Anyone who knows me well knows that I’m a crier. I’ve never once made through a Hallmark Christmas movie without choking up. Heck, to be honest, most of the time I can’t even make it through one of those sweet newborn Pampers commercials. But what I never expected was to be sitting alone at my desk, on the last day of school, and sobbing as I stare at a computer screen…
Earlier this year, I wrote a post that was really a plea. I was pleading with all of my educator friends to make consistent time for students to explore their thoughts in their notebooks. Luckily, one of my most valued friends and colleagues told me that she was taking this plea to heart. She made a commitment to her students. A promise that she would spare that golden thing in our school lives called time to let them write. Not just for their unit. Not just for a content area. She gave them time to write whatever they wanted in their writer’s notebooks. Now the year has come to a close, she asked her students to tell us what they thought about the work they’d done in their writer’s notebooks. That screen that brought me to tears was full of their responses.
Laid out in their words, here just a few of the things they said…
“It felt good to write because I was able to write anything I wanted to and it did not feel like I had to do it as an assignment. It felt like I wanted to do it.”
“It helped me express my feelings. I could write a poem if I wanted. I could write a story. I could team up with someone else to write something. Choco even wrote a rap!”
My friend, Tom Marshall, often reminds us of the distinction between the words choice and choices. In our writing workshops we try to offer as much choice as possible. Kids can choose their topic. They can choose which ways they want to rehearse, develop, and play with their writing. They can choose how they want to publish their work. However, whenever we are in a unit of study, choice is limited. They are still confined to one genre, a time limit, etc… These confines make unit writing feel a bit more like choices. The one time in their school writing lives that they truly have FREE choice is in their notebooks. And it matters. We heard it loud and clear in EVERY student’s response. Choice matters.
Purpose and Ownership
“Before, I saw writing in your notebook as an assignment. Then, when I had a conversation with Mrs. Dunn about it, I realized that it was not about pleasing her, it was about exploring your imagination on a piece of paper.”
“My notebook lets me express myself for who I am. I enjoyed writing in my writer’s notebook because it let me be me.”
Teachers are always dreaming up ways to make the writing that happens in their classrooms feel more purposeful. We mail their letters from our persuasive units and pray for responses. We partner with book stores during review writing so that their work has a real place to live on the wall and can persuade people to buy that book. We will always do these things because we want our students to know that different types of writing have real power in the world. Yet, I ask, what greater way is there to give students this feeling of ownership and purpose than to allow them to be the one deciding what is important to write and how they will use that writing? To explore who they are, what they believe, and what purpose they want their writing to have in our world. Notebooks do this.
“I really liked writing because it was free, and it was what I think the story should be.”
“I felt like notebook writing was a time of happiness and joy. It made me feel good because sometimes I got to do it with a friend. It was really fun.”
If there is one goal in the life of a writing teacher, or any teacher for that matter, it is to have his or her classroom feel joyful. When students describe their classroom experiences as “times of happiness and joy”, and not because it is a movie day or field trip, there is no greater gift. Notebook writing can bring joy to your classrooms and your students. By simply giving children time to express themselves, explore their thoughts, and see who they are on the page, we can make our classrooms happy places.
“When I wrote my stories or poems, I was proud of them. At first, I didn’t want to share them at coffee houses, but then they became better and better so I shared them more and more.”
“I feel great about my writing because my pieces are valued.”
Teachers often ask, What does it take to build a community of writers in your classroom? Part of this answer may simply lay in giving them to time and space to write what matters to them, to write together at times, and then to celebrate. Mrs. Dunn, that very valued colleague who did this work with her kids, made time for coffee house celebrations regularly. She’d set the scene with some music or a backdrop on the smartboard and let her kids share pieces of themselves from their notebooks. Different than an end of unit celebration, these students had an experience similar to being on The Moth Radio Hour. They got to really see each other. To know each other’s stories. To appreciate each other’s voices. To value each other. They built a community.
So, if my plea at the beginning of the year didn’t convince you, I’m hopeful that these messages from our students will convince you now.
Give them notebooks. Give them time. Let them write.
** A special thank you to Jennifer Dunn and all the other amazing teachers who gave notebooks their own special place in the classroom this year.