Writer’s Notebooks are Not Just for English Geeks!

bloggingWhen I decided to make the move from Staff Development back to the classroom, I was psyched.  I had just come off of 5 years teaching at the middle school and 2 years as a staff developer—during which time I took classes at places like U Penn & attended workshops at Columbia’s Teachers College, as well as worked with numerous teachers on literacy strategies across the different content areas.  After learning all of this new and incredible literacy ‘stuff’, I was heading to the high school to teach English and ready to break into the classroom with literacy guns blazing.  Then I started to hear it: That stuff is all so elementary; it won’t work at the high school; these kids don’t all like reading and writing anymore…then tend to become more content focused in high school; they’ll think it’s juvenile…etc…etc…

Believing part of teaching is ‘selling it’ and knowing that deep down most kids, once they find something that hooks them, will work out of pure intellectual curiosity, I went ahead anyway and figured, ‘why not’.  All I had to do was take some of the concepts that were written and put a ‘high school’ spin on them.  The first and most prevalent of these concepts was a Writer’s Notebook.  I had just finished working with text from the likes of Caulkins, Fletcher, and Collins and was sold on the idea of getting kids excited about writing through an honest to goodness personalized no wrong answers or red pens writer’s notebook.

How was I going to fit this in with the more academic, analytical writing the high school curriculum demanded…I wasn’t quite sure, but somehow, someway, we got them up and running (with a few groans and eye rolls to boot).  As time went on, some of the kids really embraced them and seemed to enjoy them (those must be your writers, your ‘Englishisy’ students), some of the kids tolerated them to get a good grade (see, these kids have lost that excitement for learning but are good students, more the Math/Science type, and will do whatever you give them so they can go to college), and the rest (a small portion) checked out with Senioritis (don’t worry gang, the attendance policy really doesn’t keep you from graduating…another Senior cut day is fine).

After a few years of this and the introduction of a classroom full of Macbooks, the writer’s notebooks slowly died out.  Then, one day, I get this email…

Dear Mr. G…You had me as a student in your 10th grade English class, about four years ago.  Last year I graduated from —— and I now attend —— where I study Mechanical Engineering.  While I have pursued a technical major one of my most passionate hobbies is writing, specifically poetry.  When I was a student I remember you had all of your students keep a writers notebook.  You encouraged us to write in it as much as we could.  But not only that, you encouraged us to write everything in it, and not erase anything.  At the time you said the idea was that they were all good ideas…I took what you said to heart, and I stated writing in my notebook.  It was a rough time in my life, as my parents were going through a divorce, so I had a lot to say and a great need to vent my frustration.  I remember the first poem that I wrote, for me and not for anyone else.  I still have it, along with the entire book.  Between then and now I have written well over 70 poems which are posted….on a website I have created to showcase them.  I have three writer’s notebooks (I would have more but I have moved to digital ink as I now write mostly on my laptop) and plan on filling up a few more.  Like most of my classmates I never thought I would write for fun or for any reason other than school.  But now I can’t imagine my world without poetry.  It is part of who I am and I am it.  In no way would I be able to express myself were it not for poetry…Finally: recently, I was made aware that there is an annual poetry contest here, at —-….I decided to enter a poem…Mine was selected among the top ten.  I went to the award ceremony and received an certificate for honorable mention…What I mean to say with all of this is thank you for getting me involved with writing.  It has become an integral part of my life (whether it’s poetry or working on my book) and I wouldn’t give it up, ever.  I’ve attached a photo of the award itself and a copy of my poem if you’re interested.  I hope you have some good classes this year, best of luck.

I was both happy for this young man, and crushed for my current students…as I had abandoned the Writer’s Notebook and committed the one of the worst crimes a teacher could…I let technology take the place of good practice and I had failed them.  My ‘aha’ moment then hit…it wasn’t at all about the marble notebooks vs. the Macbooks…a Writer’s Notebook is still a Writer’s Notebook.

I decided that the next Monday my students and I were going to revisit this concept-what it is, why and how it works… and I was going to lean on them for assistance in figuring out how to re-imagine this Notebook with the technology we had available. The simple yet powerful conclusion we all came to was this: the purpose was the same–harvesting language, getting ideas down, reflecting on growth and their writing territories, building skills and fluency in writing, collecting strategies that authors use and mentor texts that authors write and playing with images and words and ideas to spark writing–what technology enhanced and amplified (which is what I missed the first time around) was the form and function of the Writer’s Notebook.  It became fluid, instant, dynamic, collaborative, multi-literate, public, interconnected with the world.  

In short, the digital Writer’s Notebooks had blown up beyond what we ever could have done with a marble notebook.

What always stuck out from the email, from this failure, is how, when you least expect it, students can humble you, keep you grounded and help you regain a certain level of focus that may get lost in the continuous change that drives the ebb and flow of education theory and practice.

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