Wednesday, September 3, 2014

I Told My Students to Make a Mess

It's the first week of school, and my new students are impressionable. And I told them to make a mess. 
I really did.

The students have started their 4th grade writers' notebooks.

Friday I plopped three of my own notebooks in front of my students and flipped through the pages under the document camera. I paused to show lists (after lists after lists after lists), some started, others titled and left lonely for a long time, and a few illustrating returns and additions with different colored inks and check marks noting pieces I've explored. I pointed out webs, doodles, maps...anything that I thought would challenge their thinking. But mostly I emphasized imperfection--MESS.

One of this year's students names
good writing "the perfect ones."
My thinking has been guided by years of students with the same ingrained perceptions of writing. Students envision good writing as completed, published work. This year's writing surveys produced words and phrases like neat, good handwriting, capitals and periods, long, makes her [teacher] smile, books, perfect. I realize I'll need to work to continuously combat old perceptions and help students re-vision writing. One of my overarching goals for writing this year is to help students to embrace messiness as part of the process, part of what it means to write.

I want the permission to make a mess--the invitation to have mess inside their notebooks--to be empowering. I hope students will find my acceptance and encouragement to be freeing. I hope it will alleviate some of the pressure that comes with a long-standing image of "writing" as shiny and polished and pretty.

I will continue to keep my notebook and writing process open to my students. This week I will also share images and stories Linda Urban has shared on her blog. I will project a photo that Jeff Anderson shared on Twitter. While showing my writing is powerful, the examples of these published writers will model for students that this isn't just a teacher thing I'm telling them.

Of course, by encouraging students to allow messiness as part of their writing process, I've also invited some big implications for me as a teacher.

I need to embrace students' mess. What they want to try in their notebooks and call writing has to be ok. Work samples varying from lists to graphic novel drafts need to be validated. I've always considered myself tolerant of honoring students' paths, I? When a student came to me during our writing time, disbelieving, and asked, "Can I draw in my notebook?" I had to catch myself before telling him no, torn between encouraging his writing and worrying about avoidance. If that is his entry point, I need to follow. And think about how I'm going to nudge him further. Managing this students' trajectory will likely be handled best through writing conferences.

My perception of monitoring writing progress needs some revision also. It won't be as simple as glancing through the pages to look for approximately one page of writing each day. The work of a writer is not so predictable and calculated. Some days a student may have invested more in small, deliberate revisions than his counterpart who drafted a third repetitive page of a story without direction. There aren't quick or easy rules towards evaluating student progress. I won't be able to judge a student's effort or progress without investing time in learning about the writer. I need to find out who my writers are now--today--in the second week of school. And then I need to watch for evidence of shifts...progress...growth.

So, I'm pulling on my rain boots and rolling up my sleeves, spending time "making mess" with students in our notebooks this week. I need to notice the writing students collect in their writers' notebooks this week. I need to make note of students who might have some reservation about mess, and I need to affirm and celebrate instances of risk taking, wild and messy writing that helps commit thinking to paper. Maybe compiling these observations about the examples they try and what they attempt can inform my next steps and minilessons. After all, it's my students response to my invitation that will give me guidance about where to go.


  1. Tonight during #tcrwp chat on Twitter, I picked up this other great post with more writers' notebook examples:

  2. Melissa,
    Your post is full of information that will be helpful to your students. Annotating our own writing notebooks is another way to show students how we reflect on our own growth and processes. It sometimes feels "awful" to show students the "mess" but we have to be realistic. If there aren't "cross outs" in our notebooks, students will not feel comfortable crossing out items in their own notebooks. Using a post it to state a goal and then following it up with "practice 1", "practice 2", etc. will show students how to continue to grow themselves as writers!