Posted in Writing

How to Write a Journal Entry When You Have “Nothing” to Write About

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Thinking small now will have a big impact later.

A couple of years ago, I shared my 10 Tips for Keeping a Journal, and today I want to elaborate on Tip #3: Think Small.

As I said in my previous post, “If you wait until you have ‘good stuff’ to write about, your journal may stay closed for months. The truth is, there’s good stuff happening all around us almost every day. Consider this—who’s this journal for? You, right? What will YOU want to look back on in ten years? What you’ll crave are the little things. The tiny little slices of life that you’ve forgotten about. So your job when journaling is to master the mundane.”

It’s true. I’ve been rereading some of my old journals (a favorite summer habit) and want to scream at my college-age self, “Stop babbling about boy troubles, and tell me what’s in your pockets!” (Somewhere, in another universe, college-age me just had a very strange dream.) Really though, there are plenty of pages about my feelings (which are important, yes) but not enough about my world. When I look back on that time, I’m not interested in reliving all my relationship angst. I’d much rather see my former surroundings—where I spent my Thursday afternoons and which t-shirt was my favorite and what I ate for breakfast. Even after college, I still sometimes went through phases of vague melancholy or (worse) vague bliss where I described my deep feelings of unease or contentment without ever really pinpointing where they came from. That’s why I’m thrilled when I stumble upon entries like this one from February 18, 2007:

I am sitting in my purple chair wearing the new jeans I got at Buffalo Exchange tonight (that I love) with the green sweater that I rescued from the Goodwill bag (that I now really like) and the flip flops from Kelley’s wedding and a black head band wrap. I look totally funky stylin’ (in my not so fashionable opinion).

Note #1: Sweater and flip flops in Austin in February sounds about right.
Note #2: I am such a hoarder of clothes. I used to be SO BAD about putting things in a bag to take to Goodwill and then “rescuing” them a couple of days later, only to wear them once and then send them back to my closet for another year. I’ve learned my lesson. Now I take the bag to Goodwill immediately. Usually.
Note #3: I feel like I was quoting a friend when I used the phrase “funky stylin'” but I don’t remember who. Also, I hope I was being sarcastic.

Or this one from January 31, 2011:

I am sitting in my backyard writing by the light of the campfire I just made for myself (with the help of a firestarter log from HEB). My plan is to sit here and write in my journal and drink some High Life and read Lolita and enjoy the evening for as long as I like, no matter the time. I hear something barking off in the distance– maybe a coyote. Oh, and now I hear the muted but unmistakable caterwauling of Gink…

Note #1: High Life? Seriously? My guess is someone left them at my house.
Note #2: High Life and Lolita is a classy combination.
Note #3: I just Googled January 31, 2011, and it was a Monday, so I was enjoying this late-night campfire on a school night. How scandalous!
Note #4: You have no idea how loud my cat’s caterwauling can be. Someday, when he’s gone, this journal entry will remind me of the crazy sounds he used to make, and it will make me smile.

Those are the kinds of journal entries I can sink my nostalgic teeth into.

So if you’re keeping a journal, and you’re worried that nothing you write is exciting enough, fret not. Some of the most mundane tidbits today may be the lines that give you the biggest smiles ten years from now.

When in doubt, follow these simple instructions:

HOW TO WRITE A JOURNAL ENTRYDownload a PDF of this diagram here:
HOW TO WRITE A JOURNAL ENTRY.

Here’s an entry I wrote based on this format, without taking any of the optional tangents:

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See? Until the robot swung the baseball bat and uncovered the hidden scorpion, there was nothing earth-shattering about this entry, but someday I’ll be glad I mentioned how Gabby used to insist on laying in my lap, and I’ll probably laugh about how excited I was over my first Roomba when I see what the robots of the future can do.

So give it a try. Grab a favorite pen and find a comfy spot and write something that future you will enjoy reading. Most importantly, have fun.

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One last thing: Don’t ever feel like you have to fill up a whole page. Even short entries can have a lasting effect.

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Terrible handwriting aside, that’s quite a nice little nugget. 🙂

 

Posted in Teaching

3 Useful Things I Learned While Teaching Middle School

I had another teaching dream recently. I was back at my old school. A new teacher (I think his name was Kevin—he looked like a Kevin) asked me if I was new too. I told him no, that I had worked there from the day it opened until a couple of years ago. Then I left, and now I’m back. I said, “And I’ll be regretting it in 5… 4… 3…” (Yes, my dream self actually said this, while demonstrating the countdown on my fingers. The sad truth is that I’m just as dorky in my dreams as in real life.)

For a while, the dream continued down a fairly realistic path. He asked what I’d been doing while I wasn’t teaching. I told him about my writing and then gave him some advice about who to avoid in the hallways. After that, things got dream-weird. In this case, that meant teachers actually lived at school. We slept in sleeping bags in the common area between the main hallways. Coffee was something that had to be stirred like hot chocolate and was consumed lukewarm from tall pint glasses. (You know, dream-weird.)

Soon my brain woke up enough to disregard the sleeping bags, Kevin, and the whole idea of going back to work. Instead, I started trying to think of the most useful things I learned during my teaching career.

After ruling out unlimited patience, the ability to smile while being talked down to by a parent, and a high tolerance for Axe Body Spray, I came up with the following three things, all of which could also be helpful to people in other professions.

1. How to Remove Permanent Marker From a Dry Erase Board

In this video, my lovely assistant and I will demonstrate how to save a dry erase board from a Sharpie attack. Really. It works and it’s unbelievably easy.

2. How to Determine Whether or Not to Eat Food Given to You by a Student

It’s Valentine’s Day. Or your birthday. Or the last day of Teacher Appreciation Week. Little Ralphie walks up to you with a big grin on his face. He says, “This is for you,” and places a slightly melted chocolate chip cookie on your desk. WHAT DO YOU DO? This flow chart will help you figure out which edible gifts are safe and which ones should be discarded while wearing rubber gloves.

Assessing Edible Gifts Flow Chart

(For the record, I did teach a student who gave me bacon. I ate it. It was delicious.)

3. How to Teach Your Brain to Multitask When You’re Bored, Trapped, Going Crazy, or All of the Above

* Autopilot:

Teaching is a repetitive job. When you teach five classes a day, you say the same things over and over and over. By the fourth or fifth time, you can even anticipate the questions that will be asked, the jokes that will be made, and the clarifications that will be required. This is a good time to put your brain on autopilot and get some stuff done. I often chose to plan lessons in my head or make mental lists. However, you must be careful not to zone out completely. Once, when I was simultaneously reading The Outsiders to my class and making a grocery list in my head, one student interrupted me to ask, “Did you just say chicken?” I snapped back to attention and realized that twenty seventh graders were staring at me strangely. I looked down at the page and saw that the word I’d meant to say was cheerleader. Not chicken. Oops.

* Visualization:

When you’re stuck in a boring professional development seminar with no end in sight, I recommend using visualization to transport yourself out of that stuffy conference room and into a much more pleasurable locale, like the beach on a tropical island. Turn the steady drone of the air conditioner into a refreshing sea breeze. Picture the shuffling of papers as the rhythmic sound of waves. Convert the jingle of keys on lanyards and the dings of the PowerPoint presentation into insects and alter any annoying voices into the squawks of birds. Pretend the fluorescent lights are sun rays warming your face. Since actually closing your eyes is a bad idea, stare at the person speaking, but imagine them as a tour guide who only speaks in a language you don’t understand. Feel the stress slip away…

* Survival Mode:

Of course, the absolute worst scenario in which to place a brain is in the head of a teacher “actively monitoring” standardized testing. Nothing compares to that level of mind-numbing boredom and cognitive uselessness. But you have to try something. Otherwise, you spend six hours a day, four days in a row, contemplating the life choices that have brought you to this moment, and that’s not a good idea. For some suggestions on how to survive standardized testing, check out my tips in this post from last year—Brain on Lockdown: Why Standardized Testing Is As Hard On Teachers As It Is On Students. Coincidentally, that post also begins with a teacher stress dream. Apparently they never go away.

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To all my friends still in the classroom… hang in there!
You can do it! You’re in the home stretch! Summer’s just around the corner!
(Call me if you need a drink.)