Spring Break Observation Logs: Teaching Kids to Witness

On the Friday before spring break, my classroom has the kind of frenetic expectancy that exists between a lightning bolt and a thunder clap.  Kids are jangly and wrangly.  Into this fray, I wade.

“I have an assignment for you over spring break,” I yell over the din. They begin to groan.  Spring break is about breaking and springing, not working. I know. I get it. But this is so important.

“I’m giving you these little notebooks.” I wave a little notebook around. Perhaps the novelty shushes them. The notebooks are pocket size with 80 small pages.

“I want you to write down anything you see, hear, touch, taste, smell or feel during the seven days of our absence from one another. Everything. Everyday.”

They are intrigued.

I’ve been passing out little notebooks over spring breaks for about six years now.  In 2009, my AP Language class read Joan Didion’s masterpiece essay “On Keeping a Notebook” and were duly inspired to take up pen and paper and practice the art of observation.

The point is simple:  develop a habit of noticing things and writing them down.

This is not a diary or a journal of weight loss, profit margins, egg sales. I want them to cultivate a writerly habit that some of my students already have: compulsive recording. But even more important than the chronicling itself is the action that comes before the chronicling: the noticing.

Everything becomes a rich opportunity.  Every detail becomes a brush stroke in a story; every drifter or butcher or bus driver becomes a character.  Or they don’t.

There’s a snippet of the lyrics “knock, knock, knocking on heaven’s door” in your head, and there’s a dog that looks like your priest walking down High Street. On the radio someone is looking for used tires and they want to trade a baby crib for them. Someone has scrawled on the bathroom wall: If your parents didn’t have children, it’s a good bet you won’t either.

It means whatever it means.

In a culture of high stakes assessment, common core cramming, and standardized breathing, this project is refreshingly simple. Teaching students to observe their world with no other objective than merely witnessing it is absolutely vital.

“I want you to look like a writer,” I say to them.  “Stick this notebook in your back pocket, the string of your bikini, the side of your backpack, and become obsessed with collecting notes, looking at the world like a writer would.”

“How will this be graded?” asks the front row handwringer.

“It’s a pass/fail assignment. You’ll get a 100% if every page has something on it or you’ll get a zero.”

“But what do we write?” says the still dubious cynic in the back row.

“Phrases that tickle your fancy, phrases your geography teacher says, phrases your grandma says, phrases you hear at temple, phrases your sister whispers in her sleep. Notes from a lecture, notes from a talk show, notes from the underground. Gossip you hear, gossip you make up. Sermons. Songs. Poems. Lists. Jokes. Riddles. Lies. Mysteries. Tall tales. Visions. Dreams. Revelations. Secrets. Graffiti. Facebook updates, Twitter shout outs. Headlines, bylines, hashtags, short lines. A toast someone gives at a wedding, a farewell someone gives at a funeral. A scene you see, a scene you think you see, a scene you make up, a scene you wished you’d see. Wishes you had when you were five, wishes you had last year, wishes you have right now. Disappointments that have hurt you, disappointments that have inspired you, disappointments you’ll never get over. Fears you project, fears you hide. Lists of things your friend carries in his wallet/purse. Lists of things you carry in your wallet/purse. Conversations you overhear at the coffee shop, at the gas station, on the street, in the cafeteria. Conversations you imagine two people having, conversations you have with imaginary people, conversations your parents have when they think you’re not listening, conversations your parents have when they know you’re listening. Description of people in Wal-Mart, descriptions of people at the bus stop. A dream you have while asleep, a dream you have while awake, a dream you have while someone else is talking. A new word you want to remember, a new word you make up. The names of your future children, future pets,  future company, future empire. Good titles for your life story, your novel, the Lifetime Original movie of your life. Any more questions?”

Didion says:  “We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were. I have already lost touch with a couple of people I used to be.”

Here’s to a spring break they’ll never forget.















The No Grade Experiment: The Final Huzzah

Just to recap for those of you new to my romance with no grades:  In 1996, I decided, with a GPA-addicted senior AP Lit class, to abandon grades for a six week period, give everybody an A, and learn for the sake of curiosity and engagement.  The experiment failed miserably, but it did lead my students to reflect on their intellectual and academic motivation, and I was convinced even more of the power of a measured “end product” to shape student learning. (My thoughts on this original experiment can be found in “Zen and the Art of Grade Motivation,” English Journal 86.1 (1996): 28:31.)

In October 2014, I decided to do the same thing, but under much different circumstances: my students were younger, less jaded, less bought-in to the factory-grading system. And unlike the former class ( an AP content class), this class was an elective creative writing course.  During the unit, students read several craft articles plus a technique book on plotting, and they wrote every day toward an end product: the first 50,000 words of a novel   Mid-way through the experiment, I discovered some interesting things which I noted in an update.

However, the No Grade Experiment was over January 5, and I’ve had some time to decompress and think about our shenanigans and mull over some of my students’ reflections. The class of 20 was split almost exactly into thirds – those who hated it, those who loved it, those who didn’t care. Here, in their own words, are some of my students’ feedback:

I Hated It: Give Me Grades!

  • This “no grade” system would absolutely, positively NOT work in a long term period for me. I have no personal initiative or discipline, for that matter. I need the initial push to get my work done. – JW
  • The moral of the story is this: Don’t ever, ever, ever give me a choice to get a free ‘A’ in any class because I do not care about integrity. -AL
  • I have learned that once I have something I can hold, I won’t do another thing to advance that journey. Once I’ve won the trophy, I won’t run another meter. And I know, for a fact, I failed this experiment; it engulfed me and spat me out. – TG
  • I wish that the “no grade” climate could work for me, but unfortunately I am simply too unorganized and at times even too lazy to perform at levels necessary for sustainability in school. -NP
  • I would be cool with the no grades thing if everybody in the entire whole wide world were not giving out grades, but that seems like a hairy mess just waiting to happen. -BT

I Loved It: The Revolution Starts Here

  • With the no grade system, I felt relaxed and as worry-free as possible, which allowed me to truly learn and create something with confidence. By setting my own goal of finishing my novel, and achieving it, I feel much more accomplished than I would for getting an A on something I didn’t even try hard for. – RT
  • The only reason I stayed on track in this class is because I like to write. It’s not a chore to me, and to be honest, I never really thought about the grades in this class before they were taken away. But if you put something like this in my English class, it wouldn’t work. You have to be motivated in what you’re doing for this will work. -CB
  • I did find the experience to be a good one. I performed well due to my enthusiasm for this writing program. I would enjoy actually keeping this system because it shows a difference between students who work hard and those who don’t. While there are no real grades to prove this, it is more of a personal loss. –MH

This Experiment Didn’t Even Phase Me

  • The “no grades” system, in this class, never felt like a burden to me. It showed me that I didn’t need grades to drive my overall motivation. It gave me freedom from deadlines and the stress of them. I love this class, and what we do, and I don’t need grades for that. -CB
  • I am a nerd. A complete nerd. I love learning. I love doing everything to the best of my abilities. If I’m not giving all my effort in a class than what’s the point? The state has stuck me here, so I might as well make the best of my time. – HT
  • Before we started this experiment I expressed my concern that I would be too consumed with what fabulous work Julianna Margulies was doing on The Good Wife to pay attention to my writing, but I have found that the class really didn’t feel any different than it did when we started the experiment. -DC
  • My motivation to write probably comes from authors who’ve preceded myself, the ravenous need to reach the ridiculously high standard I’ve (sometimes regretfully) set myself to reach for and stay up writing into the wee hours of the night for, and/or to make real the stories and fantasies inside my head. I wouldn’t trade that motivation for any grade in the world. – KF

And for a final observation, I was struck by this lovely explanation from a student who captures all the nuances and cross-purposes of learning and assessment.

During this semester, there was no external motivation.  There were no grades, no nagging parents or teachers, there was nothing.  We were surrounded by a sort of carefree atmosphere.  There was no reward for doing the work.  There was no penalty for failing to complete it.  But I didn’t give up this semester because I wanted to do this for myself.  With all of the pressure of competing against other kids to be the valedictorian, to get into college, to get a perfect GPA, grades make the classes about everyone else.  They make the classes about competing for the perfect score, for the attention of the teacher.  They don’t encourage learning.  Grades make it so that your intelligence in that area is measured by a letter.  But how can we even do that?  Everyone starts off at different levels—not everyone enters the class knowing the same information.  So, to compare these kids right off the bat simply isn’t fair.  With this competitive atmosphere, school becomes more about skimming by on an assignment as opposed to actually learning the material.  That’s why when the grades were taken away in this class, I felt like I could finally make it about me.  Where am I with my writing? How do I want to improve?  Those where the kinds of questions I could ask myself, not do I have an A?  I am in this class to learn something, to improve who I am.  And that’s something that a grade can’t measure.



Why Teachers Love Snow Days

Granted, there are teachers who don’t love snow days. There are also teachers who have no souls, but most teachers I know still revel in the crack-in-time loophole called a “snow day.”

One night about a month ago, I discovered myself in line at the Dollar General behind two local teachers. Even though I teach in a neighboring county, the entire region was under the gun for a pounding snow storm, and all three of us were giddy with the possibilities.  We excitedly compared metrological reports and wondered aloud when The Call would come.

“I don’t understand you teachers,” the guy behind the counter, who is also the owner, said. “Why in the world would you want a day off in the middle of the winter when you can’t do anything and can’t go anywhere instead of having a day off in the summer when it’s sunny outside and you can do stuff?”

We three teachers looked at each other and shook our heads.   How can anyone else know that the “We regret to inform you school has been cancelled” phone call is still the best sound in the world right behind babies laughing and puppies snuffling your ear?  It would have been too hard to stand there in the Dollar General and explain, but let me attempt to here:

  1. Teachers’ days are not like yours. I don’t care what you do, your day is not as relentless as a teacher’s. Can you urinate when you feel the urge? Do you have more than 22 minutes to eat lunch? Do you have 32 clients—some of whom are openly hostile— staring you in the face at 8 am?  Then, don’t even.  Unless maybe you’re an ER nurse and you are solely responsible for 32 patients (some critical, some scared, some neurotic) non-stop for 8 hours, during which time, you are on your feet, thinking, answering questions, making split-second decisions, talking, giving directions (the same ones, over and over).  And then when your shift is over, you have a few patients that still need more attention, and you stay, even though you aren’t being paid for it, and when you finally go home – sometimes two, sometimes three hours after your shift is over—you still have at least two hours of phone calls and paperwork to do. Maybe that. Maybe then you’d understand why a snow day in the middle of a week is such a freaking delight.
  2. The operative words are: can’t do anything/can’t go anywhere. The Dollar General owner unwittingly answered his own puzzlement.  Teachers love snow days because there’s nothing to do and nowhere to go.  An unexpected day off is the divine gift of time that rings your doorbell in the morning and says, “Hello! Nothing is on the calendar.”  Sleep, read, Pinterest, paint, cook, work puzzles, play with your kids, completely waste time.   Some resourceful teachers get caught up on laundry or grading. I don’t personally understand those people, and they are dangerously close to having no soul, but still… they have a day in which to do all the things that are normally left undone in the frenzy of a school week.
  3. Snow days are nostalgic. When I woke up this morning with almost a foot of snow on the ground and it snowing so hard I could barely see the houses down the street, the crushingly beautiful spectacle was a reminder of a time when these days were deliriously celebrated and revered. This day brings back memories of being bound up in 72 layers of clothes and trundled out on our farm where my brothers, sisters, and I sledded and tunneled and forted and snowmanned. When our faces froze off, we stumbled back inside, and Mom made real cocoa in a thick saucepan, and we ate fried bologna and draped our wet clothes over the furnace registers. And then someone broke out the Monopoly game or Pinochle cards or the plastic bowling pins and ball that we hurled down the hall.  These were moments of love and belonging and safety.  Snow days are time machines to enter those sweeter, simpler moments.
  4. No one is promised tomorrow. Teachers, of all people, understand this.  We live our life in divisions of time – a class period is 52 minutes; a unit lasts six weeks; a semester lasts 14; a year is 175 days. 9 months teaching, 3 months learning, 55/27 until retirement.  We know how to make the most out of a teachable moment because we know the next day or the next week that moment will be gone.  It’s the same thing with snow days.  A meteor might strike the earth tomorrow. Summer may never show up, but today— oh glorious, magical Today—is here and ready and waiting for us, yawning out, unspoiled and full of potential.  Something beautiful will most likely be waiting for us in the summer as well, but today, to paraphrase Annie Dillard’s advice, we will spend it all, shoot it, play it, all, right away, every time.