If I Didn’t Write to Empy My Mind, I’d Go Crazy

Anyone who spends time in my classroom for longer than five minutes can (hopefully) see these things about me as a teacher:

  • I love natural light.  The overhead lights are almost never on.  We’re lucky that we have a whole wall of really tall windows that make our classroom nice and bright without artificial light.  Amazing.
  • I love to make my classroom as “homey” as possible.  You’ll find rugs and lamps, a coffee table and other touches all over the place.
  • I like to have things organized.  There are not many things that I care about in my classroom–as far as what things look like or how you do your work–but labels and neatness are two of them.  I spend a lot of time labeling things before my kids come, so that everyone knows which things are theirs and where those things are supposed to go.  There are baskets for supplies on the window sills, boxes for books all around the room, tubs on table tops for keeping Writer’s Notebooks, Read-Aloud Journals, pens and pencils.
  • I love to write.  Not just like it, love it.  I talk about it all the time.  I can probably find a way to turn almost any conversation around to writing.  What, when, how–you name it.

Ok, so maybe you couldn’t see that by looking in my classroom, but you could certainly tell it after a 5 minute conversation with me.  Or with my students. And the foundation of this obsession goes way back. Here’s my story:

I have always loved to write.  When I was a kid, author was on my short list of things to be when I grew up–right next to nurse and teacher.  I always loved writing in school, and was a pretty talented writer all the way through.  I still remember an epic poem I wrote in high school called The Hostage Gown (complete with footnotes and style and humor and wit) that I got a 100% on.  Mrs. Jessen was not an easy grader, either, so that was a bigger deal than it even seems.  But up to that point, most of the writing I did was because somebody else told me to.  Even in college, I was in an advanced comp class, and did pretty well.  But I still only wrote for teachers.  Never for myself.

Once I started teaching, writing became a bigger part of my life, but still only on a “school” level.  I started out in primary, and right or wrong, I found it easy to wing it teaching 1st grade writers; I didn’t need much practice to explain how to make a sentence or to use capital letters in the right places.  It wasn’t until 2005 that things changed for me.

A lot of things were new that year.  I was apprenticing to be a Project Construct facilitator for the state of Missouri, and I was also making a huge leap from 1st grade to 4th grade as a teacher.  So I spent a lot of time during that summer thinking and learning about writing.  I was excited about the prospects of teaching “big kids writers;” kids whose stories consisted of more than just a sentence or two and some pictures.  Kids who knew the basics and who could be stretched to a level I hadn’t yet be able to go with my students.

Enter some mentors of mine from Project Construct–Kristen Painter and Joyce Coats.  Both had this advice for me as we worked that summer: “If you’re going to teach 4th and 5th grade writing, you HAVE to have your own Writer’s Notebook.  All of your mini-lessons and teaching will come from there.”  Great! I can do that. I thought. But then I remembered that I didn’t have one.  I was a primary teacher who wasn’t really a writer myself, outside of functional writing I did everyday just to get things done.  And I didn’t even really know what a Writer’s Notebook was, much less how to use it or what to write in it.

Luckily, since it was summer and I was “off,” so I had lots of time to figure it out.  The very day or two after Joyce gave me that advice, I found myself in Border’s in front of the journal section shopping for just the right book in which to start.  It had to be the right size–small enough to fit in my purse so I could take it with me–but have the right kind of insides so my handwriting would look nice and neat.  I figured out it needed to be spiral bound so I could lay it flat, and then it needed to look just a certain way, too (but at that point I wasn’t sure what that really meant).  After what seemed like more than a half-hour’s work, I ended up with a small, black spiral notebook with rainbow edges.  Then I got busy making it mine.  Here’s what my very first Writer’s Notebook looked like:


As you can see, the front of it is specific to me.  It’s 6 years old, so a little worn, but you can see my family and friends; my dog, Floyd (who has since gone to live somewhere else); the year I was married (1998);  my job (teacher in Kirkwood School District); and an old greeting card business I was into at the time (Paper Soup Cards).  I love how Ralph Fletcher describes a Writer’s Notebook like a dorm room.  When you first start, it’s plain and white and boring.  They all look the same.  But slowly, as you “move in,” it starts to look like you, to take on your personality.

That first summer, I did all I could to fill that notebook up.  I wrote and wrote and wrote.  I used many of Ralph Fletcher’s suggestions, as well as those from my friends, about the what to write.  I had to figure out the when and the why.  And I guess that I did, because 6 years and almost 10 Writer’s Notebooks later, I’m still at it!  What I write and where I put my words has changed a little, but I’m still writing and loving it.

But why does it matter so much that I am a writer?  Well, because I am a writer, I know how writers work.  I understand how it’s hard to think about what to write sometimes.  I understand how great it feels to write on the last page (or the first page, for that matter!) of your Writer’s Notebook.  I have been where my students are, and have worked through some of the same problems they encounter in their work in our classroom.  I use my own writing during writing conferences, and talk with them about what I did when I had a problem.  And there’s something really special and powerful about the message of “I’ve been in your shoes.”  I think they trust me more.  They know I know what I’m talking about, and they try what I suggest.  The excitement in our room every year is contagious, and I like to think it’s because from day 1 they understand that we are all writers and that we’re going to do amazing things together.  And if for no other reason than I annoy them will all of my talk of writing, everyone leaves my class feeling a little more confident as a writer than when they came in–no matter where they started.

Oh, and one last thing.  I write so that I have material, so to speak, to use in Writer’s Workshop, but I really write for myself.  The quote I used in the title is from Lord Byron, I believe, and is totally the truth: If I didn’t write to empty my mind, I’d go crazy.  I am a thinker and a planner.  So that means that most of the time I have a million-and-one thoughts rolling around in my head, and they have to have somewhere to go.  So I collect them in my Writer’s Notebook.  Some of them I come back to and use again, some of them are just written down and left there.  Everyone has a stress-reliever, and mine is to write.  It’s therapy for me.  And it’s free therapy, which is a great thing.

So there’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.  And I wonder from you: Do you write?  If so, what/why do you write?  If not, what is keeping you from doing so? Comment and tell us about it!

Ok, sorry–one last quote: “Here’s the secret of writing: there is no secret.” Ralph Fletcher

Nope.  Not done.  One more: “I write every day for two hours. But it’s what I do for the other twenty-two hours that allows me to write.”
Don Murray  
🙂



12 thoughts on “If I Didn’t Write to Empy My Mind, I’d Go Crazy

  1. I agree that writing for yourself is an absolute prerequisite to writing for an audience. It’s how you work out your style, your perspective, your audience…

    You have me thinking that this can be a strength in my math class, too. I LOVE Stats, and I think my AP Stats kids come in every morning (1st hour!) and have a good, expectant attitude for it. It’s a little more difficult showing enthusiasm for Algebra, and I think that’s reflected positively/negatively as well.

    Good reflection.

    • Well you wouldn’t know it from reading what you’re writing, Marin! I am loving the story you are working on for this cycle. The twist on the 3 Little Pigs and the Gingerbread Man is very clever. But hey, it’s ok to like poetry. Every writer has something that is their favorite. I like writing non-fiction more than fiction, usually. 🙂

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