Like many of my fellow English teachers, I am an office and school supply addict. My retail therapy after a hard day is much more likely to involve buying colorful new pens, post-its with witty sayings, or notebooks that catch my eye rather than making a trip to a department store. I think these things speak to me because they are full of promises of fresh, new possibilities. Perhaps that is why I have always enjoyed school supply shopping each fall. It is not just a signal of a significant new beginning, but is also a concrete symbol of chances and opportunities to come.

As a secondary teacher, I know some of the students who arrive at my door each August will come unprepared– some missing supplies, some missing skills, some missing confidence, but many missing all three. There is no curriculum package or office supply that can instantly alleviate this situation, but hope is not lost. Brick by brick we can dismantle walls of doubt and resistance, and page by page we can begin to write a story of confidence and success.

Four years ago, I accidentally discovered something that has completely revolutionized how I approach each year and how I teach on a daily basis. I found myself in a new school, teaching high school for the first time, severely lacking access to technology, and without many instructional resources appropriately suited to meet the needs of my highly at-risk student load.

I had read about Writer’s and Reader’s notebooks and decided I had little to lose, so I would give them a try. I cannot say the implementation that year was a smashing success that changed the world, but it was successful enough to inspire me to want to learn more and to try to grow in the process. Three students who had been on the brink of dropping out said it was the first time they had ever understood some of the things they had been hearing in their English classes since sixth grade. What an endorsement! After that, I was more than willing to spend hours of my summer researching and planning how to make this strategy grow from merely helpful to truly powerful.

My teaching situations and rosters have changed each year since then, and with those shifts, the notebook has evolved too. It has become a warehouse of resources, a record of mini-lessons, and a place to experiment with ideas. It is the jumping-off spot for almost everything we do, and it is the storage place that keeps their sacred ideas safe.

The book we build together is initially just an ordinary composition notebook with no particular distinguishing features. In the beginning, students are blind to its possibilities, and its usefulness is just a murky idea that most think exists only in the mind of the teacher. After a few dozen entries, they begin to notice it is decidedly different from its initial days. It expands not only in size but also in usefulness.

They begin to see both it and themselves in a different light because this rather ordinary school supply becomes an extraordinary record of what they have learned and can do. If they are not immediately successful on a task in class, it empowers them and stands alongside them in support as they try the skill again. They do not have to muster their courage or risk the embarrassment of asking for help because they have what they need right there at their fingertips.

Knowing you have everything you need to be successful is empowering. Having a tangible item that shows an impressive record of what you have learned is emboldening. Finally succeeding after many years of struggle or even failure is liberating. The notebook is not just an effective teaching strategy, but it is a harbinger of hope. It provides students who need it a means to get back into the game of school and play their best. They are no longer dormant on the sidelines but are engaged and growing.

Each fall as I fill my shopping cart with enough supplies to prompt the cashier to ask whether I am a teacher, and each retail therapy visit that renews my enthusiasm for the work that lies ahead, I realize I am not just buying paper and pens, but am instead collecting the tools I need to change lives. The trips down these aisles remind me to be thankful I was willing to take a risk and try something new, and they remind me that as we begin a journey together each year, some of my students desperately need something to work for them– just as I did four years ago– but hope is a fragile thing, and they may not be ready to risk it at first.

I am so thankful that when faced with a challenge that seemed overwhelming at first, I was able to be vulnerable enough to take a chance on something new. As a result of that experience and all I learned from it, I now have a passion for helping students realize that the story of who they are is a work in progress, and they all have the power to write it to be something amazing, even if it starts in just a simple notebook.