On the Lookout For Happy Accidents

Image via Jacqueline Munguía on Unsplash

In a year of unprecedented unpredictability — a bit like a wooden rollercoaster with a track that only builds itself a few feet in front of us as we ride it — my choice of focus for my Moving Writers posts this year was almost a no-brainer.  In order to keep my sanity as a writing teacher, I was going to have to learn how to look for and make the most of the “happy accidents,” the discoveries we make as teachers along the way in our instruction. (Looking back on it now, my June post, “Surprise and Emergence,” foreshadowed this thematic choice for this fall).  

Happy accidents happen every year.  We plan for success, and we are planning assiduously this year no matter what format our teaching takes — in-person, hybrid, or virtual.  But the unknowns dictate that there will be all sorts of bumps we face and jumps we take in order to succeed.  My greatest hope is that amid this newness, the “I-feel-like-a-first-year-teacher-again” of it all, we can all learn some things about teaching writing that we may never have otherwise explored.

Last spring, when my district shifted to emergency remote teaching, I tried a quick show-and-tell technique that illuminated so much about students that I had never known or discovered in the first two-thirds of the year. One day, I said to them on our live Microsoft Teams call: “Take three minutes and find an object that is in the room with you right now.  Bring it to your workspace.  You will talk for sixty seconds about it.  You might vividly describe it, tell a story related to it, elaborate on why you chose it, or try to convince us to buy it. The approach you take is up to you.” 

At the time it was a method to get us more comfortable with the brand new skill of participating in live, video-streamed conversation.  But I also learned that one of my students who rarely spoke was a star equestrian.  Another told the story of an object his father stole from the grounds of Alcatraz while on a school field trip as a boy.  I learned about things their grandfathers built, celebrities signed, and the reasons I should pay them $200 for their beat-up calculator.  We laughed a lot.  It calibrated our discussion skills in a new online venue. 

To start this year in a full-virtual environment, I thought about how I could apply this “happy accident,” this highlight of my spring, to a new group of students during their first days of school.  How might I incorporate writing into the lesson too, building a bridge that spans listening, speaking, and writing?

I began class my second day of school with a Poem of the Day that many readers of this blog will already know: “Something You Should Know” by Clint Smith.  It has quickly become a go-to verse for teachers at the start of the school year. 

After reading Smith’s poem twice, when I asked my students to finish the sentence “This poem is about _________” in the chat feature, they typed ideas like “insecurity” and “self-confidence,” “anxiety” and “safety.” This was a nice lead-in to the sixty seconds of courage I was going to ask from them later in class. Public speaking is always scary, and impromptu public speech can be especially so.  I explained that at this point we always feel a little insecure early in a class, but together we can begin to share little things about ourselves and grow in our confidence.  I explained the show-and-tell assignment. 

I also added a writing component.  We would create sketchnotes while listening to each other’s sixty-second speeches.  I told them, “Collect images and words that stand out to you while we listen.  Think on paper in your Writer’s Notebooks.  Avert your eyes from the screen and practice tuning in to what someone is actually saying.”

 Here are some samples of what that looked like, first in my own notebook, then in two students’ notebooks.  

A page from my notebook.
A page from Sarah R’s notebook.
A page from Zoe L’s notebook.

Later in the week, their only assignment to turn in to me (via an uploaded photograph) was a one-page, two-paragraph minimum Writer’s Notebook page to the prompt “What did you learn this week?”  I explained that this week was not primarily about English skills, but about technology skills and building a classroom community, so they could write about something they learned about another student’s life, about navigating our school’s technology tools, or about themselves.  Some students chose to write about their sketchnotes and what they learned by listening to these show-and-tell speeches.  

Kevin wrote, “In the first week of English I learned that Mr. Vogelsinger likes to use writer’s notebooks.  He made use of the notebook in a different way than my past teachers by saying ‘draw your classmates’ personal belongings and something interesting they said.’ I like this activity because it showed how to get to know your classmates.” 

“So why is knowing things about my classmates important?” Mackenzie asked in her notebook.  “Because I don’t know most of them very well.  If we are going to be classmates all year long, we should know things about each other and have conversations with each other.   Like, ‘Hey Daniella.  What was it like living in England for two years?’ and a conversation can start.” 

Yana recounts a story a classmate told while holding up a giant shell.  “I learned many things this week.  One of the most interesting things I learned was when someone in my class found a conch shell while snorkeling off the coast of the beach.  This interested me because I go to the beach a lot in the summer.  I like to find shells, mostly in the sand.  All I have found was small shells. I just like that it was lucky to find a shell like that near the beach!” 

These are the first, rough-around-the-edges bits of notebook writing I get to see from my students this year, and I love that they revolve around personal connections.  

Taking the time to sketchnote in my notebook while I listened to each student speak also made me learn and remember so much more about each class and each individual than I would ordinarily know at this point in the year.

While an impromptu speech around an object in a student’s home would be impossible on the second day of normal school, this happy accident has given me much to ponder in how I can adapt my opening days in future years to capture this kind of storytelling, listening, and writing about the connections we discover and the community we begin to build each September.  Nothing could be better use of the opening few pages of our Writer’s Notebooks.  


How do you use September notebook writing to build community in your classrom? What happy accidents have you had so far this year? You can connect with me on Twitter @theVogelman or engage on Facebook at facebook.com/movingwriters to continue the conversation.  

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