“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit.” Aristotle
Phil Jackson was interviewed on NPR about his new book not too long ago. He talked about the importance of practicing the fundamentals of basketball and how his teams always started practice by working on the nuts and bolts of the game. Jackson related this to a story about Pablo Casals, one of the greatest cello players ever. When asked about his playing, Casals stated “I go through my fingering for an hour before I start playing a piece of music.”
This got me thinking about the fundamentals of writing. I don’t think we give students enough time to really practice the basics or build stamina for writing. We need to be more mindful of our established routines and ask ourselves “Is this activity/assignment helping the students become better writers?” If the answer is no, then we need a different routine.
The importance of keeping a writer’s notebook/journal has been underscored for me recently. For the past week, I’ve been participating in TeachersWrite! by responding to daily prompts. Some of this writing had nuggets taken from my journals, thoughts I’d jotted down without any specific purpose. Giving our students time to write each day about what interests them gives them the opportunity to practice the fundamentals in an engaging, meaningful way. Who knows what nuggets they’ll come up with when given the opportunity.
Providing our students with a daily opportunity to write about topics of their choice has the added benefit of getting them to think like writers. Since I’ve been writing regularly, I find myself observing the world differently. Telling students that they should see the world with “wide awake eyes” (Did Lucy Calkins write that? I can’t remember where I read it.) and actually getting them to do it are two different things.
A daily writing routine, one that offers students a period of time to just write, whether they respond to a prompt, take that prompt in their own direction, or just write about what’s on their mind, is critical if we want our students to be writers. Not just effective writers, but passionate writers. Writers who learn about themselves and the world through writing.
After I first heard the Phil Jackson interview and started drafting this post, I got side-tracked by work. In the meantime, Kate Roberts and Maggie Beattie Roberts posted “The Do-Re-Mi of Writing,” a thoughtful and practical piece about students improving their writing by having them go through their “scales,” just as musicians do. Be sure to read their terrific post.
Maria Popova also recently wrote about the importance of habit in “The Pace of Productivity and How to Master Your Creative Routine” on Brain Pickings. She gives lots of examples of famous creators, their daily routines, and the excellence they achieved through habit.