Beth Repp, Middle School English Teacher
Approaching a novel for the first time can be daunting for students. What is the plot? Who are the main characters? How can I make sense of this? One of the most effective ways to help students engage deeply in a work of fiction and derive their own personal meaning from it, is to have each student create a literary sketchbook for each novel they read.
What’s a Literary Sketchbook?
A literary sketchbook is like a scrapbook, a repository of meaning. It’s a place where the worlds of literature, poetry, and art meet and are explored creatively and thoughtfully. As students read and ponder a novel and its setting, characters, themes, and motifs, they find and create a variety of visual and verbal components that reflect their own responses to the work.
Students then carefully select and arrange these varied items in a notebook or scrapbook in an organized, intentional way to create a mosaic of meaning, an anthology of their own learning.
Because the books are assembled by hand and not on a computer, students experience the authenticity and pleasure of artists and craftspeople as they savor the direct brain-to-fingers connection. Many students carry the books wherever they go so they can add a sudden insight or reflection at any time.
The verbal items in a sketchbook might include:
• information that helps students better understand the novel, such as chapter questions, character profiles, outlines, quotations, plot summaries, and lists of themes, scenes or conflicts
• their own personal reflections on the novel, such as short essays, poems, observations and accounts of related events or memories from their own lives
• relevant passages or quotations from other literary works
The visual items might include:
• their own drawings, maps, graphs and diagrams featuring arrows, dotted lines, and web-like filaments of connection
• photos, illustrations and graphics from magazines, newspapers and other publications
• collages blending their own illustrations with those from other sources
What Does an Actual Literary Sketchbook Look Like?
These items from one student’s literary sketchbook for “To Kill a Mockingbird” suggest the range of subjects, media, and approaches students display in their books:
• a schematic map depicting the novel’s setting, literary techniques, language, and narrative structure
• descriptions of the main characters, along with photographs of the actors who played them in the film version of the novel
• a drawing of Boo Radley’s oak tree and a list of items hidden there
• a page describing the fears of the children and the student’s own childhood fears as well
• a spiderweb chart depicting the ideas exchanged among students during their class discussion of the novel
• several pages devoted to the main themes, such as prejudice, courage, violence, loneliness
• poems by the student, each written from the perspective of a different character
• a mind map about the story’s villain, Robert E. Ewell
• an imagined dialog between Scout and Boo Radley fifteen years after the events of the novel
• a collage of images associated with Boo Radley, including a whimsical cartoon ghost shouting “Boo!”
How Do You Assess the Quality of Each Student’s Sketchbook?
Assessing creative work is subjective, so I approach the evaluation process in a thoughtful and systematic way. I give critical and reflective feedback to each student on the items gathered and presented for the literary sketchbook. These include content, depth and detail, balance of verbal and visual elements, and the care and creativity shown in arranging the materials.
I hope to find in the sketchbooks evidence of a student’s deep investment and ownership. It’s easy to tell, for instance, how much time a student has spent searching for the “right” picture or photograph that perfectly captures the moment in the text.
The literary sketchbooks are works in progress, and by the end of the school year, students can flip through the pages and see a thoughtful and meaningful representation of their growth and the joy they’ve experienced through literature.