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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