Can We Play in a Writer’s Notebook?

I’m back from a year off of posting. Long story.


Why are some kids tortured by writers’ notebooks?

I got an email from a parent the other day, at her wits’ end because she said that getting her son to write entries in his notebook was like pulling teeth. It was miserable for them both. Now that’s not the feeling I want to encourage in young writers!

Later that day, I sat down with my own third grader to write an entry in his notebook, which had been assigned for the next day. It was the first entry of the year he’d be writing at home rather than in school. He’d been putting it off.

He whined a bit, and complained that he had nothing to say. He tried to bargain with me. Then he got angry. I thought about letting him just not write the entry and take the consequences at school. It was an important moment, though, and I wanted to have some input into how his attitude toward writing would be affected, negatively or positively, by this experience. So I held firm. I saw an entry he’d done in class, which was a page full of small drawings of memorable experiences he had had. His teachers had clearly taught the class that this was a tool they could use to generate ideas in times such as this, when they can’t think of anything to write. We looked at all the pictures, and he told me the stories contained in them. He chose one to write, and then wrote it. The tool worked.

I had some lingering questions about young writers, and some sadness that my son, who gleefully fills his personal notebooks with such an abundance playful stuff, was not able to see his school notebook as a place to do the same. Why not? Well, there’s one big difference, I guess. He can do whatever he wants in his home notebooks, whether it’s text or not. In his school notebook, there’s an expectation that he write entries with words. I also have this expectation for my own students. With the expectation of words, students feel pressure to write something that makes sense, that sounds good (whatever that means to them), that it’s fairly neat and organized. I have not told students that their entries have to be anything particular (though I do need to be able to read them, so legibility is required), but many of them feel this pressure nonetheless.

Can inviting a sense of play mitigate the pressure?

I found a bunch of things in Huck’s notebook that feel playful, and which he was only too happy and willing to do without any assignments or prompts. I think several of these “entries” could excite and inspire him to create different kinds of drafts. I don’t think he knows that these things would be acceptable in a school writer’s notebook, and that they could be gateways to writing if he chose to pursue any of them. Maybe he doesn’t know it’s OK to have things in his notebook that don’t ever turn into anything bigger. I think that many students believe that their notebooks are supposed to be more fancy or academic than this, and that they might embrace the writing process more enthusiastically if we let them know that a little play and experimentation is just what a writer needs sometimes!


Reading Notebook Inquiry

A lot of kids have been asking about reading responses:

  • What makes a good post-it?
  • What should an entry look like?
  • How should I be using my notebook?
  • What if I don’t have a lot to say about what I read on a particular day?
  • What are other kids doing in their notebooks?
First, I want to clarify that we (601, 602, and I) agreed that students should write four entries each week. We didn’t think there should be a page, time, or days-per-week requirement.
Today students found entries in their notebooks that
  • helped push their thinking or showed a change in thinking
  • showed a new or interesting or new way of responding (to the writer)
  • helped them as a reader
  • were fun to make
  • they just liked
They spread the notebooks out and took a “gallery walk” to notice and comment on what other readers in the room were doing.
Here is a selection of the kinds of entries they shared:
There’s a lot of variety here, and I was so excited to hear them talking about what they noticed and admired in each other’s work!
But it wasn’t all self congratulatory- they also talked about what they hope to do more of in future entries. Many of them expressed a hope to show deeper and richer thinking in their notebooks.
This led us to the questions:
  • What are the purposes of our notebooks?
  • How can they help us to read more deeply?
  • If we are already reading more deeply, how can we use our notebooks to help us keep track of it?
We’ll be returning to these questions over the next few weeks.
This is the kind of day that makes me feel lucky to have my job!

Launching our Year, Part 1


This year brings some firsts to me and my school:

  • First year with 6th grade (and everything that now having middle school means for our eventually K-8 school)
  • First year departmentalized, which means
  • First year for me teaching humanities and
  • First year for my partner, Melissa, teaching only math
  • First year for my students following their own individual schedules
  • First time I’ve had more than one class, and 66 students to know (I know this isn’t many in the grand scheme of things)
  • First time I’ve had an advisory group (11 students)

As part of this, Melissa and I, the two main core teachers for this grade, wanted to start our year in a completely new way, both for us and for the students. I’ll be writing here about our first couple of weeks, mostly copying what we’re sending to parents (sorry, I just don’t want to write these entries twice for two different audiences, but I wanted to have it here to get feedback from the larger world). Continue reading

A Conversation (or 4) About Play

We gathered as a group to talk about play and the effect it was having on our learning and thinking. The first conversation got pretty complicated, and our notetaker was having a hard time tracking our shifting ideas. We opened Popplet, an app to help in just such circumstances, and started a web. We revised the web each time we returned to the topic. This is the final version.
Play white 2


I’m going to let it speak for itself for now. 

I’m on vacation!


Colonizing the Block Room: Exploring Difficult Subjects Through Play


A small clay man hangs from a gallows. I wonder what he did.

I’ve been doing a little reading about the importance of play in children’s learning and development. In particular, I’m trying to learn more about the role of play in tween and adolescent development. I just read a series of blog posts by Dr. Peter Gray. He is a research professor at Boston College and the author of the books, Free to Learn (Basic Books) and Psychology (a textbook for college courses). His blog is called Freedom to Learn, and explores a lot of ideas about play. In the first of a series of posts from a few years ago about the value of play, Dr. Gray offers a list of characteristics of play:

“People before me who have studied and written about play have, among them, described quite a few such characteristics; but they can all be boiled down, I think, to the following five: (1) Play is self-chosen and self-directed; (2) Play is activity in which means are more valued than ends; (3) Play has structure, or rules, which are not dictated by physical necessity but emanate from the minds of the players; (4) Play is imaginative, non-literal, mentally removed in some way from “real” or “serious” life; and (5) Play involves an active, alert, but non-stressed frame of mind.”

Gray’s writings about play led me to the work of George Eisen, author of Children and Play in the Holocaust: Games Among the Shadows (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988). Eisen interviewed survivors of the Holocaust about the kinds of play children engaged in while in work camps or concentration camps, and found that they created games that enabled them to cope (as well as one can) in horrific circumstances. Some of their play actually developed survival skills, some of it involved fantasizing about overcoming their captors, and still other play helped them make a kind of sense out of their experiences by removing them from reality. I thought about how children who have been traumatized often “tell” others what happened to them by role-playing the trauma with dolls- it’s less threatening to have toy characters experience the difficulty as surrogates than it is to retell the events as they happened. Children use play NOT as a way to escape difficulty but to survive it, to understand it, to have a way to deal with it- the opposite of escaping it, actually.

All of this has been knocking around in my head for a while, and I’ve gone back and looked at some of our block play through a newly refined lens.  Continue reading

Colonizing the Block Room: Barn, Garden and Farm, Church, and House


We spent two weeks in the block room. We built a settlement of sorts, referring to a large selection of books to help us design, build, furnish, and outfit the structures. The settlement included a farm/garden area, a barn, a church, a house, a close-up of a kitchen, a smokehouse and food storage area, a grist mill, a government buildings complex, and an overview of the settlement highlighting protection from internal and external threats.

In this post, you’ll see the first few of these. Continue reading

Fourth Grade Play-to-Learn: Colonizing the Block Room

Well, it’s the New York State math test this week, so I signed up for the block room again.

This time it’s a little different though. We’ve just started learning about colonial America. On Monday we looked at a painting of the Speedwell, talking about the people and the journey they were about to make, and the story the painting might be telling. That got us talking about how a group of people might need to set things up when they get to a new place that’s totally unfamiliar, lacks the resources they’ve come to take for granted, has resources they might not know how to use, and is home to very unfamiliar people.

This is about when my own personal line of inquiry about learning through play popped into my head. Of course history provides wonderful content that can be accessed through play. I had been thinking with my grade-level colleagues about how to make the beginning of the study feel more active and exploratory- more of a way to stimulate curiosity. I had already signed up for the block room several weeks ago, and it just seemed like a perfect match.


Continue reading