Can We Play in a Writer’s Notebook?

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

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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!

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