Play: to engage in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose.
Every year since I began teaching writing almost twenty years ago, the itchy, scratchy burr in my side has been Writer’s Notebooks. I’ve called them Freewrites, Quickwrites, Writing Pages, Writer’s Notebook, Rough Draft Pages, and a bunch of other names I can’t remember. Some years I give prompts every single day that I spent all sorts of time finding and trying to relate to whatever genre of writing we’re working on. Or I tell students to refer to their various lists of topics. Or we all write on the same prompt because it will hopefully generate thinking about other writing we’re working on. Or other methods I’m forgetting because it was ten years ago. Some years, kids had to produce 16 pages per quarter for an A. Last year, it was much more arbitrary-I collected them every 2-5 weeks and gave a plus, a star, or a check.
Every single year, no matter what I call Writer’s Notebooks, how I grade them, or whether I give them prompts or how engaging the prompts are, they feel like a drag to everybody, including me. I never feel like my students really ‘get’ why we are keeping them, even though I tell them all my compelling reasons. They grumble and grouse. It feels laborious and, to most of my students, purposeless. This is NOT what I’m going for. I could launch into why what I did wasn’t working-I could probably write an entire book-but instead of focusing on what didn’t work, I want to share what is working for me this summer, and how I plan to do it differently next year. This time, it’s going to be better. Mark my words.
First of all, from everything I’ve read, which is a lot, Writer’s Notebooks are meant to be a tool. Tools, by definition, are USEFUL. Yet I rarely see my kids using them as a tool, and I realized it’s because I haven’t taught them how. And, I haven’t taught them how because I don’t know how. Duh!
So, right after the school year ended, during our rainy, cold June, I read Aimee Buckner’s super wise and helpful book called Notebook Know-How. While it’s geared towards elementary students, I can easily use many of the strategies with my seventh graders. I took notes and created (yet another) rubric, which I still need to rethink and revise before the school year starts. But I think her wisdom is partly so powerful because she knows how to teach kids to see their notebooks as tools to help them take risks, play, and grow.
This book was all great and everything, but here’s what has helped me more than I ever thought possible. I decided I was going to keep a Writer’s Notebook of my own all summer.
I used to write all the time in sketchbooks and filled tons of them, especially in my turbulent and seeking twenties. Then, three of my own children came along, and so did better technology, and I found myself writing almost exclusively on computers.
In May, I read about 100 Days of Summer Writing, which was launched by Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell. I follow their blog, Moving Writers, and I’ve read both of their books, Beyond Literary Analysis and Writing With Mentors. I was really ready to turn my brain completely off from teaching. But I thought, okay, I need to try a new approach to notebooks. I need some structure. I want someone else coming up with prompts for me that are maybe out of my comfort zone or just different. Most importantly, I need to learn to PLAY.
Here’s how I began.
I bought a few composition notebooks. More importantly, I bought very beautiful and colorful Flair pens. 16 medium point Flair pens from Target. I highly recommend them for all pen connoisseurs. My eight year old also gave me some special stickers.Then, I set goals. I got them from another teacher on Twitter and adapted them a little bit. I printed off the entire 100 Days of Summer Writing and stuck them in a bright green file folder. Then, I figured out that I really like having each prompt in my notebook, so every week, I spend a little time cutting out a bunch of prompts and scotch-taping them into my notebook. I try not to peek too much at the prompts ahead-it feels a little like peeking at Christmas presents! Okay, that pegs me as a total nerd…
I set my phone timer for ten minutes. I don’t always get there, but that’s okay. Sometimes, I miss a day or two, so I’ll try two or even three different prompts when I have a mellower day or if I’m up early in the morning. And, I told my kids (especially the eight year old), “Wait until I’m done writing if you need something, unless you are bleeding profusely!” At rainy baseball tournaments when games got cancelled, I’d sit and write in the hotel room or Starbucks. I would bring my notebook and trusty Flair pens in the car when I picked up kids from softball practice and had to wait twenty minutes. The work was getting done, but it didn’t feel like work.
This endeavor has been worth every minute and every penny, because I have written most days this summer. I am surprised by how joyful it has been for me. I have written about paintings, poems, and photographs, graphs and guides. I have imitated master writers and put my own spin on it. I’ve tried out fiction, essays, memoir, poetry, reflections, and noticings. I’ve crafted details using interesting word choice and sentence structure, and often I am pleasantly surprised by the results. I’ve gone back and revised with a different color pen for a minute or two after writing. I’ve written words I’ll never share, pieces I could revise, details I could use in my young adult novel I’m revising, ideas for my blog, and ideas I can share with my students. I’ve noted strategies that helped me get started and strategies when I get stuck. I’ve noted prompts I think my seventh graders will really respond to. And my writing has grown way more than I ever thought possible when I began this little endeavor.
Here’s a sample of what I’ve been trying. Don’t get me wrong. It is not always easy. But after five or six days, I started missing it. They say it takes 21 days to make something a habit, and I’m on Day 56.
As writing teachers, we need to be writing. I am so much more comfortable leading my kids in playful notebook writing this year and helping them see that there IS a purpose. It is late July, and I have finished one notebook. I will probably come close to filling another one by the time school starts in late August, and our first task will be to learn how notebooks are tools for play. Instead of telling my students how important it is, I will show them the pages I wrote for them and for me over the summer, and then we will try, try, and keep trying.
My Writer’s Notebook doesn’t feel like work. It feels like play. Next year I can finally show my students how to play with their own ideas and writing and how to find inspiration all around us. I’m hopeful that this time they will understand why Writer’s Notebooks are such a valuable tool to help their writing and thinking grow. I’m glad I finally understand, too; it’s about time.