Risk-taking in the Writer’s Notebook

Just the other day, walking on my tree-lined road with my now 18-month old daughter nestled in the stroller, a beautiful line from Natalie Babbitt’s Tuck Everlasting (Scholastic, 1975) flew into my head; it was the first line of her book:

The first week of August hangs at the very top of summer, the top of the live-long year, like the highest seat of a ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning (p. 1). 

I have always loved this metaphor for everything it captures about how we as teachers organize our lives.  The first week of August, for many of us anyway, represents the time when we begin looking forward to a new year of school.  Yet, at the same time (where I live), we know there is some summer left. And in that unique place, atop the ferris wheel, I have always found it compelling to scan the landscape of my life and reflect on how this year might be different.  And why.

When I think about writing workshop and the new year, I instantly think of the writer’s notebook.  And as a co-author at Two Writing Teachers, it seems I’m not alone!  Just last August, Lisa Keeler wrote two beautiful posts on the importance of developing stamina in the notebook (“It’s Not Just About the Notebook“) and why writer’s notebooks matter (“Notebooks: Starting With What Matters Most“).  In October, Dana Murphy wrote about some of her wonderful ideas regarding the notebook in the digital age (“Thinking About My Writer’s Notebook in a Digital Age“).  If you search our archives or the internet, you will find many more helpful resources on the writer’s notebook. So in thinking about the beginning of the school year and the writer’s notebook, what small piece might I add to this conversation?

Experimenting and Risk-taking

Last year, at a meeting sponsored by the Connecticut Association of Reading Research, I had the good fortune to listen to Dr. David Dockterman, a professor from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.  In his presentation on Developing Academic Mindsets for Literacy, Dr. Dockterman emphasized a critical connection regarding the importance of risk-taking and learning.  He said (and I am paraphrasing from my notes here), We learn when we take risks.  We learn when we do something we have not done before…otherwise we are not learning.”

Dockterman’s assertion reminded me of something one of my great mentors, Mary Ehrenworth (Teachers College Reading and Writing Project), once said to me in regards to the purpose of a writer’s notebook.  She said, “A writer’s notebook is a place to experiment and take risks.”  Part of the purpose of a writer’s notebook, then, is to try new things.  Perhaps this might mean:

  • writing entries about topics that are “hard”
  • trying on a new craft move you’ve never tried before
  • creating an entry on something you’ve never written about or have been avoiding
  • taking a new approach to writing an entry

Holding onto Times of Trouble

I lost my beloved mom this year.  In April, to be more precise.  And writing about my mom has, indeed, been hard. Really hard.  But in doing so, both in my notebook and on my own blog, I’ve uncovered some parts of her I want to emulate.  Like her endless patience, or some of the ways she made a difference in this world.  Writing about her in my own notebook, as hard as it has been, has made me want to live differently.

The point here is, if you are a writing workshop teacher, a writer’s notebook is likely a structure you harness in your classroom.  And you likely build language around the value of this tool because you believe it to be instrumental in supporting student writing improvement.  This year, consider being a stand and a model for experimenting and risk-taking in the notebook.  Saying things to our students like, “I’ve never tried this in my writing before…” or “I’m not sure how this is going to go, but…”can send a powerful message that writers take risks.  Writers experiment.  Writers try stuff out.

Colleen Cruz, in her amazing recent book The Unstoppable Writing Teacher (Heinemann, 2015), begins by making the case that trouble can be one of our greatest teachers.  She writes, “…trouble and problems help us to grow, and have many fringe benefits worth celebrating” (p. XXI).  While she is discussing both just living life, as well as the challenges of teaching writing, this may also be an important idea we can pass onto our writers.  One reason writers write is to hang onto moments of trouble.  By embracing the hard parts of our lives, we are likely to learn something.  And the writer’s notebook can indeed be a place where that can begin to happen.

Co-author Melanie Meehan once described the writer’s notebook as a playground.  I don’t know about you, but I certainly loved to take risks on the playground at my elementary school.  Whether it was trying to jump from one huge tractor tire to the next, or crossing the monkey bars all in one go, the playground was certainly always a place to try stuff out.  I am imagining we would want our young writers to espouse this same playful view of their writer’s notebooks.

Take a Risk

Some of you are likely with me atop the ferris wheel right now, hanging at the top of the livelong year and scanning the landscape of both your teaching past and future.  How do you encourage writers to take risks?  What experimenting will you be doing as a writer this year? I would love to hear from you!

Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.