In defense of a notebook

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This is my writer’s notebook. There are many like it, but this one is mine.

I was trawling eduTwitter recently and came upon someone’s tweet where they were talking about writer’s notebooks and how introducing students to “digital notebooks” might “breathe life” into the old process.  I have to admit that I was a little confused when I read it because I didn’t realize that the idea of a writer’s notebook needed life breathed into it.  Then again, I have been keeping spiral-bound writer’s notebooks for more than 20 years, so maybe my habits as a writer are not a good guide.  After all, I haven’t had enough legitimately published to actually be considered a writer, and a very powerful and experienced Connected Educator Thought Leader did once write, “The unspoken truth about teaching writing in schools is that few people doing so are published writers themselves,” so I am pretty irrelevant.

But let’s just assume for a moment that the ideas I have about writing are actually worth considering.  I mean, they aren’t–I checked my blog stats recently and seven people read my last post, so I am the furthest thing from a Thought Leader–but indulge me for a moment, if you will.  I see what the person I paraphrased in my opening sentences was saying:  this generation of students feels more comfortable with a screen instead of a piece of paper, so digital notebooks are the way to go.  I don’t see how digitizing a writer’s notebook will be a solution to any perceived problem in students’ writing; if anything, that is a very #edtech solution or strategy, like giving Malibu Stacy a new hat.

The issue with writer’s notebooks in English class is not the method by which they are kept; it’s the logistics involved in keeping them at all.  I started keeping a writer’s notebook in my creative writing class as a high school senior and what that helped me realize was the value of habitual writing.  Yes, the notebooks were checked for journal grades at the end of the quarter, but I wound up writing way beyond that because Mrs. Taber had more or less instilled within me that this was a place for a free flow of ideas that wasn’t being questioned, judged, or assessed.  Full disclosure, though: I was an honors student and you didn’t need to convince or bribe me in order to get me to do my work.

Which, by the way, is where the first problem lies.  When we seek to make habitual writers out of our students through notebooks, we have to acknowledge where we start and that may be with the following:

  • students who don’t even own a notebook or bring it to class
  • students who bring their notebooks to class but do absolutely nothing when it comes time to write
  • students who immediately ask, “Do we have to hand this in?” and don’t do anything when you say, “No.”
  • students who will do the assignment but will half-ass it because it’s not for an immediate grade.
  • students who take that time to socialize, text, play games, or go to the bathroom.

 

This, of course, sounds like I am blaming students for all of my faults and that I am hurting children by my very presence, but I list those to illustrate why teachers seem dismissive when it comes to student writing or how they may end up defaulting to a canned assignment instead of a more creative, free-writing environment.  It’s born of frustration, and often of frustration that is amplified because it’s multiplied 100 times.

And let’s be honest, notebook checks can be very time consuming and may or may not be helpful.  If I assign points and grades to “what’s in the notebook,” I am continuing the ritual of Pavlovian grading.  If I don’t grade on quality, I am giving students the impression that this is busy work and not worth their time.

But how does one get better at writing if they’re not … writing?  And how do I, as a 10th grade English teacher, approach undoing what might be years of bad habits and expectations when it comes to writing, like length requirements, sentences per paragraph, and all of the other nitpicks that teacher drove into their heads in the name of “good writing” and “proper English”?  And is a digital notebook really the solution to this?

I happen to work in a building where technology is a crap shoot.  It may not always be available and when it is there may not be enough to go around or something might go belly-up to prevent its proper use.  Add to that user/student issues–they can’t remember their account passwords or never learned how to actually work a particular application because everyone assumed they were digital natives or something.  And while we’re working to improve this, there are still people in my own district who are not aware of the problems.  No joke–I had a conversation with a teacher from another school who was genuinely surprised that we weren’t a 1:1 school.  So a digital notebook that you’d use every day?  Not really.

As I said up top, I don’t see how keeping a notebook digitally “breathes life” into anything.  In fact, I think it would kill it.  The average blog post takes me a ridiculous amount of time to write when I am writing online because I am constantly distr–

I’m sorry, there was a Twitter notification.  Where was I five minutes ago?

I encourage paper notebooks because of the silence and the solitude.  It may be hard for a teenager to slow themselves down and focus on one task that doesn’t have a lot of noise for a few minutes, but that can prove beneficial, and the permanence of the ink on the page as a draft allows for more ownership than something typed.  The notebook is where everything is rough, where things nobody was meant to see dwell, and where the seeds for better, more complete works are planted.  It’s a device that doesn’t need anything for it to work and if we’re going to push this idea of comfort and choice and freedom, we shouldn’t push technology that can actually in an ironic way be constraining because it’s tied to a particular application or infrastructure that may not always be there.  I know this isn’t an innovative thought and therefore it’s invalid, but in the last twenty years, I have flipped through old notebooks more than I have accessed old files on a hard drive.  In some cases, I’ve laughed at how badly I was writing when I was 18 or 19; in other cases, I’ve revisited poetry or essays that I drafted and forgot about a decade ago.

There was never a need to “breathe life” into a writer’s notebook with something new and shiny in the way a pill will solve a problem that a change in diet would actually solve.  Yes, we should embrace the way technology and how our students interact with the world has changed as a result.  But that doesn’t mean pandering, and it certainly doesn’t mean throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

But hey, I’m not a published writer myself, so what do I know?

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