If you are a writer or are teaching or encouraging someone to write, be sure to read this guest post from my friend and writing teacher Karen Haag. I’m so happy she stopped by The Writer’s Desk because her tips are so valuable for writers and aspiring writers of all ages and levels of experience.
Daybooks Are Not Diaries: They Are Powerful Discovery Tools
You (or your child or grandchild) might want to keep a daybook this summer – the spark that moves you to new discoveries. Scientists, weight-watchers, artists, gamers, mathematicians, and yes, writers use notebooks to reach their goals. You’ll be in good company.
I call my writing notebook a daybook. Since listening to author Donald Murray talk about the 200+ daybooks he’d filled in his lifetime, I was inspired to name my notebook after his. “I record everything I want to remember during the day in my daybook. That’s why I call it a ‘day book,’” he said. Call it a notebook, an interactive notebook, a response journal or something you make up; just don’t call it a diary, because it’s different.
This story might explain why these kinds of notebooks are not diaries and why they’re so powerful for learners of all ages.
I sat on 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 about how to keep a daybook. The teachers wanted to implement daybooks in their classrooms. They peppered me with questions. They asked questions like how am I going to make sure the kids number the pages? How can I be sure the students will use the pages in order? How can I know they’re doing the assigned writing? How will I grade the notebooks? From listening to what they said, I realized we defined daybooks differently.
I thought about the questions that were missing from the conversation. The teachers weren’t asking me about how to foster a culture of thinking or how to help writers who are perfectionists or how to help students find their passion. With each question, I found myself trying to explain how writing in daybooks is unlike school assignments of the past. The teachers understood that daybooks are worthy tools that foster thinking, but they were trying to fit them into a traditional classroom structure.
Finally, as darkness settled around us, I asked, “What are you writing?” At first they were silent, but eventually, one by one, they said, “Nothing.”
“Yes, you are,” I insisted. “Or, you could be.” As we talked further, one woman shared that she was writing papers for her master’s degree.
“Then, what would be in her daybook?” I asked the others. Silence. “Probably data to support the thesis of her next paper,” I suggested. “If she heard relevant facts when watching television, or if she read something in a journal or online, or if she overheard someone talking, or if her professor mentioned some pertinent tidbit, she would write these scraps down. Over time, the scraps could be sorted into categories. The details would form patterns, generalizations and conclusions. Her paper would take shape. She would collect what she needed for her class not knowing during the process how all the strings would tie together eventually. However, understanding that the pieces were important and that some would end up in her final tapestry would make 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. “You begin with a goal and start collecting pieces that move you toward that goal and leave out all the stuff that doesn’t. Your mom would collect recipes that make her feel better. She could glue in inspirational articles to read over and over. She might write down what made her feel better and what made her feel worse. She’d write to try to make sense of what was happening to gain some control over the situation.”
Another teacher wanted to write stories for her children. 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 at the end of the year, I had a book. That’s also what a daybook can be used for… to write just a little every day. And then, turn those little entries into chapters when you have longer blocks of time in which to work.
The conversation on the restaurant patio mirrors the confusion over daybooks that I hear frequently. What people describe aren’t daybooks at all but diaries or even work that a teacher might assign and grade.
Daybooks can be found throughout history and in all content areas though people don’t call them by that name. DaVinci designed airplanes in the pages of a notebook. My husband, a journalist, uses reporter’s pads to gather information and eventually write his stories – throwing out as much or more than he keeps. My brother, a chemical engineer, records data in field journals as he and his associates experiment with designing fuel cells. My son, an artist, draws his ideas in sketch journals. A friend keeps a wine daybook, recording what he learned about what he likes, the names of the best wines and prices he finds on his wine tasting tours, and places he wants to remember.
What we have in every case is not a polished, final work but the groundwork, the thinking, the foundation of that work. Daybooks are essential to discovery and learning. You record the journey on the way to your goal.
Here are six principles that will unleash the power of daybooking as a catalyst for creative thinking and growth.
- Pick a daybook. Pick a notebook you want to write in. Don’t worry about messing up the pages even if they are beautiful. Be sure to pick something you enjoy feeling and smelling. Pick a great pen or pencil, too. Or, use your iPad or smart phone. A daybook has to be with you always if you’re going to capture the creative thinking that happens when you least expect it.
- Establish a goal. (1) Think about what interests you. Write, cook, collect, invent, play a sport, lose weight, run, garden, travel, search your genealogy, build a tree fort, get organized? (2) Then, determine your goal like: write a story, lose 20 pounds, make a book about your trip, run a marathon, design a garden, or make money. I keep different daybooks for different goals, so you may need more than one. If you’re working in a paper notebook, you might want to number the pages. Also, leave a couple pages free at the beginning for making a Table of Contents, so you can find the things you need.
- Record the steps you take towards your goal. Jump in and start recording. Observe others do what you want to do and interview them. Record their advice. Read. Take notes and record your reactions. Cut out and paste articles or small tidbits onto your pages. Gather a list of websites. Think. Mind map your brainstorming. Your entries will look like a messy jumble of notes and diagrams that others probably won’t be able to understand. Eventually, patterns will form, you’ll discover what works and what doesn’t, and you’ll progress toward your goal.
- Play in your daybook. From messing around as children, we got into trouble and had to figure our way out. Mistakes forced us to solve problems. Thinking our way out of trouble taught us to trust our instincts. From play, we gained confidence and wisdom. So too, we play in our daybooks. That means you can allow yourself to write “badly”, skip pages, draw, go out of order if you feel like it, scribble and doodle, make sections. No one is going to see your notebook. It is the perfect place to be imperfect, get back up, and try again. This kind of thinking is ambiguous and disordered, but recording the details, possibly your timeline, and reflections is one way we jump over hurdles and move towards our final goal.
- Talk regularly about your discoveries. Find someone who will share your hobby or listen to you talk about it. Look at your notes and try to make sense of what you’re learning. Talk through your work with someone and watch the discoveries you make or what you learn from the input they give you. Record those, too.
- Assess your work. Using daybooks is a part of a rigorous habit that fosters self-assessment. The beauty of recording your thinking and discoveries is that you can look back, reread, reuse, revise, and remember. Rereading daybooks is a perfect “think work” activity worthy of your time. When you track and examine your initial work, write reflective essays, and set goals for the next unit of time, your learning grows.
My friends at the restaurant that evening and I reached an understanding that a daybook is a tool to help participants capture their thinking on their way to learning or improving. Each daybook is different depending on the goals. Even the look, the structure, of each daybook will be different because there’s no right way to keep one. Once you start, I promise you will know what to collect. For more help, read these pages on my website, Like To Write. Please, come back here and comment on what you learned, so others can learn from you.
© Karen Haag, May 26, 2015
Karen taught students in 3 states from elementary to college for 20 years. She was one of the first literacy coaches in North Carolina transitioning in 1993. Karen most recently served as a reading specialist and coach in the District and School Transformation division of the NC Department of Public Instruction from 20011-2014.
Karen recently contributed articles to ILA’s What’s New in Literacy Teaching? Weaving Together Time-Honored Practices with New Research (2015). She co-authored ReadyTest for Learning A-Z (2014), “Differentiated Coaching” in The Reading Teacher (2011), and Thinking Out Loud on Paper: The Student Daybook as a Tool to Foster Learning. published by Heinemann in 2008. She also shares her knowledge on Like To Read and Like To Write as well as her Facebook page.
As a consultant, Karen developed interactive workshops, which grew out of her interest in teacher research. She specializes in residencies, which include professional development, demonstration lessons, teacher observations with feedback, and follow up. You can reach her through her websites.