Drawing Lines: The Notebook Lesson

I’ve always liked using writers’ notebooks in my class. They’re great for journaling, drafting, general brainstorming…even doodling. In the past, however, I never really associated any pomp and circumstance with these writers’ journals at the beginning of the year. The exchange was more of a “Hey guys, can you all bring a spiral-bound notebook for a writing journal? Cool.” That was it. The magic was in the process of USING the journal over the course of the school year.

I wanted to try something different this year. I’m sure I’m not the first teacher to do something like this, but I went out and purchased spiral notebooks for EVERY ONE of my 6th grade students this year (they were 17 cents at Wal-Mart and Big Lots, so the investment was worth it). I feel like the act of giving every student a notebook makes it more personal.

On the second day of school, I gave my students these notebooks, but before I presented them to the kids, I provided a bit of ceremony, and in my long-winded fashion, I said:

I want to give you something. I guess you could call it a present, but it’s nothing expensive or unique. At least it isn’t yet. I suppose – in time – it could be priceless, one-of-a-kind. For now, think of it as a resource. A tool you can use. An item whose inherent worth is so much more than its initial cost.

Every single one of these items is identical, but once you have your own, you will change it into something that no one has ever had before – and when you’re done with it, no one will ever be able to recreate it exactly as you did. This item is a sort of mirror. It reflects you back at yourself. It can condense your personality and allow you to display it to the world in a tangible form. It can help you create a new identity…or understand your current one. It can help you start conflicts and solve problems. It can be used to construct universes and destroy worlds. In essence, what I have here will allow you to see inside your own brain and manipulate reality into anything you want…

Once I’ve built up the tension, the reveal:

It’s a notebook.

Now, I can see that some of you are disappointed, but you shouldn’t be. Everything I said is true. With determination and vision, a stack of blank pages can be molded into a bestselling novel, a groundbreaking research paper, a hilarious anecdote, or a heartrending eulogy. A new notebook can become a vital companion, taking note of your personal pain and pride, keeping track of your ideas – both brilliant and idiotic – for you to laugh and marvel at later. These pages can be a time capsule, perhaps fading with time, but never really forgetting. They can help you work through your issues, design clothing lines and dance routines, perfect your signature, and confess your misdeeds. You can lay out the blueprints of your own world in these pages, and then destroy it with a word. You can set the physics of reality in motion…and then defy those very laws. You can control anything and everything.

But many of you don’t realize that you have this amazing power. It’s been educated out of you. Writing has become a chore, a “school thing” that gets in the way of all the things you really want to do. You need to be reminded of how incredible writing is.

I then told the students to open their notebooks to the very last page. The very end of the book.

On that blank sheet, draw a line. No other instructions; don’t ask questions. Just draw a line.

Give me an estimate. How many people are living on earth right now? Over 7 billion? Now think – in the whole of human history, how many people have lived and died on earth? Some people put that number at around 108 billion. That’s an incredible number. What’s more incredible is that in all those 108 billion people who have ever lived, in the entirety of human history, in all of existence as we know it, no one has ever drawn the line you just drew.

Now, obviously people have drawn vertical lines before. They’ve drawn horizontal and diagonal and squiggly lines, too. But the exact line you have here – the exact dimensions, all the perfect imperfections – that line is literally unique; it has never existed. You could get a master artist to spend hours recreating the line you just drew, and it might look remarkably similar, but there would be, at an eventual, microscopic level, flaws that distinguish the two as different.

So why does that matter? What’s the big deal? Well it’s not just your lines that are unique. You use lines to create letters. Letters form words. Words form sentences. Sentences form paragraphs. And paragraphs form notes and stories and essays. And even though millions of people have written many of the same words you’ll write, your stories and essays are completely unique. Even on the essays you hate, the essays you think are terrible, the essays you write halfheartedly the night before they’re due… No one in the history of humanity has combined words and phrases exactly the way you will when you write. 108 billion people, and your stories – in the way that only you can write them – have never been written before. That’s an incredible thought.

And we’ve bored you to the point of apathy in writing.

As far as we know right now, in the infinite expanse of the universe, humans are the only living beings that have developed a written language. That makes writing basically a superpower in my opinion. You have the ability to convert chemical transfers in your brain into a visual medium that can be implanted in the minds of other human beings. How could anyone find that boring? Yes, it’s just a line that you drew. Yes, when you write, you’re just reorganizing words that people have spoken for generations. But when you realize that there has never been a line like yours, and when you understand that no one has ever even imagined your stories before you write them – that is an amazing revelation.

I let the thought hang in the air for a moment. In the crowd of faces, I admit that there were a couple that had glazed over with apathy. But there was a significant portion – maybe half, who I could see were genuinely wrestling with what I’d just said.

The next assignment we completed was a creative activity with a Torrance Test blot. This gave me another chance to drive home the uniqueness of my students’ writing/drawing, and a few more picked up on the gravity of the realization.

The following day, I did my “What I did NOT do over summer vacation” lesson, and I reiterated this thought. This “unique writing” idea is one I’ll be referring to throughout the year, and the Notebook Lesson will be a staple in my 6th grade classroom.

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Debunking Viral Facebook Posts: Part 1

I use Facebook. I’m not ashamed of that. I think it’s a great way to keep in touch with old friends and keep far-away family updated on everything happening in my life (baby girl is turning 1 next month! Expect an onslaught of photos, everyone).

Every now and then, however, one of my friends shares one of those viral news stories/images/articles that just reek of a hoax – you know the ones I mean…those posts that fill your news feed with vague statements and amazing “facts” that have no sources or legitimate citations? I love stumbling on those posts because they give my brain a little workout. It’s like a challenge to see just how many logical flaws I can find in debunking them. The only problem is that most people don’t like being told that they’ve been taken in by faulty logic, so rather than call those people out on Facebook, I’ve decided to post my findings here instead.

I figure that this is relevant to my classroom because teaching critical thought and evaluating resources are two of my primary goals in my lessons, so let’s see if you saw what I saw…

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Synergy *almost* works!

Edupoint has made a lot of updates to its Synergy software that (almost) make it functional! Here is a quick tribute to their “improvements” with some visuals to show how they *almost* worked.

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Committed to Education

I follow Arne Duncan, the US Secretary of Education, on Twitter. Since he’s a politician, Mr. Duncan’s tweets usually have the rose-colored “candor” you’d expect from a public figure earnestly trying to avoid controversy. Needless to say, I roll my eyes a lot when I read his tweets.

Secretary Duncan is in Haiti for two days, and he made this poignant observation while visiting a school there:

arnetweetI agree with Mr. Duncan in his praise. That is an amazing commitment to education, and I wish more American students were so dedicated to learning; however, I have to pause for a moment and wonder…what would happen if these 16-year-olds, living in one of the poorest nations in the world, suddenly got the opportunity to come to America?

Would they flourish under the guidance of well-trained American teachers? Would they be able to excel, given the opportunity to learn in classrooms equipped with Promethean Boards, iPads, and document cameras? Would they be able to use their drive and dedication to become successful individuals and make themselves into confident, intelligent human beings?


In America, based on their age, they’d be thrown into high school with no preparation, forced to learn English in 12 months, given a standardized test over curriculum they don’t understand in a language they can barely comprehend, and told they’re failures when they don’t meet the standard. And we’d blame their teachers.

They’re in second grade because that’s the level of educational attainment they have. When they’ve mastered second, they’ll move to third, and so on. That’s logical. That’s how education should work, regardless of age. That’s not how we do things in America because one size fits all, right Mr. Secretary?

Maybe we should reevaluate our own commitment to education, Arne. Dare I say, maybe we should be more like Haiti??

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An Open Letter to Edupoint

Let’s get something straight right off the bat: I’m a teacher.

I’m not a web designer. I’m not a programmer. I’m not a tech guru.

I do, however, think I’m pretty tech savvy. Like most guys, I refuse to use the owner’s manual when I get a new phone or computer. I just boot the thing up and start clicking stuff until it does what I want. Most professional programs are intuitive enough that, with a little time and energy, I can figure them out. That’s how professionally made programs should work. Manuals are good for reference, but if the GUI is well-designed and the code is good, the program should be easy enough to figure out.

With all of this in mind, Edupoint’s Synergy application is, for lack of a more professional term, crap.

For those of you who (thankfully) don’t know what Synergy is, it’s a web-based application that schools use for attendance and grading. My county has decided that this should be our new platform this year (as soon as everyone got comfortable using the old, efficient platform). Let’s take a look at some of my issues with this application, shall we?

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Spambot Poetry

I frequently get spam comments that pass through my WordPress filter, but this one made me stop, read, and think. It’s almost poetic. The spam bot even included dramatic line breaks:

The sound of music should be pleasing to the ears and
only then will it be appreciated by people hearing it.
This method is similar to the first one as far as method; however,
it is more elaborate because it involves multiple drains connected
to several mulch basins. However, a UV filter runs around $25 and that
is well worth the investment to protect more expensive parts.

This is deep. I think I need to go reevaluate my life…and buy a new UV filter. They’re a steal at $25, and I hear they’re well worth the investment to protect more expensive parts.


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Absent-Minded School Districts


So I read an article about a school in Texas giving a kindergarten student detention for being late to school.

Outrageous, right? I mean, who gives a six-year-old detention for being late to school? At that age, I was still trying to master the whole “bunny down the hole” shoe-tying concept, so how could I have been expected to provide my own transportation anywhere? How is a six-year-old accountable for that? Clearly this is a terrible policy instituted by a draconian school system. The administrators should be forced to change the policy, and the teacher who allowed this punishment should be reprimanded.

If you read the comments on that story, you’ll discover that’s a recurring opinion: stupid school and awful, union-protected teachers.

But let’s ask my favorite question: WHY? Why would a school system institute a policy that seems so obviously flawed? The answer is “AYP,” and you can thank your local congressman for it.

AYP stands for “Adequate Yearly Progress,” and it’s a residual policy left over from No Child Left Behind. Basically, AYP is a series of measures that indicates whether or not a school or system is improving. It’s tied to allotments and funding, so it’s a big deal if you’re a teacher or principal who, you know, wants to keep your job. Most of the measures for AYP are test-related (surprise, surprise), but there are a few other measures that matter. For elementary and middle schools, one such measure is attendance. Yes, a school can fail certain sections of AYP if students are absent too often.

Think about that for a minute. The SCHOOL can be penalized because students don’t come.

In essence, by adding an attendance requirement to AYP, the government is claiming that a school can control when students show up. Again…really, really think about that. So if I’m the principal of a school in which students are tardy or absent excessively, you can bet I’m going to find some way to curb absenteeism…but what options do I have?

“But wait,” you say, “this girl wasn’t absent. She was just tardy.” And yes, that’s true…but district policies on when a ‘tardy’ becomes an ‘absence’ differ. Early check-outs and late check-ins before or after a specific time are counted as absences, so if this girl was getting to school after that cut off, it wouldn’t matter; she’s considered absent as far as AYP is concerned.

I appreciate that the father in the story takes responsibility, and there’s a brilliant line in the Yahoo News version of the article:

Brooke’s family would like to see Olympia’s policy changed to punish the parents, not the kids.

Hmmm…holding parents responsible for things they control, and at the same time, not penalizing schools for something they cannot control? Sounds like a good idea. I wonder why no one’s ever considered that…maybe we need to add ‘common sense’ to the curriculum?

Nah…we’d probably just try to cram that into AYP too.

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