A powerful tool for learning

Teachers and students understand the note-taking part and the gluing-in-the-handouts part of daybooks. They experiment with reader response, partner-journal writing, and double-entry journals willingly. Kids keep topic pages and table of contents and vocabulary pages. Students fill the pages with writing. Teachers and students get that part, the assignment part.

The part that confuses teachers and students is the differentiation piece – the pages in the daybook that are unique to each writer. Many teachers say they are reluctant to allow kids ownership of their daybooks, so that students determine their personal daybook set-up, the order they use the pages, and the topics they write about. Surprisingly, students also complain. They don’t know what to write about. They ask, “Can this go in my daybook?”

When daybooks get lost or assignments go unfinished, and when kids keep asking us for permission to use daybooks in individual ways, I question whether students own their daybooks. Giving students choice is critical on so many levels. When students feel ownership of their daybooks, they use the learning style that works best for them, they are more likely to be successful, they are free to concentrate on learning content unencumbered by fear of breaking the teacher’s rules, they enjoy keeping a daybook, and we nurture their creativity.

Daybooks are different than journals of the past

This next story might further illustrate the part about daybooks I find so hard to explain. I sat at a restaurant patio one summer evening with a group of teachers. They’d read Thinking Out Loud on Paper, a book six of us with the UNC-Charlotte Writing Project co-authored. The teachers wanted to use daybooks in their classrooms.

They peppered me with questions for two hours. “How am I going to make sure the kids number their pages?” “How do I know the students will go in order?” “How can I make sure they’re doing the assigned writing in there?” “How will I grade the notebooks?”

While I understood these management issues, I couldn’t help but think about the questions that were missing from the conversation: How do I foster a culture of thinking? How do I help writers who are perfectionists? How can I help students find their voices? I realized we understood daybooks differently.

As darkness settled around us, I asked, “What are you writing?” At first it was pretty quiet. Finally, one woman shared that she was writing papers for her master’s degree. “What would be in her daybook?” I asked the others.

A tool for reflection and learning

I explained. While watching television, or reading the Internet, or hearing her professor mention a detail that pertained to her paper, she’d write these scraps down in her daybook as notes. The details would form patterns, generalizations and conclusions eventually. Over time, she’d find subtopics in the scraps. Her paper would take shape. She would have collected what she needed for her paper without a clue at first as to how all the strings would tie together. Just knowing that some of the pieces would be valuable and end up in the final tapestry would make daybook collecting useful and important.

My explanation frustrated one of the teachers. “My mother has cancer and she’s trying to keep a daybook. She hates it. She doesn’t want to read it and remember how bad she felt.”

“A daybook is not a diary; it is a problem-solving, discovery tool,” I responded. “If your mother was keeping a daybook, she would collect recipes that make her feel better. She would glue in inspirational articles to read over and over. She might log what made her feel better or worse or record her weight to see if she’s losing or gaining. She’d write to gain a measure of control over the situation or to support others.” A daybook is different in that way.

Another teacher wanted to write the stories that her family loves telling. None were written down yet. Since she thought she had to write a whole story in one sitting, she hadn’t gotten very far. But what if she wrote a few minutes each day? One year I wrote 2 pages a week and in a year, I had a book. When we have just a few minutes, we write what we can in our daybooks, and then later when we have longer blocks of time in which to work, we turn those little entries into meaningful "somethings."

The conversation on the patio mirrors the confusion that I hear frequently from students and their teachers. What they describe aren’t daybooks at all but journals or diaries or even seatwork to be taken up and graded by teachers.

The project determines the content

Each daybook is unique depending on the students’ goals, abilities, and projects. The look, the structure, the content, the pages – everything is different even among students in one classroom. Once students understand what they’re building, confusion fades; they know what to collect to get the job done.

The teachers left excited that daybooks aren’t perfect, grade-able books, and another burden for them. Best of all, everyone said they now could see the importance of keeping a personal daybook. They drove away energized by the writing they planned to do.

Also, our conversation forced me to think about my project – writing about daybooks - in a new way. Upon reflection, I wrote Principles for Daybook Success as a result of talking and note taking on the restaurant patio.

NEXT: Principles for Daybook Success

A place for passion

"I like daybooks because you can feel passionet about what you write about and dosen't matter if it's a good story or a bad story it matters if you care and if you put your best effort to it." - Destiny, 4th grade


The writer's notebook “has cut down on running off (worksheets) tremendously, because you’re getting kids to do more of the writing, which is going to help them with their thinking." – teacher


A daybook is not a diary; it is a problem-solving, discovery tool.

Copyright 2018 by Karen Haag

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

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