Keeping a Commonplace Book

by Alicia Brummeler

(Art by Rae Specht)

The beauty of the commonplace book is that it makes the act of reading and writing inseparable. Reading inspires writing which inspires more

Two years ago, while attending a conference, I learned about an ancient tradition that has now become a regular practice for my students and me. We keep a commonplace book.

A commonplace book is like a scrapbook in several respects. It is the place to record meaningful passages, a witty turn of phrase, or the achingly beautiful description from the books or poems a person reads. Instead of taking a picture, the keeper copies these words into his or her book to be read and savored time and again.

Last year was the first time I required my students to keep a commonplace book. After reading three or four chapters in a given week from our current novel study, the students picked two or three passages to record. Initially, they struggled to understand that there wasn’t a wrong or right way to keep a commonplace book. They needed my reassurance that it was okay to jot down what spoke to them as readers. To my delight, my students wanted to share with me and their classmates what they recorded. Each week we spent some time reading aloud from our commonplace books.  In theory, a commonplace book isn’t necessarily meant to be shared. In this regard, it mimics a private journal. Yet routinely, I found my students wanting to share their favorite passages with the rest of the class. Together we listened and affirmed each other’s selections. Often I heard, “Oh, I picked that passage too.”

This year I added a new piece to the commonplace book. In the first week of school, students cut and pasted pictures to decorate the cover of their books, personalizing them and adding beauty to an otherwise bland cover. I also encourage students to add or draw pictures to their entries or to write in different colored pens if they so desire.

By the end of the school year, our books will be filled with quotes that chronicle our reading adventures this year. My hope is that this practice will continue for my students well beyond their time in my classroom. Perhaps one day, while sorting through their basements or attics, they will unearth their commonplace book from this year and find themselves suddenly transported to the worlds of Charlotte Doyle, Jim Hawkins, or Scout Finch all over again.