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Beyond Busy-Work:
Daybooks as a Tool for Effective Critical Engagement in a Writing-to-Learn Course

William P Banks
Associate Professor
Department of English

As a writing teacher and scholar, I feel fairly confident when it comes to teaching my writing classes. I know many effective methods for teaching students to write well in a variety of genres, and I feel comfortable helping them at all stages of their writing processes, from invention to publishing.  But outside of the “writing class,” the space roped off to be only about writing, I’m less certain about my abilities or what I’m trying to do.  Occasionally, I teach literature and women’s studies courses, and in those spaces, I’m much less certain about how best to cover the content-area materials and the writing.  How much time do I spend writing in-class? How much time should I spend teaching invention? research? editing? revision? How many drafts of papers should I assign? And ultimately, if I do all of the work I know it takes to foster effective writing, what will I have to cut from the reading curriculum?  

So while I’m knowledgeable of the research on writing and learning to write, I’m infinitely less comfortable using writing in other spaces, but I’d like to think that my use of writing-to-learn activities is improving.  To be successful in a “non-writing” class, the first thing I had to move beyond was the idea that there was only one kind of writing (the academic essay) and that only that genre (if it is a genre) could demonstrate student learning.  For me, the literature classes that I teach ultimately focus on helping students to develop methods and methodologies for critically engaging published texts. To that end, a few years ago, I began to rethink how I might better incorporate writing-to-learn (WTL) activities in my reading-oriented classes, activities that would demonstrate effective critical engagement with texts but didn’t require the in-class time for writing instruction and the out-of-class time for responding to long, researched essays.  For me, one of my “best practices” has become the daybook. 

From Journals to Daybooks: Rethinking Engagement 

Daybooks, while the name may not be familiar, are not altogether a foreign concept for most teachers of writing and writing-intensive classes. Building on the pedagogical ideas of scholars like Peter Elbow, Donald Murray, and Toby Fullwiler, teachers have used journals for students to freewrite about ideas, to keep up with thoughts about future projects, and to reflect on their reading, writing, and thinking in class.  As a writing teacher, I was never really comfortable with journals: they have always seemed private or personal in a way that made bringing them into the classroom space (and into grading) somehow inappropriate, and much of the literature on using journals ends up being about how to navigate the sticky assessment waters that such artifacts create.  When I think of effective journaling, however, I also rarely think of being assigned something to write by a teacher who will one day evaluate my work. I think of snippets of text, copying other people’s ideas/words, reflecting on them quickly, connecting them to my grocery list or my Christmas shopping ideas, running back to some other thought I need to get down before I lose it, pressing a treasured object to the page, including a business card and a note to myself about why – the host of thinking texts that often come before, during, and after more focused, engaged writing activities.

But that wasn’t what I was doing in my classes with journals, where I’d assign “prompts” and “topics.”  So when I stumbled upon Thinking Out Loud on Paper: The Student Daybook as a Tool to Foster Learning (Brannon et al, 2008), I was pleased to see that “journals” could be seriously rethought as classroom tools.  Brannon et al helped me to re-envision journals as “daybooks,” as collections of the snippets of thinking and engagement that students and teachers alike can engage in:

We think of the daybook like that drawer in the kitchen where we stick everything that does not yet have a place, but we know we might need someday. It’s not quite trash, but it is the leftovers, the twist ties, the artifacts of where we have been. The daybook serves as a place where students put all of their thoughts throughout the day. (11)
And while I like the metaphor of the kitchen catch-all drawer, I also recognized that the authors were thinking primarily in terms of K-12 teachers, teachers who are with their students daily for long amounts of time. Could such a book “work” in a college class?  And if I used them, would the students perceive these daybooks as serious, college-level work?

Building My Own Daybook: Teacher-as-User, Teacher-as-Guinea-Pig  

The daybook seemed like a huge investment to do well, so as a teacher, I was hesitant to try it.  If it flopped, then a huge chunk of my class would have flopped, not just a single paper or short writing assignment.  So the longer I thought about the idea, the more I felt the need to use a daybook myself for a while.  I spent two years with a daybook, using it more and more and more each week.  My first daybook took forever to fill. I’m more drawn to computers and digital technologies – I hate writing with a pen or pencil – so there was a great deal of resistance personally.  Then two summers ago, during the Tar River Writing Project (http://www.trwp.org) Summer Institute, I made a commitment to write as much as possible in my daybook and to quit “hiding” behind my laptop while in the classroom.  That experience helped me to see for myself that the snippets and chunks, as well as the longer, multi-page reflections and first-drafts, could all work together in a journal in useful ways. 

A year later, I was teaching my English 4950: Children’s Literature course in London as part of a Summer Study Abroad program at ECU.  The daybook seemed like a good tool for helping the students to connect the literature we were reading, the class discussions we would have, and the city/country we’d be visiting.  The experience of using the daybook in London really helped me to think about “journals” as more than just writing in a narrow sense. It became part scrapbook – with pictures, ticket stubs, a pressed flower, a seemingly random flyer – and part critical thinking tool – with notes from class discussions and readings, reflections on characters from the novels; it was equally a repository for the thoughtful collector and a place to reflect on that collection in the context of the course goals.  Because of the inclusion of pictures and found objects, as well as first impressions and quotations from the books, the students began to see their daybooks as intensely important to them and their trip.  They carried them around London, jotting down pieces while stopped in Regent’s Park or on the South Bank, or while riding the train out to Oxford, and they mixed various media and artifacts with their words to create a meaningful picture of their London experience.  

Their productive engagement made me think that perhaps this daybook idea would work in my regular Children’s Literature course.  While English 4950 is no longer officially “writing intensive,” I cannot imagine teaching any English course without its having a significant writing component; writing is one of the primary methods for making  meaning in all the disciplines that make up English Studies. And because I kept a daybook in London along with my students, I was able to use the London experience to think carefully about what I wanted to add to the daybook assignment to better construct a productive, inquiry-oriented, writing to learn tool for the class. 

Figuring It Out: Daybooks for Critical Engagement 

In Spring 2010, as part of my Children’s Literature course (http://courses.rhetprof.net/eng4950), students were required to keep daybooks as a significant portion of their course grade and of my evaluation (and their self-evaluation) of their learning in the course. I don’t believe in quizzes; they are the refuge of teachers with zero imagination and little productive engagement with students as actual learners.  Likewise, I find the artificiality of most tests renders them equally useless for knowing if and when students are actually learning something. I found the daybooks to be the best learning indicator I’ve used in English 4950, but that took careful thought and scaffolding on my part as the teacher.   

As my instructions to the students make clear (http://courses.rhetprof.net/eng4950/assign#mp2), the daybook was intended to be the key space in which they write, think, and learn during the semester, ultimately accounting for 40% of their course grade.  Toward that end, there were some ongoing projects that I required of the students.  While I know that students read extensively on their own time, I also recognize that they read primarily for pleasure and enjoyment, for escape and entertainment, and periodically to learn something specific or how to do something specific.  Rarely do students (or people who aren’t professors, for that matter) read in order to be analytical, in order to synthesize complex ideas, and to write papers about them.  As such, I always feel it important to teach and encourage active reading practices. To that end, students were required to record 20 – 25 key quotations from each of the nine novels we read during the semester; students could choose quotations they thought interesting or especially amusing, but I also encouraged them to keep track of key quotations that told them something important about key characters in the novels (young adult literature is often character driven, after all). Aside from being a sort of “busy work,” this cataloguing of quotations had the positive effect of giving the students specific examples to reference during class discussions and led to more productive class discussion because students knew they had something to contribute.  

In addition to archiving key quotations from the novels, students were also required to connect course concepts to readings beyond the course.  Each week, students were required to find a newspaper or periodical article that was, in some way, about children, childhood, adolescents/adolescence, or youth culture. They were to cut out (or print out from the web) those articles and glue them into their daybooks; with each, they wrote an analysis of how those articles constructed or made use of various notions of children/childhood as part of their arguments or points.  If possible, they were to connect those constructions to the novels, stories, and poems we read.  It took students several weeks to take this project seriously and to see how it connects (or could), but eventually most of them began to see those connections and began to think more carefully about the articles they chose – and why they chose them. 

Most of the reading-writing-thinking activities in the daybook were part of class.  Sometimes, we’d start class with a quick-write; other times, we’d end class with them.  Sometimes, I’d ask students to draw in their daybooks – after reading Peter Pan, and particularly Barrie’s description of the Neverlands, I asked them to draw what their individual Neverlands would look like. One day, while discussing Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” and “The Nightingale,” I projected some of Edmund Dulac’s paintings of those fairy tales on the screen and had students write about whether Dulac “got it right” in his portrayals of the characters.  Rather than ask students to buy various books of poetry for children, I shared some poems with them and then required them to find poems for children on the web or in library books; they included their poems and rationales for selection in their daybooks. From their daybooks, then, we spent class time in small groups, reading and sharing the poetry and nominating pieces to read aloud to the whole class for more intense discussions. When we read Joseph Bruchac’s Code Talker, about the Navajo code breakers in World War II, students found images of “Native Americans” and “American Indians” that they saw as representative, and then we talked about how those images reflect non-specific or over-generalized stereotypes and/or assumptions about native peoples and we challenged how and why those images function synecdochally. 

Reading roughly one novel per week, we moved at a break-neck pace, so to avoid the daybook activities seeming like mere busy work, we would also spend time “coding” our daybooks.  For me, and for the authors of Thinking Out Loud on Paper, the work of coding daybooks and “thinking about thinking” is key for making these more than random bits of text and image. On different occasions, I gave the students short activities in class that asked them to synthesize information, connect novels thematically, demonstrate intersections among articles and novels and poems, etc. One “coding” activity involved looking back at two or three of their novel quotation collections and naming the themes/issues that the quotations represented.  As patterns emerged and repeated themselves, we assigned two or three themes to specific highlighter colors, and I asked the students to look at the other texts in their daybooks (reflections, articles, quick-writes, etc) to highlight moments when those themes occur.  This sort of project teaches a research/inquiry methodology (grounded theory and axial coding) that my discipline uses, and demonstrates how undergraduates might use it for meaning-making. Another useful synthesis activity involved having the students find three or four of their articles online and copy the texts of all of them into Wordle (http://wordle.net), which would then output them into word maps in which word size is related to the frequency of the word’s appearance.  They printed their Wordles and glued them into their daybooks; then they wrote reflections on what they learned: what word frequencies were obvious when writing about children/childhood? what word frequencies were surprising? why? These activities then made the final analytical/framing essay much easier for the students; they had, after all, been practicing the critical thinking the essay required all semester and they had a composition book filled with artifacts to examine. 

Framing the Daybook: Analytical Writing and Critical Engagement  

What sets the daybook apart from being only a journal-scrapbook combination is the framing essay that students write to accompany the daybook when the project is due. Like the reflective cover letter that prefaces writing portfolios in writing courses, the framing essay is analytical in nature. It provides a space for students to turn their critical eyes to their own work, in this case as reflected in the daybook itself. While the students are asked, throughout the semester, to collect quotations from novels and build thematic taxonomies from them, to analyze articles from the newspaper and connect them to the novels from class, to render texts in visual forms to connect multiple types of knowing, they tend not to think of all those shorter reflective/analytical activities as helpful until they are tasked with writing a four – eight page essay in which they demonstrate how they have met the course goals/objectives using only their daybooks as evidence.  When students sit down to look at their daybooks and construct the framing essay, they begin to see how all of the projects and activities in the daybook have been oriented toward helping them to better meet the course goals.  

As I discovered with my Spring 2010 Children’s Literature course, however, this framing essay is not easy to write.  Most of the students’ daybooks ranged from 65 – 100 pages of reading-writing-thinking activities, which represents a great deal of disparate texts to synthesize.  Some students attempted to write about all those items in their essay; others chose a smattering.  Some students struggled to find the really important parts of the daybook, while others could easily name the key learning moments as reflected in their daybook activities, but struggled to synthesize them and to articulate what they actually learned from the activities. All told, the students struggled to articulate a coherent, focused sense of their own learning. Part of this, of course, can be related to a larger pedagogical problem where students complete increasingly compartmentalized tasks but are rarely asked to reflect broadly and synthetically on their learning. Daybooks represent one attempt I’m making to help students bridge multiple and varied spaces where their learning happens. 

Despite the drawbacks of the current instantiation, I’m excited about what the daybook can do next time I use it, about the changes I’m already envisioning (I have two pages of notes for what to do differently next time, all based on reading through the daybooks and framing essays), and about the varied types of learning that the students and I can work together to get into the larger project. 

Works Cited 

Brannon, Lilian, Sally Griffin, Karen Haag, Tony Iannone, Cynthia Urbanski, and Shana Woodward. Thinking Out Loud on Paper: The Student Daybook as a Tool to Foster Learning. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2008. 

Elbow, Peter. Everyone Can Write: Essays Toward a Hopeful Theory of Writing and Teaching Writing. New York: Oxford UP, 2000. 

-----. Writing Without Teachers. New York: Oxford UP, 1998. 

Fulwiler, Toby, ed. The Journal Book. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook:, 1987.

Murray, Donald. Writing to Learn. New York: Wadsworth, 2004.

View the appendices for Dr. Banks' article here.