George Lucas Educational Foundation
Classroom Management

Using Daily Reflective Writing to Track Connections With Students

Reflecting on one of these suggested questions each day can help teachers ensure that they interact regularly with all of their students.

March 11, 2024
Johner Images / Alamy

Your students left for the bus, and your classroom is finally quiet. You straighten desks, scrape at the ground-up goldfish in the carpet, empty a remaining lunch box to head off the sour milk smell. That’s when you realize you’re not sure if you talked to the student who abandoned this lunch box. At all. Maybe you greeted them at the door, maybe you high-fived them as they left. Essentially, this student flew under your radar for the day. Did the same thing happen yesterday?

Life in an elementary school is chaotic and fast-paced. Some students are experts in capturing your attention. Others are experts in avoiding it, and some aren’t sure what’s going on; they want to belong but aren’t sure how. One simple process can help you notice your connections with everyone regularly.

A Journaling Practice Helps Facilitate Connections with Students 

Early in my career, I took a course that required journaling every day for five minutes or less. No word count, no page length. Just five minutes to create a simple sketch of the day. It only took a week for me to realize that there was power in this activity. I started making mental notes of things kids did or said that I wanted to capture. Like when I overheard two high school students reading an essay, and one said, “Dude. Have you heard of periods? They would make this easier to read.” Looking over the entries immediately illuminated patterns in what my students and I were doing.

There are hazards here, though. Like any meeting without an agenda, this practice can spiral into unhappy places. Without structure, the topics I wrote about became stuck, often in places I didn’t want to visit. It did me (and my students) no good to ruminate on the same gripes and discomforts every day: the lack of time to go to the bathroom, the annoying curriculum, the student who talked over me no matter what I did. 

Despite this, I was committed. The possibilities seemed great; I wanted to make this practice work. So I developed a set of five prompts to focus my thinking. When I addressed each of these over a week or two, I found new ways to look at my teaching life. I used five guiding questions that helped me.

Question 1: Who surprised me today?

Surprises fill classrooms to the ceiling. We never know when one of these is going to matter. Over time, you might see a pattern of surprises about a specific student, a particular time of the day, or a specific type of instruction. Once you see the patterns, you can investigate them intentionally.

For example, I recently noticed a student turning surprisingly sullen after recess. Over time, I determined that things on the playground had soured for him, and we solved the problem.

Question 2: What new thing did I learn about (student name) today?

This can be scary. For me, the same students popped up in this section time after time. To help ensure that I came out of my comfort zone, I used the random name generator from ClassDojo.

There was no more hiding. Who was I tuned in to and why? 

Question 3: Who learned something new today, and what was it?

Students learn content. Students learn social skills. Students might also learn they are invisible based on whether or not I interact with them. They learn what I care about. I want my students to have equal access to productive learning.

So, when I answer this question, I’m able to see if this is happening. When I see a gap, I can acknowledge it and work to close it. 

Question 4: What conversation did I avoid today?          

This question has been the most transformative. One of the things I avoid is a record of my perceived incompetence. I might spend hours talking about a student or instructional material, especially if I feel like it’s something I can’t control. Problem admiration, after all, is easy. But the conversation that lingers on the edges of my mind, that never comes into focus but never goes away, is essential.

With this practice, I’ve been able to notice, accept, then tackle hard conversations (like when a student was alienating peers by regularly asking them for treats, or when another teacher was complaining about a student’s behavior without considering their own role in the problem). More often than not, these conversations have been with the other adults around me, both coworkers and caregivers, though students can also be conversation partners.

Question 5: What will I remember from this day?

Once I had a student who said, “I have good news and bad news. The bad news is we’re all going to die. The good news is it's pizza Friday.” Teacher lives are a collection of moments where students dig directly to the meaning of it all. Gathering these moments reminds me of the well-deserved joy in my work. Obviously, some memories are heavy, and I’d like to leave them behind. But collecting these as well reminds me of the balance that makes our profession unique and beautiful.

Write Because It’s Worth It

But why write? We know its power for our students. Writing requires the commitment and precision that speaking does not. It says, “This is what I thought, and I want to save it.” Our lives and ideas matter, and we preserve and understand them in words. I’m not saying this is easy. No writer has ever said that. But any writer will tell you it’s worth it. We can’t help our students though the gap between struggle and reward if we don’t cross it ourselves. Deliberately planning that crossing ensures that we won’t shy away. Teachers need to be writers. We owe it to our students.

Again, pick one question a day. Write for five minutes. Every week, look over what you’ve written for trends. It’s less complex than any other form of professional development. A final reminder: No one “finds” the time to write. Time doesn’t hide behind a pile of papers. Time won’t fall into your lap. We intentionally invest in this precious resource. We can claim the time, stand on that little piece of ourselves, and hold on. It’s part of our growth as professionals and people: That growth is nonnegotiable. After all, isn’t that what we expect of our students too?

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