Currently a department co-chair and co-director with the Pennsylvania Writing & Literature Project, Brian Kelley has taught 6th, 7th, and 8th grade for over twenty years.

Be the First Tenth of an Inch

Be the First Tenth of an Inch

In portraits or statues of Beethoven, the composer often holds a notebook and pencil. In fact, by some accounts, Beethoven carried a notebook and pencil with him so often to so many places that it was almost impossible to paint his portrait without the notebook and pencil. One might assume that Beethoven was doggedly composing 24/7. Perhaps, but what we also know of Beethoven is that he kept notebooks for conversations. A friend would write down a question which Beethoven would read and then respond to through speech. Additionally, Beethoven kept notebooks of ideas. Wherever he went, he watched until the pencil was a free flow of thinking.

A statue of Thomas Jefferson, sitting on a bench at the University of Missouri, includes a portable writing desk, paper, and a quill. Instead of looking down at the page, Jefferson's smile pitches across the courtyard. While we might be tempted to assume that Jefferson was drafting the Declaration of Independence in that likeness, Jefferson was known to be a great naturalist. Daily, he observed the natural world and compiled lists, descriptions, and speculative thinking. Perhaps, this statue captures a moment of observation and reflection.

When one thinks of General George S. Patton, his daily notebook does not come to mind. But the general kept one. As a matter of fact, when Patton almost failed out of his first year at West Point a significant contributor to the academic turnaround was a journal--a place to keep his thoughts, create a plan, and adhere to his vision of success. This notebook turned into daily diary entries throughout his career--an opportunity to reflect and speculate. Thought made it to paper.

One of my favorite stories of keeping a notebook comes from Marshall Mathers, aka rapper Eminem. As an adolescent, Mathers would write ideas for rhymes on the walls around his bed. This developed into writing ideas onto loose sheets of paper and storing them in shoeboxes. His shoe boxes became his journal. He calls this process "stacking ammo." 

Countless examples emerge of successful people who kept (or keep) a daily notebook to help them think, process, remember, and reflect: Richard Branson, Beatrix Potter, Ernest Hemingway, George Lucas, Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Tupac Shakur, Lewis and Clark (and most of their accompanying soldiers), Oprah Winfrey, Picasso, Peter Jennings, Frieda Kahlo, J.K. Rowling, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Leonardo da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison, John D. Rockefeller, Larry David, and the list goes on and on, literally. 

Even though we have extensive examples of success of this time-tested habit, an article in Fortune Magazine from March 13, 2015 (12 Best-Kept Secrets of Successful Business People) questions just how ingrained this habit is in the American culture:

"Successful people track their progress, set goals, reflect, and learn from their mistakes. And they often use some kind of notebook to accomplish this. If you want to get somewhere in life, you need a map, and this notebook is that map. You can write down what you did today, what you tried to accomplish, where you made mistakes, and so forth. It's a place to reflect. It's a place to capture important thoughts. It's a place to be able to track where you've been and where you intend to go. It's one of the most underused, yet incredibly effective tools available to the masses."

I know why notebooks-as-thinking is underused, the adults in the lives of adolescents do not model it enough. Simply, young people notice our actions. Young people imitate the actions of older kids as well as the adults around them, so modeling notebooks-as-thinking does not all fall on teachers, but teachers can be a significant contributor towards change. It would be a transformative act if schools modeled keeping notebooks-as-thinking (ungraded and unmeasured) in addition to the standards already in place. This is not an either-or proposition. It is an and-with idea.

Where are the notebooks in the lives our adolescents? If the only practice with a notebook is to copy notes and never to generate independent thought, then notebooks will continue to be underutilized as a tool in the real world. Once the journey through school ends, few bosses mentor their employees about what to write down in a notebook. Actually, business wants the opposite! Business laments the lack of independent thought entering the workforce. Yet, without years of practice of thinking on paper throughout adolescence and young adulthood, why do we expect our children to suddenly employ a great and effective habit when they become an adult?

For decades, traditional school writing has regressed into writing for measurement and writing to specific forms. This has produced young people who often can only put down (to quote George Hillocks) "shoddy writing." Too often, we drill the kids in the form and rarely encourage expressive writing (thinking) on paper. Our battlecry "kids can't write" is too often directed at grammar and conventions when the very tools we offer kids do not set them up to become successful writers in the first place.

Yet, we can negotiate around the mandated obstacles dropped in our path. We can still teach the mandates and still model using a notebook for recording our own free thought. My gosh, is there no room for our independent thoughts? Can we take a step back and assess that notion for a moment? Have we been so thoroughly reduced to gatekeepers of facts and data? Are we so mesmerized by covering "my" curriculum that we completely miss the consequences?

When the test scores demonstrate that our kids can't analyze, we run back to drilling kids with more prompts, more examples, more practice, more tips. "Where are the exemplars?" we cry. Meanwhile, over the course of an academic career, we collectively forget to give students room to practice thinking. Analysis becomes an exercise akin to the newspaper puzzle Seek & Find instead of practice in original, expressive thinking.

If young people showed up to schools, part-time jobs, college classes, the bottom-rung of entry-level employment, and saw the adults in their lives using a journal for thinking-on-paper, perhaps, maybe just perhaps--the narrative might inch forward. 

Perhaps the modeling of teachers (and all all adults) needs to be that first tenth of an inch...


Displaying Student Work

Displaying Student Work

Be Unruly. Read Professionally.

Be Unruly. Read Professionally.