Margin Notes



I had the pleasure of attending the National Council of Teachers of English conference and presenting as part of a #BuildYourStack panel. Our theme was curiosity and I chose to share 5 titles to inspire secondary writers to get curious about the stories that live in their worlds. These titles pair nicely with writer’s notebooks and encourage students to observe and capture potential writing topics and ideas in their environments. Here they are:


I Wonder, written by KA Holt and illustrated by Kenard Pak, follows a group of children across a day as they wonder about and question the world around them. It ends at bedtime with the final curiosity of the day: “I wonder why I wonder so much.”

This picture book is an invitation for students to notice and record all their wonderings, questions, and curiosities over a day or longer.


The Art of Noticing by Rob Walker is a charming and quirky book filled with 131 exercises, meditations, and invitations designed to help us explore our surroundings with joy and curiosity. As Walker writes in the introduction, “Every day is filled with opportunities to be amazed, surprised, enthralled—to experience the enchanting. To be, in a word, alive.”

The activities range from simple (notice something new each day or make an auditory inventory) to more challenging (create a field guide or develop a personal annotated map). This book is a treasure trove of ideas for sending writers out into the world to practice the art of noticing.


In Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor Lynda Barry shares writing and drawing exercises from her classes. One of my favorite activities is called X-Pages. Barry asks her students to draw a large X across a notebook page, creating four large triangles, and spend five minutes recording what they did, what they saw, what they heard, and a sketch from the day.

This nightly five-minute ritual not only encourages writers to be more attentive and observant, it helps generate a large volume of details in the notebook for them to go back into to when looking for seeds of more writing.

A Mind Spread Out

A Mind Spread Out on the Ground is a collection of first-person essays by Alicia Elliott, a Tuscarora writer from Six Nations of the Grand River. Each of these essays is powerful in its own way, but the essay called “Half-Breed, A Racial Biography in Five Parts” offers a beautiful mentor structure for writers.

In it, Elliott shares five vignettes from her life—beginning in early childhood, moving through high school, and ending after the birth of her child. These culminate in a final reflection. Students can use this structure to name an aspect of their own identity and write five snapshots to create their own biography in five parts.


Here by Richard McGuire is an astonishing, almost wordless, picture book that tells the story of one corner of one room over thousands of years. The narratives from different times periods are layered across the pages, almost like collages.

This text invites students to visually depict the passage of time in their own lives by marking the changes in one thing, possibly a particular location or a meaningful object.





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