A few years ago, my best friend Penny gave me Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand in the Sun and Be Your Own Person by Shonda Rhimes. Penny and I have been faithful followers of Grey’s Anatomy since it first aired, so she knew I would enjoy learning a bit of Shonda’s story.
The book details a year in Shonda’s life that stems from a discussion with her oldest sister at Thanksgiving in 2013, a discussion that centers on one statement:
“You never say yes to anything.”
Shonda describes how this statement created a pivotal moment in her life. The statement sticks with her until it wakes her up in the middle of the night several weeks later.
What follows is an inner monologue in which Shonda reveals her introverted nature, and as I was reading it, I was struck by how her words could have flowed from many students in my classroom that year. She has a revelation at the end of the monologue, and admits she is unhappy, even though she doesn’t feel she is “allowed” to be unhappy. This was another feeling I knew several students in my class held inside. As the title suggests, she commits to saying yes to as much as possible for an entire year to address her sister’s statement.
I decided to use this story as an after-holiday-break quickwrite. I shared some of the information in story form, and I read a couple of key pieces out loud, making sure to pick classroom-appropriate sections. Then I asked the students to reflect on what they could “say yes” to in their lives to help them reach a goal or generate more happiness. We all wrote for three minutes, and then for another three minutes, since no one was ready to stop when the usual length of time was up.
A few students were willing to share out loud, but most said their writing was too personal, and I respected that. Many said how much they enjoyed writing this quickwrite, and a few even said they were going to add more later. I transitioned to a discussion on stream-of-consciousness as a stylistic choice, and we had a fun first day back from break.
What struck me most about this experience was the way students kept bringing it up over the next few weeks. Some would come up to me in the hall to say they had been “saying yes” more often. Other said they told their parents about the writing and their parents offered to help them reach their goals. One girl asked if she could meet with me in private, and she shared her realization that she had not been very kind to a few other girls in the class because she felt inferior to them without cause. My goal had been to ease into a new semester with something I thought students might enjoy, and I had not anticipated the depth of their response to the assignment. I vowed to weave in more reflective quickwrites.
This kind of reflective journaling is not new, but some of the research about it is. In a recent New York Times article “What’s All This About Journaling?” noted the resurgence of reflective writing:
Once the domain of teenage girls and the literati, journaling has become a hallmark of the so-called self-care movement, right up there with meditation. And for good reason: Scientific studies have shown it to be essentially a panacea for modern life. There are the obvious benefits, like a boost in mindfulness, memory and communication skills. But studies have also found that writing in a journal can lead to better sleep, a stronger immune system, more self-confidence and a higher I.Q.
With all of these benefits and the current focus on trauma-informed teaching, reflective journaling is worth fitting into your curriculum if you have the option. I used my students’ positive reactions as my motivation to keep this as a first-day-back-from-break activity from that year on, and now I’m sharing it with you. Enjoy, and Happy New Year!