Notebook Time for a New School Year

Every teacher has their own way of preparing for a new school year.  I like to try out writing activities I might share with my students and see what I notice.  What possibilities exist with this writing exercise?  Is it something I could embed in all my classes?  And a more interesting question of late–How does this exercise address a writing challenge I’ve already encountered?

As we read, writers invite us to inhabit a scene fully through vivid, sensory details that appeal to the senses of sight, touch, sound, smell, taste.  When we write about our own lives, we should extend the same invitation.  But this often is easier said than done.  A challenge I’m navigating in my own writing life is the chasm that seems to exist between communicating why an experience is deeply meaningful to me and conveying it in language that does it justice.  That depth of emotion associated with an experience might make it seem like it resists articulation.

In these moments, when it feels like words are an incommensurate vehicle for the story I want to tell, I go back to my notebook: a spiral, college-ruled notebook, the kind that has been a mainstay of my life since I could hold a pencil.  This symbolic return to my own writing roots is a signal to myself that I am ready to ignore all the electronic bids for my attention, that I’m wiggling a stick in the dirt as I did as a kid, just to see what I might find.

I recently tried out an exercise I learned from writer Marissa Landrigan that I am eager to do during classroom Notebook Time.  Containing three steps for “cultivating wonder,” it’s a generative exercise that I could see having a home in any classroom.

#1 Simply Sensory

Below, you’ll find a picture of oak acorns I encountered on a hike one day.  After observing the picture for a couple of minutes, I got to work on my paragraph:

I wonder how long this group of acorns will sit together on this branch.  The acorns feel smooth and unbroken against my fingertip, in contrast to their leaves which have an abrasive edginess.  It looks like the acorns, though joined so closely together, exist at different stages of maturity.  Their colors suggest a range of ages.  The acorn closest to my camera is on the cusp of falling from its capsule.

#2 Turn your observation outward

After drafting my paragraph, I tackle the second step, which has me considering the object’s surroundings.  As seen below, you’ll notice my writing is tracking action around the image (the group of acorns) without mentioning it:

Some dogs, who unabashedly love this path, are nosing around the fallen leaves and acorns.  The setting sun is sending an exodus down the hill, as fellow hikers head out before the park gate is closed.  It’s such a well-tended trail; it’s clear the Coast Live Oak and various hybrid oaks were intended to have a home here.  It’s one of my favorite places to walk, as the layers of leaves felt underfoot create a soft, sinking tread for tired hiking legs.

#3 Turn your attention inward

The third step encourages writers to digress as they place themselves in the foreground, to root around in their mental associations as they consider what other connections the image provokes them to imagine.

By overtly placing themselves into the scene, the writing becomes about something in addition to the image.  This is where the backstory and perspective we ourselves bring to the act of looking makes it an intensely singular act.  In step 1, it would not be surprising to see overlap in the written observations of our students.  But here in step 3, the writing has greater opportunity to meander over into something unexpected.  Find my example below:

There are many road trips from Los Angeles to the Central Coast in my rear view mirror.  Rarely will you hear someone say they look forward to traffic, but that’s what happens when our car approaches the busy, congested Santa Barbara area.  If there is high traffic volume, I know the GPS will divert us from Highway 101 to Highway 154, and I will have a chance to see the tall, mature oak trees dotting the slopes of the Santa Ynez and San Rafael Mountains.  The oaks seen from the farthest distance have an austere appearance.  Denuded of leaves, their dark branches form a strong silhouette against a blue sky.  They are the imposing sentries of Lake Cachuma.

A few observations about the “wonderings”

This generative exercise can help the writer gain understanding about some underlying preoccupations.  For me, I saw it offered opportunities to get closer to the topic I struggled to express:

  • An opportunity to generate tension: In comparing the first writing pieces with the last, I see I can tease out images of youth and maturity that are telegraphed by the oak details.  If I shared these pieces with my students, I would explain that building in these type of contrasts can be fodder for longer pieces of writing
  • An opportunity to call a theme into focus: After completing the second step, I began to notice a visual thread connecting my noticings–a cluster of acorns that inevitably will part ways, a hiker alternately surrounded by others and walking alone, an immense gulf separating the mountaintop oaks and the highway passenger.  My writing pieces, when looked at together, were exploring versions of solitude and distance.
  • An opportunity to build metaphor: The digressive third piece draws upon a memory of a car ride.  But this is where I would point out to students that writing about one topic can also mean writing about multiple things at once.  I’m drawn to writing about this memory because the maturity of the oaks reminds me of my grandfather, who passed away in April.  As many people know, the experience of grief is not linear.  One way I linger in his company is through the contemplation of oaks.
A picture of the oak tree I planted on his 99th birthday


I really valued how the small writing opportunities built into this exercise allowed me to zoom in on what is observable and then notice connections between my internal and external threads.  While writing essays, for example, our students might have learned that they should move “from the general to the specific.”  Internalizing that writing move and applying it broadly might get in the way of those micro-observations that can help us amplify our ideas we really care about.  Starting with the small “acorn” moments potentially can give us the terms of expression we could not otherwise access.


How could you use this writing exercise in your classroom?  What Notebook Time ideas are you trying out in the new school year?  Share your reflections in the comments below or find me on Twitter @dispatches_b222.

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