Pretty little notebooks

Getting over the need for perfect drafts

A pile of “pretty little notebooks” full of imperfect little drafts.

Pretty little notebooks all in a row.

Pricy little notebooks, collected on a shelf.

Each a perfect possibility.

Too lovely to ruin with first imperfect words.

Better to leave blank with possibility than full of certain ruin.

I love pretty notebooks. Every one of them a possibility that this will be the one: the notebook that is finally filled perfectly with lovely poems, and stories, and perfect hand writing. So you know what I like to do?

I like to crack them open and ruin them a little bit. I write something imperfect in the middle: my grocery list, a “to do” list, a brainstorm for a paper I’m thinking about writing. Once the imperfect first page is out of the way I get to be over the feeling that this notebook needs to be full of only perfect things.

Students, too, need support in getting over the need for perfection. Better to not start, so many demonstrate, and retain the possibility of perfection, than to begin imperfectly and have the world see we don’t actually know it all just yet. So lately I have tried to actually make visible some of the editing I do while writing to share with my young writers. A published novel, after all, is a final draft, and demonstrating for students that drafting can be messy, mentally taxing, and sometimes physically exhausting is so often invisible work.

So…

How do we get students drafting and get them off the idea that the draft needs to be perfect? Presented in imperfect order, my thoughts as a teacher/ writer/ teacher of writing (because TPCK is a thousand percent applicable to teaching writing, too).

1. Scaffold

You’re gonna have to get uncomfortable for this one. You know the “I do, we do, you do” mantra? Yeah… you’re gonna have to actually draft in front of students (I actually pre-draft ’cause it’s darn hard to make up on the spot) but when I’m demonstrating drafting and thinking about drafting I sure am verbalizing the doubting, messy, back-and-forth mental gymnastics of putting words on paper. If students are to take a risk then we should, to. Students need to see the struggle.

2. Ditch the pencil

Teach young kids to write in pen. Too often they erase and get stuck making a perfect draft by erasing, but I think more powerful is teaching students the power of a single stroke to take off a wrong word while drafting and keep writing! Momentum is a powerful writing tool!

3. Use a pencil

Teachers love coloured pens, don’t we? Sometimes a new pack of fine-tipped sharpies makes me so happy. So silly. But an interesting thing happened when I stopped marking in pen. Students responded to pencil because they can remove my marks if they still want their perfect draft. In the end the notes and scribbles are for the student not for me or for the parent. If the child takes the note and improves the draft then we have met our goal. Learning notes go in the learner profile not in the notebook.

As a writer, too, I love my pencil because it takes away the permanency. If I need to erase I can and the work can be “perfect” if I want it to be.

4. Use an organizer

Planning for writing is hard even when you’re a master of standard spelling and a pretty good placer of commas. My outlines are usually pencil scribbles of ideas I want to hit in each paragraph or story maps with scribbled notes. Kids need more structure… copy a planner… (there are many fab planners out there… cult of pedagogy has many) or teach a child to draw one in their sketch journal if you can’t find what you want. My students love coffee-lid tracers, which we label with story elements. They love the graphic novel tracer templates that hang by the phone. Take away one executive task by planning for writing and writing in separate writing sessions.

But… Ever tried planning for writing using that writing planner you just copied? No? (No guilt trip here, man… I’ve done it… copied the planner, handed it out, checked the box on the list… “planner provided”) But, sometimes those planners are really unwieldy as a writing tool. So I’ve learned if I want students to use it I better trial it first. What writing experience will the learner actually have while using it? If you don’t try it you won’t know.

5. Don’t use an organizer

Sometimes a beautiful draft just spills onto the page. Make space for imperfect lovely drafts to spill out.

6. Drafting is a physical act: use stickies or a bulletin board

I like my bulletin board. In my own drafting there is always a place where the work becomes too unwieldy to hold in my head and I need index cards to map it out. This is my next goal with students: writing folders with sticky notes to move and map. (I’ll let you know how it goes)

7. Imperfect first drafts

Don’t fix it… hit enter and keep typing. Turn the page and keep going.

When drafting and it’s not going the way I want it to I turn the page. That way there is a possibility of a perfect page. Don’t erase! Drafting is NOT editing or revising! (Well… sometimes it is… but let’s make space for the visceral experience of drafting without the inner editor on our shoulders.)

8. Provide an audience

Most kids I know loooove to read their work aloud. This takes off the pressure of perfect spelling and grammar. A piece read aloud is full of the writer’s voice even when the writer benefits from continued support in developing the tools to wrangle that voice down onto paper.

9. Grey space

Ever try to conjure a poem out of the air? The good stuff rarely comes when we call it. The truth, for me anyway, is that the good stuff comes when otherwise engaged. Walking, washing dishes, soaking in the tub… they don’t look like writing, but will more often lead to desperately seeking a pencil than trying to bid a poem come.

10. Mentor texts, mentor texts, mentor texts

Good writers are readers. Demonstrate voice by sharing story. Read it once for story sense. Read it again to pick apart the writer’s tool box… notice that beautiful turn of phrase? How did the author create suspense? What does the writer assume the reader already knows?

So here’s to more grey space, more productive wandering, more noticing beautiful words and unexpected combinations. Here’s to more creative risk taking for students and teachers alike.

* This post is a messy schmoz of teacher-writer advice and personal notes to self. If it’s useful to you then leave a note. I’d love to know you’re there. If you have other ideas I’d LOVE to hear them!

Stories live in places

Rising off my sleeping bag in the cold September air, I can’t help but think to myself how lucky I am. I can afford gear and food that allows me to be outside and active even when the cold has told so many people to stay inside. I have the support of family to take on new adventures. I have the gift of teachers willing to support my learning.

The light inside this tent, faintly blue through tent walls in the rising sun behind clouds, the sound of a bird dust-bathing outside, drips with possibility. Stories live on the rock walls, in the plants that line the trails, among the people I am lucky to be here with.

I am lucky to have a job that allows me to work so meta cognitively; I get to deeply explore the contexts in which my work lives. Math lives in places. Stories live in places. There is danger in separating learning from its contexts

I got to thinking about awe related to learning because I gave up a spot at a writing about awe workshop in order to be outdoors; to experience awe rather than to concentrate on writing about it. What I learned is that the experience of awe slows our experience of events so that we actually remember more of the event. Could it be that awe is the factor that allows learners to widen the aperture on the learning and take in more light? If we can spend fifty minutes with paper and pencil or fifty minutes knee deep in snow and asking questions the awe-inspiring experience has to win every time.

Why is the world beautiful? What if the answer lies in science, and math, and stories waiting for us to trip over them while we lay in the snow and look up at the sky and watch the flakes drift down? Yes practice and fluency with facts matter. Yes. But only if we uncover a need for them first.

Experience. Then wonder. Then share. Story as a noun. Story as a verb. Uncover a need for knowing… then uncover the knowing.

On potato salad and home

The email inviting me to a day of learning Indigenous perspectives in the park pinged into my inbox and the initial “Yay! I was accepted,” quickly gave way to nervous anticipation when I read the last line: Please bring a potluck dish to share and be prepared to tell why you chose the dish you did.

What food can I bring that has a story?

I’ll tell you a story about me and food… When I had my boys I wanted to be a Pinterest mom. A mom who makes beautiful things out of nothing: cakes and cookies, quilts and halloween costumes. Failure. After failure. After failure. I started to feel like maybe I was less of a mom.

In Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall-Kimmerer tells the story of learning to speak her traditional language. She asks her teacher, “How do I say ‘Pass the salt, please?'” Her teacher, after long consideration, says that there is no word for “please” in relation to food. Food is understood in the community to be a way of caring for one another. This is home.

“I can make potato salad,” I thought. “That’s home. That’s a story.”

I spent a week seeking someone to gift me potatoes or other gifts of food from the Earth. Two weeks earlier, on a trip home, it had been easy to find gifts of food. Everybody gardens. There are fruit-bearing bushes everywhere. A neighbor away for the weekend had implored us to harvest the raspberries in her yard before they dropped, too ripe, from the bushes. A food walk around my mother’s yard as we explore the bushes and trees planted by my grandparents. A wander through the old pasture where pigs, chickens, and cattle used to be. A section of land exchanged for a cow. Where it was normal to come home after a day of playing in the sun to find a bag of zucchinis on the front step. If one garden overproduces, food is given away and to another. Where do we intuit each others needs? Home.

Email sent to collect the recipe, I jumped in the car to drive to the grocery store for a bag of potatoes. Having recently switched to a new phone, the blue tooth didn’t connect the way it was supposed to. I swore a little under my breath and stabbed the stereo as I pulled out of the small asphalt bay, at the top of which is my house. Unexpectedly, the stereo jumped to life with a country tune and I was instantly transported “home”. You see, I don’t often listen to country music. But do you know who does? My brother. So country tunes take me to speedboats where the wind rushes through hair and the air smells like lake. It’s not where I live, but this is home.

In Calgary, in the city, I found myself in a “food poverty” situation; not for lack of food but for lack of gifts of food. The land around my house doesn’t provide food. The fruit-producing trees in my neighbor’s yard produce apples that belong to them. How easily we are separated from the land and how easy to forget the power of reciprocity. When I pay for my vegetables I come to believe the Earth owes me these things. In these times where smoke from fires in BC has blotted out the sky for over a week and I am afraid for my children’s futures, I wonder what have we left our children if we have literally scorched the Earth. In circle teachings, Saa’kokoto said of the future: I’m not afraid because the children have the stories. These loving stories told to students that connect the past to the future. I have to admit I lack his confidence.

Cooking brings me close to my ancestors: potato salad, apple pie, potato cake. Some of the dearest memories I hold are of closeness to the ones I love at the kitchen sink; peeling apples with my Grandma, washing dishes with my Mom. When my Step-Dad lovingly prepares potato cake, he at once touches the past and the future: my boys tell stories of how much they loved eating potato cake on the deck where the scent of lake hangs in the air and waves gently lap the shore. Food is tied to memory and to place. Food is love – reciprocity – the Earth provides gifts and our act of reciprocity is taking it to loved ones. Washing dishes together isn’t really a memory of getting the dishes clean — it is a memory of connection. Like inviting my son to clean potatoes isn’t about preparing potato salad. It is about connecting over food, prepared with love, and gifted forward.

I’ll tell you a secret: I mourned the Pinterest mom I wanted to be who never appeared. I don’t make beautiful things you can hold in your hand. But I did make two beautiful souls who nervously hold big knives over potatoes beside me in the kitchen. I spin poems and spring out of bed desperate for a pen and paper to capture them before they dissipate like fog in the sunlight. I make memories. I make potato salad that connects generations and Earth to people. Food, too, can be a conduit to the future, to the land, to home.

So that thing that you make? That you pour creativity and effort into? That embodies love? Do more that.

Dear students:

While there are still a few days left together, I’m publishing now since I finally have a minute to sit down:

Wow! What a busy, creative, noisy, reflective, amazing year we’ve had together! Thank you for making this year a happy one. I feel like I got to learn so much this year; I learned about being a more effective teacher and I think you learned about who you are, where you are, how you matter. It’s always hard for me to say goodbye to a bunch of kids who become “my kids” for a year. You have been my kids for a year and you will always have a piece of my heart. I hope that you will come back to visit and tell me about the adventures you have outside of our classroom.
This summer, I hope you:

Read

Write

Draw

Find a quiet place to be sometimes.

Share books you love with people who matter to you.

Read something interesting that challenge you to be a better reader and a better person.

Use your French! You worked so hard to earn your new vocabulary and your ability to express yourself en bon français.

See the world from another perspective. Be an animal. Hang upside down. Look close and then look closer.

Stay up late. Like crazy late. Watch the stars come out and tell stories about them.

Visit new places.

Visit old places.

Run. Fast.

Run slow.

Show someone you love how to do a breakfast book chat and talk about stories and the way one idea just leads to another.

Read a book on a shady hill.

Show someone how to read a book with no words. This is a skill you have that not everyone has.

Stay inside and watch a movie on a rainy afternoon.

Go outside on a rainy afternoon.

Swim.

Feel sand between your toes. No really. Stop and feel the sand.

Ask a question and find the answer.

Ask a question with no answer.

Learn a new joke. Tell it to me the next time you see me.

Go to a museum. Find the stories hidden there.

Lay on the grass and watch the clouds.

Set a goal.

Build something. Write about it.

Listen to the sounds around you.

Seek joy. Find awesome.

I can’t wait to see you in the fall and hear about your adventures!

Still Stalked by Stories 

At the end of a long day of gathering stories and packages of knowing, a circle under baking sun and beside wind-whispered stories: “Don’t leave your spirit out there,” he said, affably, one eye on the eagle floating in the distance. “Sometimes we leave our spirit behind.” And a girl seeking home for years finally understood where she had left her spirit years past and would need to go collect it in order to move on.

They say stories stalk us:

Maybe twenty two when I confessed to my Uncle Charlie that I wasn’t really answering my calling, and he said, “So why aren’t you?” And I couldn’t answer. Really.

Twenty years later, an Elder who adopted me into his circle told a story of his Charlie, and said, “The ancestors are there when we ask them to be.” I looked for my Charlie, but he wasn’t in the chokecherries. Nor was he on the steep hill out of the valley where I huffed for breath and laughed with neighbors about maybe needing to pick that old fitness regime back up again. He wasn’t floating on the wind with the eagle who came to visit out our final circle. But he sure was on the bus on the way home, and nudged me gently, “Are you answering your call?”

That uncle who first showed me how to not get lost in the woods. The uncle who passed before I got to know him as a grown up, who saved a thousand lives, judging by the former students who attended the memorial service. My Charlie sure did meet me on the sunbaked prairie, and nudged me toward my north.

It takes a lot sometimes to move off what we think we know and for years I found home in pushing back on impossible. Maybe it’s age. Maybe it’s stories, stalking, but I find myself pushed off what I knew to be true. The stories have always been there, calling. I just couldn’t hear them. Really. “The truth about stories is that’s all we are.” But sometimes they’re carried by the wind that blows hard for six hours under prairie sky and leaves my skin pink in spite of SPF60. The stories are stalking if one just sits still long enough to listen.

What I learned from thirty days of poetry

Well, it looks like I’ll be ending my poetry month experiment with 19 out of 30 poems written. In no particular order, my learnings from this project:

1. It’s hard to be creative on demand. For me creative work comes, unbidden, while my hands are busy with other things. Riding bikes. Wandering.

2. Judgment hurts.

3. It’s hard to take risks in front of peers.

4. Writing every day kept it at the forefront of my mind. Publish even when the poem feels a little weak.

5. Mentor texts are so necessary! We learn by reading a thousand examples and studying a few in depth.

6. Poetry lives between the lines. It takes patience to read and write.

7. The speed of writing poetry is liberating for kids (and me)… they can draft, revise, and edit in a single period.

8. Fatigue makes it hard to be creative. When every minute is full there’s no time for thoughts to bubble up.

9. The deadline of a poem a day was tough for me. I like that I can whip off a poem in a few minutes of writing, but the poems that actually meant something to me took many days to wrangle onto a page. Sometimes the wrangling lead me back towards my preferred genre of narrative fiction. So, while I didn’t meet my goal of 30 poems in 30 days, I did dust off a couple of short stories and found the courage to hit submit and another is simmering on the back burner.

I think this year’s iteration of poetry month was probably one of the most rewarding for me as I jumped right in and took risks alongside my students. I’m proud of the work they created (and a little proud of the work I created beside them).