Writing Relationships

With almost everyone back to school in some unusual, frustrating form by now, it feels like a weird time to be asking you to kick back and read an educational blog.  I know–I lost you at “kick back.”  But I’m hoping this one might be timely–it’s a revelation I had this Tuesday afternoon after spending most of my day staring at a hundred or so little tiny Zoom boxes, some with kids’ faces in them, others just black with a name.

The longer I stared at those little video windows, the more deeply I felt the need to find a replacement for all the community building we’d normally be doing: I’m talking about notebooking and sharing out, “date with a book” activities and book talks, small group chats, large group chats, before- and after-class chatter with whatever poor kid makes eye contact with me…you know, the GOOD stuff.  

I’ve already seen (and stolen) some wonderful ideas from other teachers for social-emotional activities and community building.  But I still feel like the most personal aspect of my relationships with students is going to be painfully slow to develop this year when so many are just dark boxes with names on a screen and the dual magic of classroom conversation and interaction remains elusive.

But then I remembered the thing about writing in my class. Everything we write is a reflection of the author–it’s a window into every student’s personality.  I’m really going to have to fling that window wide open this year–which starts with our early notebook topics like “What’s one piece of pop culture you wish everyone would check out?” which are designed to let students share with me their interests first.  We moved away from a lot of prescribed lit-reaction type assignments a long time ago, but I’ve never been quite as grateful for that shift (thanks PLC!) as I was by the end of the day Tuesday.  

The big buzzwords for writing in my class (all juniors) are “voice” and “style”.  There are certainly a thousand focal points of light you could focus on when it comes to student writing, but these two have allowed us to focus students’ attention on the personal part of their craft every time we put pen to paper or fingies to keys.  It makes for some incredibly fun writing, from hot takes to fascinating narrative nonfiction.  

When we emphasize the personal presence in their writing, it seems obvious that we could then use that prose (or poetry–go nuts, fam!) to get to know our students’ personalities through what they write for us and how we talk about that writing.  Here’s the process I’m going to try and implement, but you’ll obviously need to tweak things to match whatever format your daily school life is conforming to at the moment.

Step 1:  Pique their interests

Our first unit focuses on pop culture questions for thematic reasons, but the truth is we also love starting this way because the kids have a ton of opinions about pop culture.  In a single Kahoot! game each hour today, I was able to gather up lots of knowledge of what my kids are into.  Animal Crossing: New Horizons?  Definitely.  Taylor Swift’s new album?  Quite a few!  Testing the teacher to see if he’d react to them bringing up “WAP” in the “favorite songs” section of our Pear Deck?  Of course! (And I didn’t!).  

Step 2:  Connect interests to writing topics

My students will do about five informal notebook entries over the first two weeks.  Each prompt is designed to zero in on their interests as human beings, not as future goal setters or amateur literature professors.  If it feels like I’m poking fun at some writing topics it’s because I think this is the step where many well-meaning teachers miss the boat.  If our goal is to get them to produce better writing–and more honest and personal writing, then we need to give them ownership of the subject matter, at least sometimes.  And there’s no better time than during loosely structured notebook writing at the dawn of a pandemic-stricken school year.  

My hope this year is that within the first few entries (we’re looking for 10 stream-of-thought style sentences each here) I can find one or two talking points to help me begin getting to know a little more about each of my young writers (as people first and then authors).  Which leads us to 

Step 3: Get them to chat about their writing

Zoom and other online sources obviously allow for conferring in some form, but when you’ve barely seen one another’s faces, it’s a bit harder to strike up a conversation.  I’m going to try a multi-step process.  First, they’ll get to choose which topic they’re willing to share about.  Since all of their early entries will be fairly light pop culture fare, this shouldn’t be a decision that puts them ill at ease.  Next, I’m going to break them into virtual groups based on the notebook topic of their interest.  I don’t plan to oversee any of these groups as a taskmaster or superviser–break out rooms allow them a little bit of freedom to chat with each other with their guard down.  It might not be all on-topic chatter, but hey, if personalities come out, that’s the point, right?  Finally, I’m hoping to reach a point within a week or two where even a one-on-one conversation with me about their writing feels at least somewhat comfortable.  

Step 4: Realize that the process has actually already started to work somewhere between steps 1 and 2, thereby validating what had only been a theoretical blog post 27.5 hours ago

Something incredible happened between the time I wrapped up writing that last paragraph and the addition of this one.  My students submitted their first digital notebook entries and, well, look at these!:

Spitting fire about a favorite book!
Revealing a potential narrative nonfiction writing passion!
Revealing a skeptical attitude about reading…while talking passionately about reading!

There’s an entire fireworks display of personality in that Poet X notebook entry, and the intrigue of true crime documentaries is always an early sign that the narrative nonfiction unit is going to be a student’s time to really shine.  I haven’t even gotten to the talking-out-loud conferences yet, but with the Google Docs comment feature you can bet that I’ve already begun reaching out and sharing my starry-eyed reactions to all these passionate first notebook entries.  The plan is working already!

I think I’ll leave things at this, with one final offering of my own process if it’s helpful:  Using notebook writing as low-stakes, high-interest writing space for kids will teach you much more about them than ice breakers ever could, even more so when the ice between us has to remain six feet thick for the foreseeable future.  And when so many of us are also separated by computer screens, moving student notebooks into a digital space is one more move that will maximize your ability to get personal with them.  If it’s useful as a starting point, here are the guidelines my PLC created for this new version of notebooking. 

I feel like I’m beginning to know my kids better already, even if I do miss seeing their faces.

–Mike

How are you getting to know your kids while the pandemic is keeping you at least six feet apart? Comment below or reach out on Twitter ( @ZigThinks ) or join the conversation on the Moving Writers Facebook page.

3 Comments

  1. I got some requests for the actual prompts that we use in our early notebook topics I use, so here they are:

    –“You’ve got to check out ______” (recommend a favorite piece of pop culture)
    –“I just don’t get it!” (explain a pop culture trend that you just don’t understand
    –Feeling nostalgic: a book, movie, etc that you love because you associate it with a strong emotion
    –The Impossible Argument (we use “Is a hot dog a sandwich” as a model, but it could be any “fight” that’s technically unprovable/winnable)
    –If we sneak in a fifth in the first two weeks, I like to do something that models the online “hot take”–what’s your craziest, most “don’t @ me” opinion–and how would you defend it if you had to?

    Share your own great notebook prompts to get to know students in the comments below! Thanks for reading!

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