You and I both know all the benefits of student journaling. A chance to reflect, to simply express, to experiment, to refine skills, etc. The list can go on, but how you implement journaling in your classroom can make a difference in the results you may be seeking.
Before you begin your first day of journal writing, be sure to introduce the concept of journaling to your students if they’re unfamiliar with it, and share with them why you’re doing it and how you think it will help them.
Determine clear cut expectations, and then lay them out to your students. It’s important for them to understand ahead of time what you will consider as “journaling.” Review the following questions to determine what constitutes journaling and what doesn’t:
- Will you allow simply words or phrases?
- Will you expect full sentences and paragraphs?
- Are poems or song lyrics okay?
- Is limited doodling permitted?
- Will you allow students’ pencils to stop moving?
- Will they have to share excerpts aloud of what they’ve written?
- Will you read their journals? (This is a big one.)
What Will They Write?
Determining what students will write about may or may not come easily to you. You may have a plethora of perfectly-coordinated topics that connect to over-arching, thematic class units, or you may not have a clue as to where to begin – you just want to get your students writing.
If you’re looking for some help, the following two sources may get you started:
You can also achieve student “buy-in” when you ask the students themselves to generate some potential journaling topics. Doing this can help students produce more authentic writing since it’s something in which they have a genuine interest, and it will also give you a window into what’s on their minds and where each one of them may be intellectually.
Another question you’ll want to ask yourself before the first day of writing:
"Will I require that students are only allowed to write about the topic I’ve provided, or do they have the choice to write about anything they’d like?"
Teachers have varying opinions regarding this question (and for good reasons). I’ve always felt that permitting choice among students allows them to exercise more of their individual voice (an important goal). That being said, there are times when students need to directly address the topic you’ve provided for the purpose of your class lesson.
Finding a balance between the two will be key in terms of giving students a chance to freely express what’s on their mind (a bad break up, a family issue, the next chapter in their flash-fiction novel) as well as a chance to focus their thinking on a specific topic in the context of a class unit (“How do you define love, and how would you describe Juliet’s love for Romeo?”).
Establish a Routine
In addition to laying out expectations, establishing a routine is important. You may not realize it and students won’t outwardly display it, but they crave structure and they need some routine in order to find their writing zone. You’ll have your own way of establishing that structure, but if you’re looking for some guidelines, here are some suggestions for your journaling routine:
- Require students arrive on time, enter quietly, and begin writing.
- When the official start of class begins, start a timer for 10 minutes. Tell any late arrivals that they owe you the amount of time they missed in writing for homework.
- Have a prompt ready to go and displayed somewhere in the room as students walk into class. Let them know if they are required to write on this specific topic or if they have the option to free write.
- Of course, no talking while journaling – tell them to save it for afterwards when they can share journal entries.
- Be a good role model, and journal while they journal. Sure – keep an eye on them while doing so, and once or twice within the 10 minutes, stand up and walk around the room to make sure they are, in fact, writing.
- With 1 minute left, ask them to bring their thoughts to a close and wrap up any final sentences or thoughts.
Time to Share
Here’s the hard part: Getting students to share what they’ve written. You’ll have some students clamoring over one another to share with the entire world what they’ve written, while you’ll have some students making themselves as small as possible with hopes that you can’t even see them to call on them.
Go back to the expectations you set. What are they? Is everyone required to read what they’ve written if called upon, or do they have the option to defer to another day to share (or can they share another journal entry)? We all have good days and bad days, public news to share and private thoughts to keep to ourselves. Consider this when calling on students to share what they’ve written.
Two over-arching goals to keep in mind while journaling and sharing is that you want to create a safe and comfortable space for expression. Whether it’s in written form when they are in the process of journaling or in spoken form when they are sharing and discussing what they’ve written, students need to know and feel that they will be treated fairly and with respect.
Depending on the topic at hand, students will have vastly different opinions and varying degrees of passion regarding the topic, so to maintain a safe space, it will be absolutely critical that you establish and enforce the ground rules of listening and responding to one another with respect and compassion for the other individual.
Now, if you have a reluctant group of students (and you probably will), you’ll need to break the ice and share something you’ve written yourself. Aha! Now that the tables are turned, you’ll see how vulnerable it can feel to put yourself out there. It’s not as easy as it may sound.
But, you’re the brave role model, so it’s important that you share something, but be careful – don’t upstage them with your best piece. Doing this may make them even more reluctant to share by comparing their writing to yours and making them feel their writing is no good.
Be sure to share with them what you were thinking as you wrote and how you wanted to craft what you were trying say and what you may do with the piece moving forward. It’s just as important to discuss the craft of writing (the way you were trying to express what you wanted to say and how you attempted to achieve that message) as well as the writing itself.
Remind both yourself and your students that journaling should simply be a sandbox in which to play. It’s a space to take some risks, to try out some new ideas, and to think outside the box. As long as you treat journaling this way, your students will do the same.