By Susan Daniels, Ph.D., author of Visual Learning and Teaching: An Essential Guide for Educators K–8
Visual journaling with kids is a favorite enrichment activity—personally and academically. I’ve taught every grade level from kindergarten to eighth and have used visual journals with students at each of these grade levels. Visual journals are an effective learning tool in academic areas including English language arts, math, science, and social studies, as well as in elective courses or for special topics. Personally, I have the most experience using nature journals and a blank-page personal journal form that I started using with my classes about 20 years ago. I call this a “life notebook.” These are interactive notebooks that integrate visual and written expression and evolve over time.
So where or how did life notebooks find a place in my teaching and curriculum development? Well, early in my career, while I was team teaching a seventh- and eighth-grade combination class, I gave each of my students an 8.5″ x 11″ journal with blank white pages as part of English language arts. I told the students that adolescence is a special time in life when people are becoming more and more themselves each and every day. And I told them that I thought it would be valuable, fun, and perhaps even exciting to record their experiences, thoughts, events, and changes over time in a journal that included both visual and written expression. The only requirement I had was that students fill a page a day with writing and images. Further, there would be no grading. I asked that they share one page a week with me, and I provided descriptive—rather than evaluative—comments about their writing and visuals on a sticky note. It was an amazing experience to observe blank books becoming life notebooks as students literally shaped the content and design of each page.
And it is quite amazing to see students learn and grow in this activity. I usually started each class period with 10 minutes of life notebook time. At first, some students would balk at this process: “I don’t know what to write”; “I don’t know how to draw.” In response, I would say, “Write a page about not knowing what to write about, or create doodles to express these thoughts.” Once students got into regular engagement in the life notebook activity, they consistently gave positive responses about their experiences. Students frequently reported that it was their favorite way to start the day—with a personal entry and time to write and doodle! Students in all grade levels I worked with either responded with excitement right off the bat about keeping life notebooks or developed motivation and interest shortly after starting their notebooks.
Life notebooks are inherently creative. They are unique to each student and are used both to chronicle the personal experiences students choose to describe and depict and to reflect on their classroom learning. You can also provide creative writing and visual prompts to encourage and support the design of students’ personal reflection. Visual journaling—with words and images—enhances student motivation, retention, and engagement.
Students of all ages keep their notes, sketches, and inspirations in their life notebooks. Enthusiastic students often enjoy the freedom of crafting these blank books in a way that gives each book its own personality. On the other hand, students who are not as excited about doodling, drawing, or writing have found they can use collage, single words, simple visuals—perhaps stick figures and basic shapes—or simple captions to provide some personalization to their life notebooks. Further, you can provide topics and activity prompts like the following as a catalyst or starting point for students’ daily entries.
- anything that comes to your mind
- visual expressions of academic subjects
- things you like
- things you don’t like
- your house
- your favorite friend, place, relative, hobby, foods, sport, or animal
- a perfect pet
- your family
- a memory or experience that makes you smile
- a change in your life
- something that you are looking forward to
- a pet peeve
It’s also important to provide encouragement for students’ life notebook work and not to judge or evaluate the visuals critically. The most effective feedback will show students how their entries impact other readers. For example, you might say, “David, your writing is particularly detailed on page 28 in the entry that describes the day your class spent planting trees. You also meaningfully incorporate illustrations of the scene and the new trees as they were planted. Thank you for sharing this with me.” Or, “Emily, by creating a detailed and illustrated agenda of the day you spent planting trees, writing your personal reflections of the day, and including the photo of the sapling you planted, you’ve given me a vivid sense of how much attention and care went into your work that day.”
One teacher I’ve worked with (and who has been one of my graduate students) said, “Over time, life notebooks have become an essential part of our learning. The students and I doodle every day. We spend the first 10 minutes each morning writing and illustrating about the goings-on in our lives. This could be as simple as ‘What I had for dinner last night’ to illustrating images of a favorite pet. These valuable notebooks provide a space for students to write and doodle or draw freely. I find this primes the pump—visually and verbally—for the day.” And later, that same teacher provided this feedback: “By working in their own visual/verbal notebooks, students have a fair bit of autonomy, they are engaged, and it fires up both the visual and verbal learning systems for the day. If any of the students are stuck on what to write or doodle in any given day, I . . . ask these three questions: What have you seen? What have you imagined? What would you like to depict?”
In professional development programs on visual learning and teaching, I ask that the adult participants develop a life notebook as they implement the strategy with their students. Perhaps you will do so as well. What might you write about? Would you like to doodle or perhaps collage or incorporate photos? There are so many options and possibilities.
Dr. Susan Daniels is a professor, an author, a consultant, and an educational director of a psychoeducational center that specializes in the needs of gifted, creative, and twice-exceptional children. She has been a professional development specialist for over 20 years, regularly providing workshops and training on creativity and visual learning and teaching. Susan is an avid doodler who enjoys working visually in her journals, and she is dedicated to supporting teachers’ development of visual literacy and enhanced understanding of visual learning and teaching strategies. She lives in Berkeley, California.
Susan is the author of Visual Learning and Teaching: An Essential Guide for Educators K–8
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