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.