Guidelines for daybook success
Follow these guidelines to unleash the daybook’s power as a catalyst for innovative thinking.
1. Maintain your own daybook.
Working on your own projects will help you better understand the struggles and challenges your students confront in creating their daybooks. You will be able to authentically join in the conversation with your students about what works and what needs work. You can turn your own pages into minilessons: How did I think of a topic? Did I plan? What criteria did I follow when selecting dialogue to include? Did I revise? Where did I struggle and how did I get past it? Can I share this great discovery with you?
2. Teach kids that daybook entries are stepping-stones to their final work.
Daybook writing is practice, not end product. Nothing in the daybook is perfect, much less ready for grading. In truth, the daybook contains a messy jumble of entries. When students select a piece to publish, they write the second draft on paper or the computer. Sometimes they reread their daybooks and combine all the scraps they collected into a coherent whole. They read it to others for feedback. From all of these steps will come that final version – the product you grade.
3. Encourage students to write what they want to write in their daybooks.
We want kids to use their daybooks to write badly, skip pages, draw, write novels, make lists, write at the back, scribble and doodle. Time and again, they’ll ask, “Can I...?” – and you need to say, “Of course!” – until they really believe they can.
Daybooks should become so valuable to students that they worry about losing them, and the only way that can happen is if students can write about what they want to write about, filling the pages with their stories, their drawings, their insights, their hearts.
4. Give kids freedom to play in their daybooks.
Playing is one way we jump students over hurdles and move them toward work. From messing around as children, we got into trouble, figured our way out and learned to trust our instincts. We gained confidence and wisdom. We never bothered our mothers with the details.
The daybook can provide a safe place to make mistakes, get back up and try again. Students can cross out and rethink their writing. As they play with their writing they will take risks, look at topics from different perspectives, share, revise, and form workable ideas. And through that play, students will gain confidence in their ability to write fluently and present ideas logically.
They’ll also have far less need to ask you questions like, “How many pages?” “What should I write about?” and “Why do I have to write?”
5. Talk regularly with students about what works and what needs work.
It’s all in the language we use with our students: “Has anyone found another way to keep track of pages besides the Table of Contents that’s working? Please share!” Asking for input in this way clearly demonstrates that we appreciate students’ ingenuity. For example, one day I asked my writers how they decided what to write for homework. By listing their ideas, I affirmed the children who solved the problem and modeled for others that thinking is valued. Asking students what’s hard about keeping daybooks, commiserating along with them, brainstorming solutions, evaluating, and then trying new ideas lets kids in on a secret: all writers struggle. The daybook becomes theirs, not ours, when we sit in problem-solving, success-affirming circles and talk like writers do.
6. Use daybooks to assess progress, not content.
Where else but in a daybook can you find a record of day-to-day metacognition? The year’s work is held tight between the covers. That alone makes daybooks different. This permanent record lets students and teachers see a progression of thinking over time. Rereading daybooks is a perfect “thinkwork” assignment for students of all ages. Writers spread out their daybooks, draft folders and portfolios. They analyze their progress using sticky notes to flag evidence of the conclusions they have drawn. From their discoveries, students write reflective letters assessing their work and setting new goals. Teachers can grade their students' progress, not content of the individual daybook pages (Urbanski).
Imagine a high school “exam” that lets you truly understand each student’s progress, as well as the areas where they need your help. Student-generated assessments based on their daybooks can provide that window, as English teacher Jennifer Ward has discovered. “It's by far the best "exam" I think I've ever administered,” Ward wrote. She had asked her students to use their daybooks and write to explain what they learned in the past semester.
“Reading them provided me with deeper insight into the lives, the thoughts, and the learning of each individual student in my classroom,” Jennifer said. (Click here to read Jennifer's full letter to me.)
NEXT: A tool for teacher research, too