By Dr. Christi Williams (6th Grade Humanities)
Have you ever noticed how it is difficult to remember and recount the books you read five years ago? What about those you read last year? Anytime we read a book without teaching, discussing, studying, or writing about it, we tend to forget much of what we read. It is sad to realize how many books we’ve read and already largely forgotten. When we read quickly and passively, the stories and wisdom we enjoy easily pass in and out of our hearts and minds. I combat this tendency partially by highlighting and writing in my books, a practice which slows me down, engages me more responsively with the text, and makes it easy to locate and return to favorite passages ten years from now. But this only does so much. Commonplace books are another way to combat the tendency to read and forget. As St. Jerome said. “to read without also writing is to sleep.”
Commonplacing changes reading practices so that we slow down, digest, meditate, remember, and apply what we read.
What is a commonplace book?
A commonplace book is a personal journal that compiles quotes from books you read. It may also include illustrations, personal thoughts, lists, and anecdotes. We gain great understanding and encounter poetic beauty that shape our souls as we read, and by writing those passages down as we go, we build a storehouse of virtue and wisdom, a treasure trove of literary gems, that can then take the form of action in our lives. For, as Seneca says, “We should hunt out the helpful pieces of teaching and the spirited and noble-minded sayings which are capable of immediate practical application–not far far-fetched or archaic expressions or extravagant metaphors and figures of speech–and learn them so well that words become works.”
Commonplace books have been used by scholars and readers throughout history. Marcus Aurelius kept one, and it later became his famous Meditations. Montaigne’s early essays were largely a compilation of the quotes, axioms, and historical notes recorded in commonplace books. Thomas Jefferson and Napoleon kept one. Even Bill Gates has a commonplace book.
But are commonplace books just for scholars? Absolutely not. I have introduced commonplace books to my sixth graders this year, and they have really enjoyed making their own. Each student selects different passages (they share their favorite quotes with the class, and explain why they chose them), and it becomes a unique, personal response to the books we read. It’s so exciting to see them taking joy in the power of words, expressing their creativity through illustrations, and learning to be active readers.
If you are interested in making your own commonplace book, or commonplacing with your children or students, I have some practical suggestions that have worked for me (many came from Jenny Rallens) about how to do it. This level of specificity and detail is helpful for children up through 8th grade, who thrive by having a model to adhere to. As they become older, more confident, and more creative, these books can become as unique as the people themselves.
How to set one up:
Choosing a commonplace book: I ask my students to select a durable, attractive, lined journal that is easy to write in. Picking out a journal is one of the most fun steps for the kids. Many students pick an elegant leather bound book with thick pages or an artsy hardback from Barnes & Noble. They can get pricey, but it is worth the investment and these journals usually take several years to complete.
I explain to my students what a commonplace book is, why it is important, and pass around some of my prettiest commonplace books for them to see, touch, and smell. I point out the delightful smell of old leather, the texture of creamy white pages, and the classy attractiveness of careful penmanship. I encourage them to see these as works of art.
I require students to write in pen, and encourage them to pick a writing utensil that enables them to write beautifully (erasable pens and pilot pens are favorites). Pencil smudges too easily, disappears over time, and can encourage sloppy handwriting. Some students choose to write in black or blue pen only, and others have any elaborate color coding system. Allowing them space to be unique makes the process more exciting and rewarding.
Setting up the book (nuts and bolts):
- Children write their names in cursive (when the they learn cursive) inside the front cover or on the first page of the book.
- Children number pages 1-100 (front and back) in the bottom corner margin of each page.
- On page 1, children write “Commonplace Book” and later may add a design or illustration.
- Skip pages 2-4 — later the child may use these introductory pages for favorite quotes written in beautiful calligraphy or additional illustrations.
- On page 5, child writes “TABLE OF CONTENTS” on the top line (see picture below). Children will fill this page out over the course of the year, so now they need only list the title of their first book (it can begin it with page 7).
- On page 7, children create a title page for their first book. The students are asked to write the full title and author’s full name in careful, elegant script two or three times larger than normal. Later, students may add designs and illustrations to this page.
- I choose the first quote from their first book and write the entire entry on the board for them to copy in their books. Quotes are enclosed by quotation marks and written in cursive. Later I teach students how to select important quotes and use ellipses (…) and brackets  to skip less important parts of a passage.
- Each quote is followed by a citation and tag. Skip a line after the quote. On the following line, flush to the right and write the citation in print, which includes author, title, and page or line numbers. I encourage students to use “Ibid” where appropriate. After the citation, students write down a tag in brackets and all caps. The tag gives the topic or theme of the quote for quick reference later. [DOUBT VS. FAITH, PATIENCE]
- Students skip two lines between each quote. Quotes for books are recorded in the order that the books are read. A page is skipped between each new book and all books are given a title page (and optional illustration), I like to include a couple of additional sections at the beginning of the commonplace books for “Favorite Words” and “Song Lyrics.” After years of using commonplace books, your child will have developed into an active, careful reader, be able to look back on the wealth of wisdom gained through his education, be more likely to remember what he has learned, and carry these literary treasures with him throughout life.