Science Notebooks and Writing Workshops: Helping Students Organize Information

Writer’s workshops are a staple in creative writing – from schoolchildren to seasoned professional authors. In a writing workshop, authors meet to share and discuss their work. The peer-critique process can focus on a work as a whole, or on a specific area of difficulty as indicated by the writer.

In this issue’s Literacy Content Knowledge article, “Science Notebooks: Integrating Investigations,” we discussed how science notebooks are a powerful tool for linking inquiry-based science and literacy. Science notebooks require students to record and organize a great deal of information – questions, predictions, plans, observations, data, charts, graphs, drawings, illustrations, claims and evidence, conclusions, and reflections. Ideally, a clear heading with the investigation and title and the date will also be included. Learning how to best organize this information visually is an important developmental process – and one that transfers over to other forms of writing. In the popular 6+1 Traits of Writing model, the arrangement of words on the page, margins, neatness, and spacing of letters and words are all part of the Presentation trait for all modes of writing – creative, descriptive, narrative, persuasive, and expository.

Many aspects of visual literacy, information organization, and text presentation are so routine that they are taken for granted by adults – centering a heading, using an underline, italics, or boldfaced type to convey meaning, or changing the font size, to name a few. Other choices – using specific types of illustrations (cross sections, labeled diagrams) or presenting material as a numbered list, bulleted list, or paragraph – require reflection about the content to be conveyed. These decisions can be modeled and discussed within the framework of a writer’s workshop.

Many teachers, in an understandable quest for readable, neat entries, will dictate these types of visual organization or require certain features in a notebook entry. While this strategy works as a short-term solution, it often backfires in the long run. Without these imposed features or organizational strategies, students often do not know how to organize and represent information in a clear and concise manner. Taking time to explicitly teach and model this decision-making process, reward student experimentation, and wade through the not-always successful attempts will result in better organization in the long term.


How Can a Writer’s Workshop Teach Organization?

Most writer’s workshops begin with a short lesson on one specific strategy – in this case, organization. The best place to start is with text itself. Textbooks and trade books alike employ visual literacy features, such as headings, bullets, images, and layouts, that can serve as models for students. Calling attention to these features when reading aloud makes students aware of them and more likely to incorporate them into their own writing. Ask students to identify exemplary examples of visual organization as well as examples of text that is not organized well.

A rubric (either premade or generated with student input) can help students assess the organization of a piece of text. Using a rubric will also allow students to later reflect on their own organization – an important metacognitive skill.

Workshops always include time to practice and apply the skill being taught. In this case, a teacher may choose to begin an investigation and have students practice as they complete the investigation and write in their science notebook. Alternatively, a teacher may schedule the workshop during the course of an investigation or at the end of one. Workshops, by design, are fluid and evolve to meet the emerging needs of the particular student population. However, time to practice is a crucial component that cannot be ignored.

Another essential component of a workshop is time to share. Often called “writer’s chair,” this involves students in reading and sharing their work and receiving feedback from peers. Successful sharing is a result of careful structuring and modeling on the part of the teacher. Students need to know how to critically assess work and provide constructive criticism. Many teachers ask peers to share compliments as well as suggestions for improvement.

Sharing time enables students to not only receive feedback but also learn from their peers. Often, a few students will assume the roles of “trailblazers,” trying new organizational strategies or types of diagrams that they have seen in published works. In these cases, it is important to praise student efforts, even if the final product isn’t perfect. As in all areas, students need to feel secure and able to take risks in organizing. Comparing a student’s work to a similar example from a textbook or trade book provides additional support and suggestions for improvement.

For other students, seeing the attempts of the “trailblazers” provides the confidence and motivation to try new strategies themselves. Often, one student’s “experiment” becomes a staple in an entire class’s work after a workshop! It is important to remember that each student brings his or her own developmental level and natural level of organization to this process. What may seem like a small action for one student (underlining and centering a title, for example) may in fact be a large step forward for another. Teachers should stress individual progress and reflection and avoid comparisons between students’ work.

As students continue to experiment, peer review, and consult exemplary examples from published text, they acquire a toolkit of organization and presentation strategies that can be applied not only in science notebooks, but across the curriculum.

Where I can learn more about writer’s workshops and visual literacy?

Visual Literacy K-8
Representing information in diagrams, images, and text is called visual literacy. This site defines visual literacy, provides examples of visual texts, teaching ideas, and assessment checklists.

Writer’s Workshop
This site provides a traditional explanation of the components of a writer’s workshop. It includes pages for Kindergarten, Grade 1, Grade 2, Grade 3, and Grades 4-6. All components and strategies can be modified to meet the needs of your class.

6+1 Trait Writing
The Education Northwest web site (home of the 6+1 Trait writing model) includes background information, lesson plans and prompts, and scoring rubrics.

For more information about the 6+1 Traits Writing Model and the trait of Presentation, please refer to “Water Dance: Integrating Science, Literacy, Art, and Movement” in the Across the Curriculum department of the this issue.

This article was written by Jessica Fries-Gaither. For more information, see the Contributors page. Email Kimberly Lightle, Principal Investigator, with any questions about the content of this site.

Copyright August 2008 – The Ohio State University. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0733024. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. This work is licensed under an Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported Creative Commons license.


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