Discovering daybooks

Students learn all day long. The thread they pull through the day and capture in their daybooks is their thinking about their thinking - or metacognition. This site is devoted to teaching students the joy of writing, and daybooks help with that. However, a daybook is a tool that crosses subject boundaries. In daybooks, students don’t just learn to write; students write to learn any subject.

Learners record their thoughts in daybooks in order to review, reflect, remember and reuse them – and those thoughts could be about writing or math. For example, when learning to write, students draft.

To make content stick, students take notes.

To discover what they believe, students freewrite.

To decide what they want to accomplish, students set goals, reflect, and reset goals.

To weave all these bits and pieces of thinking, knowledge and understanding together over time, they have to be stored somewhere. The daybook is the perfect place.

The daybook is just a blank book of any sort, usually costing no more than a couple dollars. It’s called a daybook because students write in it every day (Donald Murray). The pages are stitched together so they don’t fall out. The daybook differs from a journal in that students decide what to write in a daybook and how to organize it. They mess around in it, make mistakes, and talk a lot about what they did and how. In elementary school, children use one daybook throughout the day easily. In middle and high school, students are much more apt to use one notebook per class.

Students watch themselves at work and record what they notice. They explore the learning process and find personal strategies that work for them. Through frequent sharing, thinkers find out what makes sense to others. In addition, students build writing fluency, reading comprehension, and knowledge. On their way to creating a final product, students use this place to hold onto their first drafts, thoughts, and ideas they discover throughout their projects.


I tried daybooks out for myself at first. A skeptic, I was reluctant to keep anything other than a loose-leaf notebook when a friend in the UNC Charlotte Writing Project handed me a hardcover composition notebook almost a decade ago. I was a 3-ring-notebook kind of girl. Ripping out pages, moving pages around, and adding hole-punched papers to my own notebook worked for me. At the time, I was not writing for myself, either; I was completing assigned work.

As I began to write for me, I discovered I enjoyed the smallness of the notebook and how it fit in my purse. It traveled with me easily. Having it with me meant I could jot down ideas as they occurred to me and take notes whether at a seminar or watching television. As I experimented with my new daybook, I felt the freedom of not worrying about mistakes, not crossing out ideas nor throwing away pages. I learned to keep the ideas I discarded from one draft to use in other pieces I might write someday. I tried writing in different colors, in the margins and sideways. After all, it was my notebook, and I wasn’t showing it to anyone.

Enhancements came naturally

When I started my second daybook, I decided I needed a table of contents to index the pages. With a table of contents, I could revisit my ideas more easily. To do so, I had to number the pages and I did, in the upper corners. Locating what I needed by flipping the pages with my thumb was easy if the pages were numbered and catalogued.

Thoughts came to me while riding in the car or working at school, eating breakfast or brushing my teeth. My ideas didn’t get lost anymore because my daybook was close at hand. On the rare occasion when I left my daybook at home or at school, I wrote on scraps of paper and then glued them onto the pages when my daybook and I were reunited. When I thought of writing ideas, I began turning to the last page because I could locate it quickly. The last page became my topic list.

I began inventing solutions to my writing problems. I labeled ideas I wanted to come back to with quickly drawn clouds that I could spot as I flipped through the pages. I kept vocabulary and character pages. I couldn’t figure out how to balance handouts and my daybook at the same time. My solution was to fold the page in half, run a glue stick down both sides of the folded edge, and then stuff the fold of the paper inside my notebook. The paper stuck so well I could lift the daybook by holding the handout.

Sharing what I had learned

Once I’d seen how much I’d grown as a writer by using a daybook, I wanted my elementary children to use them, too. I realized that since daybooks are difficult to explain, they would require some introduction. I wanted to balance the structure we needed to use writing as a thinking tool with student ownership and inventiveness so kids loved their daybooks like I did.

I’ve tweaked my design by using daybooks mostly with elementary children, but also over the last dozen years with high-school students and teachers. As I look back over my set of daybooks on my office shelf, I can see how my learning has evolved dramatically. I offer my suggestions knowing that I continue to change my approach with every new group of students and as my understanding of the daybooking process grows.

NEXT: Daybooks - A powerful learning tool


Lots of 'stuff'

Most of what goes into a notebook defies description. Labeling it, well, stuff, is about as close as you can get. If your notebook is like mine, it will fill up with stuff you can’t quite live without. - Ralph Fletcher: Breathing In, Breathing Out

"If you write in your journal it shows you better things ... It makes you think more. It makes your mind pop open."

– Molly, 4th grade


Copyright 2018 by Karen Haag

A resource for people passionate about helping students write well, compiled by Karen Haag

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