The Most Essential School Supply (Plus 3 Instructional Practices to Make the Most of It!)

It’s that time of year. Yeah, we may sometimes feel like we’re in survival mode with eager tallies marking how many Mondays are left in the school year, but as much as we might be counting down, we’re also starting to plan ahead for next year.

We’re waxing reflective and submitting school supply lists to the office. And as soon as we wave goodbye to the last bus pulling out of the parking lot, it seems like Target trots out their Back to School displays.

As you put together your supply requests and fill up your cart with discounted supplies, I’d like to make an argument for the most essential school supply on your list: a notebook.

Sure, I love my colored pens, sticky notes, and chart paper. I’ve tinkered with different binder organization systems. But if I was forced to choose just one school supply to help me ensure that all of my students will be successful, it would be a notebook – hands down.

notebooks.jpgNow, when I say “notebook,” I’m talking about a good, old-fashioned composition notebook. I like the size and especially the way it’s just a tiny bit harder to tear pages out, but I suppose in a pinch, just about any notebook would do. (And if you’ve got experience with keeping notebooks digitally, I’d really love to hear about it!)

A notebook is essential because if we really want our kids to engage in meaningful writing, we have to give them space to explore that process. And all the looseleaf, graphic organizers, and handouts in the world just can’t do that.

You know what I’m talking about with the handouts: color-coded packets stapled together and made up of boxes, bullet points, and fill-in-the-blank thesis statements. Fill in all of the boxes for the green page, and you’ll be ready to turn it into an introduction. Complete every bullet point in the yellow sheets, and your body paragraphs will practically write themselves.  I’ve done it plenty of times. The intentions are good. We want our students to have clear directions. If they simply follow these step-by-step directions, then we know they’ll get a good grade.

Sure, the intentions may be wonderful, but is it real writing? The process may be streamlined, but is the purpose really clear? Do students understand why they’re writing or for whom? And is putting together a bunch of slips of paper really what the writing process looks like?

Yes, the directions may be clear, but they beg so many more questions: Why would they want to write? Where’s the creativity? The growth mindset? What happens if a thought doesn’t fit neatly in a blank? Do you scrap the whole packet? When do we let students do their own thinking?

If we move away from the packets and step-by-step directions, notebooks can help us answer these nagging questions. Continue reading

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The Fearless Writers

This fall, I’m teaching two classes. One starts with fiction and narrative writing, and the other launches with informational and persuasive texts. I committed to teaching each with a mentor text approach to analyzing our reading and crafting our own choice text. Within the first weeks, our narrative work was on a roll, but our informational work seemed stuck in the mud. We were reading lots of nonfiction texts, and they were getting the hang of noticing how they were written and organized. Meanwhile, students were drafting about topics of their choice in their notebooks. The two weren’t connecting, though. They were seeing reading of texts as one skill completely separate from their notebook work – and it showed. Their drafts lacked organizational complexity and voice, and they struggled to identify areas for revision. It was clear I was doing something wrong.

I puzzled over what could be going so horribly. After all, I was using the same mentor text approach with narrative text in my other class. As I looked back over my lesson planning from the first month, though, the difference was plain as day. In our narrative class, we started the process of reading like writers with short, manageable texts that had very clear, unique styles. We read, analyzed, and then wrote about ourselves first in the style of Sandra Cisneros’ “Salvador Late or Early” and then in a polar opposite style of the popular website Humans of New York. Students learned to connect reading and writing in manageable, bite-sized chunks that they could instantly play with in their notebooks. By contrast, my other class started annotating full-length articles from The Atlantic to pull apart the text features and structures. And I wondered why they didn’t see how these annotations connected to their own drafts!

I knew I needed to back it up and practice with some smaller chunks of text, but I didn’t know how I’d do this until inspiration hit one morning while I had my coffee. I mindlessly leafed through the mail on the counter and paused at the Trader Joe’s Fearless Flyer. For those of you who’ve never shopped at a Trader Joes, their Fearless Flyer is their advertising mailing. Rather than just list the great bargains that can be had, their writers clearly have a lot of fun. Each featured item gets at least two paragraph of rich description. “Man,” I thought as I sipped my coffee, “these writers really have too much fun.” And that was when the inspiration lightning bolt hit. I wanted my writers to have that kind of fun – and this was a short text! Continue reading

Writers Explore Possibility

thefirstthingToday our school was abuzz with new students arriving for freshman orientation. At certain points in the day I felt like I was fast forwarding through an action movie: students dashed from classroom to classroom at uncomfortable speeds, clutching their schedules, many barely looking up to say hello. Pure relief washed over the face of a new student when he saw me waving his lost schedule in the air. What would he have done without a schedule to tell him where to go and when?

The schedules these students were glued to are stories. Stories other people have written them into. On the first day of school, students are being ushered to classes that (excluding electives) have been chosen for them. They are expected to know what sports they are trying out for, what clubs they want to join, and what electives they want to take. They are expected to “orient” themselves to several fixed points, to discover themselves quickly and painlessly.

This is a lot for a ninth grader. This is a lot for a human!

What can we offer to these students in this first week? What can we offer to these students throughout the year as they continue to be bombarded by fixed curricula and well worn paths?

The writing classroom. It can be an oasis. An escape from the crazy. Because in the writing classroom, students are invited to discover rather than receive, to turn rather than stand still, to explore rather than orient.

I want my students to know immediately that writing is not about right answers, or formulas, or worn paths. Writing is about possibilities. A writer’s purpose is to explore possibility.

Writer's(1)

How writers explore what’s possible in their writing:

Writers explore what’s possible in their writing by practicing writing every day; trying on new ideas, structures, and patterns; and talking with other writers about their thinking and craft.

One way I will introduce this concept to my students:

Notebooks. I want notebooks to be EVERYTHING this year. Like an athletic field on which my student athletes practice and try new formations and fiddle with moves, the notebook is a space where students can capture thinking, emulate mentor sentences, plan out a piece of writing, jot down ideas for future writing projects…the list goes on and on. I figure that THE FIRST THING we present to students says volumes about what is important in our classroom, which is why I plan to introduce the writer’s notebook on the second day of school, and all the rhythms and routines of workshop will spring up from there. My notebook minilesson will include a tour of writers’ notebooks — my own and famous writers’ notebooks I have found images of on the internet — as well as some suggestions for how to organize (or de-organize) the notebook, ideas of what to keep inside, and some notebook work for the day.

Writer’s explore what’s possible in their own lives:

Writer’s explore what’s possible in their own lives by closely examining their lives, by looking forward and backward and noticing patterns across moments; by reflecting on things they’ve seen, experienced, and thought; and by sharing that thinking and writing with others.

One way I will introduce this concept to my writers:

Poetry. For many reasons — and especially because Nancie Atwell told me to — I like to start the year with a study of poetry writing. Robert Frost said, “Poetry is the best words in the best order.” What better way to help students understand the power of language than with poetry?

Even more important, I have found that poetry is the best invitation to students to explore their inner lives. So many of our students arrive at our classroom doors at the beginning of the year with the introspection beaten out of them. They have been tested and SOL-ed and standardized more than we’d like to know. And even if they aren’t come from high stakes testing environments, many of them hail from classrooms in which the first person pronoun has not been allowed in their writing.

But the beautiful poems of Greg Orr and Faith Shearin and Jed Chambers and William Stafford can set them free again.

Beginning with a study of poetry can rekindle the same introspection and reflection and care that all genres of writing demand — because writing without an I  — without a thinking, feeling, vested person behind the words — is empty writing.

How writers explore what’s possible in the world:

Writers explore what’s possible in the world by reading actively, trying on others’ ideas for size, and writing into those ideas; by making research a daily practice; by drawing connections with other thinkers and writers.

One way I will introduce this concept to my writers:

Noticing ideas too. I’ll admit that I can get carried away by mentor texts. I love mentor texts and what they do for my students’ writing (and mine!) so much that I sometimes skip the important part that comes before the reading like writers: I skip the reading like readers. I jump to the chase after we read a mentor text together: What do you notice? What techniques do you see? Why do you think the writer used that craft? How might you use it in your own writing? And when we skip over reading like readers, we missing something really, really important: the pulsing heart of the piece itself. The ideas. This isn’t good for us as readers, and this isn’t good for us as writers.

Because writers MUST also be readers who think and talk about ideas — about the what — rather than just the how.

I love the how. I love noticing craft moves and naming them and seeing what my students come up with. Out of order adjectives. Whispering parenthesis. Absolutes. Circular structure. I eat craft for breakfast.

But without a what there would be no how. And I want to raise writers who care about the what. So this year, when I teach a lesson on reading like a writer, I will amend the guidelines I typically give to writers:

Reading Like Writers (the old way)

Reading Like Writers (the new way)

  1. Notice something about the craft.
  2. Name is using language that makes sense to you.
  3. Think about why the writer used this craft.
  4. Try it in your own writing.
  1. Find and think or talk about an idea that strikes you.
  2. Notice something about the craft.
  3. Name it using language that makes sense to you.
  4. Think about why the writer used this craft and how it enhances her ideas.
  5. Try some writing yourself on this topic and/or using some of the craft in a piece of writing.

 

Our writing classrooms must be places where students can feel safe trying on ideas, playing with new forms, and exploring what they may or may not think. I believe that what happens in the notebook is directly linked to what happens in the brain and the heart. And I want to nurture students with open minds, open notes, open hearts.

-Allison

How can you facilitate exploration in your writing classroom? How can you invite students to explore, discover, uncover their ideas, their preferences, their opinions? How can you help show them the possibilities?