Using Evernote to Confer with Writers

If I told you Noah was meeting the standard as a writer, what would you really know about his work?  Describing our young writers with a number or using words such as “approaching the standard,” “proficient,” “struggling,” doesn’t tell the story of the writer.  It doesn’t tell you Noah likes to write humorous stories.  It doesn’t tell you he chooses a variety of structures to organize his writing.  It doesn’t tell you he chooses interesting vocabulary or often uses the language he has heard during read aloud or read in books.  It doesn’t tell you he is working to learn to stick with his point and strengthen his endings.  It doesn’t tell you he can’t wait for his time to write each day.

We learn so much sitting beside writers as they work in our workshops each day.  Two years ago I gave up my spiral notebook I used to keep records of writing conference conversations for a digital system.  Saying goodbye to my spiral notebook with tabbed sections for each student was easier than I anticipated.  The time was right.  More and more often I found myself wanting to do more than record handwritten snippets of evidence, thought, and conversation.  More and more I found myself wanting to take pictures of student work or record student voices.  More and more I found myself wanting to link to digital pieces students were creating.  More and more I seemed to have a device in my hand instead of a pen.  After learning about Evernote I decided to see if I could use it as a tool to record notes from across the day.  I found myself enjoying the seamlessness of Evernote. It seemed Evernote was a tool to allow me to capture the learning journeys of the young writers in my classroom.

Image 2 NotebooksTo begin I created a notebook for each student and then placed them in a class stack.  Each time I confer with a writer during writing workshop I use Evernote.  Before I begin our conversation I glance through the last few notes, watch the work the writer is doing, and wait for an appropriate moment to chat.  For me, it has worked to create a new note inside the student’s notebook each time I have a conference with a writer.  My conferences are often structured like this:

  • Review Previous Notes:  Evernote allows me to view several beginning sentences from the last 6-9 notes I have taken.  I try to keep teaching points at the top of the note so I can quickly find them as I begin to confer with a writer.  This keeps me focused on the writer from conference to conference and deters me from teaching to a piece a writing.

  • Listen to the Writer:  After reviewing the last 2-3 conversations, I create a new page for the student’s notebook.  I give the note a title (usually the workshop name and focus of the conversation).  Writers begin the conversation by sharing the piece they are currently working on with me.  They lead the conversation often sharing what’s working, what they are trying, and/or something they’re trying to work out in their writing.

  • Reflect:  During this time I record key snippets of the conversation and reflect to choose a teaching point.  Students often take me back into their writing to places where they are trying new crafting techniques or working toward a goal.  There is a lot of to consider as I reflect:  writer’s history, class focus conversations, the writer’s personality and confidence, goals set by the writer, etc.

  • Teach:  Many times students really lead our conversation to the teaching point.  Sometimes it is a self-selected goal that becomes our teaching conversation.  Sometimes it is something that might be helpful in next steps.  Sometimes it is useful to name something they are doing well.  I always record the teaching point at the top of the note so I can view it the next time we have a conference.  This is often when I take a second to tag the note with keywords so I can me return to the note in a search.

  • Plan:  Before I leave, writers share their next step with me.  I want to know what they’ve taken from the conversation.  Usually this matches very closely to our teaching point.  I make sure this is noted in Evernote.

Image 3 Note Ex

Of course, Evernote lets me do so much more than my spiral notebook ever did.  Here are the benefits I have discovered with Evernote:

  1. Consistency:  Keeping the focus of instruction at the top of each note allows me to follow conversations across time.

  2. Create a story of learning:  Having this digital record across time captures the story of the writer.  Collecting conversations over time helps to, not only know the writer, but to share a writer’s growth with parents or educational support teams.

  3. Pictures:  Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words.  Evernote allows me to take pictures of the writing students are working on during the workshop.  Often I take pictures of finished stories, next steps, interesting crafting techniques and celebrations to include alongside notes from a conference.

  4. Audio:  The audio feature allows me to record entire conferences, students reading stories, plans for pieces of writing and much more.  Young writers often have strong oral language, but work to transfer their stories to paper.  For these children, recording the story as it is told often supports future conversations if I return to help them to remember what is next, hear interesting vocabulary, or recall details for writing.

  5. Organization:  This is my favorite part of Evernote.  No papers.  No spiral.  No stacks.  I am able to keep everything organized in notebooks and carry it home in my purse!

  6. Tagging:  Tagging is difficult, but as I’ve worked with Evernote I’ve found tagging to make recording and planning more efficient.  Tagging helps me to keep organized.  By tagging notes I can find them effortlessly in a search.

  7. Sorting:  The use of stacks, notebooks, and tagging allows me to sort notes for tracking learning and planning.  I can readily pull up all notes about a particular topic or find several notes from a particular student.

  8. Legibility:  I must admit, reading my typed notes is much easier than the scratched notes I used to write on the run!

The best system for record keeping is one you can manage.  There are many options available, but for me the flexibility Evernote allows has been helpful.  I’m not tied to formats or forms created by someone else.  If you’re thinking of going digital Evernote is one tool to consider.  Evernote works on many different devices.  If you plan to get started I recommend setting up on a computer and then moving to any device.  You’ll find help getting started at Evernote: Capturing Learning Journeys.

Cathy Mere spends her days learning alongside first graders in Hilliard, Ohio. She slices and dabbles in poetry at Merely Day by Day and joins the professional conversation about literacy, technology and education at Reflect and Refine:  Building a Learning Community.