20 reading journal prompts


You’ve decided to keep a reading journal. You have a lovely new notebook. But now you’re just staring at the page. You don’t know how to start.

Perhaps you’re wondering how writing in a reading journal might be different to the notes you’ve already taken on your reading. This journal surely isn’t meant to be another place where you write summaries. Where you do the same all over again.

You’re right, it’s not.

A reading journal isn’t for making notes and summaries.  A reading journal is sometimes where you write down key ideas and themes from your reading. More often it’s where you record any random thoughts, quotes you want to think about, potential links between texts.

A reading journal is a place to let your creative juices flow. It’s where you use your reading to stimulate your own thinking and imagining. A reading journal is where you try out interpretations and potential new lines of thinking.

A reading journal is just for you – you are it’s primary reader. You don’t have to show your journal to anyone else. It’s your private conversations with the books and papers that you read.

But still, here you are with the brand new notebook, a load of good intentions – and stuck. Never fear, patter is here to help.

Here’s a few possible starters you might like to try out. Just pick the one that seems to call to you right now and write one sentence. One sentence only. One sentence to start with.

Once you’ve written your sentence, you might be moved to write a bit more. Or you might want to move on to another sentence. Or you might want to just close your notebook and come back to it another time.

Whatever you decide is OK. You no longer have a blank page. You have a thought. You’ve made a start. And as Stephen King often says, this is how you write. One word and one sentence at a time.

20 prompts to try out

What was the last thing that you read on your topic? Write the title down. Then answer one of these questions:

  • What’s the first thing you remember about this text? Write a sentence.
  • What was something that puzzled you about it? Write a sentence.
  • Was there something you disagreed with? What? Why? Write a sentence.
  • Was there something that linked to your work? What? How? Write a sentence.
  • Did the text give you an idea? Write a sentence.

Think of a book or paper you’ve read on your topic that stays with you. Write the title down. Then answer one of these questions:

  • What was the most memorable thing about the text? Write a sentence.
  • How are you going to work with the text? Write a sentence.
  • What did the text make you think about? Write a sentence.
  • Does this book or paper connect with something else that you’ve read? Write a sentence.
  • What do you need to read more about now? Why? Write a sentence.
  • Who would you really like to read this text? Why? What would reading it make them say/see/do? Write a sentence.
  • What question would you like to ask the author? Write a sentence.

Think of something you’ve read that was written really well. Write the title down. Then answer one of these questions:

  • What do you most admire about the writing? Write a sentence.
  • How does this writing differ from other things you’ve read? Write a sentence.
  • What would you have to do to make your writing more like this? Write a sentence.
  • What are you afraid might stop you being able to write this well? Write a sentence.

Have you recently read or watched anything on media – newspaper, television, social media, films – that speaks to your research? Write the title or topic down. Then answer one of these questions:

  • How did the way the topic was presented compare with what you are reading? Write a sentence.
  • What would you say to the writer of the media clip if you could meet them? Write a sentence.
  • What other text immediately came to mind when you encountered this media text? Write a sentence.
  • What media text would you write to answer back to this one? Write a sentence.


(I’ve written more about reading journals here.)

Photo by ASHLEY EDWARDS on Unsplash



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orientations to reading – the literature as ‘resources’


Everyone knows that doing research means doing lots of reading. And that Reading leads to literature reviews which are crucial to research proposals, theses and papers.

The most common way to think about working with the literatures is to use the term ‘review’.  As I have above. And the clear and present danger in ‘reviewing’ literature is that it leads to a kind of essay-like writing – a listy run through of everything that has been read.

NO NO all the advice literature says – including patter –  no lists. A literature review is not an assignment. You don’t listicle, you need to say how you are using the literature in your work. And that means… deep breath…

You’ve got to say where your work is positioned in the field and what your contribution is going to be, and you do that through situating your work in the available literatures. And you need to say just which of the literatures you’re going to build on and how. And you want to indicate which of the literatures are key to helping you make sense of your work – you specify what texts you use in your research design and your analysis. And of course, you’ll need to refer back to the literatures at the end of your research in order to say what you have actually contributed.

Sorting the literatures out often seems like fighting your way through fog, not knowing where you are going or why. Chewing cotton wool, not knowing what to swallow and what to spit out.

And that’s a lot of work to be covered through the reading. I often ask myself, are all of those tasks most helpfully named as ‘review’?

Well, how about thinking about the literatures as a RESOURCE.

A resource to help you think.

The literatures don’t do the thinking for you. The thinking is up to you. But you don’t do it alone. You’re in the company of loads of other scholars who’ve thought about the same topic and left resources for you to use.

Let’s unpack this a bit more. The resources in your reading provide ideas, theories and concepts. They offer specific terminology. Approaches you might take. Results you can build on.

And you have to find the resources that are going to help you. That means searching and sorting out what’s useful to your particular research and what’s not.

So what resources are you looking for?

You’re looking for literature resources which offer

  • “evidence’ you can use to justify what you want to do
  • concepts, theories and language that you can use to focus your question, refine your research design, help you analyse and make sense of your results
  • results and interpretations which you can compare and contrast with your own results

As well, you’d really like to find literature resources to challenge you, resources that jolt you out of the usual way you’ve found to approach your topic.

Part of the purpose of reading then is about becoming resource-full, having abundant ideas, theories, concepts, evidence and language you can call on.

So perhaps the point of the literature review is now more focused and less diffuse. It’s tied to the stages of your research. You focus on your research rather than ‘the review’. And perhaps thinking of your research first makes the reading a little simpler to scope and do.

First of all you read and review the literatures to understand where you are – to orient and position your research and its contribution in the field.

And secondly, you also read and review so you can locate the resources that are going to help you think through the various stages of your research.

Then. And then.

You can then think about how you write about the literatures. If writing about the literatures isn’t an essay or a list, what is it? Simple- it’s two related and overlapping chunks  –

  • one part about the field its traditions, debates, histories and the location of your research and
  • the second part about the resources you have identified that you are going to use in sorting through the various stages of your research.

And of course, you may not know at the start which resources are going to help you to makes sense of your results since you don’t yet know what these results are. And that means you can’t write the final final version of your literatures work until you know what resources you’ve called on and how you’ve used them.


Photo by Stefano Pollio on Unsplash

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conference tips – the old-school handout


We’ve all been to that conference session where the presenter puts up a slide with a really complicated table. Or a very dense set of quotations. They don’t do this to deliberately confuse people or give them eye strain – they want to show their evidence. Without this table or set of quotes their argument might not fly.

But a screen filled up with a table in tiny 10 point? A three paragraph quotation?We can barely read what’s on the screen. And we certainly can’t read all of it in the time allowed, make sense of it, and take in what is being said at the same time.

So if you want avoid the cluttered evidence slide, what can you do? Well, there’s one old school-strategy that still works – the conference handout.

Here’s some handout basics.

  • Use a single sheet of A4.

Put the table or complicated quotes onto the sheet together with the title of the presentation and your contact details. You might add a lead to a published paper if the material is already out in the open. But nothing more than these essentials.

Use a largish font. Take some time formatting the handout. Draw attention to the information you want people to focus on– use highlights, circles, annotations – new school capacities now available on every desktop/laptop.

  • Put the handouts on the seats before people come in rather than try to hand them out in the session.

Handing out your sheet wastes time and if you talk as well as hand out people are easily distracted and may not hear what you are saying. That defeats the point of the handout.

The downside of putting the handout out early is that people might read while you are talking – the way to try to avoid this is to announce at the start that you will be referring to the handout later and please don’t read now. You also need to be sufficiently engaging so people want to listen to you rather than read your handout at the wrong time.

  • When it’s time to use the handout, tell people to turn to the page.

Walk the audience through your content making very clear the point you want them to remember.

  • Pick up any handouts at the end of the session so they don’t bother the next presenter – and find the nearest recycling bin.

The downside of handouts is that you may not know how many to print. If you have a packed house you may just not have enough. But sharing is OK. It’s just as likely that you’ll have some left over. And that points to the problem with handouts – they are paper and create waste.

So that’s a very helpful pointer. We all need to think about whether we actually do need that table or complex quote at all. Is there any way you can do without it? If you really really really must have it, then you’ll need to add the paper to your conference carbon footprint.


Ive written a lot about conferences  –  you can find most of them by searching the keyword ‘conference’. Or you might like to check out these particular posts:

Choosing a conference

Conference survival essentials

Should I go to the conference dinner?

Who’s coming to my paper?

 Dealing with ‘post paper’ questions

Post conference follow up


Photo by ål nik on Unsplash


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three thesis writing modes

It’s pretty common to hear academic writing described in three stages – (1) thinking and preparation or pre-writing, (2) writing, and (3) post writing revision. In the doctorate you do pre-writing until you get to ‘writing up’. And that’s when you write and revise.

But it’s not really like that – lots of thinking goes on as the thesis is being written and polished. And there’s been lots of writing in order to get to the point of thesis writing. The reality is that you think and write all the way through the doctorate, and most of that thinking and writing is directed to the final thesis text.

I’ve often wondered if there was a better way to describe the way that writing happens during the doctorate. Something better than pre-writing, writing and post writing revision. I think I’ve finally come across it in one of the many books about creative writing I’ve been accumulating.

Graeme  Harper tackles the problem of the three stages writing model in his book Critical Approaches to Creative Writing. (2019).

71TNomO7CsL.jpgThe problem with the very idea of three stages, Harper says, is that it’s linear.  The writing process  is represented as the writer moving through each stage in turn. One after the other. First of all you prepare, then you write and then you revise.

 But this is not what actually happens in practice, he says. While you might do a lot of preparatory work at the start of writing a novel, you may not actually stop doing thar kind of work for quite a while – you may well find that you have to go and search for additional information or do some additional plotting as you are writing. And you may find you are revising some parts of the text as the same time as you are writing new sections. It’s not a question of a neat sequence of steps, each distinct and separate from the other, but something much more messy.

Harper’s description of the creative writing process rang bells for me. His description of overlapping processes seemed a lot like thesis writing where there are often various types of writing happening at once.

Harper doesn’t stop with debunking the three stages approach. He offers an alternative framework for thinking about creative writing. Rather than serial stages, he proposes three modes of writing which are blended throughout a project. He calls these three modes foundation, generation and response.

  • Foundation is all of the work that underpins the actual writing – think of it as architecture or infrastructure, Harper says. Foundational work grounds and holds writing together.
  • Generation is writing new text. Generating text involves drafting and some redrafting until you get to the point where you have a whole working text. Harper says generation is best thought of as a process of initiation and creation.
  • Response is when you come at your text anew, reflect on it in its entirety and refine it. Response takes something which is not yet fully fashioned and fashions it. Response is the writer reflecting on their own text, but could also include other readers’ responses too. Harper argues that response also encompasses thinking about how the final text will be published and distributed for wider public response.

Now the key to Harper’s argument is that these three are not linear stages. They operate as a kind of plait. While foundation might be dominant at the start of writing, the other two are also often involved.

I reckon Harper’s three modes of writing are helpful in thinking about writing a thesis too.

In the doctorate we can therefore think of:

  • Foundation as – reading and noting, keeping a research journal, field notes, transcripts, data files, records of analysis, mind maps, plans, spread sheets, storyboards, emails, blog posts, writing for supervision purposes, annual reports and reviews, chunks about specific aspects of research…
  • Generation as – producing a research proposal, writing a confirmation or upgrade paper, writing a conference paper, journal article or book chapter, writing the thesis text…
  • Response as – getting feedback on and refining the research proposal, a confirmation or upgrade text, a conference paper, journal article or book chapter, and the thesis text. Developing a publication plan from the thesis…

We can see that these three modes helps us to see the writing going all the way through the doctorate. And to see that each mode of writing is important and can’t be ignored. Failing to do enough foundational work means that both the generation and response writing stages will be stymied. They won’t have the necessary strength to stand up. And failing to spend enough time on response, thinking that generation of text is sufficient, means that the writing will be incomplete and unrefined.

And an added bonus. The three writing modes can be used to begin to (re)think how writing gets done in the doctorate. Harper’s three modes shows time marked not by linear stages but by the various kind of texts that need to be produced at different times.

I imagine a doctorate might go a little like this.


OK, so I’m not the best at illustrating but I’m sure you get the idea.

But perhaps you might like to play with your own doctoral timeline, thinking about the ways in which the three modes of writing might occupy your week and year variously, depending where you are up to in the path to the final doctoral thesis.

And perhaps you too will find Harper’s three modes of writing a more helpful way to think about the writing that has to be done – all the way through the candidature – in order to produce a good thesis.

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blogging my research

Last week I published four “live” posts about my ongoing research with the Tate Schools and Teachers team.

I’ve been going to Summer Schools now since 2012, although I did have a year off last year.

That’s seven lots of five days. There’s usually some other SS-related meetings before and after too. So probably about fifty days worth. In ethnographic terms, this is starting to be a respectable time, long enough to talk with some certainly about patterns and differences.

I didn’t always blog about this research. So why did I start and what do I think I’m doing in blogging?

You’ll have noticed I haven’t started a separate blog about Summer School. That’s been because the collaborative work with the Schools and Teachers team is quite sporadic, spread out over a year. I am not sure that there would be enough to keep up the regular posting you need for a good blog. So rather than establish a separate research project blog – which I often do, see for instance the Tracking Arts Learning and Engagement blog – I’ve just chosen to hijack this one for a bit. I hope that the content doesn’t put off readers who aren’t interested in education or the arts.

But why blog my research at all? Well, there’s two main reasons.

First of all, the blog provides information about the research, particularly to those involved.

A lot of research in my field involves researchers hanging around a ‘site’ for a long time – a school, a college, a university. Other people who are present – their name usually changed from teacher or student to the ‘subjects’ or ‘participants’ – often don’t get to know much about what the researcher is thinking and doing, at the time or for a long time after.

Sure, people have a plain language ethics statement and consent form which they have signed. But I’ve become increasingly concerned about whether this is good enough. Is a couple of pages really sufficient to explain why the research, what it’s for and how it’s related to research that’s been done?

Now, sometimes researchers are able to have long meetings with research participants, and they can really discuss what’s going on. However, this is not really possible with Summer Schools where people have paid to attend a professional development programme, not engage in a long conversation about research. Blogging everyday provides an opportunity for SS people to see what the research is about and to talk with me about it if they want to. It’s not secret business. The posts demonstrate a willingness on my part to be open about what I’m doing.

Secondly, the blog is an integral part of my research. Not an extra.

The blog works partly as a log of activities, a descriptive record of events. (Think of a ship’s log – official documents about course, speed, navigation and so on.) There’s nothing particularly contentious about simply logging what happens how, when, where and who was involved.

Summer School artists and participants may even find it helpful to have basic information about the event compiled in one place. I do know that the artists who run Summer School are always interested to compare what I’ve noticed with what they were thinking about and doing.

But having a record of events is not all that counts in research. Logs can do more than this. Logs focus on a limited topic. They usually stick to a common formula of set of categories, presenting information the same way each time an entry is made. Logged information thus allows patterns of behaviour or events to be tracked over time. So while readers might see each daily post as a distinct thing, they allow me to see patterns across the five days, and across the series of Summer Schools I’ve attended.

Of course, not everything that happened fits into a blog post. I always end up with a load of other stuff in my field notes as well as artefacts and images that still need to be typed out, and sorted. Logged post blog.

However, the posts do more than log. I do have the occasional diary moment – a diary is a personal and idiosyncratic account of everyday life. I do occasionally put something in a research post that is of this order. But mostly, posts are logs – and part of the research journaling process.

A research journal is a tool for reflection. A research journal offers a place for critical and evaluative thought, as events and conversations are revisited – and remixed. Journals are where interpretation happens. They are often the places where analysis begins and is developed. Writing and sketching in a journal are a means of processing experience, of bringing events and conversations into dialogue with ideas taken from reading, with ideas formed through previous research.

Writing a journal as well as field notes is a time-consuming process. It is why doing ethnography requires full body immersion. You note and make images as best you can during the day, and then at night, you complete the log of events, and write immediate thoughts in your journal. Logging and journaling is a process of distancing from the events of the day, switching thinking into a more analytic mode. Keeping both a daily log and a journal also means that you can catch the points where information is missing, and you may decide that tomorrow you will pursue a particular issue that emerged from journaling.

A daily blog is simply one part of a research journal.

In other Summer Schools I’ve focused the journal aspect of a daily post on the pedagogical principles that the artists were using to design, sequence and pace activities. In this Summer School I was more interested in surfacing questions to which I didn’t have any answers but was thinking about. Musings I called this.

Blogging as journal becomes a kind of thinking in public. And thinking in public stems from my view that the researcher is not the only one who can interpret and make sense of events and conversations, who can theorise practice. Rather, meaning-making can be a shared activity which encompasses multiple perspectives and positions. As this research is a collaboration with the Tate Schools and Teachers team, it is already open to multiple ideas. Opening out to more views and perspectives does amplify the possibility for messiness to be sure, but there is also the potential for new insights and other ways of thinking, feeling and knowing to be included.

I hope that in making my thinking public the blog is an invitation to participants to come back to me with responses to my initial thoughts. I’d love them to help shape my musings into something more refined – inclusive of their critical reflections too. Blogging can perhaps be a small step towards a more democratic research practice.


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summer school day four


Who is here – no guest artists today, just us.

What did we do? Today was focused on the theme of hierarchy and expertise – two relational practices endemic to education. ad about power. of knowledge, of position, of wealth, location and so on. We were also to concentrate on research.

We began the day perusing the books located in the library room established in the Exchange. We were to find things that interested us, photocopy relevant pages and identity a question that we wished to pursue during the day. We then gathered in a circle to report on our individual questions. India and Remi identified some common themes among our concerns; we then had time to play with and remix their initial sort.

We next sorted ourselves into one of four groups, each of which had a initial shared interest. Each group went into the gallery to see what kind of resources the art works of building itself might offer us – resources which might help to clarify, modify or extend our shared interest.

Lunch has been a feature of the Summer school and today was no exception – it was a delicious Ethiopian feast. Our long dining table has been an important place for sharing ideas, finding out more about each other and continuing conversations.

In the afternoon, we worked in our groups to investigate what the public might have to offer us. Each group worked on an activity or an intervention which would solicit information from the genera public -we devised a question or an intervention. what we did had of course to be carefully negotiated with gallery staff as it was important that we didn’t disrupt people’s enjoyment of the art, or do something dangerous.

The group I was in was interested in what people ‘got’ from engaging with art. We situated ourselves at the exit to the Eliasson exhibition, and asked exiting members of the public to register their feelings about their experience. We found that our initial plan of how to elicit information and our expectations of what we would be told was rapidly modified. What we got back from people was far more interesting and expansive that we had initially imagined.

The day ended with each group reporting back. The experience of initial plans and expectations being changed was common to us all.


Looking back on today, it is clear that we were being encouraged to develop a practice-based inquiry in a short time frame. We were drawing on five resources – our own interests and experience, the experiences of the group, books, art works and the public. These were not data, not sources of information, but rather resources to help us pursue a line of thinking.

With more time, we could extend these resources to include for instance media texts, historical materials, specialist knowledges in books and in person, materials, and perhaps specially constructed experiments designed to test out an idea.

The emphasis on spending time thinking through a question, and holding off coming to an answer, is typical of artistic practice. It is a practice that teachers particularly in the senior years of secondary schools want their students to do too. I wonder if the explicit focus on diverse “resources for thinking” is one that will be useful to Summer School participants. i also wonder if the emphasis on resources to thin with might be helpful for university students worried un terms such as “literature review”.

Time was also a resource. The imposition of a deadline does propel you to particular kinds of activities and I am sure I was not the only one left wondering whether we might have come up with something very different if we had had longer to prepare. Or would we just have taken longer do do much the same? The imposition of a deadline in what otherwise has been a pretty leisurely paced programme also drew attention to time economies and what they may and may not enable.





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summer school day three


Who is here? Today we were joined by Amina Abbas-Nazari, a designer working with sound and artificial intelligence.

What did we do?

We began the day outside the Eliasson exhibition. India and Yemi assigned each of us one of the five senses, and then asked us to stand in a line from the sense most valued in education to the one least valued. Our line was, in descending order, sight, sound, touch, smell and taste. We were asked to stand in the order of the sense we most preferred – and the majority chose sight. ( Probably not too  surprising for a bunch of people interested in art!). We were challenged to think about the hierarchy of senses in education, and consider how this might be particularly problematic for neuro-diverse young people and adults.

We were then given a bag which contained five sensory tools to  play with in the exhibition. We all had headphones and a mirror; there were a variety of tools for taste, touch and smell.

Many of us were approached by other visitors inside the exhibition who wanted to know why we had headphones and they didn’t – these had become markers of difference which made us visible in the gallery space.

After about an hour we returned to the Exchange floor and discussed our various experiences.

Many people had felt sensory overload in the crowds, chaos and noise of the exhibition rooms. Adding in tools which drew attention to other senses reduced our filtering capacities. Many of us found that having the headphones on was a way of producing a bubble of calm.

The final morning’s activity was to play further our with senses on the dining table, before and during lunch.

Inventory of the sensory dining table: squishy jells soaking in water, headphones, eye masks, plasticine, sound triggered by microphone, camera projections, stones, coloured paper, scissors, stone chips, tape.

Some people took sensory eating way more seriously than others!


After lunch we were introduced to Amina who talked to us about focusing on sound. We wore silent disco headphones to intensify our attention on what we heard. Amina asked us to think about listening – (1) deep listening, (2) active listening, and (3) machine listening. We were asked to think about how technology might allow us to listen to things that we wouldn’t normally hear. We were challenged to make a tool that would enable us to hear something that would otherwise be silent. The hidden sound might be something external  – so make a listening tool that would bring the world to us – or internal – so a device that made something inside us available to the outside world.

Still wearing our headphones and listening to sounds beyond the human ear but recorded via specialist technology, we played with a range of materials in order to develop our concept. We took turns to present our designs to the group.

A final group discussion canvassed the possibilities for using sensory teaching aids in the class or lecture room. How could we disrupt  the ocular-centrism of dominant teaching approaches, India asked us.


I’ve been really aware of pace in the last few days. There’s now a lot of general talk in education and beyond about slow – slow working and slow looking. Summer School offers a space and place to go slow. While there is a programme with time limits on activities, there is also an emphasis on taking time for experimentation without the imposition of expected outcomes. Many people have spoken about feeling calm and relaxed and that seems to come from the flexibility of time and the apparently  leisurely sequencing of activities  that are built into the programme.

Summer School is always about embodied learning and a range of ways of knowing and learning, Today was an example of how the body can become the primary medium of learning. The focus on senses and reflecting on sensory learning, connected to issues of inclusion and equity, made the bodily aspects of learning explicit.

dsc00098The arts afford what my colleague Chris Hall and I have called immersive professional development –  people need to plunge in, commit all of their self/selves to learn – emotions, bodies, senses.  Not just intellect. It’s a full-bodied experience. Engaging in discipline-based professional learning in the arts is never simply cognitive, never simply sit and listen. Not coincidentally,  the haptic nature of experience is also of concern to Eliasson – engaging with his work is one of the Summer School avenues for moving from feeling/doing/experiencing/ to thinking/naming/explaining.

The arts offer lines of ‘doing’ which can interrupt our usual ways of doing things. It’s not at all uncommon in Summer School for people to be asked to look without seeing, to work in silence, to communicate without words, to hear the unheard. Removing our taken for granted ways of  making meaning forces us to do what researchers call “making the familiar strange”. There is perhaps quite a lot for those who teach research methods – and thus ways to understand things as if for the first time – to learn from artistic ways of being/knowing,








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