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Hack Your Notebook Day... Reflection from A Teacher

Hack Your Notebook Day... Reflection from A Teacher

Written by Jillian VanRiper
July 17, 2014

I started Hack Your Notebook day begrudgingly, wondering why we were allotting an entire day to decorating our notebooks when we had so much more work to do.  What was I really going to learn from this activity?  I looked at the piles of paper and beads and scissors and glue, and gave an inward sigh because it appeared as though we were going to spend time putting cool pictures on our notebook covers.  Which is fun…truly.  I love crafts; and spending time crafting seems like an indulgence when facing my multitude of career and family obligations.  Obligations, for instance, like the portfolio pieces for RCWP that were calling my name, wondering when I would be devoting time to them.  I’d been neglecting them more than I should.

So when Dawn announced that we would be hacking our notebooks today, I entered the activity intending to finish quickly and move onto something that would be more productive for me, as a teacher of writing.  As we viewed the inspirational videos that  demonstrated how we can use circuitry, light, and movement  to enhance our creative expression, I realized that this wasn’t something I could rush through.  In fact, I didn’t even know if it was something I could do!  How on Earth was I supposed to wire lights into my notebook?  I don’t even know how to work my fancy new stapler.

I looked around the room at members of my cohort to see them wearing similarly dazed expressions.  We were overwhelmed, uncertain, and reluctant to jump in.  I decided to start with what I know best, which is the artistry aspect of this assignment.  I grabbed pieces of colored paper, came up with a vague concept of what I wanted to do, and got started.  I sketched, cut, pasted, and re-envisioned my work; and I listened to those around me as they followed their own creative paths.  Those who were braver than I jumped right into the copper tape, batteries, lights, and wires.  They moved around the room to brainstorm together, bent over one another’s work, offering suggestions and researching necessary information to help them complete the task.

One by one, there was light.  Rachel was the first to make illumination happen- she created a lightbulb that glowed victoriously and matched the excited smile on her face.  She worked closely with Kristin, whose lights twinkled among the balloons and inspirational quotes among her picture.  Ashley, who teaches a circuitry science unit to her third graders, offered helpful suggestions and encouragement to the rest of us while she worked on lighting up her football field using a complicated stair step pattern with the copper wires.  Janet threw convention to the wind when she cut her notebook into three separate sections, conceptualizing a notebook where each section provides a different type of writing inspiration.  For the cover, she cut out a beautiful picture of a girl dancing, and placed a string of colorful lights under her twirling feet.  Danielle, like me, started by drawing her picture.  She sat quietly, carefully sketching the silhouette of her self portrait.  Jenny, who admitted that this activity was way out of her comfort zone, quickly went to work drawing a flower and then surrounded it with shiny copper tape hoping to provide a glowing halo for her artwork.  Dawn was our coach for this activity.  In between demonstrating her technical expertise to this befuddled group, offering words of encouragement and support, she created a colorful collage for her notebook cover and then experimented with creating a strand of multicolored lights to light up the lavender paper covering it.

(Dr. Swenson’s tweet of the cohort’s finished notebooks)

For part of the morning, we held an online meeting with the Top of the Mitt group, a new NWP site housed in Northern Michigan.  The comments, suggestions, and questions flowed back and forth between and among the two groups, sparking ideas for the rest of us to think about.

I sat in my own bubble of creativity, aware of my surroundings but focused intently on my work. Slowly, slowly, my picture took shape.  Quickly, too quickly, lunchtime arrived.  I wasn’t hungry for food.  I was hungry to find out how to light up my artwork, which finally matched the picture I had in my head.  I turned to my group members who had found success with the copper tape (our new “experts”) and they quickly coached me through the process.  After about fifteen minutes of trial and error, knowing that we would soon be meeting with the Top of the Mitt Writing Projects along with Paul Oh, David Cole, Jennifer Dick and Jie Qi (who helped conceive this project) to show off our work, I did it.

I made light.  In my notebook.  Using my own two hands and my own creativity and the patient guidance my group supplied.  At the beginning of the day, I never would have thought this possible, and I struggled to find the merit in going through this process.  Now, having created something so rewarding, I was so proud of myself I wanted to hang my work on the refrigerator.  I tweeted it, instead.  And posted on facebook.  And showed my friends and family, who were suitably impressed.


The best moment was when I showed my work to my ten-year old son, Michael.  His face lit up, and he took the notebook out of my hands to inspect my gadgetry.

“How did you do this?”  His eyes were wide, his tone bordering on reverence as he ran his hands over my picture, pressing the corner to make the lights glow.

“Oh, you know… I just created a circuit out of copper tape…”, I breezily explained the process as if I’m an expert on electrical wiring.  No big deal, I just made light.  He listened attentively, running his hands over my work as if barely restraining the impulse to rip open my beautiful picture and see the wiring underneath.  He began bombarding me with questions:

“Can we do this?”
“Where do you even get this stuff?”
“When can we go to the store?”
“Can you get lights that are different colors?”
“How long did it take you to make it light up?”
“When can we go to the store?”
“How did you learn to do this?”
“When can we go to the store?

His eager inquiry illustrates the benefits of an activity like this in our classrooms, which positions our students as makers.  As creators.  As individuals with the capacity to imagine a new purpose, a new possibility, a new approach; and the ability to make their imagination a reality.  We can be educators who promote creativity and openness, providing a space for our students to conceive of new possibilities; and then encourage them to keep at it, persist, try out new ideas when their first one doesn’t work.

Hack Your Notebook Day pushed me to imagine new purposes not only for my notebook, but also for my classroom.  I may not be able to supply the gadgetry for all 120 sixth graders to hack their own notebooks, but I can still challenge myself and my students to embrace their creativity, and make something completely their own.  To imagine and explore new possibilities, and value mistakes as important learning opportunities.  To have a vision and persist, persist, persist, until that vision is realized.  A student who can do this is a student who can change the world.