Friday, February 1, 2013

Narrative Essay - Step One: The Writer's Notebook

Photo by Grassroots Group on Flickr, some rights reserved.
Writer's notebooks are the first step I took towards changing the way I teach all writing, including moving away from five-paragraph essays.

Over the last year, I've been thinking a lot about writing instruction that is authentic and closer to the process "real" writers go through1; the non-prescriptive2 pre-writing that creates a solid bedrock of thoughts ready to be mined for high quality topics to be refined into short stories or cut and polished into poems.

The mold for where this bedrock can be formed, I'd argue, is the writer's notebook (WNB) as opposed to what some classes call the journal or diary.  It's different in the type of writing that goes in.

What I refer to as a journal contains writing on prompts selected by the teacher, or, when it's an option, whatever the student wants to write about: their weekend, or the basketball game the night before.  This is good - getting students to write daily or multiple times per week is research-driven good practice and will make students better writers.  But there are some disadvantages to this model3.

Journals don't contain what students value.  They get the student to write, or they act as a primer connecting yesterday's lesson to today's.  But at the end of the year (or a month in), the student asks themselves, "so why am I doing this?"  Beyond the grade they get and the lessons we teach4, the journal isn't valued by our students.  It isn't something most of them will want to save.

Journals aren't connected to a long-term process.  The work that goes into a journal rarely extends beyond that day's warm-up.  Warm-ups are good.  But maybe student-writing time should be at a different time5.

Journals don't assess students' writing ability.  Journals judge a student's ability to write about something they don't value (see above) because we tell them to.

Journals aren't authentic.  Journals aren't where published writing takes place.  Students don't take their responses to these prompts and revise them into polished pieces.

So here's how I set up a WNB this year.  All those journal prompts?  You still need them, because students coming into class at the end of the summer aren't going to churn out a lot of writing.  They need to work up to it.  So the first day I give them some of those journal prompts to choose from, and I ask for just four lines (from my 10th graders).  The next day, I ask for 5 or 6.  We continue this until we're at half a page.  I may take a breather here, ask for half a page for a week.  Then start to ratchet it up to a full page.

This is what Aimee Buckner calls the Daily Page - students writing a full page each day.  In her book Notebook Know-How: Strategies for the Writer's Notebook (2005), Buckner offers a couple strategies for students to use to come up with their own topics.  Some of my favorites:

Writing from a List  I use this one in my class frequently.  Students make a list of the top ten best things that have happened in their life and the top seven worst.  Then star the ones they could write about.  Then choose one to write about that day.

Observations  What do you notice using your five senses?  The sweaty smell of the kid who had gym class last period.  The grinding pencil sharpener next door.  Write about it.

Conversation  Write a conversation between you and someone or something else.  Here's part of my conversation with a pen:
Me: Hello, pen.
Pen: I don't talk.
Me: Um . . . you just did.
Pen: No, I didn't.
Me: Yes, you did. You just talked again.
Pen: No, that's just a figment of your imagination.
Me: But if I look back, I have what you said. See?
Pen: . . .
Me: See? . . . See?
Pen: Okay, okay. So I talk. So what?
Me: I just wanted to see how you were doing.
Pen: Fine.
Me: Oh. That's good.
Pen: Is that all?
Me: And I wanted to tell you how much I appreciate your continuous ink flow.
So those are great, because students can choose the topic, but it's not something like "This weekend, I . . ."  A conversation with a pen might not produce something that goes to the next step.  But a conversation with your father who left you when your were 10?  That could go somewhere.  That's something I'd want to read.  These prompts create bedrock for mining - not everything will be good.  But some of it will be.

In addition to those options, I give students a list of prompts from Inside Writing (2005) by Donald Graves and Penny Kittle.  One of my favorites: Think about a photograph you feel a strong emotional connection to, one of: a family gathering, you and your grandfather, your first communion, a day at the beach.  Tell who is in the photo and why you treasure it.

These prompts are different from the typical ones we write on the board at the beginning of class.  This prompt got me to write a coming-of-age story about a friend and mentor I worked with at summer camp and who greatly influenced the person I became.  It's something people want to read about.

That's the point of the writer's notebook.  Push back in the comments.  Next week I'll write about how I got students to choose a topic and rewrite it - but it's straight out of Inside Writing, if you'd rather get it from the source.

1. Everyone's a real writer, but I'm talking about professional writers, in this case.  I guess. Go back.
2.  So here's my prescription of how to do it.  Geez. Go back.
3. I am looking for a fight on this, because I'm moving away from journals myself and I others to force me to think about this deeply.  So bring it on in the comments, please. Go back.
4. Which, in many cases, are more dear to us than to our students - at least for me. Go back.
5. Full disclosure: this is an idea that just came to me.  I'll try it out and let you know how it goes. Go back.