“Let’s Make it Count” Journal

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This is the second installment of a four-part series about The Fantastic Four, a set of custom journals that were created by two of my sophomores several years ago. (The first part can be found here.) The composition book pictured above features a cover with the ransom-note-style title “Let’s Make It Count.” This was the phrase that I spoke aloud to my Honors English students seconds before we embarked on our daily five-minute free-writes at the start of class.

My reason for using this slogan is that I wanted to remind my students that they had a choice during each of our quiet writing sessions: they could exert minimal effort and scribble nonsense on the page, or they could focus their minds and attention and compose meaningful content until the timer beeped. I have no idea if my daily assertion actually worked, but I kept repeating let’s make it count like a mantra just in case.

Here is my first entry (followed by a transcription, below):

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2-13-15     Beginning a new notebook today.

“Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win, by fearing to attempt.” – William Shakespeare*

So I am entertaining the idea of a library science degree, and a possible future career as a library employee. Does it feel right? I’ll have to consider it. I don’t want to jump at it, but I believe that exploring the option is part of building the bridge.* Add [sic.] blocks to that bridge is very important, even though I don’t know exactly where it is going. The end-point is yet-to-be determined. I’ll have to maintain the faith that simply stepping out and moving forward is the right thing to do. I know I can explore and find something more suitable. I’ll keep placing blocks together to lengthen the bridge. Wise #### philosophy.


* – This quotation is from Measure for Measure (Act 1, Scene IV), which was written between 1603 and 1604. These lines are spoken by the character Lucio, a fussy young nobleman, during his conversation with Isabella, who is the sister of the play’s protagonist, Claudio.

* – “Building the bridge” is a concept/motto that I adopted in late-2014 or early-2015. It represents the fact that I was (and am) trying to envision a new professional path — one different than my role as a classroom teacher. To help me focus on the possibility of a career shift, I created the following sign using a piece of copyrighted artwork and a bold, blocky typeface. For three years the sign hung first on a bulletin board in my apartment and then on the corner of my bathroom mirror. It provided a daily reminder of what I was attempting to do. I am the kind of person who benefits from visual reinforcement.

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The composition book’s back cover is pictured below. The bottom-right corner features several images that deserve explanation.

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Owls are one of my favorite animals, which Meagan and Kathryn — my two students and the notebook’s designers — knew. Although my classroom features no images of the nocturnal hunters, students’ questions had somehow led to an awareness that I was fond of the silent, mysterious, head-swiveling predators.

At least four days a week I wore a tie at school, so that explains the partially rolled neckwear. I love ties. (Coincidentally, I also love short sentences.) The frequency and variety of my ties prompted students to sometimes ask how many I owned, a question that I found odd but welcome. They were curious, and I was happy to satisfy their desire by speculating about how many dozen were hanging in my closet. On a few occasions I even brought several shoeboxes of my ties (carefully rolled) into my classroom to let my sophomores see that I was speaking the truth. I owned many.

Sandwiched between the owls is a small photo of a blonde-haired woman adjacent to her cursive signature. This is Nancy Gibbs (b. 1960), an American journalist who became the first female managing editor of TIME magazine in 2013. She occupied that role until 2017. Now she serves as the visiting Edward R. Murrow Professor of Practice of Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University. (That is a wonderfully alliterative job title, by the way.) Gibbs remains TIME’s Editor at Large.

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For writers of any background and skill level, Gibbs’ work stands as an incomparable example of how to meld meaningful content, an approachable style, and a deeply-sensitive understanding of the power of narrative. For years I photocopied Gibbs’ one-page editorials that were featured at the conclusion of nearly every issue of TIME.

These short pieces served as models for my students as they studied the craft of rhetoric — and the ways that they too could influence audiences with their developing skills. We emulated Gibbs’ simple yet powerful techniques, because her articles made frequent and precise use of similes and metaphors, semicolons and dashes, alliteration and parallel structure, and sentences both long and short. She is a master of prose, and perhaps her greatest strength is making complex subjects understandable for general readership.

One of Gibbs’ most famous articles accompanied the sobering cover photo of TIME’s infamous Sept. 14, 2001 black-bordered issue. Even years after the horror of that event, her report on this history-changing moment represents one of the most profoundly-moving pieces of journalism that I have ever encountered.

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Note – The images of Ms. Gibbs and TIME’s Sept. 14, 2001 cover were obtained from TIME.com.

Many B’s Journal

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This is the first installment in a four-part series about The Fantastic Four, a set of hand-made journals that were gifted to me by two former students — Meagan and Kathryn. The pair of young ladies were sophomores at the time, and they were finishing their semester in Honors English 10.

As you can see, the journal features a mind-boggling number of B’s. These were painstakingly cut out of magazines and then affixed to the cover. How many hours this took can only be imagined; I have never lost sight of the tremendous investments of time, attention, and discipline that this effort must have required. Here are a few close-up shots. Notice that the girls included snippets that read “Br” and “Bi,” which demonstrates an even greater attention-to-detail than merely scanning glossy magazine copy for instances of the letter B.

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Here is my first entry, which was composed with my H10 students during our 5-minute free-write — likely in my 3rd-period class. Beneath the photo is a transcription.

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I’m beginning a new composition book — one designed by two of my students, Kathryn and Meagan. How cool! One of the most thoughtful and inspired gifts I have ever received. Many Bs decorate the cover. My initial!

Today has been productive. During first hour I completed two letters of recommendation. That was good, as I did not not want to carry them into the weekend. I can do my essay scoring this weekend, and likely take care of the poetry workshop sheets and copy-changes for both classes. Before I leave school today I need to copy “Roger Malvin’s Burial” for Monday.* How many pages? Hard to tell. Should I staple them?

You become what you think about. I believe in that. If thoughts are routinely positive, one’s path will likely be more successful. Negative thoughts are limiting. Makes sense! I’ll stay positive!


A photo of the back cover, which features alternating strips of card stock:

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* “Roger Malvin’s Burial” is one of my all-time favorite short stories. It was written in 1832 by American author Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864), who is best known for his novel The Scarlet Letter. I could go on for hours about why “RMB” is such a compelling hawthorne_nathaniel_WDand timeless work of fiction. It features a protagonist whose inner conflict — and its resulting external consequences — resonates with anyone who has ever felt trapped by competing desires.

This portrait of Nathaniel Hawthorne, which was created in 1841 by American artist Charles Osgood (1809-1890), was obtained from the Library of America website.

Of Pencils and Passion

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If you savor the glossy yellow finish and subtle woody scent of a Ticonderoga No. 2 pencil, then your heart might soar with joy when you peruse the amazing selection of writing utensils and supplies available from CW Pencil Enterprise. With the tag line “Purveyors of Superior Graphite,” this New York City-based specialty retailer is the expression of Caroline Weaver. In late 2014, the life-long pencil devotee launched CW Pencil Enterprise online; a brick and mortar storefront followed in March of 2015.

I first learned about CWPE courtesy of my dear friend Sandy, who adds unique pencils to her writing kit whenever they catch her eye. Several years ago Sandy came across an article about Caroline and her creative collections in The New York Times. Complete with full-color photos, the expose features a background of the twenty-something entrepreneur and a mouth-watering glimpse into what is available at her NYC boutique. From then on, I have visited CW’s beautifully-designed website semi-regularly when I feel a longing for an analog fix. It features a broad range of specialty pencils, books, carrying cases, erasers, and so much more. Many of her products are relatively rare and/or international in origin, so she is The Source for hard-to find writing supplies.

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Please consider paying CW Pencil Enterprise a visit the next time you are searching the web for a unique gift, a quality replacement for the stub you just threw out, or a guilty pleasure like the $9.00 Seed Super Gold High Class Rubber Eraser:

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Before you finish your shopping — or maybe before you begin! — check out Caroline’s helpful selection of pencil-related links on the site’s FAQ page. One of my favorites is How to Find Your Perfect #2.

For those who are curious to learn more, a short video about Caroline and CWPE is available here.

Note — The top two images in this post were obtained from the 2015 New York Times article about CW Pencil Enterprise. The image of the Seed Super Gold Rubber Eraser is from the CWPE website.

SKOAL Journal — aka Viking Bear

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On October 10 I began my most recent journal, but I felt ill-at-ease because I had not located an image to complement its red cover. Normally, I outfit each composition book with artwork ahead of time (i.e. before my current one is filled). Earlier this month — while sorting through my supply of untouched notebooks — I felt drawn to this one because of its association with fall’s palate of golds, oranges, and reds. So I grabbed it.

My first entry recognizes the uncertainty of starting without being fully “prepared.”

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For two weeks I continued with a blank red cover. Every time I grabbed my journal I felt the discouraging reminder that I have to find something soon. Then four days ago, I did!

While sifting through my greeting card box — yes, I actually own one — I picked up the viking bear card seen above. The illustration contains small amounts of red, which match my composition book nicely. After a 20-minute session with an X-ACTO knife, a metal ruler, and some clear packing tape, I smiled with pride and satisfaction. My journal was now really ready for writing. 

Where did the viking bear come from? Trader Joe’s — one of my favorite sources for greeting cards. And this means that the cover image only set me back $0.99. A dollar is a heck of a deal when its artwork provides this level of detail:

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On the back of my journal I placed the card’s inside greeting: SKOÄL.

I love the stylized serif typeface* and the small pair of crossed axes. Super cool.

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What does this strange term mean? SKOÄL is the 400+ year-old Scandinavian interjection used during a toast. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, it comes from the Danish word skål, which means cup. Also super cool.

My only prior exposure to the word SKOÄL is the brand of dipping tobacco that is still advertised in some magazines. Curiously, SKOAL’s smokeless tobacco has been around since 1934. The brand is owned by the behemoth known as the Altria Group, Inc, which used to be named Philip Morris (think Marlboro cigarettes). Altria was formerly the parent company of Nabisco and Kraft. That’s right — two of America’s largest processed food providers were once owned by the company that participated in one of the nation’s greatest health crises (and misinformation campaigns): lung cancer deaths caused by smoking.

From now on, I am going to envision viking bears whenever I encounter the word SKOÄL. And I might even try using the Scandinavian interjection instead of cheers before clinking glasses with those whom I am dining. Bravery, honour, adventure!

* — If you are curious about the difference between the words typeface and font, please see this informative article from Fast Company.

The Fantastic Four

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Of the nearly 80 journals that I have filled over the last 28 years, these four stand in a class of their own. They may be my most valued notebooks — not because of what they contain, but because of how they were acquired. They were gifts from two students.

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In 2014, a pair of my Honors 10 sophomores — Meagan W. and Kathryn L. — presented me with these four custom-designed composition books. When these talented young ladies unveiled the fruits of their labor, I was stunned. And ever since then, I have remained immensely grateful for their care, thoughtfulness, and creativity. Producing these notebooks required an inspired vision, an extraordinary focus, and many hours of labor.

I can honestly say that every time I picked up one of these journals to pen an entry — all of which were composed between Oct. 10, 2014 and Mar. 18, 2016 — I felt the warm rush of pride. Not only was I the fortunate recipient of these students’ gifts, I was able to actively “model them” for over a year and a half in front of the next cohort of Honors 10 enrollees. These four notebooks served as my in-class writing destinations for the 5-minute free-writes that I led with two classes of Honors 10 sophomores every day.

These unique composition books deserve some additional attention because of (1) how they were crafted, (2) the degree of detail that their covers’ contain, and (3) the depth to which they capture aspects of Meagan’s and Kathryn’s experiences in our classroom. I will publish a separate blog post about each notebook in the weeks to come. As part of these posts I will provide additional images of their exteriors, a photo of the first entry that I composed in each one, and a transcription of that entry.

Meagan and Kathryn — who are now accomplished students at Central Michigan University and Michigan State, respectively — have left an indelible mark on their 10th grade English teacher. More importantly, they have touched the life of the person who filled that role. For this reason, Meagan and Kathryn will remain the Dynamic Duo who presented me with The Fantastic Four. They have my enduring and heartfelt thanks.

Mini composition books!

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Big possibilities from small supplies! Modeled after their old-school forbears, these miniature composition books are ready for action. They feature 80 narrow-ruled pages, a thread spine, and surprisingly sturdy front and back covers. The primary difference between these guys and their ancestors is size.

Take a look at the highlighter. Those notebooks are tiny. Whereas traditional composition books measure 9.75 inches by 7.5 inches, these feature dimensions less than half that. They are 4.5 inches tall and 3.25 inches wide. Which makes them adorable.

Cost? Only $0.79 at Meijer. And they come in four colors: black, green, blue, and red.

If you are wondering what to do with a miniature composition book, consider…

  • Filling it with quotations
  • Recording Must-Remember Reminders
  • Maintaining your grocery lists
  • Stashing it in your glove box just in case
  • Keeping track of the books or movies you’d like to read or see
  • Composing haiku on its size-appropriate pages
  • “Texting” on it in order to baffle strangers
  • Giving them away as party favors along with a high-quality pen
  • Writing little notes to your partner and leaving the comp book on his/her pillow
  • Mailing it back and forth to a pen pal instead of using traditional letters

Endless possibilities exist!