the pencil-paper world, when we require students to name and label the top of their papers in a particular way, we need to make it clear and consistent on how to name digital documents when saving them. Students (and sometimes adults) are notorious for choosing unique titles that seem right in the moment but cannot be remembered later.

If you set up a clear and consistent way for students to save each writing, students (and teachers) will be able to use the search function and find any document quickly (rather than opening and closing a bunch of folders).

Teach revision and editing procedures

Beyond saving student work, the real value of any writer’s notebook is that it houses all previous drafts and reveals the journey of revision. We achieve this function with a paper-based notebook by using strategies like Story Surgery and Spider Legs to add content. Not only are we making room for revision, but we can physically see the original draft from what was changed. However, these strategies are not as appropriate for digital notebooks.

Although making changes within the digital format is now as simple as dropping the cursor to add content or move things around, there are two important procedures to teach.

1. Use text features to show changes. We want the additions, changes, replacements, and tweaks to all be obvious. Like the visible addition of a sentence on a Spider Leg, we want to know the details that a student added to a digital document. Therefore, model how all changes/additions should be noted with a different font color or by simply highlighting the black text. This will make revisions and edits much easier to assess.
2. Always save as—never save over. A second perk to the paper-based notebook is that all previous drafts are saved on different sheets of paper. Since going back to a previous version is commonplace for writers, we do not want students to simply hit “save” every time they make digital changes. Rather, model how to “save as” and, using the same document title, simply add a v1, v2, v3 to represent each new version they create. This allows them to quickly identify the newest draft while maintaining all previous ones.

If using a digital format to host writer’s notebooks has you concerned, rest assured, teaching students how to build and utilize a writer’s notebook is still worth the effort. As our team reiterates during our professional development for teachers, we definitely don’t want to abandon this essential facet of the writer’s workshop.

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Comprehension Playbook
Evaluate When to Introduce a Digital Writer's Notebook

Evaluate When to Introduce a Digital Writer’s Notebook

Adjust the Writing Process for Digital Devices


Adjust the Writing Process for Digital Devices

Make room to revise and edit


Make Room to Revise & Edit