Commonplace Books

I’ve written before about my commonplace book. It’s a little green leather-bound blank book into which I copy my favorite quotes. Mostly they come from my reading, but some of them are from speeches or presentations I have heard, and others are from movies and songs. I copy down anything I want to remember and keep it in a “common place.” I didn’t come up with this idea. People have been doing it for centuries. Some sources say it dates back to the Middle Ages, others claim that scholars were “commonplacing” in ancient times. Thomas Jefferson kept a commonplace book. It was a very popular thing to do during the Enlightenment as well.

People who do this for long periods of time eventually index their books and re-copy favorite passages into related sections. I want to do that next. I’m still filling the first book that I began in the summer of 2010. Commonplacing is an aid to writing. It provides a constant source ideas and it models superior sentence construction. Part of the classical method of learning to write is to copy the work of great writers, then to imitate, and finally to create on your own. Commonplacing fits in perfectly with classical curriculum.

This year I decided to assign commonplacing to my students. Every other week my juniors must copy at least fifteen quotes into their books and the freshmen are required to have a least ten. These quotes must be kept in a bound book–like a blank journal or a composition book because I intend for them to last. At least half of the quotes must come from their school work, but they can also come from personal reading and experience. They are required to record the source of the quote and the page number if it is taken from a book. This will be important if they want to use the quote later in a paper or presentation. I also require them to choose one quote to highlight in a one page response. Meeting the requirement gets them an 80. They need extra quotes or an extra-thoughtful response to earn extra points. They can earn up to a 105.

It was tough at first. They struggled with finding quotes, deciding which lines from books were worthy of commonplacing. They wanted to google a quote site and copy quotes they liked from there. I nixed that idea and they complained loudly. They whined: “What if nothing I read means a lot to me?” “Fake it,” was my response. I told them that eventually quotes would jump off the page. They would find them everywhere. It worked. Students are constantly whipping their commonplace books from their bookbags to write things down. Other teachers have noticed.

This week I read the latest responses by my juniors. Several of them were brilliant. They are making connections between classes and across curriculum. Some are finding song lyrics that remind them of poetry read in literature or situations discussed in history. I’m thrilled.

On the days when commonplace is due, we share quotes and use them as a basis for discussion. Sometimes, just to change it up a bit, I let them pick a quote and write it out in a creative manner. Then they share. This is one of my favorite things of all. I’ve found quite a few quotes for my own commonplace book and I thought I’d share some of the best ones with you. If they make you want to grab a blank book and start a commonplace, that will be great! The more, the merrier.









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4 Responses to Commonplace Books

  1. Wonderful job, students. A+!


  2. lilypetal91 says:

    You seem like a great teacher, I wish my English classes had been like this 🙂


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