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Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Launching the Writers Notebook: Authenticity, Vision, Ownership

Just a few of my writer's notebooks

November last year I sat in a teacher’s classroom chatting about her hopes for the year. I looked around her room and saw a library filled with books that any middle schooler would want to read and commented on one of her walls, filled with photos of 6th graders at the local zoo and letters they had written to the newspaper and city commissioners about the horrible condition of the zoos.

“That was the best unit we did last year,” she explained. “Their passion, their work, their dedication impacted this city.”

Her cell phone rang, and she excused herself to talk to a parent of a new student and invited me to look around the room.

This was a teacher whose work made a difference for kids and for the community. I knew that her classroom was one that I would want to linger in. Thinking about this, I glanced through Kai’s writer’s notebook and read his entry dated about a month earlier:

Ever since I was little I have wanted to be two things an engineer and a writer for a tv show. I always wanted to be the guy that was funny & smart about how he was funny. I spent fourth and fifth grade learning about shows like “The Simpsons” or “Sienfeld” two very different shows but still very funny. I spent this time writing a show called “Grasious with other people’s money” & I made about 12 20 min episodes & my older brother said it was bad so I flushed it down the toilet, my dream with it.

And this was his last entry. The following pages were blank.

When she returned from the phone call, I asked her about Kai’s entry, and she admitted that she hadn’t read it. “I have the hardest time with writer’s notebooks. I know they’re important, but I just can’t figure out how to make them work especially with everything else that we have to do.” Her honest answer was one that I hear often from middle and high school teachers: the will is there but the skills for sustaining the writer’s notebook aren’t yet in place.


Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about this teacher and reflecting on why writers’ notebooks are so important to me. In fact, I can’t imagine teaching writing without that notebook. Why? Because I know that’s how I work and I know how valuable that notebook is to me.

What I wish I had asked that teacher is about hers. Does she keep one? When does she turn to it? How does she use it? Is the writer’s notebook (WNB) a part of her writing routine?  

Here’s what I’ve come to learn: a teacher has to know from the inside out the value of a WNB. Keeping one has to be authentic, starting with the teacher herself. Without that insight, teachers have a hard time sustaining their students’ use of a WNB. Too often either the WNB fades after the first month or two or morphs into another school task: an assignment the teacher made, a commodity to be sold for the payment of a grade.

And here’s what else I’ve come to learn: launching the WNB matters. But launching means creating a vision for the power of a WNB and designing the work so that students have ownership in it.


I needed a vision for my WNB before I became ridiculously attached to it. For years I used my WNB as a journal, a place to keep notes from presentations and random thoughts on education. I called it my WNB but it was really more of a journal or a learning log, not a place that was the “junkyard of my mind” or a “compost heap” (Rosanna Warren) or “a place for seeds” (Ralph Fletcher). My use of a WNB began to shift when I started looking carefully at WNBs that others kept: Penny Kittle, Linda Rief, Don Murray (even though he called it a daybook). And then I started collecting quotes from writers about their WNBs:

Into my notebook goes anything that is interesting enough to stop me in my tracks -- the slump of a pair of shoulders in a crowd, a newspaper entry, a recipe, "chewy" words like ragamuffin. . . For me, it all begins with a notebook: it is the well I dip into for that first clear, cool drink. --Rita Dove

The words do not take me to the reason I made the entry, but back to the felt experience, whatever it was . . . It is the instant I try to catch in the notebooks, not the comment, not the thought. --Mary Oliver

I started playing more with my WNB, adding photos I wanted to write about, trying a poem out, playing with colors, wishing that I could make mine as beautiful as Linda Rief’s.

So what would I do to launch that writer’s notebook? First, I’d share several of my WNBs. I’d share several because each of my WNBs are a bit different. In my electronic notebook (yes, I have one of those), I have a section for collecting cool words and poems I love, but in my WNB, I’m playing with white space, thinking about how I can write sideways or create a concrete poem. I have entries about the passing of my dog: a poem, a Facebook entry, a vignette. Students would see how in some of my WNBs I’ve created indexes and divided my notebook into sections, using sticky notes to separate those sections: Here’s where I keep goofy words I’ve read, and here’s where I’ve copied down poems that I love and might emulate, and there’s where I’m keeping random thoughts about a topic I’m exploring. They would see that on the first page I’ve written myself a letter about my hopes and plans for this WNB, but this opening letter is a new routine for me.

I might also show a few entries in my WNB that were seeds that grew into future writing. I imagine that I might make a photocopy of a few entries and then show how they turned up in Clock Watchers or Just Right Challenge or even in this blog. And why would I do that? To show how sometimes WNB are storage units and sometimes they’re gardens where seeds are planted, as Ralph Fletcher states.

But not only would I share mine, I’d share the journals of famous people along with their quotes. I imagine that I’d make a poster with excerpts from Ray Bradbury, Einstein, JR Rowling, some pop musicians kids might know, and then
I’d pepper the room with books like Steal Like an Artist and Joan Didion’s South and West. I want them to build a vision for the WNB that includes the myriad of ways that writers and thinkers use WNBs. I want them to know that the WNB is authentic – something that happens in the world outside of school.


Too often – and lordy, was I guilty of this! – teachers co-opt WNBs – with the best of intentions. They become objects to meet the demands of assignments rather than a vehicle for a writer to play and take risks and gallop around with ideas galore. Teachers -- again with the best of intentions -- set up a section for vocabulary, for taking notes, for collecting grammar rules, for responding to prompts. They worry about accountability. But I want students to set up their WNBs in a way that works for them and to be accountable to themselves as evolving writers. I want them to own that WNB and to see that the WNB is much more than a task the leads to a grade. I want to show students like Kai how their WNB might be a place for them to study a genre, like he did as he studied The Simpsons and Seinfeld.

I think of Daniel Pink’s triad of elements that lead to motivation: autonomy, mastery, purpose. Those three elements need to be in place. Autonomy (or choice): a metaphorical room of my own (thanks, Virginia Woolf!). No one assigned sketch noting to me, I got to decide. Purpose: No one told me my purpose. I got to discover it and then write about it in my opening letter to myself. Mastery: No one told me what I had to master. I had my own purpose and knew that I could work to it.

Does that mean I wouldn’t assign quick writes or have students create heart maps or make lists of their writing territories (ala Nancie Atwell) or study and emulate craft? Oh, we’d definitely do all that, but I’d urge students to figure out what else they needed in order to grow as writers and then to set some goals. For instance, they might want to write daily outside of school for a month. Or they might want to analyze more craft in writing than what they’re doing in class. They might want to play around with different genres or include more art or make reading and writing connections. I want them to have ownership of the WNB.

And how would I know that they’re using their WNBs? Conferences. A routine for conferring with students during reading or writing workshop is to check with them about how the WNB influenced their reading, writing, thinking. When I confer, part of the conference would be to look through WNBs and to gently nudge through questions about how their current writing project was shaped by seeds planted in their WNB – a positive presupposition. Before a Socratic seminar, I’d ask how the WNB helped them prepared for the seminar.

To remind myself of the potential demise of the WNB, I’d tape this reminder from the Two Writing Teachers blog next to my computer and I’d use it in a whole class or small group discussion:

It’s a sad fact that our middle school “Lost and Found” bins seem to collect so many writer’s notebooks in particular.  Whenever I leaf through these, I invariably discover that they are used mainly for note taking, with a few sketchy entries and a few responses to prompts.  In elementary school, writer’s notebooks are introduced with much fanfare and joy, decorated with such celebration, and remain at the center of daily writing work.  Something of this joy and purpose seems to get lost in middle school, just when most kids feel ready to explore deeper ideas and experiment with their writing voices. 

I want students like Kai to keep thinking in the WNB: to take risks, to be vulnerable, to play. I don’t want blank pages following a few entries. WNBs are much too important to let them just gather dust on the shelves of our classrooms.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Plastic Flowers

The snow crunched under our feet as we walked the dogs by the lake. Grey clouds hung low, and the geese looked as though they were huddled together for any kind of heat that might come from being a flock. Jim continued his winter rant: “Three more months of this? We need to move to San Diego.” Mick wagged his tail, ignoring the cold and pulled on his leash to pee on someone’s dead lawn. But instead of taking aim at a bush, he lifted his leg and relieved himself on red, purple, and pink flowers, little plastic things with fake leaves jetting up and down the stems.

So out of place, such a sense of fakeness in the winter wonderland surrounding us. Given Mick’s desecration of them, it might have been better if the gardeners had planted a fake fire hydrant instead.

Jim looked at me, patted Mick approvingly on the head, and stopped complaining about winter. “Who would plant plastic flowers?”

“A lazy gardener, maybe.” I thought how much easier they were than what we did in the garden: no weeding, no aphids crawling in and out of the blossoms, no rust caused by too much water, no deadheading, and color year around. What a deal.

“Yep,” I repeated, “a lazy gardener.”

When I talked to Cali not long after that, I listened to her complain in a tone that reminded me of Jim complaining about winter. “Grandma, I have another five paragraph essay due tomorrow.”

And then that image hit me: those fake red, purple, and pink flowers, those little plastic things with fake leaves jetting up and down the stems. Those phony things parading as flowers. How different were those fake flowers from those phony things marching around in schools parading themselves as essays. Just plop in a thesis at the end of the first paragraph. It could sound like this: There are three reasons that everyone should have a garden. And then figure out a topic sentence. It could go something like this: The first reason is that everyone likes a garden. Next step: easy. Give two or three examples. No problem. Easy, peasy. Reason one, color; reason two, pretty, reason three: nice. And then do it again, two more times. Easy, measy, peasy. Just count the paragraphs, add up those sentences, and put a period at the end of each sentence.

Yep, fake flowers. No wrestling with ideas, no struggle with purpose or audience, no pulling hairs over organization. Just five simple paragraphs and call her good. There’s an essay for you.

Oh, yeah, I can hear granddaughter’s teacher say: They have to learn the basics and then they can move beyond the formula.  That’s like me telling the lazy gardener that he had mastered the structure of his artificial garden and now he could forget the plastic and move on to the real thing.

What exactly what are those basics that they have to figure out? A write by numbers? A collection of sentences and words without the basics of thought? A simple recipe that requires little decision making on the writer’s part?

Oh, if it were so easy then I’d tell Rick Reilly, Annie La Mott, and even Penny Kittle to set down their pencils or close down their computers. No more thinking needed. Just fill in the blanks and send ‘er off.

Next time we walk by that garden with plastic flowers Mick may not be the only one who lifts his leg.


Friday, June 9, 2017

Please Disturb My Beliefs

Okay, reader, I have a challenge for you before you read this blog. If you were to read a student’s IEP and learned that he had been diagnosed with all of the following, what would be your first thoughts?

·      Chronic anxiety
·      Obsessive compulsive thinking
·      Tourette’s syndrome
·      Asperger’s syndrome
·      Depression

Really, don’t read any further until you’ve thought about teaching this student. How would you plan for him (or her)? What would you expect or his (or her) behavior, attitude, scholarly abilities? And if you were to predict his (or her) future, what would your prediction be?

Now read on.


I’m not sure when I ran across Peter Smagorinsky’s work, but I’m guessing it was sometime in the 80s when studying writing pedagogy. What I do know is that his writing has influenced me for, literally, decades. When coming to terms with standards, his Standards in Practice pushed me out of my knee jerk resistance. When planning my first English methods class, his How English Teachers Get Taught guided the trajectory of my course. And more recently while working on argument, I ran across Teaching Students to Write Argument, his small but fun book chocked full of ideas. Not only have I read his books, but I’ve followed him on numerous NCTE postings and have even sat in on several of his conference sessions.

So it was quite a shock when I encountered an article by him in Maureen Downey’s Get Schooled column. Writing about the “mentally ill,” he explains:

In fact, I am among them, as are several people in my family. Various people in my gene pool have been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, Tourette’s syndrome, chronic anxiety, depression, obsessive compulsive thinking, oppositional-defiance, and other conditions. I suspect that many readers can say the same.

You might have guessed from my opening challenge that this would be true of Peter, but it was a great surprise to me and sent me into the research mode. From his vita, I discovered that he has written or co-written over 15 books and a ridiculous number of articles for professional journals, has been honored with numerous awards, and currently holds the title of Distinguished Research Professor of English Education.

Have you ever had one of those moments when you knew you needed to rethink an assumption that you didn’t even know you held? That’s what happened to me as I read about Peter. All too clearly I recall in the past saying something like, “For a special ed kiddo, he’s doing okay.” Or – I confess this with great embarrassment – “I’ll cut him some slack. After all, he is in special ed.” And as a consultant, I don’t know how many times I nodded in empathy with a teacher when she talked about low test scores and all of “those” students or I indicated my understanding when the teacher said, “Oh, she has an IEP. Of course, she’s struggling.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about beliefs lately, and Peter’s story has stirred up beliefs that lay dormant, beliefs that I hadn’t examined. My discomfort reminded me of what Margaret Wheatley describes in her essay “Willing to be Disturbed”:

Lately, I've been listening for what surprises me. What did I just hear that startled me? This isn't easy-I'm accustomed to sitting there nodding my head to those saying things I agree with. But when I notice what surprises me, I'm able to see my own views more clearly, including my beliefs and assumptions.

And Peter’s column dredged up assumptions that I would have denied. For years, I’ve argued for thinking of kids from an asset perspective, but buried deep within me reigned a deficit orientation.

As I kept reading more of Peter’s writing, I encountered his push for neurodiversity in which teachers recognize that there is a range of neurological orientations and, therefore, it’s important to “foreground potential, not disorder.” Peter argues:

Rather, I think that I follow a different order, like many who share my classifications. In fact, it’s quite ordered. There probably is no more ordered way of being than to live on the autism spectrum. It’s a life of pattern, ritual, and clarity of purpose. The problem is that those purposes can seem odd to those who believe that having a narrow or unusual way of being in the world is a problem to be fixed, a sickness to be cured.

Looking at more of his writing, some in blogs and some in academic essays, I found provocative gems such as these:

·      “I am confident that having Asperger’s is probably a key to whatever success I’ve had in my field.”
·      “My ability to complete work quickly and efficiently is, I believe, a consequence of having Asperger’s in conjunction with OCD.”
·      “As part of my rebellion against … stereotype, I have begun referring to my Asperger’s Advantage, especially when Asperger’s is bundled with my anxiety and obsessive-compulsive thinking.”

In one essay, he credits Tourette’s for his prodigious writing career, explaining that when he reads, he picks at his nails and goes into endless tapping routines, but writing channels his nervous tics into productive and satisfying work.

What if I had viewed my students with “special” needs – just think of the condescending tone of that phrase – as seeing the world differently and my job was to figure out their strengths and ways I could build from those strengths? My buried beliefs were madly disconnected from my espoused beliefs.

Yes, Peter disturbed me, surfaced my beliefs, and challenged my assumptions. And the troubling question is: what other negative beliefs are tucked away, needing to be disturbed?

--June 8, 2017

Saturday, July 30, 2016

30 Years Ago and the Kaypro, Phone with Cords, and Writing Workshop

Thirty years ago, I talked on a phone with a long cord that I could carry from the kitchen into the living room and even the bathroom. I bought my first microwave and worried about radiation.  I gave my son a "portable" computer to take to college: a Kaypro II that weighed 26 pounds and was about sixteen inches long while the screen couldn’t have been more than 10 inches wide.

In my high school classroom those 30 years ago, on Monday I assigned students topics for their five paragraph essays, collected them on Friday and spent Sunday night grading like mad so I could hand them back the next day. Knowing the reputation of the red pen, I corrected those run-ons and punctuation errors with a green felt tip pen, softening the demand of “get your writing right!”

And then thirty years ago in the summer, most of my colleagues in Thornton High’s  English department spent two weeks with Colorado Writing Project. We wrote on topics of our choice, shared our work with each, received smart feedback from our mentor, Judy Gilbert, and studied Nancie Atwell’s In the Middle and Dan Kirby’s Inside Out. We fell in love with writing and the teaching of it.

And together the next few years we figured out how to bring choice, time to write, a variety of ways to respond to drafts, and teacher modeling into the classroom. We devoured Tom Romano’s Clearing the Way and Zemelman and Daniels’ A Community of Writers. We mined Donald Murray’s wisdom and taught our students about the myriad decisions writers make. 

We figured out what a writing workshop looked like in a high school setting. 

And our classrooms shifted but not completely. Some of us held on tenaciously to practices that we were convinced also mattered.

Meet the five paragraph essay.

In the 10th grade Introduction to Composition, we taught the comparison/contrast essay, the cause/effect essay, and the precis. Sure, students selected their topics, and we worked on strategies for generating ideas, but the structure was a given: first paragraph had to hook the reader and end with the thesis, the next three paragraphs had to support the thesis, and then that closing paragraph had to pull it all together. Simple! So students created webs or free wrote to generate ideas. We had choice, and, yep, response. Every Wednesday students brought drafts to their workshop group, and I modeled. Yep – I wrote those god-awful essays side by side with them.

A couple of years passed. I applied for a sabbatical leave to work on my masters and took the year off to study. Borrowing my son’s old Kaypro II, I headed to Fort Collins to further my studies in writing pedagogy. One of the first books we read in Bill McBride’s Theories of Composition class was by Knoblauch and Brannan, and in that book, the researchers  slammed the five paragraph essay as an artificial structure that existed no where outside of school. Knoblauch and Brannan were my nemesis. “Why,” I argued over and over, “can’t we have lively writing within the five paragraph essay? What’s the deal here? After all, students need to learn the structure of an essay.” Even as I worked at synthesizing what I was learning from Ken Macrorie, Linda Flower, and Peter Elbow, I fought with Knoblauch and Brannon. If I’d had an email account, I might have sent them an angry missive, but email was rare then.

I still remember the great epiphany – the moment it hit me that the formula was outmoded and ill-conceived and that Knoblauch and Brannon were right. It was after dinner and while studying another chapter of their book when that proverbial lightening blot hit me. I had to stop privileging form before ideas, and writing didn’t begin with structure unless it was a limerick or a sonnet.

Again my high school classes changed. In Intro to Comp, we kept a writer’s notebook, learned strategies for drafting and revising, experimented with structure, and read each other’s work.  We played with organization and experimented with leads and closings. We played, worked hard, and celebrated our work.

Sometime about then I bought my first cell phone though I rarely used it and thought about buying my first Apple. I no longer feared my microwave and set up my AOL email account and wondered about buying a fax machine.

No longer did my classroom look the same as a few years earlier. Students sat in small groups and collaborative work really required the thinking of all students. I wrote along with them: stories, poems, essays, biographies. I chucked those formulaic assignments along with the overheads that described the opening paragraph and listed transitions to start each of the body paragraphs.

Over the years my writers workshop evolved. Genre shaped the curriculum, and mentor text grew our craft. We wrote for a broad range of audiences, from the principal as students argued that they had earned the right of an open campus to their senators when some disagreed with our entry into the Gulf War.

Today I rarely use my landline (didn’t even know that’s what it was called a few years ago). I carry my cell everywhere so I can check emails and recipes and snap pictures. Not too long ago I ditched my fax machine. It no longer served a purpose.

And yet….

And yet….

And yet this is what this essay is about.

Thirty years ago our high school English department learned about writing processes and the writing workshop. For a decade or more we studied what it meant to grow the adolescent writer and figured out how to teach grammar in context. So given the long history and the research base about teaching writing, why is it that when I walk into high school classrooms across the nation and, literally, the world, I watch hard working, smart teachers assign an essay topic, explain the structure of the five paragraph essay, and grade those essays on Sunday night, sometimes in red ink, sometimes in green, and sometimes online? Why is that I see students’ eyes glaze over when their teacher explains once again the importance of having a strong thesis before moving forward with drafting? Why is it that I see learning targets that urge writers to "wrap up their essay in a tidy package and bring it home to the reader"? Why is it that I don’t see students writing side by side with their students? Why am I not seeing writing workshop as the norm and instruction in the multiple processes for composing?

What is there about our profession that keeps us the same so that even as teachers use “” and No Red Ink and text message students on their phones, their classrooms look like mine did over 30 years ago? Was Seymour Sarason right when he complained that the school system itself creates an “intractability to significant reform and change”?

Does each generation need to learn anew? Do we really grow as a profession? Why was it easier to move from the ditto machine to the print option on laptops than it is to move from a teacher-centered writing classroom to a writing workshop?

A phone with a long cord, anyone? I've got one somewhere in an attic, one I used over 30 years ago.