Teacher-researcher is not a fancy title only a few of us have. Every teacher who considers how to improve her or his classroom is one.
A tool for teacher research, too
A fourth-grade child approached me and asked, “I revised this lead. Is it good enough to go in your daybook?” Her question to me (and that revised lead) went straight into my daybook. I wanted to keep track of everything that was happening in my classroom, and this moment seemed worth capturing. As part of our Writing Project’s teacher research group, I decided to focus on teaching revision. I thought that a careful study of my practices would help me learn how to be a more successful teacher. I didn’t much think about how my research would affect my elementary children.
I posed my question, “How can I teach elementary children to revise and like it?” I designed lessons that I thought could help. I showed them how to revise by color coding sentences, underlining sentences in colors that went together. I showed them how to cut and paste. On this particular day, I was demonstrating how to write several leads and choose the best from among them.
My students knew about my research project. When they did something I found worth writing down, I usually said something like, “Wow. I really liked how you re-organized that paragraph. Do you mind if I copy that in my daybook?” We often started our writing block with a minilesson highlighting the good work I’d seen the day before or the revision work I had done on my own pieces. To do that meant that I’d sit in a circle with my class and read what I’d recorded in my daybook.
Better than an A
I hadn’t really given a thought to the fact that students noticed my habit of copying their attempts at revising. This observant child believed that if I recorded his lead in my daybook, he had written well. It was better than an A. The teacher wanted to record his writing forever. After that, the highest compliment I could pay my children was to ask to keep a copy of their work. I still remember his lead to this day: “I’m not going to tell you this story the way it happened. I’m going to tell you the way I remember it.” I know because I have a record of his writing in my daybook.
Teacher-researcher is not a fancy title only a few of us have. Every teacher who considers how to improve her or his classroom is one. At first the daybook was just a tool to write down the gist of the lessons taught, the students’ reaction to them, and ideas for making them better. I still do that but now I write. I collect kernels that might turn into articles about teaching.
At the time of my story, I hadn’t taught the children how to use daybooks, yet. That came later after completing the UNC Charlotte Writing Project. It was there that I learned to take implementation of new ideas slowly. I gave myself 3 years to learn to merge daybooks into my classroom. Still, our use morphs every year depending on the children, the age level, and the needs.
Transition can take time
Using daybooks is a bit confusing at first for everyone who tries them. For example, last October I walked into a fourth-grade classroom and gave directions, “Get out the daybook you are writing in and put it on your desk for today’s lesson.”
“I don’t have a daybook I write in,” a fourth grader said, hand raised.
“Well…Do you have a daybook you don’t write in?” I asked jokingly.
He surprised me! “Yes,” he said.
“Well, get that one out then!” And he did.
He had a composition notebook in his desk! He wasn’t sarcastic. He was telling me he didn’t use one and didn’t really know how. I paid attention. I pulled the children to the rug and talked about how to figure out what to write about again. Children shared the stories they were writing. I asked how they came up with their ideas.
I affirmed his struggle. “All writers have trouble thinking about ideas at times,” I said and went on to explain how most writers have favorite topics. I again reiterated that it was fine to write a poem and several stories about baseball. He could write a biography of one of his favorite baseball players. I advised these young writers to get a topic they love and pursue it.
We also talked about how to bring your daybook back and forth to school. I told them that I have a bag I put mine in. Every day, I put it in the bag at school at the end of the day and bring it home. I put it in the bag after I write at home so I remember to bring it back to school. The room erupted in chatter as the partners explained to one another how they take care of their daybooks. When we shared ideas, one student told us that she now had a “night book.” She could never remember her book so she had one for the day and for the night! She kept it by her bed because so many ideas came to her at that time. Daybooks morph depending on the children, their age and their needs.
Writing helps me improve, too
By writing down what happens, I remember how to teach better. The simple act of recording it makes me remember. Often the stories just become embedded in my memory. Other times, I use my Table of Contents to look them up, find an anecdote, or a book, a page number, or an idea that may have been lost, as Nikki Grimes said, “like gossamer.”
It’s February as I write. My third grade class in a Title I school has formed a community of writers! I came to the class to demonstrate how to know when one paragraph ends and the next begins. We came up with some suggestions. Ideas change. Time and settings change. Beginning, middle and ends are great places for paragraphs. Paragraphs are not that long, maybe 1 to 5 or 6 sentences in third grade. But, here’s the exciting thing.
No one was taking notes in the same way. As I walked around the room to see what they were gleaning from the lesson, I found one child making a little handout like I usually give them. He cut it out and pasted it on the inside cover of his daybook, “because this is important.” One child wrote on the last page. “I want to be able to find this [information].” Some were writing in colors. Some were dating and writing in their Table of Contents as they waited for their classmates to get the ideas down. One child needed help deciding where he should write the notes, not because he wasn’t using his daybook but because he had a system going. “I am writing a story right now and I need a lot of pages for my story. If I write the notes right here they will be in the middle of my story and I won’t find them.” His friends jumped in with suggestions.
As a teacher researcher, I write this story in my daybook to give me joy and hope. Next year, come September I will be pulling my hair out and I will not remember that there will come a day, usually in January or February, when they get it. Daybooks morph depending on the children, their age and their needs. The daybooks are theirs and they have permission to use them in any way that helps them be better readers and writers.
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