Saturday, April 13, 2013

The Commonplace Book - get messy, get creative

To start everything, before we even read a book, we create our commonplace book.

Commonplace books were very popular in the 1800s. People still keep them to this day, though they may not call them as such. The definition of a commonplace book is very broad. Essentially they are scrapbooks/ notebooks filled with items of every kind: quotes, letters, poems, photographs, drawings, excerpts of other books, clippings from newspapers, doodles, drafts, journal entries -- anything to collect pieces of inspiration.

You can see in other entries on this site excerpts from my commonplace books (the drawing of the elephant, the poem/library metaphor). I keep a paper one all the time and I keep one online:

The commonplace book is an essential part of the poetry unit to my mind. I want to make sure the students have a place to draw, doodle, take notes, get messy, over write, take risks, let thoughts flow, get inspired and let loose. It's not graded or corrected, it's merely a tool, like a pencil, for their learning as poets.

(It's good to start calling them poets every day during the lessons. When they think of themselves that way, they get more confidence in their abilities. Confidence in one's abilities is so important, though very hard to achieve. But it's good to start them thinking that they can and should take themselves and creating/creativity seriously from a young age.)

Each student got a notebook which they put their name on. They got markers and/or pens and stickers (I picked up a bunch of big sticker packets from the Dollar Tree) and they decorated the cover of their commonplace books. I wrote in my first few pages and showed them some of the possibilities for what theirs can contain.

The most important thing is emphasizing a place to have the freedom to make a mess, explore, and take risks. We don't often have spaces like that in teaching and education, where there are no parameters, no structure, no assessment-oriented criteria. That's exactly why I think most of the students LOVE their commonplace books. They fill at least one and some get up to three by the time the unit's don,e and then keep their own going after that. (Forever? Here's hoping!)

Once you've started to have them keep a commonplace book, you can extend it beyond the poetry lesson. They can work in it during all those "down" times throughout a day, or incorporate it into other units you teach.

Here's some sample pages from my commonplace book. I used mine for creating and organizing ideas for the unit. Of course I had an outline to start and materials from years' past, but each group has different needs or goes in different directions. I use my commonplace book to generate variations to the unit outline.

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