It's the end of summer, and where I'm from — down South — teachers are scrambling. Scrambling for last minute trips to the beach. Scrambling to clean out the closets they swore they'd get to this summer. Scrambling to school supply sales. Scrambling to get classrooms unpacked and ready to go. Students will be walking through the school doors in two short weeks.
Because we teachers are multi-taskers, we're also thinking about how to start the school year. I know that I'm haunted by the question: which book do I read aloud first? I also think and rethink my classroom arrangement and ponder how I'll introduce my first social studies unit. The beginning of the school year is exciting — it's fresh — it's a new year. Yet, it's also stressful, because I want to start things off right.
To me, the beginning of the school year is like wading into the ocean. I'm excited to gather all the things I'll need for the day. I like the planning of when to arrive, where to find the best spot, and how to set up our little camp. And when I get there and get things set up, I'm ready to DIVE IN! Well, sort of… the water is usually colder than I had planned. So I walk towards the water, letting it nip at my feet, taking time to feel the sand squish between my toes. As I move further in, the water gets up to my shins and I stop — to get used to it — used to the feeling of seaweed dodging at my legs, used to the shells under my feet and the fish swimming by. I don't want to miss a thing by running in — just to get it done. Eventually I'm in the water, jumping the waves and enjoying the ocean. And this is how I like to imagine starting the school year — wading in, observing my students, getting to know them, and finding out how they dodge or swim in school.
Wading and Diving: Many Ways to Begin
With this in mind, I continue to rethink and debate with myself about when to launch writer's notebook. I have been known to have a ritual the first afternoon of the new school year. In this ritual, I carefully open one of those heavy-duty plastic boxes — the kind that is translucent on the bottom with a solid navy blue lid. Inside are my notebooks from years past. I've tagged entries with sticky notes and begin to share some with my students. As we talk and laugh about some of the entries, someone raises their hand and asks if they can write in a notebook too. It always works; someone always asks.
Other years, I've spent several weeks with oral storytelling in pairs, small groups, and as a class. As children share their memories and experiences, I jot down notes in my notebook. Day after day, as I get to know the children and we build our community, I'm taking notes — notes about each student — notes about entries I want to write as I connect to what students share — notes about the unbearable heat. And sure enough, sooner or later, someone always asks, "What are you writing in that notebook?" That's my cue to begin to share some of my notes and talk about my plans for writing based on these notes. Another child always asks, "Can we do that too?" It always works; someone always asks.
In recent years, I've had mandates to give 'pre-benchmark' tests in reading and math. I've also had to get a writing sample from each child — all in the first week of school. This hasn't left much time for lingering over stories, sharing experiences, and getting to know each other. It's been like running into the ocean — fast and furious to get to the deep. And so, I've had to launch the notebooks later with less mystery and more directness. "Boys and girls, let's get out our writer's notebooks. It's time for us to start thinking about how we might use a notebook to support our work as writers." No one asks to write, but this approach works too.
The other thing I have to think about is how much experience will my class have had with the writing workshop format and using writer's notebooks. There have been more years than not that my students come to me with minimal writing workshop time and not much more than journal writing experience. Over the past 6 years or so, however, my students have been working within a writer's workshop since kindergarten. This breeds a new set of problems in that kids come with more schema about the notebook and the workshop format. I don't have to spend as much time explaining how things work or why we'll use a notebook. I have to be careful to spend time establishing the community of the classroom. Although this seems to go hand in hand with creating a community of writers, if the kids already see themselves as writers, it's easy to move too quickly over the community building. This has come back to haunt me more than once.
There is nothing "wrong" with any of these approaches. The writer's notebook is a tool to use in the writer's workshop. Launching the writer's workshop takes time – time to create a community, time to establish routines, and time to dig around and find out what we want to write. The writer's notebook should support this work. So whether you start with storytelling or sharing your own notebook or diving into writing the first day, it has to fit with how you establish community and the workshop setting within your classroom.
I'm a wader. I like to take my time — start slow and go fast later. With the pressure of a heavier curriculum and more frequent testing, I haven't had this luxury in the past few years. I'm guessing many teachers feel the same way. Yet, when I think about the truly important work I need my students to do — that work is not just the academic curriculum and achievement on tests. The important work I need my students to do is to grow intellectually, emotionally, physically, and spiritually. And that just takes time.
So when will I launch our writer's notebooks this year? I want students writing like mad, but first I have to light the fire. We'll wade in — maybe a bit faster than a few weeks, but I'm not going to rush it. The stories will start to ooze out and when they do, we'll open our notebooks and catch them all.