National Writing Project

Hearing From Students: The Role of Scribe Notes in the Classroom

By: Heidi Estrem
Publication: The Quarterly, Vol. 24, No. 2
Date: Spring 2002

Summary: Knowing how students perceive a course, as well as individual class meetings, can be fascinating—although potentially unsettling—information. In her writing courses, college teacher Heidi Estrem wants to make sure that her students have the opportunity to write and reflect on their class experience—and to share their perspectives on it with her and with each other.


Several years ago, I participated in the Northern Nevada Writing Project Summer Institute and was introduced to scribe notes as a method by which participants take turns being "scribe for the day," recording that day's happenings and sharing those at the beginning of the next class meeting. Since then, I have used scribe notes in my own courses, whether first-year college composition or upper-level writing courses for future English teachers. Scribe notes help place students' voices and perspectives at the forefront of our class meetings and establish a record of what goes on in our classroom community.

In most of my courses, scribe notes are a straightforward recording of class events. Some students, especially first-year writing students, struggle to see what is significant in a class meeting. After completing this task, they must decide how to record this information, how to write it up, and how to report it at the next class meeting. Despite my best intentions, some students may still regard scribe notes as busy work or as just one more piece of writing that they have to do in order to pass a class. Inevitably, a few students forget to bring in their scribe notes to read or read them in a monotone voice.

Before starting to use scribe notes in my courses, I worried about the ethics of this practice. What if students recorded and reported unfair or unflattering details about their classmates? What if shy students felt uncomfortable reading their notes aloud? However, none of these fears have become reality. Some of my quietest students take great pleasure in reading their scribe notes since the practice is just "part of class," and it gives them the opportunity to have something written to read from. Reading scribe notes is informal and executed at one time or another by everyone in the class, so the risks are few. Additionally, no one yet has written anything even mildly inappropriate.

In a recent book, Thomas Newkirk examines how students present and perform their "selves" in personal writing, and how we react as writing instructors. In his classroom, scribe notes became an assignment through which students are "invited to present themselves"—and their classmates and instructor—in a nonacademic, unfamiliar genre (11). From the vantage point of a completed semester (and a semester's worth of scribe notes in front of me), it is apparent that scribe notes have several features that can assist writers in writing for pleasure, in envisioning and responding to audience concerns, and in writing descriptively and analytically. What started out as a means to remind us all of what we had accomplished in the previous class meeting became a venue for students' self-expression and connection to others within the class.

The Function of Scribe Notes in a Style Course

Last fall, however, scribe notes became especially significant in one course, and since then I have reflected on what made them successful in that context, and how I might encourage that kind of success in future courses. The class, "Writing: Style and Language," is required for future English teachers and many other majors within our university. What intrigues me now as I reflect on the semester is how the scribe notes came to function in complex ways for this class's culture. I would like to explore some of those effects, as I function here as a scribe of the scribe notes. The excerpts I have included below from my students' scribe notes—all used with their permission—begin to address some of the surprising complexities of this seemingly simple writing task. (See "Parameters for Scribe Notes," below.)

Was the class described below perfect? Of course not. Several students were habitually late, causing them to miss out on scribe notes altogether; other features of the class did not work as I had planned. But for this class, scribe notes became a thread that brought a different kind of cohesion to our work together.

The scribe notes are a performance, making this a venue for students to experience writing for pleasure. Adam read his scribe notes aloud, emphasizing different words orally, enjoying the performance and smiling at our laughter:

O lucky day, it's finally my turn to be the scribe. I thought this day would never come. Up until this point, I thought my life had no meaning, but now I can see the reason for my existence. So here it goes . . . now on to new business. We will write about a place in list form, then rearrange the list in an attempt to make it as coherent as possible. Wait a minute, this looks like poetry. That Heidi is a clever one. —Adam, 10/29/00

Adam and many—if not most—of his classmates wrote scribe notes for pleasure. That is, they worked to carefully craft these informal, often humorous accounts of our class activities. Often in "English teacher mode," I am guilty of emphasizing the difficulties of writing. I hear myself using the cliché, "writing is hard work—but it pays off," with a small trailer attached in my mind, "Doesn't it?" I enjoy working with students on revision, showing them how to recraft and rethink their ideas in essay form. Still, I am undoubtedly aware of the benefits of reading for pleasure, and as a writing instructor, I know that the sheer joy of writing for pleasure is a benefit that too few of my students have experienced.

Sometimes I worry that in working with my students on reading and writing for pleasure others will see me as "soft," as emphasizing the "entertainment value" of a text. Still, I also know that the reasons that sometimes push me to write (to make my distant parents smile at a daily email; to leave a funny note for my husband) are rooted in entertainment value: I want my audience to laugh, to enjoy my text. As readers, we find pleasure when we feel immersed in a text, free to move to other worlds and through others' ideas. As writers, we find pleasure when we feel free to experiment, testing out what brings reactions in others. Through scribe notes, running jokes were established and given the legitimacy of print. Students experienced what it might mean to write for pleasure. In their end-of-semester comments, several mentioned how much fun writing scribe notes was. They became "fun" through students' seeking to make their classmates laugh.

The audience is live, providing for immediate feedback. First, from Jennifer:

Well, today I was late again. Have I ever been on time? Seriously, though . . . It isn't personal, I really, really like this class. I am just a chronically late person. . . .—Jennifer, 12/3/00

Reading her notes gave Jennifer the opportunity to explain her behavior to the class, and while some students were undoubtedly annoyed by her habitual lateness, Jennifer was able to apologize indirectly to her classmates through the scribe notes.

Then, from Greta:

Several people asked questions concerning the project requirements. Is anyone else feeling rather overwhelmed by the course requirements?—Greta, 9/30/00

As Greta finished reading her scribe notes (tempering her words with smiles and nods toward me), I was able to address directly the issues she raised. Throughout the semester, students continued to use scribe notes to comment on work that was assigned and taking place in our course.

Scribe notes sometimes launched us, as readers and listeners, into a discussion of how the writer had accomplished certain effects. What words, phrases, or connections, for instance, evoked emotions for the listener? Why? How had the writer accomplished that? As the notes became increasingly "performed" instead of "read," we were able to talk briefly about how oral and written interpretations overlap and differ.

Similarly, for writers, the rewards of having an audience response were immediate. Scribe note writers experimented, trying out a variety of ways to affect their classmates. As scribe notes became a more overtly creative venue, the scribes worked to inject humor and surprise into their day's notes. As this class went on, scribe notes became so rich that we paused midsemester to look at the style and language of these notes, searching for the features of the class's and each student's scribe notes, the tone writers took as they addressed their audience, the language they used, and the various other conventions of this genre.

The context is real, making for a rich understood background. Holly, in her retelling of my malapropism, wrote:

Once we sat down at the table, Heidi said something about the "comprinter" and then told us, "You guys, it's gonna be a long day."—Holly, 10/17/00

Shoba read her humorous retellings of classroom events:

There was lots of laughter throughout class, mainly thanks to Adam. I concluded that Adam was the Court Jester in a past life. —Shoba, 10/19/00

As class proceeded, another strange thing happened. Out of nowhere, Sarah's pen viciously attacked her hand. It got her good, too, but without haste she fought back with Kleenex. —Shoba, 10/19/00

Carrying humorous threads through several weeks' worth of notes became the norm as writers worked on how to use this repetition for various effects. Writing scribe notes became a way to make connections to classmates through gentle teasing as well as a way to reveal portions of the writer's self to her classmates by exposing some of her inner thoughts on the class's proceedings. In these ways, scribe notes added a sense of community, and each writer's responsibility to that community was evident in the writers' respect for one another. Scribe notes also added to our sense of class community by providing a ritualized space within which these writers could experiment. Additionally, scribe notes worked to link one class session with another as we briefly remembered the events of the previous class before turning to the one at hand.

The text is both spoken and written, bridging these two worlds through what became a performance. Aaron's ability to bring his personality and perspective into his scribe notes continued to entertain us:

. . . Next Holly hit the home run on a couple of slam-dunk responses that she made about Flannery. She definitely got the approval of her fans Joe and myself as we both nodded our heads and agreed in unison. Last, Heidi separated the class to work individually on the language of double-voiced writing. This was good for me, because I could finally break my eyes away from that box of vanilla wafers. Farewell my beloved wafers as I turn my attention to the computer. —Aaron, 10/19/00

"Voice" is often a challenging concept for writers to understand and explore. Scribe notes served as a product that, because of their spoken and written characteristics, made our discussions of voice much richer. We could immediately compare one "product" against another, noting the characteristics that gave each version a different kind of voice. They could serve as an form between speaking and writing; students wrote them, but they included lots of dialogue, and they spoke/performed them to their colleagues.

The product is both informal and published, resulting in a low-risk writing situation for writers. Here, Jennifer portrays her own thoughts to the class and also thanks them:

I caused some distractions in class Tuesday with my chair adjusting, my cell phone ringing (I hate that. I was embarrassed . . . that never happens to me, no one ever calls me and then when someone does decide to call me it is work and I am . . . in class. Lovely.) . . . After all that, we got to writing . . . you guys are so funny and intelligent. I've been here for so long it seems and I still get so excited learning the many wonderful depths of our lovely language and its many spaces. Wow, am I sappy today. And I'm a dork. I'm done now.—Jennifer, 11/2/00

The genre makes extensive revision unnecessary, so students view it as relatively "easy" and "low-stress." Because scribe notes are read to the class and become part of the class collection, they have an immediate purpose. Additionally, because of their spoken-and-written peculiarity, writers can use a more informal, less academic style without penalty.

The genre and context are student centered, giving students a space for reflection on what's happening in class as well as an opportunity to "talk back" to the instructor. In the following three examples, Frances, Holly, and Shoba use the notes to give me insight into their perceptions of class work:

Professor Estrem starts talking about changing the class schedule. We are going to have two days of reading due for Thursday. Professor Estrem said that it shouldn't be that bad. Well, we will just have to see about that.—Frances, 9/13/00

Heidi then briefly mentioned our third exploration that will be due soon. From the looks on everyone's faces, it didn't seem like many of us were thinking that far ahead.—Holly, 10/17/00

Next, we were given a handout but THIS time it wasn't about style! Just kidding Heidi.—Shoba 10/19/00

Students used scribe notes to make comments on class work in humorous ways that also sent messages to me that I might not otherwise have heard. Speaking their concerns aloud at the beginning of class, usually veiled as humorous reflections, allowed me the opportunity to respond. Given a space to reflect on the daily happenings in class, students begin to see themselves as having a voice about class work and proceedings. After scribe notes like those above were read, I could respond and ask for additional questions or comments on subjects that were raised. Additionally, since scribe notes were the first item of business in every class meeting, classes began with students' reflections—not my directions.

One Piece of the Whole

Of course, the process that I have described in detail above revolves around an event—reading scribe notes—that usually takes three minutes of class time. So some sense of perspective is important; while I want to show how scribe notes can be a rich literate act with which to begin class, they are not time consuming or overwhelming. Nor are they usually as pivotal as they sometimes became with the class described above.

Most often, notes are read, and we begin class. As I have continued to use scribe notes in subsequent courses, the process of taking notes on a particular class meeting, recording those notes, and then sharing them back to the class has led to a variety of results. In a first-year writing course in which scribe notes were recast as notes from the "class ethnographer for the day," scribe notes led to a lively discussion about objectivity in reporting when two students reported scribe notes for the same day. Most often, after students read their scribe notes, I take the opportunity to clarify what happened in the previous class meeting and why. Sometimes, students recognize and comment on "good" scribe notes—and then we can discuss what made them good. Scribe notes do not always become a rich, vivid "text of a class," and that is okay. But, they do provide a regular space for students' voices and perceptions and can help any class refocus on where we have been as a class—and on where we are going.

I remain curious about how other "nonacademic" writing practices like scribe notes can fill a variety of roles within our classrooms. I question how my less-confident students can balance the performance aspects of a writing task like this with the more personal confidence each writer needs to experience. Every semester, I wonder about the ethical demands of class reporting, and how the individual writer fulfills her commitments to her class as a community space. But using scribe notes sets an expectation that our class meetings begin with students' interpretations and writing—and that is too important a feature of this practice to give it up.


Newkirk, Thomas. 1997. The Performance of Self in Student Writing. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton-Cook/Heinemann.

About the Author Heidi Estrem became a teacher-consultant through the Northern Nevada Writing Project. Currently, she teaches English education and writing courses at Eastern Michigan University.

Parameters for Scribe Notes | Back

The parameters I use for scribe notes are relatively simple and presented with a syllabus at the outset of each course.

From the syllabus for English 121, College Composition

Class Field Notes: Once this semester, you'll need to volunteer to be our class ethnographer for the day. For the class period you sign up for, you'll need to take descriptive field notes about our class meeting. You'll want to bring your skills as a researcher to this set of field notes: how to describe events and people; how you might explain our class to someone who's not a member of it—and also explain your interpretation to someone who is. These notes are informal, yet they give you a chance to reflect on our class as its own space and community. You'll share them at the beginning of the next class so that we can begin each class by remembering what we discussed and wrote about during the previous class. You will then post your Class Field Notes to our webspace at _______.

From the syllabus for Writing: Style and Language

Twice this semester you will need to become our class scribe for the day. Scribe notes allow you to turn a researcher's gaze on our own class workings as you work to describe in detail the events, circumstances, and people in our class. These should be printed out so that you can read them aloud at the beginning of the next class meeting, and they should also be posted to our online class space.

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