Recently, some teachers in our district discovered ‘secret notebooks.’ Students had notebooks hidden in their desks and backpacks. These notebooks were brought from home and would mysteriously appear whenever kids felt they had a little down time: after completing a quiz, while waiting for attendance to be taken, after completing the assigned writer’s notebook entry for the day. In these notebooks, kids were writing Minecraft comics, drawing new superhero characters, or writing chapter after chapter of a Hunger Games-like novel. These secret notebooks contained unbelievably creative writing, but they were obviously not for the teachers’ eyes. What was going on?
After reading Katie Wood Ray’s book, Study Driven, we found an answer to our mystery. These kids were working on back-up work. In her book, Katie writes that back-up work is “kid-sponsored, often recklessly wonderful writing work that may not be very good but is something students have chosen to work on because the idea of writing it gives them energy” (Study Driven, p. 154.) Given free-choice, not limited to a genre or a craft move, this was how these students were choosing to spend their writing energy. How could we harness this energy during independent writing time?
All writers have back-up work, or work that may never see the light of day. Back-up work is the work that we put on the back burner when we have other deadlines and due dates to meet. For me, I have an idea for a professional book that I like to play around with on paper, I have a letter to my daughters that I’ve only just begun, I have an essay about my mom. The idea of this stuff gives me lots of energy, but I don’t always have time for these projects.
The wonderful thing about back-up work is that we, as teachers, don’t have to put our hands on it. Back-up work is not for us to confer about or edit or improve. Back-up work doesn’t even have to be any good, really. As Katie Wood Ray points out, writers are often quoted as saying that you have to do a lot of bad writing before you can do any good writing. Sometimes the back-up work is bad writing. That’s okay. It’s the energy that matters.
So, how does this translate to the classroom? Teachers encourage students to think of ideas for back-up work. Some teachers keep a chart of their ideas to share and inspire. Students know that if they ever have down time, they are free to write independently on any of these projects. During a genre study, students are free to work on their back-up work after they’ve completed any required writing. For example, say the 6th graders are in a unit on historical fiction, and the minilesson that day was on character development. The teacher might encourage students to use their writer’s notebook to sketch out a character or write some dialogue from that character’s point of view. After the work for that day is complete, some students might choose to continue working on their historical fiction draft. However, others might turn to their back-up work. You’ll see Lisa writing a comic about the zombie apocalypse, Junior writing a script for a Minecraft video tutorial, and Thomas drawing a map for Chapter 7 of his dystopian novel.
Back-up work encourages students to have multiple writing projects going at one time, to be able to write about what matters most to them, and to write creatively. It honors who they are as independent writers.