National Writing Project

Lifebook Journals Help Students Write Fluently

By: Tricia Hall
Date: May 7, 2008

Summary: A teacher inspires her second grade students to write by having them keep "Lifebooks" modeled after Marissa Moss' Amelia's Notebook. They love it, and their entries later become the bases of longer pieces.


Nothing is more frightening to a first-year teacher than the image of a class of seven-year-olds, pencils in hand, all looking blankly, none writing. That's exactly what I saw as a beginning teacher. What did I do? I froze. This wasn't supposed to happen.

That was six years ago. Like many other first-year teachers, I had gone to workshops and read countless books on writing. I thought I was ready. Now, however, I felt lost, confused, and directionless. I didn't know how to start.

Amelia to the Rescue

Then I remembered a book from my undergraduate studies that had grabbed my attention, Amelia's Notebook by Marissa Moss (2006). Amelia is a nine-year-old girl who documents her every thought, secret, and experience in a black-and-white composition book with witty, colorful text and illustrations. I began reading Moss's book to my students. They thought I was reading a diary of someone close to their age, and they loved that!

I understood that nothing was more important than my students seeing me write.

I wondered what would happen if I asked students to create books similar to Amelia's. Amelia had a notebook but I, using Lucy Calkins' (1994) terminology, wanted to call my students' creations "Lifebooks" because that's exactly what I wanted them to be: books that held every detail of their lives. Donald Murray (1996) calls them "day books"; Donald Graves (2003) calls them "journals." Overall, the intended use is the same.

What Is a Lifebook?

A Lifebook is a place to write memories, lists, quotes, lines from a story, and questions of wonder; to paste magazine clippings, postcards, and other significant items—and so on; the list goes on. "Lifebooks," writes Calkins (1994, 94–95), "aren't collections of stories with beginnings, middles, and ends, but are, instead, places for gathering the bits and pieces of [writers'] lives. And when this happens, the Lifebooks take on a feeling very different from journals." Donald Murray (1996, 20) compares this process to what a scientist might do in a lab, recording every thought, detail, and pondering. In a Lifebook the subject for this scrutiny is the writer's life.

A First Step

I wanted to ease my students into the genre of Lifebook writing so I made construction-paper booklets with a few sheets of stapled paper inside and called them "Beginning Lifebooks." This was a starting point, a low-risk place to begin the process. I kept Amelia as our model. I wanted my students to be inspired by how she wrote words in bold, experimented with spelling, and labeled pictures. I hoped that over the course of my five weeks of reading Amelia, they would want to emulate her. Sure enough, they did. With their writing, they began highlighting big important words, labeling pictures, and scratching out and trying over again misspelled words, rather than erasing them.

As a class, we went through the procedures of these Beginning Lifebooks. The students agreed that their notebooks should have more writing than pictures, just like Amelia's. And then they began to write. I did not limit what they could and couldn't write about. If the boys wanted to write about a battle they saw on a video game, they could. If the girls wanted to write about a fight with a best friend, they could, because "if a teacher's hand is evident throughout, the power of a Lifebook is greatly diminished" (Calkins 1991, 51). The writing in a Lifebook must remain true to the student's thoughts and noticings. For those beliefs and feelings "validate a child's existence" (Calkins 1991, 35). And as teachers, we must remember and respect that.

Of course, the Beginning Lifebooks were just that, beginnings. There were a lot of pages with only two or three sentences and huge pictures (figure 1, see sidebar). But, as students continued to write in their Beginning Lifebooks—a daily event that consisted of uninterrupted fifteen minutes of solid writing—and we continued to read Amelia, the writing began to overshadow the drawings (figure 2, see sidebar).

Gradually, a few students would share their entries—anything from an account of a wedding they attended to a list of whom they wanted to play with at recess—and the class would comment or ask questions. Tristan, the popular, macho boy in class, wrote about his trip to Wal-Mart (figure 3, see sidebar).

The Next Level

After about four weeks, students began to graduate from the Beginning Lifebook to what I called the "Amelia Lifebook." In order to move to this next level, students were required to share their writing with the class. An Amelia Lifebook was a marbled composition book of the kind you can buy at any drugstore, but I played them up big! I did this to acknowledge the progress the children had made from their Beginning Lifebooks—and to continue the excitement.

At the end of writers' workshop, I would call the student or students who had graduated for that day up to the front of the class. I presented the Lifebook to them just like a diploma, complete with a bow.

The kids relished it! It looked just like Amelia's notebook, they thought. They were allowed to bring in stickers to decorate the covers and personalize their Lifebooks. One student even put a foam frame with her picture in it on the cover. Because not everyone graduated at the same time, students eagerly anticipated each day's graduation. The seriousness of what and how they wrote in their Beginning Lifebooks changed dramatically because of this graduation ritual.

Another sign of success I looked for: Students wanting to take the Lifebook home to write

Some of the students were not yet willing to share and I realized it was important to move them toward "graduation." Writing in my own Lifebook, I positioned myself next to those students who hadn't shared in class. I was able to observe their writing and offer assistance or suggestions so that they could graduate as well. And soon they all did.

After graduating, students wrote primarily in their Amelia Lifebook, but occasionally went back to their Beginning Lifebook to use it as a reference for future stories, make revisions, or complete entries.

I kept encouraging Calkins' "gathering of bits and pieces" in the Lifebooks. You know they've got it when students come and ask if they can tape movie tickets, pictures, theme park bracelets, charms, and newspaper clippings into their Lifebooks. One student brought her bracelet ID from a time she went ice skating with her dad, and wrote about it (see figure 4 in the sidebar above).

Another sign of success I looked for: Students wanting to take the Lifebook home to write, promising me they would bring it back the very next day. They knew that if they didn't, I'd create a big scene around how tragic it was that they didn't remember their Lifebook.

Myself as a Model

Following Calkins' lead I understood that I too needed a life book. Students, says Calkins (1994, 60), "need to see us copying favorite lines from a book, pausing to record a fact, or venting our feelings onto the page." This needs to be done as a ritual, not a "when I have time" kind of thing. Of course there are papers to grade, homework to check, lesson plans to be written, but I understood that nothing was more important than my students seeing me write. My Lifebook, which I would write in every day with my students, contained pictures, frustrations, poems, and keepsakes. When I shared an entry like the one in figure 5 (see the sidebar above), letting students in on a part of my life, they would become attentive, realizing that I value my Lifebook as much as they do theirs.

I recognized that for some students, I might be the only adult in their lives who models writing. I had students who went home to TV babysitters and others who had every day of the week filled with extracurricular activities.

I wanted to provide an environment that was safe and full of passion, where they could write without limitations or conditions. For students, even those shy ones or those who don't like to talk out, Lifebooks were a place where they could write down secrets, feelings, and thoughts (see figure 6 in the sidebar above). As Amelia says, "Words hold a lot of stuff" (Moss 2007). And as Lucy Calkins says (1994, 251), "We cannot require our children to write beyond their capacity. We cannot assign them to be brilliant and original and deeply true. But we can create conditions in which this will happen."

The Lifebook Museum

After six to eight weeks of Lifebook writing, the class, as Calkins recommends (1994, 33), participated in a "notebook museum." On museum day, held once a week, students open their Lifebooks to an entry they wish to share with the class. Using sticky notes to write positive comments or ask questions, they rotate around the classroom in a museum walk style, reading each other's entries. One student may ask, "What else happened?" another may comment, "That's a great story!" Writing their comments on sticky notes helps the students recognize that they also have a voice in others' writing—and that they actually have an audience for their own writing.

The museum also exposes students to a wide variety of writing styles. One student may get an idea from another student's writing, feel inspired, and then go back to her own Lifebook to write. I too wrote sticky notes on student pages asking clarifying questions or pointing out what they did well.

The museum walk allows students to learn more about themselves as writers. For example, after a museum walk, Tristan, the boy who wrote about his trip to Wal-Mart, learned from his sticky notes that no one could read his entry because of his handwriting. From that day on, as seen in his basketball story (see figure 7 in the sidebar above), Tristan made a conscious effort to improve his penmanship because he understood the importance of legible writing if he wanted an audience.

Moving from Lifebooks to Published Pieces in Writers' Workshop

Many of my students were now writing great entries in their Lifebooks but dull stories about cats and best friends for writers' workshop. I questioned how I could get them to write meaningful pieces similar to what they wrote in their Lifebooks. I knew my students were much more capable writers than they were showing in workshop.

So during conferencing when I would get an "I don't know what to write about," or "I'm writing another battle story," I would ask students to take out their Lifebooks. I knew that they had the ideas for great stories; I just had to direct them to their Lifebooks. Graves (2003, 23) states that "Children for whom it is most difficult to come up with a territory or information are those who need them [Lifebooks] most."

For students who were stuck, I had them follow Calkins' recommendation to pick a page from their Lifebook or "read aloud a single word" that they felt passion for (1994, 33). Then I would encourage them to take that idea and just write. After introducing this strategy, I instantly got more and better writing from all students. Even the students who always wrote about superheroes, Yugi-Oh, or their mom were producing stories that made me almost cry because they had made the connection to the real experience of their Lifebooks.

Tristan surprised me again when he wrote about a secret that was almost unbearable for him to reveal. The piece began when we were browsing through his Lifebook and came to a page folded shut. He immediately got anxious, saying, "No! No! No!" But he did share the entry with me—a brief, scribbled confession that he liked a particular girl and thought she was cute. He begged me not to make him write about it.

I told him he could write it for my eyes only, and he wouldn't have to share it. He agreed. And after it was finished, there he was, sitting in author's chair in front of the whole class reading his story. His choice! The story had expanded to four well-organized paragraphs describing his dynamic with the girl and ending,
If I tell anybody I will die. I will be embarrassed because people will think there is a different side of me. A side that shows sensitivity and that's my secret.

For Tristan, the pride and satisfaction in what he wrote overpowered his fear of what others would think of him.

Lifebook Caveats

Certain cautions need to be observed as students engage with their Lifebooks. Lifebooks are intended to be a tool for the writer, not a crutch. If students do not move from Lifebook entries to published pieces, they may quickly lose the passion and interest in writing that publication can bring.

Another area of concern is the issue of grading Lifebooks. Lifebooks are not intended to be graded, first because the Lifebook is primarily a tool for future writing, and second because there is no specific rubric for a Lifebook. As Ralph Fletcher says (1996, 133), "Every writer's notebook is a custom job."

In the End

Looking back, I realize that I learned through this experience what authentic writing is. It isn't "put your pen to paper, write me a story, let me teach you a minilesson" and many of the other strategies I encountered in my reading and at workshops. Rather, I learned through my use of Lifebooks that authentic writing is about choice and ownership. It was these ingredients that led my students to feel they truly were writers.

I saw that taking risks with my students and going down a road less traveled produced results far greater than if I hadn't. As a result, my students took risks as well. That was my way of pushing them out of the nest.


Calkins, Lucy. 1991. Living Between the Lines. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

_____. 1994. The Art of Teaching Writing. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Fletcher, Ralph. 1993. What a Writer Needs. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

_____. 1996. A Writer's Notebook. New York: HarperCollins.

_____. 2001. Writing Workshop: The Essential Guide. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Graves, Donald. 2003. Writing: Teachers & Children at Work. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Moss, Marissa. 2006. Amelia's Notebook. New York: Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing (Orig. pub. Pleasant Company Publications, 1995).

_____. 2007. Amelia's Family Ties. New York: Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing.

Murray, Donald. 1996. Crafting a Life. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook.

About the Author Tricia Hall is a teacher-consultant with the Southern Nevada Writing Project. She teaches second grade at the Tony Alamo Elementary School in Las Vegas, Nevada.

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