teaching writing

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?

Short But Sweet: “Scissors”

Ever sigh and say, “I wish I could teach poetry but I … a) can’t find anything good, or b) don’t have the time.”? This occasional series of posts will focus on specific poems that I like and have even used that I find to be both engaging and amazing.

A few weeks ago, I had a sub, and I needed something for my advanced English class to do.  We had been discussing some poetry, so I made a packet out of several poems with some questions.  I know that a worksheet attached to reading is fairly sacreligious these days, but it was a sub plan and these were questions I probably would have used in a discussion anyway.

So one of the poems that I used was a poem by Sarah Kay called “Scissors.”  It’s from her 2014 collection No Matter the Wreckage and goes as such:

 

Scissors

When we moved in together,
I noticed–

You keep your scissors in the knife drawer.
I keep mine with the string and tape.

We both know how to hide our sharpest parts,
I just don’t always recognize my own weaponry.

 

That’s it.  The poem is six lines long.  How do you even analyze a poem that is only six lines long in a high school English class?  Poetry analysis is what you do to Whitman, Frost, Shelley, or Keats.  you work and you wind your way through “Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey” or “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (the poem or the Iron Maiden song, take your pick), not six lines.

Yet here were my questions:

  1. Who is the “we” in the first line?
  2. Why is she comparing where they keep their scissors?
  3. What do the last two lines of the poem mean?
  4. How does this poem manage to be effective even though it’s only six lines long?

I have no idea if any of this is at all pedagogically sound, but I will say that I was at least trying to build up to that last question because it’s the big one:  how do you say so much with so little?

One thing that I usually emphasize when teaching poetry is word economy, and this is not an easy principle to grasp.  Very often, students are told to elaborate and write using greater detail because the writing curriculum is essay-focused. I have no problem with essays–if you read either of my blogs, that’s obvious–but at the same time, there is something to be said for the brevity that comes with writing a poem.  It’s ironic, in a sense, that the six lines of this poem are incredibly elaborate and provide a significant amount of vivid detail, so much so that I can see what the scissors mean and what happens to the couple she is describing.  This is a painful poem in a sense, one that cuts (pun intended) deep because of the way the reader can see those people as well as themselves.

So if we’re going to take this whole thing to its inevitable conclusion on the taxonomy of Bloom, we should ask our students to create six-line poems.  But is that easier said than done?  I mean, I’m sure that any teenager anywhere could crap out a six-line poem if they were asked to with the same lack of effort they use when asking me, “Can I write a haiku?” during a poetry writing assignment.  But I don’t want poetry that was crapped out.  Even if it’s not the best poem ever, I’d at least like to see some sort of effort put into a student’s poetry.

Perhaps–and this is probably going to blow your minds–you actually assign writing a poem that is longer than six lines and then the students have to edit the poem down to just those six lines?

Whoa.

I KNOW!

Seriously, though … wouldn’t it be a great way to not only teach creative writing, but vocabulary, word meaning, grammar, usage, and mechanics?  By trimming off all of the fat and getting down to the words that really matter or really mean something, maybe we’ll not only teach how to refine writing but teach an appreciation for the language it uses.

How do we help students through writer’s block?

Photo by Rennett Stowe.  Used under cc license

Photo by Rennett Stowe. Used under cc license

The second hardest semester of my college career was the spring semester of my junior year.  That was the semester where I took both creative writing: advanced fiction and writing for the stage and within a few weeks I was hit with a furious case of writer’s block.  Everything I came up with was utter crap and I struggled to put something together that I deemed worthy of being workshopped by peers and graded by my professor.  I eventually got a B+ in each of the classes, probably because I persevered, but I can’t say that I ever felt I earned it.

Looking back, I see that was the moment that i should have realized that my strength in writing was non-fiction prose, as I rarely if ever had a problem writing my weekly column in the student newspaper and even once resorted to the tried and true hack way of writing about writer’s block.  I have brought this up in my English classes on occasion when students are stuck because I want them to know I empathize–I have been there more than once.

Writer’s block can kill a developing writer’s motivation so easily that you as a teacher want to do everything you want to prevent those you teach from becoming even mildly frustrated.  You want to keep them constantly inspired to constantly reflect and share, and when you do that it is the only time you ever do your job the right way.  At least that’s what I’ve been led to believe.

Never mind, of course, that writing is about work and even the greatest writers hit walls, scrapped ideas, got frustrated, attempted to throw in the towel, and in some cases needed an even more capable editor to pull them out of whatever rut they’d dug themselves into.  Because as much as the inspiration maniacs will deny it, the reality of writing (and by extension, being a writer) can be harsh.

But as much as I think that persevering through a can be rewarding to a young writer, I don’t want to hang them out to dry because I want to help them see the reward that comes from such perseverance.  How do I as a teacher help combat writer’s block?

I’ve got five ideas.  They aren’t tested or proven using any sort of measurable data, nor are they comprehensive.  They are simply ideas.

1. Vary the assignment as much as you can. In teaching writing, you are working within a curriculum with a set of standards, so there are certain modes of writing you want your students to work on, especially if you also have the obligation of a state writing test in the spring.  But there is a difference between following standards and teaching to the test.  With the latter, you are feeding them state-provided writing prompts as practice all year.  With the former, you can have students generate their own topics to fit whatever you’re looking to cover.  They might enjoy it more.

2. Have a pile of backup prompts.  That being said, don’t throw out that state-provided list of prompts.  I have given students free reign on writing assignments before and while some absolutely love it, others completely freeze and actually wish they would be forced to write about something.  Before we start such writing assignments, my classes and I often do a whole class brainstorming session and I add what they come up with to a list I already have so if a student is stuck, i can offer suggestions.

3. Allow for conversation.  Sometimes, ideas come from having someone to talk to and “bounce ideas off of.”  Other times, what is in your head can’t seem to get to the page but you definitely can say what you mean.  It’s helpful to give young writers the time to talk out their ideas; heck, it’s helpful to give any writer the time to talk out his or her ideas.  I’m still learning how to do this with 28 students in the room without making it a cacophony for those who want peace and quiet, but I have encouraged students to talk to one another or to me and to take notes while doing so in order to jog things along, or to talk into their cell phones and record their thoughts (something I have done countless times with my MP3 recorder) out in the hall.

4. Limit distraction.  Yes, I work with music playing too, but I also write a number of drafts in longhand in a notebook because I find typing on a computer doubles my writing time due to the number of tabs I keep open.  Saying that my students should cut themselves off somewhat electronically does not make me an Innovative Educator, but one of the drawbacks of multitasking is that it makes it hard to get into the zone.  If you want to be productive there is a certain amount of self-discipline required.

5. Be the editor.  For the past couple of years, I have had seniors hand me draft copies of their personal statements for their college applications, asking me to “tear them apart.”  It’s because I murder their papers in sophomore English.  I don’t do this because I am sadistic; I do it because I have high standards.  What I also do is allow time for revision and rewriting.  Every paper that my students write is eligible for a rewrite for a higher grade, and when I give those paper back I try to be as clear with my comments as possible.  I also try and set deadlines that are reasonable so that we can both work well within them.  This does sound like a very traditional teacher role, but I see the back and forth with my students as more editorial than professional.  I can see wh

at they can’t and help them shape their pieces so they use their own strengths more often.

This is not a foolproof system, but I prefer it to being a taskmaster who constantly cracks the whip of assignments or a pollyanna who speaks nothing of rainbows, unicorns, gumdrops, and lollipops of inspiration.

Giving them a choice isn’t always the answer

Ask the following question, “How do you get students interested in writing?” and you most likely will get the following answer, “It’s all about choice.”

Unfortunately, this is wrong.

Okay, it’s not wrong.  I just put that there because I had to due to the didactic nature of the educonversation.  Honestly, that answer is one that is about half right.  If you have students writing about what they want to write about, you definitely get interest and that investment might result in better writing (thus my beef, by the way, with SOL writing exams).  It have seen students relax and work harder than they usually do and while the change in results is not always an astounding improvement, the change in attitude certainly is.

But the other side to this is that making students better writers doesn’t end with simply giving your students a choice in the matter.  They may be more engaged if you do, but they will still default to the human behavior of taking the easy way out, which means safe topics and pieces that may be clearly organized and mechanically clean but are bland and boring.

Which is why choice should be blended with required assignments, especially ones that can be challenging.

The other day, I asked one of my classes to write about the most important thing their fathers ever said to them.  Even before I asked the question, I knew that all of my students have stable home lives, have good relationships with their fathers, or even know their fathers.  But that’s why I asked the question.  As I told them as they began writing, I wanted them to write from a place that made them feel bad.  Some of the best writing they may ever do could be cathartic, as letting feelings out onto the page, perhaps with the intention of nobody ever seeing it.

It was a forced assignment.  The audience was not authentic.  Yet it worked.

Okay, I’m not going to pretend that lightbulbs went off all over the place and this is where the sequel to Freedom Writers begins or something; what I will say, though, is that teaching writing effectively is more complicated than simply offering a choice.  The best, most memorable assignments are those which challenge you and make you feel uncomfortable, and without those, young writers will never get the chance to grow.