By Corbett Harrison - Writing guru and host of the wildly popular "Always Write" website. On the day I began middle school, I thought I was a decent writer. Before that first week ended, I vowed never to write about anything personal again. I stuck to that vow for five years, and now that I’m almost fifty and a person who still writes every day, I think a lot about those formative years when I suddenly detested writing. I often question whether I might be a stronger writer today if that one teacher—consciously or not—hadn’t turned me against something I loved doing. Mr. Borilla had been my teacher during my final two years of elementary. He was the first teacher to read one of my stories aloud to the whole class, and he ended up doing this a lot, which really surprised me. I didn’t think of myself as a writer until—once—Mr. Borilla laughed so hard while sharing my story that he actually teared up. I tell my students that Mr. Borilla was the first teacher I ever made cry; then, I pause for a silent count of three, adding, “Unfortunately, he wasn’t the last teacher I ever made cry,” and then I always earn a good laugh. And I chuckle like it’s the very first time I ever delivered that perfectly placed joke in the middle of that particular story. Mr. Borilla taught me valuable writing tricks. From him, I learned to hide well-timed moments of humor inside my stories. He also taught me the power of planning a pause in writing; humor was simply funnier when you wrote a pause before the punch. And most impressively, he knew to stress the same words I would have stressed when he read my stories back to me. How did he know? I asked him once. “I’m just reading it with the voice that you gave it,” he told me.
I entered middle school in September of 1980 ready to become a more mature writer. That first day in English class my teacher assigned us an overnight essay. Maybe she called it a theme; anyway, I approved of her topic. It was something like “Teach me about you by sharing the story of a relationship you have with a person who cares about you.” To me, that sounded like a mature approach to writing. Write about me, but do it through someone else’s story. I had been ripening as a storyteller for twelve long years, and I was about to impress this teacher enough to someday read my stories aloud to her class. I certainly had a mature idea for this topic: my mother’s addiction issues, and how I contributed to them. Truth be told, since we’re all friends here, Mom hadn’t had it easy. After I was born, our dad left her alone with three young boys to raise. We had a house but hardly any money. I’m the youngest and the one with the fuzziest memories of then, but we definitely were challenging children. I don’t hold it against my mom that she found escape from us boys after long, long days. She became addicted to—wait for a pause here--chocolate. It was her best escape then and still is today.
Unfortunately, when the money’s tight and one lives with three young boys, all purchased chocolate disappears quickly unless it’s hidden. Our mom started concealing half-eaten bags of semi-sweet chocolate chips throughout the house. When she needed a fix, she’d disappear for a few minutes, and return moments later with amazing breath. We didn’t take long to discover her caches, and for the rest of my childhood, we played a wonderful game as a family: find Mom’s chocolate. She played too, and her hiding places skillfully improved over time. I can’t say the same for her memory. One summer, she completely forgot that she’d hidden a fresh bag of chocolate chips in the glove compartment of our 1971 Volkswagen van, and when we found it weeks later, we carried it into the kitchen, peeling off its yellow plastic covering like a banana peel, and we broke the brick into bite-sized pieces using an ice pick and a wooden kitchen mallet. And we laughed. And we loved each other.
That was the story I wrote for my first middle school English teacher when I was twelve. And I received a big red D-minus on it the very next day. A sixty-four percent. And at this point in telling this story as a keynote, I pause, appreciating the predictable sigh from my audience comprised of fellow teachers, followed by their shaking of heads and whispers. I have a fantasy that someday an old teacher will stand up and self-identify to the group I’m telling this story to: “That was me. I’m sorry. I wasn’t fair.” It’s not happened yet. To be fair to my teacher, she had told us she would be marking off “four percentage points for. Every. Single. Spelling. Error,” which despite how silly that sounds to me as criteria for grading, I probably should have paid better attention to because I was her student. Unfortunately, I became too lost in the telling of my story to notice that I had misspelled the word chocolate nine times. Nine times. That stupid ‘o’ in the middle of ‘choclate.’ Who knew? And just to be crystal clear here, I earned my D- for misspelling the same word. Nine. Different. Times. That middle school teacher taught me two things: 1) how to spell the word chocolate; and 2) writing with truth and heart is much less valued than writing with conventional correctness. I was hurt enough by this lesson to completely stop writing. Does hurting students through arbitrary grading ever instruct? As a teacher with almost thirty years under his belt, I know that I, too, have hurt students by leaving marks and making honest commentary about their personal writing. Writing, even when it’s not a personal topic, requires a personal process. I must provide a huge amount of feedback in a way that helps instead of harms. I’ve made mistakes. Forever, I’ve wished there was a way my students could simply write without letting the future letter grade interfere with the process. Writer’s notebooks have become a tool that allows my students to write without fear of their own ideas being evaluated. My classroom makes solid use of what Ralph Fletcher and Amie Bucker have called writer’s notebooks. For ten minutes every day, my students are themselves through a piece of a writing that lives in those notebooks. Some students ramble for ten minutes every day, some wax poetically, some create lists, some try to amuse themselves or their neighbors with their writing, and some spend their ten daily minutes writing a continuing draft of a first novel. I do not grade the notebooks’ writing, not for spelling, not for punctuation, not for anything other than students participated fully for the ten minutes by adding to their notebook. Of course, many students struggle with starting a notebook at the beginning. Most have never been asked to simply sit, open a notebook, and practice fluency while letting their original ideas and thoughts plop onto pages. On the first day, most can write about two minutes before exhausting themselves. So, like a musician or athlete, we practice. Six weeks in—thanks to scaffolding tools and a teacher who models his own notebook strategies—ten minutes of writing are no longer enough time. My students beg for more. I don’t have much extra time to spare. Like other teachers, I have to teach many mandated writing formats to my students. It’s part of our curriculum, and even though it’s not the exciting part of writing, I teach it. Between dry writing lessons, my students visit their writer’s notebooks. There, they do not worry about formulaic sentence patterns and spelling words. They simply enjoy the writing process. In August of 2009, I launched my first writer’s notebook routine with all of my classes. These last eight years of a pretty long career as a writing teacher have never been more enjoyable. My students’ notebooks hatch more original ideas than any tool I’ve ever asked them to use in class before. I’ve given my students—even those who struggle—what Mr. Borilla once gave me: a belief I have truth to share despite an occasional misspelling.