Observation Journals: Inspiring ELLs
to Embrace a Life Worth Living

Mar 18th, 2017 | By | Category: In the Classroom
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—I. Introduction

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The Red Wheelbarrow

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white
—William Carlos Williams

thumbnail of Patrick T. Randolph for spring 2017

Patrick T. Randolph

It is all about noticing, observing, being aware of the countless ordinary and extraordinary moments that make up a day. This magic is reflected in the refreshing observation by William Carlos Williams in his poem “The Red Wheelbarrow.” It is the active perception of these moments that has the power to enhance our lives, and, to a large extent, help us understand what makes us feel the way we do and influence us to be who we are. The central question is: Are we always aware of these unique moments as our days unfold?

The core objective of this piece, then, is to offer insights into how we can help our English language learners (ELLs) train their eyes and minds “to see” their surroundings and reflect on their feelings through the use of observation journals. I will first provide the motivation for the project and then discuss what the observation journals are and what the project entails. Next, I will address possible pitfalls and suggest ways to correct them. I will conclude with student-reported benefits and reflections concerning the observation journals.

II. The Motivating Factors Behind the Project

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“We are astoundingly poor observers.”
—David Eagleman

A number of equally significant factors inspired me to create and implement the observation journals at the beginning of this spring semester—a former student’s comment on her host culture, the invasion of disruptive technology, and my own desire to help my students develop an awareness of their world and write about it.

Based on research I’ve done on our unique sense of visual perception, and how we are naturally “astoundingly poor observers” (Eagleman, 2011, p. 21), I often wondered if my ELLs were observing, taking in, and learning about the daily customs, language use, and local events of their host culture. After all, despite Eagleman’s claim that we are not good observers, he also offers the fact that “one-third of the human brain is devoted to vision” (2011, pp. 22-23). So, I thought my students had to be observing and learning about Midwest American culture. I, however, was wrong.

A few years ago, a star student of mine left a surprising comment on a class evaluation. She thought she had gained sufficient knowledge about various language skills and academic topics, but that she would return to her “country knowing nothing about this city or about the state” (Randolph, 2016). Her comment would later become the motivating force that inspired me to use Ethnomethodology Projects in my speaking and writing courses (see McPherron & Randolph, 2013; Randolph, 2016) and to implement the current observation journals. The Ethnomethodology Projects encourage ELLs to make cultural observations about their local communities and create hypotheses about why they believe people do what they do. The observation journals are shorter projects that essentially ask the ELLs to observe and record any interesting events in their immediate environment or any noticeable feelings emerging from inside their emotional world. In short, one motivating factor behind the observation journals was initiated by a student’s helpful comment about a lack of outside-the-class activities.

The second factor that inspired this project is a threat that has been creeping into university campuses and preventing my students from seeing and learning about their surroundings—that threat is a dependence on unnecessary technology—specifically, the relatively new invasion of smartphones.

In his book The Shallows, Nicolas Carr (2011) discusses how the Internet is changing the way we think, research, and collect information. Carr also reminds us what Marshall McLuhan wisely pointed out in his work Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man—the fact that technology can easily change the “patterns of perception steadily and without any resistance” (as cited in Carr, 2011, p. 3). McLuhan’s prophetic 1964 insight about the consequences of technology has become a way of life in 2017.

In the past five years alone, I have seen a great and disturbing change across American campuses, and this change has infiltrated the lives of both domestic and international students alike—they have become victims of the smartphone seduction. On any given day, I can walk across the campus where I teach and observe eight (sometimes nine) out of 10 students completely absorbed with their smartphones—some are involved with listening, others reading texts or watching video clips. None, however, are paying any attention to their immediate external world, the people around them, or, in some cases, oncoming cars about ready to hit them—they are oblivious to all but the seduction of their reality-altering, handheld technology.

This, then, was the second motivating factor behind the project. I did not want my own students to return to their home countries knowing only the stress of exams, the pressure of papers, and the sounds and images of their smartphones.

The third factor that motivated me to implement this project was a positive, uplifting one—I simply wanted my students to be able to make observations about their local communities or their own feelings and write about them daily. I wanted my ELLs to develop an intrinsic interest in and love for writing by recording the ordinary and extraordinary events surrounding them each and every day. Instead of their worrying about a looming 10-page paper, I wanted them to work on and develop their writing through short but effective pieces via their observation journals.

III. The Observation Journals

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“Vision is active, not passive.”
—David Eagleman

The observation journals, as I mentioned above, are short written pieces that give ELLs an opportunity to make observations and record them daily. I usually have my students make observations and record them Monday through Friday and let them have the weekends off. However, I also offer them the alternative of taking two weekdays off and making the recorded observations for Saturday and Sunday. I have found that many students prefer this option because they feel they can make more “quality observations” on the weekends as it gives them a better chance to explore their local communities. Weekends are also less stressful and allow students to explore and observe their inner feelings.

The required length of each entry is a paragraph containing a minimum of six sentences, although most entries are approximately nine to 10 sentences long. I stress that it is not the length of the paragraph that matters, but rather the quality of the observation and how well it is described and expressed.

The project allows the students to focus on five different kinds of categories:

  1. Culture-based observations (e.g., the cultural norm of one person holding the door for another);
  2. Language use–based observations (e.g., how a certain buzzword/idiom is used among friends);
  3. Classroom dynamics–based observations (e.g., students who sit in front volunteer more than those who sit in the back);
  4. Nature/environment-based observations (e.g., observing the first snowflake at dawn); and
  5. Self-reflection–based observations (e.g., being aware of a particular change in emotion and realizing how it affects them).

Below are some recent student examples of observations that represent each of the five categories.

Culture-Based Observations

  • Nebraskan home-cooked dinners are extremely different from fast-food selections.
  • Many University of Nebraska students look at their phones while walking.
  • A large number of businessmen in suits drive large pickup trucks.

Language-Based Observations

  • Gestures are used to emphasize certain words while talking.
  • “Fake news” is a recent buzzword.
  • Young women roll their eyes when using certain words/phrases such as “actually,” “really,” or “are you kidding?”

Classroom Dynamics–Based Observations

  • A certain professor looks more to the left of the class than to the right.
  • Before making a joke, one professor looks down, adjusts his glasses, and closes his eyes.
  • A certain professor asks questions more than he lectures.

Nature/Environment–Based Observations

  • The snowflakes seem smaller in Nebraska than in Illinois.
  • The squirrels on campus are treated like pets by the students.
  • Warm weather makes students friendlier.

Self-Reflection–Based Observations

  • The observation journals have made me more aware of my own actions.
  • I realize I need to stop taking my family for granted. I miss them.
  • I responded in a positive way to a stranger’s smile.
Grading the Observation Journals

My grading rubric consists of four categories: (1) content (i.e., I look at the overall engagement in the observation and evaluate its clarity and expression); (2) focus (i.e., is there a clear and specific focus regarding an observation, or is it a mere list of things?); (3) development (i.e., has the student introduced the topic and developed it through a detailed description?); and (4) vocabulary use (i.e., I ask my students to recycle the vocabulary we learn in class and use it in their observation journals).

I do not check their grammar in the observation journals unless the students request it. If they think it necessary, I will make a point to correct major errors that inhibit clarity in or understanding of a sentence. The main focus of these journals is to encourage the students to observe and write about observations of interest and to do this frequently. Only if there are “special grammar editing” requests will I address any grammar or syntax issues.

IV. Possible Pitfalls

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[T]he brain has to learn how to see.”
—David Eagleman

Despite the fact that I gave the students both written and spoken directions on the kinds of categories they could observe and explained how each observation should have one sole focus, a number of students did not follow the directions for the first round of submissions. The entries were interesting, but they lacked focus and tended to be “dear diary” entries. Among the most noticeable pitfalls were the following five types.

1. Listing Activities Versus Focused Observations

Instead of writing about a focused observation, some students merely listed a number of activities that they had accomplished during the day.

2. Hypothetical Alternatives Versus Reality-Focused Observations

A few students made interesting observations, but instead of writing exclusively about the reality of what they saw, they discussed hypothetical alternatives. For example, one student observed a homeless man near the university campus, but then spent the rest of the entry writing about a world without homelessness.

3. Listing Multiple Observations

The observations in these entries were very insightful, but they were usually unrelated “lists” of observations as opposed to a single, well-developed and focused observation.

4. Home Culture–Focused Observations Versus Host Culture–Focused Observations

Some students made intriguing observations, which were clearly defined in the opening sentence of the paragraph, but then they spent the next nine sentences discussing their own culture, and oftentimes there were no real connections to the initial observation.

5. Memory Reflections Versus Present-Feeling Observations

With respect to the self-reflection–based observations, some students wrote only about a memory as opposed to focusing on a present feeling. In these cases, there was little focus and the entries were more like cognitive table-tennis matches than focused sessions of emotional and personal therapy.

V. Suggestions on How to Correct the Pitfalls

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“[T]he brain refines its model of the world by paying attention to its mistakes.”
—David Eagleman

The good news is that the aforementioned issues were short-lived. Before I assigned the second round of observations, I addressed the five pitfalls, and we discussed how to avoid them. This reflective critique really helped the students to refocus. It also helped them understand that I want them not only to make observations about their surroundings and themselves, but I also want them to be able to convey these concisely and coherently to a reader.

In addition to addressing the pitfalls, I asked them to label each observation according to its respective category. This has seemed to help them focus on the exact observation and elaborate on the details that they notice or think are significant and of interest.

VI. Student-Reported Benefits of the Observation Journals

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“Your brain is in the dark but your mind constructs light.”
—David Eagleman

Judy Willis (2006) has shown that “[e]ngaging in the process of learning actually increases one’s capacity to learn” (p. 8). Based on my students’ reflections on how they believe the observation journals have helped them so far this semester, they are clearly engaged in the learning process and their “capacity to learn” has expanded in numerous directions with refreshing consequences.

I recently asked my current students from three writing courses (N=46) to record their impressions of the observation journals. I asked them to write honestly about their thoughts concerning the project and if it had helped them in any way. They could list as many benefits that came to mind. Below are the students’ reported benefits of the observation journals from the three classes. Next to the benefits are the number of students who shared the experience of the benefit.

Table 1
Student-Reported Benefits of the Observation Journals

table describing student benefits of observation journals for ptr

VII. Concluding Remarks

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“The observation projects have made our life more colorful.”
—Xiasi Lin and Xinhui Cao

My original goals for the observation journals were: (a) to give my students an opportunity to observe and embrace the amazing moments and activities that unfold throughout their day, and (b) to inspire them to develop a passion and love for writing about their observations. Given the recent responses concerning the benefits my students claim to have received from the project, it appears that my goals are being met.

I think the reasons for this success are due to encouraging my students to attend to and focus on what they themselves are interested in and then develop emotional connections to their observations. These two factors—interest and emotion—are crucial for learning and developing a creative and analytical mind (Davidson & Begley, 2013; Willis, 2006). When students tell you that a project makes their “life more colorful” and improves their “own quality of life,” then you, as an instructor, know you are on to something pretty significant; you know you have inspired your students to think and learn on their own, and most important, embrace a life worth living.

Correspondence concerning this article can be addressed to patricktrandolph@yahoo.com.

Patrick T. Randolph was awarded the “Best of the TESOL Affiliates” for his presentation on vocabulary pedagogy in 2015. He teaches in PIESL at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and specializes in vocabulary acquisition, creative and academic writing, speech, and debate. He has created a number of brain-based learning activities for the language skills that he teaches, and he continues to research current topics in neuroscience, especially studies related to exercise and learning, memory, and mirror neurons. Randolph has also been involved as a volunteer with brain-imaging experiments at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He and Joseph Ruppert are now working on a creative writing book for TESOL Press’s New Ways Series. The tentative title is New Ways in Teaching Creative Writing for the ELL Community. He lives with his wife, Gamze; daughter, Aylene; and cat, Gable, in Lincoln, Nebraska.


Carr, N. (2011). The shallows: What the Internet is doing to our brains. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.

Davidson, R. J., & Begley, S. (2013). The emotional life of your brain. New York, NY: Plume/Penguin.

Eagleman, D. M. (2011). Incognito: The secret lives of the brain. New York, NY: Pantheon Books.

McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding media: The extensions of man. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

McPherron, P., & Randolph, P. T. (2013). Thinking like researchers: An ESL project that investigates local communities. TESOL Journal, 4, 312–331.

Randolph, P. T. (2016, January). Discovering the host culture through the Ethno Project. TESOL Connections. Retrieved from http://newsmanager.commpartners.com/tesolc/issues/2016-01-01/2.html

Willis, J. (2006). Research-based strategies to ignite student learning: Insights from a neurologist and classroom teacher. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.


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