3 Things I Learned About Writer’s Notebook From A Parent Email

Photo by Brad Neathery via Unsplash

It think it’s safe to say that for most of us, this school year felt like several different years. In my school there were remote portions, hybrid portions, five-day-return portions, and with just a few days left in the school year, a masks-optional portion.

Texting teacher friends throughout the year, I have used a rickety wooden roller coaster GIF more times than I can count, but finally the train has pulled into the station and I am left with some time (I hope) to catch my breath. We all desperately need this, and I have heard more than one teacher wonder aloud whether the weeks of summer will be enough to recover from this wild, wild ride.

One non-negotiable element that I kept in place for my classes this year, a tool that has been an integral part of instruction for all eighteen years of my teaching career so far, is a paper writer’s notebook. The grit of graphite on the page as we experiment and wonder is not to be missed, no matter what English class looks like, and as we read and responded to our Poem of the Day or crafted some thinking alongside a mentor text or tried to capture the experience of living through a pandemic, this constant provided solace for me and my students. I wrote more about this choice earlier this year on Moving Writers.

On the last day of school, I received an email from a parent who happened to find her son’s writer’s notebook in a pile he cleared from his backpack the previous evening.

With permission, I share here a small part of what she wrote:

“Teenage years are tough enough and we all know how much that’s been compounded this year.  It was a joy and a relief to read all of the ups and downs that he has felt this year.  I’m fine if [he] doesn’t want to talk with me about these things; I’m just happy to know that he’s found a way that he’s comfortable expressing them.

Thank you for giving him that place.”

These few sentences highlight three truths about paper writer’s notebooks that I could see most clearly after taking a parent’s perspective.

  1. Writer’s notebooks welcome self-expression.

Without context, this email might make it sound like we use our writer’s notebooks as diaries to record our feelings each day, but we don’t. Most of the time, these notebooks provide a place to practice a skill or craft move, a place to record our observations of the world or our study of a text, and a place to honor a student’s writing choices.

Still, the notebook provides an outlet to express “the ups and downs” of a given school day in a way that is safe and subtle. It’s not in-your-face SEL, but it allows students to sort out emotions without labeling it as such an activity. Because it is so embedded in our academic work, students who might otherwise wear some armor to an activity they consider too touchy-feely feel less afraid to get “real” in writer’s notebooks.

For some writing work, it’s wise to let students know before they write that they can choose not to share their work aloud with anyone when they finish writing. Self-expression will be less encumbered when we empower students to choose privacy when they need it.

2. Parents value the writing process.

There are plenty of emails an English teacher receives in a year that are primarily concerned with grades. Some come from parents, some come from students. This can leave us wondering if anyone values process, or if only the evaluation, the endpoint, matters at home.

It was encouraging to read what many parents feel but few express to us: Their children’s writing process matters.

I recently came across a box of my own writing, elementary school through college, that my mother had set aside through the years, and it was like unearthing an intellectual and emotional time capsule. I got lost in the woods of my own words for two hours.

Keeping a paper writer’s notebook allows parents to trace these same beautiful tracks in the snow that help their children grow. In a digital age, we must be sure that we don’t withhold these trails or lose them on an LMS when the course ends so that students and their families can still have these reflective experiences around writing even when the course is over.

3. The notebook is a “place.”

I work with my students to create at least 25 pages of writing per marking period, so by the end of the year, they have a minimum of 100 pages to take home. Of course some of these do end up as computer compositions, others are lists and sketches and rambles. But the notebook gives them an empty room to furnish with their thinking. Like a physical space invites the designer to create, so do the blank pages of a composition book invite a writer. Even students who do not yet see themselves as writers in ninth grade will make discoveries. A fresh paper writer’s notebook at the start of the year invites that possibility. Cracking the cover is opening a door.

But providing a “place” involves more than handing students a notebook. It requires the teacher writing in front of them, showing the bumps and backtracks in their own work. It requires frequent praise, looking over the shoulder of a writer to find and celebrate a gem. It requires the chance to bring those words in the notebook to life by reading their work aloud to peers so students can learn to notice what sounds fluent and beautiful and what does not. All of this is part of the “place” the writer’s notebook can provide.

This year on Moving Writers my focus has been “happy accidents,” the positive discoveries I have stumbled upon in a year of struggle. From the lessons I hope to keep from hybrid instruction to the connections I made with former students to the resilience I discovered in myself, there have been many happy accidents this year, more than I could write about. Thank you for joining me on this journey into the unfamiliar and overwhelming.

Thank you for all you have done for your students this year, moving writers despite all of the frustration and all of the obstacles. May this summer bring you the respite you deserve and the reflection you crave so that we can return next year ready to move writers in ways that are better than ever.

You can connect with me on Twitter @theVogelman or engage on Facebook at facebook.com/movingwriters to continue the conversation.  

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